“Communities are to be distinguished,” says Benedict Anderson, “by the style in which they are imagined.” The church existed as imagination before it was reality. I am about to invite all of you to re-imagine the church based on the teachings of the Gospel, the communion of saints across the ages, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
For example the thirteen American colonies imagined themselves as an independent nation of independent-minded people free from the hierarchy of England. They imagined a United States of America and without that imagination there would have never been a United States of America. There’s a sense in which we are what we imagine.
Or take the example of Las Vegas. There is no reason for it to be there. New York and Barcelona have natural harbors and are good for trade. Other cities are in fertile plains or on major rivers or lakes. Las Vegas has none of these natural resources but is in the middle of a desert. No natural water supply, no local sources of agriculture and heat can be extreme. It is the most unlikely place on earth for a major city and yet there it is a destination city for the rest of the nation and much of the world. Las Vegas began life as an idea. Everyone wants to go and everyone knows the drill: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. It is the sole product of the human imagination even though I think next to nothing about gambling (Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds).
The church Luke imagines begins with the words of Jesus: Pray the Lord of the harvest to send more laborers to the harvest.
“After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town.” Sent like lambs into the wolves den. In other words we are never guaranteed security or success. The churches have been seduced by the power mongers of our world. Somewhere we put down the play book of the Gospels and picked up the play book of the world. Many churches would rather gain the White House than gain the house not made with hands in heaven.
But pile up the images for Christians in the Bible and it is not about earthly power: lambs, servants, slaves, the poor, meek, peacemakers, humble, merciful, pure in heart, mourners. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. The greatest among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Mary, Mother of Jesus, says, “For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. And yet we are up to our steeples in political power.
Jesus took a towel, like a slave and washed the feet of his disciples. Jesus entered the back gate of Jerusalem on a beast of burden – the donkey – and not the front gate on a white stallion of a Roman general. And the churches are lobbying Congress more than they are bearing witness to the Gospel.
Jesus took the low road of humility; the church is riding a high horse. Jesus humbled himself; the church is trying to lord it over the nation. It’s a disturbing image the Church on its high horse, stomping around demanding rights and freedoms, insisting on telling everyone else what to do. Look at the church riding that white stallion under the delusion that they are the good guys wearing a white hat.
Now, do we get it? Church is not about gaining power but about putting power down. In one of Will Campbell’s books, there’s a story of an African American Civil Rights leader telling his people that if white men put down their power, don’t pick it up. When we should be letting go of power we are grasping for it, gasping for it, ranting for it, and we do this in the name of God whose name is thereby blasphemed.
Jesus intends for you and me to go as laborers, slaves, servants, witnesses to where his name is not known, places like downtown Peoria, Bloomington, Springfield and Chicago to be witnesses for his name. Let us imagine that job one for FBC Peoria is to make known the name of Jesus. That’s why it is so important for you to help when we ask you to post messages on Facebook in which you share why you are inspired by the music or preaching of this church. It’s a start at faithful witness. Can I get a witness?
And working in the fields is hard work. It’s back breaking work. The rows are so long and the weeds have stickers. Flip Wilson used to say that if his father had a headache, he refused to take the cotton out of the top of the bottle to get the aspirin because he had sworn he’d never pick cotton again. If you have ever spent a hot summer day, using a hoe to chop down the weeds in the family garden, you know about field work. I heard somewhere about an eight-year-old boy whose father told him to weed the watermelon patch one morning. This kid, thinking he was smart, figured that if he cut down the watermelon plants, he would never again have to spend a morning hoeing weeds when he wanted to be playing baseball. I wonder what happened to that kid.
