Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen
There is a sense of urgency in our Gospel lesson today.
The harvest is at hand, now, not tomorrow, not the next day, but now. And laborers are needed for the harvest or all will be lost.
I’ve lived a fair portion of my life in farming communities and this I know to be true. When harvest comes, everything else stops. A day’s delay can mean the difference between harvesting a bumper crop or being hailed out.
Gardeners know this too. That beautiful ripe strawberry isn’t going to be there next week. Apples that are not picked fall to the ground and rot. The crows will gladly clean up a cherry tree, if you don’t pick them yourself. And so it is. Harvest time is time to act.
Jesus sensed this urgency: “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.” Now is the time. The opportunity is at hand. No action is to lose the moment.
And so Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him, two by two, to carry his message about the Kingdom of God.
As Lutherans, we do not tend to be very evangelical. Specifically, evangelism is not our strong suit. We may share cute videos of dogs and cats on Facebook, even a recipe or two. But to share our faith is a matter that makes us uncomfortable.
Going out two by two is not something we are inclined to do. We point to the Mormons and tell ourselves that no one likes it when the young men come knocking at the door. And so we won’t do that. And that generally means that we don’t do anything.
Not a lot of adult conversions are happening.
The church is declining.
It’s not that we’re reaping what we sow, it’s that we often haven’t sowed anything at all.
We justify our actions in many ways. One of the most common is that we tell ourselves that those people who want to go to church are already going to church and so what’s the point. People who aren’t going to church have made their decision, and there’s little we can do to change their mind.
And so, we are often content with the status quo.
We are also comfortable with our intimate little communities of faith. When it comes to church, most of us are introverts. We prefer a few good friends rather than large crowds. A bunch of new people, people we don’t know, makes us nervous.
That’s just the way we are.
But it’s not the way we have to be.
Ekalaka is a gem isolated in the Southeast Montana prairie. Depending on the time of year, there might be 1,500 or so people who live in Carter County. Mostly, there are cattle, a few buffalo, and a lot of open space. Actually there are forests there, too. And medicine rocks. The town was established when an entrepreneur headed west in his covered wagons laden down with the fixings for establishing a bar farther west in Montana. When he got to Ekalaka, his wagons got stuck in the gumbo. Unable to free them from this eastern Montana clay, he exclaimed "Hell, any place in Montana is a good place for a bar!" and he unloaded and built his bar, and the town of Ekalaka was born. Of Ekalaka it has been said, "Ekalaka, where every night is Saturday night, and every Saturday night is New Year's Eve."
I was asked to serve as the pastor for a small group of people meeting in Ekalaka during my time at American Lutheran Church in Baker. I think there were 10 people at my first service there. We gathered in the Catholic Church at that time. A couple of mothers had a Sunday School for their children who were in 1st and 2nd grade at the time, three children. I started a bible study Wednesday nights for the adults, that was well received.
One Sunday, the lone 4th grade girl approached me. Valorie was a bit precocious in a good sort of way. "Pastor, I've been thinking about our Church a lot. We have services on Sunday. They have Sunday School for the little kids. And you're doing a Bible study for the adults. But there is nothing for kids my age. I think we should start a youth group for my age."
"That's a great idea Valorie, but I see one problem. You're the only youth your age, and it’s hard to have a youth group with only one kid."
"Pastor, I told you I've been thinking about this a lot. And you know what? I knew you would say that. (As she shook her finger at me.) So, I have a deal to make with you. If you will come and start a youth group, I'll bring my friends."
So we started a youth group.
The first day Valorie was disappointed and discouraged. She had invited here whole class from school, and only her best friend Sam (short for Samantha) came. And so, Valorie, Sam, and I had a youth group meeting. They insisted that we start with a bible lesson of some sort, and then we could play games. Soon, Sam's little brothers and sisters came. I still tire when I think of trying to keep up with them. Their favorite game was a form of tag, and I was always "It", and they would escape from me under the pews and every which way. In order to keep up with them, I'd use my long legs and run over the top of the pews. Rowdy behavior, I know, but hey, this was Ekalaka.
What was amazing is what happened the next Easter. 10 people were baptized, including three generations of Sam's family. Later, St. Elizabeth's Lutheran Church was formally organized as a congregation with about 60 or more members. And this happened in one of the most isolated, rural, areas in our country. A few years ago, I was blessed to attend the dedication of their new sanctuary which they had built with all sorts of volunteer labor. It is quite an amazing building.
"The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few." What Jesus meant, quite frankly, is we need more Valories. "You bring the message, I'll bring my friends."
The problem is we don't actually believe there is a harvest to be had. And so, many of us simply think that we are off the hook as evangelists. The result is that congregations are dying in communities that have hundreds of thousands more people than Ekalaka. I mean, if anyone had reason to be pessimistic it would have been the Ekalaka folks. No one in our Church's evangelism offices would have tagged Ekalaka, a small isolated rural community with a dwindling population, as a good place to start a Church.
Perhaps the reason why St. Elizabeth's worked, was the make up of the farmers/ranchers there. You see, Ekalaka is not Iowa with deep rich loam and abundant rain fall. For soil they have this gumbo. And what rain they do get, evaporates quite quickly in 100 degree temperatures with 30 mile per hour winds. But somehow, against all odds, they've learned to prosper on this land, harvesting a crop that many would think impossible.
"All, hell, any place in Montana is a good place to start a bar."
Can it be true for the Church as well. Any place is a good place to start a church.
That is, if you'll make the same deal as Valorie.
In some ways I wish this had not been the text that we read on this Sunday.
After all, there is a lot on your mind these days.
Pastor Dennis just had his final Sunday here last week.
The future is somewhat up in the air right now.
Questions abound, and a lot of the answers will take a while to sort out.
Perhaps a better text for today might have been, Luke 12:32:
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
There’s something to be said for words of comfort during a time of uncertainty.
Or maybe it would have been good to have a sermon that focused on some topic such as “freedom”, considering it is July 4th this weekend.
The danger of that, of course, is that it can border on being political, and I wouldn’t want to experience the backlash of that on my first Sunday with you.
And so we have this text.
And the more I think of it, it’s a good text to begin with as you as a congregation go about making decisions in the coming months about what the shape of your ministry will be in the months and years ahead.
One of the things I have become certain about is that we are at a crossroads, not only as a congregation, but as a whole church.
Change is in the air. The church is simply not going to look and feel like it has for a number of generations now. But two things will not change, nor will they ever change.
The first is that we are called to bear witness to Jesus Christ. It’s why we are here.
The second is this: That if we will do our part, God will do his.