Saturday, August 21, 2010

Joining the Apostolic Strike Force

Ordination of Sheila Michaels

August 22, 2010
Redeemer Lutheran Church, Thief River Falls, MN
Luke 10:1-9

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

Thank you so much, Sheila, for selecting this great gospel text for your ordination day. It’s become one of my favorite guiding lights in God’s Word…truly a touchstone for the missional church of the 21st century.

Few gospel passages manage to seem so far removed from our current context—and yet at the same time so apropos, so close to this time and place, this apostolic moment in which we find ourselves in the year 2010.

This text, at first blush, seems so foreign to us, with its stark instructions for a strike force of 70 ambassadors who fan out across the countryside, all of them on foot, to prepare the way for Jesus’ own itinerant ministry. It strikes us as odd, even exotic, to imagine persons traveling swiftly in such Spartan fashion—we could never do that (could we?) even if we wanted to. Heading out with just the clothes on our back and counting on strangers to take us in—who would attempt a trip like that in this time and place?

And yet as odd and as far-removed as this story seems to be from the world in which we live, there is also a striking immediacy to this gospel lesson. For although our situation may have changed, our calling has not…a calling to announce God’s rule over all things—the gracious and gentle rule begun, continued and brought to fruition in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

And this gospel lesson “works”—especially well—for a service of ordination, as the church sets aside, blesses and sends another laborer into the mission field. There is good stuff here, Sheila, stuff you can use, stuff you can count on to see you through. Let me highlight three keynotes in this text.

1.  First, there is the up-front assurance of a bountiful harvest. True to form—for that is always how God operates--the promise is central here. It comes first, before anything else. The harvest is plentiful, Jesus declares.

Isn’t that just like him? Jesus leads with a promise, just as God is forever uttering promises—before we can even get a word in edgewise. The promise leads the way: the harvest is plentiful. You need to know that. Before you venture out into the field—trust in this fact: it’s going to be a bumper crop! God has decided that. And so you can count on it to be true.

Now I grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota, and one thing I remember from those farming years is that you know how the harvest turns out only after every last ear of corn, every last bushel of grain is safely tucked away in the granary…

Until that point, until the combines have scoured every acre, until you are deep into autumn—not until every last threat to the crop has passed away, not until the last minute of the whole “gathering in” business, can anyone say: “The harvest is plentiful.”

But that is not how God operates. That is not how Jesus does business. God in Jesus Christ always leads with the promise, and here the promise is that there are all sorts of persons out there with ears for the gospel, Sheila. There is no shortage—absolutely no lack—of potential disciples, followers and believers. God isn’t stingy in any of that, and that is a promise you can count on as you begin your ordained ministry.

God intends to bless your ministry, Sheila. God is delighted to have you join the ranks of “harvesters.” There’s a bountiful crop out there—though we always seem to be short of “harvesters”--so adding you to the apostolic strike force is sort of a coup, Sheila.

And you can carry out your ministry in the confidence that it doesn’t depend on you, Sheila. Your warmth, your smile, your winning way, your facility with words, your great work ethic—all of those are good gifts you bring. But the harvest doesn’t depend on any of them. In fact, quite often God will succeed despite you, Sheila….and when that happens, it will simply be confirmation that you’re normal, like every other pastor.

2.  The second gift God’s Word gives you here, Sheila, is the freedom to travel as lightly as possibly.

You will find—you probably have already found--that there are plenty of folks out there who want to tell you how to be a good pastor. There are oodles and caboodles of programs and plans and 7-step approaches and how-to guides for better, more faithful, more effective pastoring.

As if all that were not enough, think of the times in which we live. This is an anxious age in the world and in the church, Sheila. And one way that anxiety gets expressed is by a desire to draw hard lines, to get everyone lined up straight and moving in lockstep fashion, a desire for uniformity on everything under the sun. I think that some of that is happening in our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—a distrust of one another, compounded by nervous efforts to add terms and conditions and escape clauses to the simple Gospel of God’s gratuitous, overflowing love in Jesus Christ the Crucified and Risen One.

And then there are the expectations that get laid on pastors. It’s been said that being a pastor is like being a dog at a whistlers’ convention. The people of God—God bless them, God love them!—will make it hard for you, at times, to travel as lightly as Jesus invites you to travel here in Luke chapter 10. Expectations will be laid upon you, so much so that you will feel overwhelmed….and when you do feel that way, I invite you to return to Jesus’ great “reducing plan” here in your ordination text. Strip away the excess baggage and return to the basic, the foundational, the one thing needful.

In other words: give them Jesus. When in doubt, give them Jesus. When expectations mount up like the Red River in spring flood stage, give them Jesus. Shuck off all the flotsam and jetsam that piles up. Hone in on the only essential thing. Travel lightly. Give them Jesus—preach Jesus, baptize in Jesus’ name, feed people on Jesus’ body and blood—everything else is fine, but it’s window-dressing, really. Jesus is who we need the most.

3.  Third, count on help along the way, Sheila. Thank God, you’re not all alone in this adventure called pastoral ministry.

That’s of course, why Jesus could send out the 70 emissaries in such Spartan fashion-- no purse, no bag, no sandals, no picnic baskets, no ATM cards, no GPS locators. Jesus sent them out with virtually nothing because Jesus knew there would be persons along the way who would help out. Simple as that.

Jesus sent out the seventy as lambs amidst wolves….and yet not everyone “out there” was a wolf. There would be other “lambs,” there would be people of peace, there would be hospitable hosts who would receive them, shelter them, feed them, maybe even join forces with them.

And that is a great and welcome word for today’s church—the missional church of the 21st century. Gone, thankfully, is the day when we expect pastors to “do it all.” Thirty years ago, when I was finishing up seminary, we were getting ready to kiss that tired old model for ministry goodbye. The myth of the “omni-competent” pastor was starting to die, but it still had traction in many places.

This is, of course, about more than keeping pastors from burning out. It’s mainly about empowering and equipping the whole people of God to take up their callings to serve God’s mission in the world. Over-functioning pastors require under-functioning church members….but Jesus has a much better idea: a whole company of disciples who pray, and study the Word, and worship, and bear witness, and give generously, and serve their neighbors in countless ways….with pastors in the mix to serve up the Word and Sacraments for the nurturing and sustaining of all God’s baptized children.

Sheila, if I have learned one thing about you, it’s that you have a nearly inexhaustible energy for life and family and ministry. You run circles around the rest of us, and you manage to keep an amazing number of balls in the air at any one point in time.

But God has given you partners in this good work, and I know that you know that. The flock that has called you to serve with them, the good people of the Bethlehem and Nazareth congregations, they are brimming with life and energy and gifts for God’s work. So how will you form a holy partnership, a sanctified synergy that will free up everyone’s best gifts for ministry?

Of course, you already know everything I’ve said in this sermon, Sheila..but please, hear it one more time:

• The harvest is plentiful,

• You’re free to travel lightly, and

• There’ll be plenty of help along the way.

These breath-taking promises are the greatest gifts you’ll receive today—all of them from God’s own generous hand.

In the name of Jesus.

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