Sermons That Work

Out of All Nations…, Proper 6 (A) – 2005

June 12, 2005

“Out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although all the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Imagine how the Israelites must have felt hearing those words. Against all odds, and surely even against their own expectations, God had allowed this group of slaves to escape the domination of the powerful armies of Egypt, and through their perilous desert journey had kept them alive and united as a community. Now here they were, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, after three months of hard travel, hearing through Moses the unbelievable words from God himself, telling them that they were chosen and precious in his sight.

For years now, psychologists have extolled the importance of giving words of praise and encouragement to raise self-esteem. In the workplace they say how necessary it is to tell people when they’re doing a good job, to give them a pat on the back, to provide reinforcement so that productivity stays at a high level. And let’s face it, we all like to hear those good words. Even if they don’t come as often as we think they should, at any age, whether it is at church or at work or at home or at school, if we are honest, we must confess that we all like to hear those words of affirmation and belonging.

But of course it doesn’t end there. There’s a flip side to this process because the expectation is that we will continue to do the things that brought about those wonderful words, and that in order to hear them again, something more is expected of us. This was certainly true of the Israelites. We hear in the reading for today that even as they basked in the glow of hearing those wonderful words from the Lord telling them how treasured they were in his sight, they also heard the other half of the story: “if you obey me fully and keep my covenant.” Called and chosen, they were also expected to walk the road of discipleship along with Moses, to act like God’s people in the world. Not simply to give lip service to the commandments of God, but called to be living examples of God’s way, a royal priesthood and a holy nation. Not just to be, but also to do.

Throughout Scripture we see this pattern again and again. Prophets, and then later the rabbis, all had bands of followers or disciples, those who would sit at their feet and learn from the master. Then, when they had earned the favor of their teacher, they would be sent out themselves to share the knowledge they had gained with others. At that time, nothing but the sacred law was written down, and so it was given to these disciples to assist the rabbi by going about the countryside and sharing in the teaching. All of them, down through the ages, began as followers, chosen for their eagerness to study and learn, and perhaps many of them would have been content to stay in that role of sitting and listening and learning. But at some point in their discipleship it was required of them that they take that extra step of being sent out to share their knowledge with others. Chosen and sent.

So it was with Jesus and his disciples. Quite different from any of those who had gone before, these men were not scholars, nor were they particularly pious. In truth, we know them to have been a rag-tag bunch of fishermen and tax collectors, an unlikely lot called together to witness and be a part of the ministry of this new rabbi, Jesus. His was not a ministry in the traditional rabbinic sense. He didn’t just sit under a tree and teach, at least not often. He took those disciples on a march from Galilee to Jerusalem and back again, through all the villages and towns, wherever he perceived there was a need for healing and restoration. He taught them, to be sure, but his words were often accompanied by such actions as raising the dead and healing every manner of sickness and affliction. And the more he did and the further he went, with his disciples right beside him, it became apparent that there was just too much to do, there were too many sheep without a shepherd. And so today we hear Jesus as he asked his disciples to pray for the Lord to send more laborers into this harvest field. He needed help.
I am sure you have all heard the saying, “be careful what you pray for.” I am sure the disciples, inexperienced and new to this ministry business as they were, had no illusions about their capabilities. This was all new to them, and they probably would have been perfectly content to continue as they were, just to be with Jesus, to see what he did, to talk to him and to have him talk to them, to walk with him and to pray with him. But it didn’t work out quite that way. They did exactly as Jesus asked. They prayed for more laborers to go into the harvest and their prayers were answered. They became the laborers. They became the ministers, and not assistant ministers either, but just like Jesus. He gave them power to do all the things that he did. Just like him, they were to declare that the heavenly kingdom had come near, and then to back up and demonstrate that claim by healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, and casting out demons: ministry in action. And just like Jesus, they were to give away these new gifts and this new power, to give it away as freely as it had been given to them. That’s why Jesus didn’t want them to take anything with them, no extra clothes or shoes or spending money, none of the world’s baggage that might detract and distract them and others, but simply to present themselves just as they were, poor in possessions and dependent on others for food and hospitality, but rich in the knowledge and love of God and eager to bring health and restoration by using the gifts that had been given to them. Asking no more of them than he did himself, Jesus sent this new community forth to manifest to others the unconditional grace of kingdom love, freely received and freely given. Chosen and sent.

Bruce Larsen, a Presbyterian minister, has written a book entitled Ask Me to Dance, and in it he included the story of a member of his congregation who had come from another country. Pastor Larsen said of this person, “Her faith sparkled and the living water of the spirit flowed out of her soul to all around her”. He invited her to go with him to a seminar on the topic of evangelism. The leaders had prepared tables filled with all sorts of pamphlets and strategies and demographic studies, all aimed at reaching the un-churched in their area. At some point during the program the leaders turned to this woman and asked her to share some of the reasons that made the church so important and so vital in her home country. At first she was a bit intimidated by the crowds, but then she had this to say, “Well, we never gave pamphlets to people because we never had any. We just showed people by our life and example what it is like to be a Christian, and when they can see for themselves, then they want to be a Christian, too.” Chosen by God to be a community of faith, they were then sent out to bring the message to others.

It happens again and again. The call of God starts with individuals but always leads to a call to community, and then, just when you get it right and you hear those words of affirmation, members are asked to go forth to bring the Good News to others. In this day and time we are the laborers called to go into the harvest field. Is it scary to contemplate? Only if we let it be. We have listened to the words of the Gospel and heard of God’s mighty acts of healing and forgiveness and restoration. As we gather together in community we are fed and strengthened and nourished by the Lord’s body and blood, we are clothed with power from on high. And then the last words we hear as we leave the church are: “Go forth.” “Let us go forth in the name of Christ.” “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” We need nothing else. We have been chosen and we are being sent. It is time to go.

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Christopher Sikkema


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