Jesus doesn’t make the job sound easy. In Allan Gurganus’ Blessed Assurance, there’s a manager of the Windlass Funerary Eventualities Inc. of Cleveland, Ohio. His name is Sam and he wanted to be a dentist but he flunked organic chemistry and now he sells burial insurance. When he interviews Jerry, a college kid desperate for a job, he spells it in stark detail. No false promises. “And, listen Jer? – no exceptions to our two week rule – none. If they miss two weeks in a row, they lose all the money they have paid over the last forty or more years no matter if they have 5 paid up policies. Look’em in the eye and tell them the truth: ‘Hey, no remuneral, no funeral. No bucks. No box. Your client misses two back-to-back Saturdays, it’s hello potter’s field.” It’s a cruel and awful business of chicanery but the job description is clear from the outset.
Jesus makes no bones about it. Jesus lays out the job description clear and straight: Lambs in the midst of wolves; in danger and without protection; carry no money, no food, no other provision; learn to depend upon the good will of those to whom they have been sent.
I sense that we don’t care much for all this business about laborers and hard work. Our world doesn’t honor laborers. Yet Jesus says that we are laborers. We think of illegal immigrants picking fruit, digging ditches, putting shingles on houses. Laborers? Are you kidding? Not us. We went to good schools, have advanced degrees.
Well, let’s imagine “laborers” as badges of honor. After all, this is Peoria. If anyone knows how to strap on a hard hat and go to work it ought to be here in Caterpillar country. Let’s wear the name tag “LABORER” as if it reads AMBASSADOR. We are God’s help. Abilene, one of the maids in the novel, The Help says, “Taking care of white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and cleaning I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas get out a bed in the morning.” Here the term applies to us: We are God’s help and we are sent into the harvest to collect God’s people.
What happens next? The laborers work hard and against all odds, but then they return. Listen to the sound of their returning. It is the sound of joy. It is the joy of accomplishment, of doing well, of being one people serving one purpose. It is the joy of witnessing to the good news. Joy is the byproduct of the work of witness. In a spoiled rotten, easy going culture, we need to reject the fake self-esteem that comes from telling children they are all the smartest, fastest, and most talented in the world and face up to one reality: Self-esteem is the byproduct of doing well. And from doing well comes joy.
And get this: It is shared joy; the joy of the church. The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” Once the pinwheel of hard effort of more and more people starts rolling, there’s no stopping it. Even the demons submit. Even if the demons don’t submit, the job is accomplished when we bear witness.
Now do we get it? Witness is our primary hard work. If we don’t say utter the words of our faith, no one will ever hear. When is the last time you asked someone to believe in Jesus as Savior? I bet you would rather nail a new roof on our sanctuary than ask a person to believe in Jesus. It’s a scary idea, but our church’s life depends upon our struggle to say Christ. I know we would rather the answer be some marketing gimmick, some magical new program, some charismatic, good-looking, young senior pastor, but we are stuck with the hard labor of witness. We are stuck with working in the fields from daylight to past dark.
Look, Christianity has always been hard work. We should never ask people to join the church for the sake of joining. If you need to join something just so you can join, then call the Kiwanis Club or the Rotary Club, but don’t join the church. It’s the hardest work in the world. St. Paul who knew a thing or two about the hard work of ministry says, “Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, 4and who risked their necks for my life.” “6Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you.” “12Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord.” In return for our hard work, Jesus gives us institutional joy. And each of you has a role to play in producing that joy. Each of you has a job to do, a load to carry, a witness to bear – and it will take many forms.
Here’s a story for you to hang in your memory room, a story of the attitude of servants, slaves, laborers. One night in an Emergency Room, the ER doctor was debriefing a resident about procedures and protocols, complimenting the young resident on his competence. And then he put his hand on the resident’s arm and asked, “When you finished did you notice the young man from housekeeping who came in to clean the room?” There was a blank look on the young doctor’s face.
“His name is Carlos. He’s been here for three years. He does a fabulous job. When he comes in he gets the room turned around so fast that you and I can get our next patients in quickly. His wife’s name is Maria. They have four children.” Then he named each child and their ages.
“He lives in a rented house three blocks from here. They’ve been up from Mexico for about five years. His name is Carlos. Next week I would like you to tell me something about Carlos that I don’t already know. Okay? Now let’s go check on the rest of the patients” (Forbes, 23 April 2007).