Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

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Laborers for His Harvest

Matthew 9:35-10:8

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pray, disciples, that the Lord of the harvest would send out laborers into His harvest fields. That was the instruction that Jesus gave to His followers. Looking out over the crowds gathering to be healed, Jesus saw the helplessness of the people He had created. He saw how they were harassed and beaten down under the weight of their sin and the sin of others. And He had compassion for them, the truest sympathy. He knows, because He is a man, what it is to experience the limitations and effects of being human. He also knows, because He is God, what the deepest need of humans really is: to be gathered by the Good Shepherd into a place of safety and rest. I can imagine the Twelve nodding at Jesus’ words. Perhaps Peter gathered the other disciples and they prayed at that very moment for God to send laborers into His harvest. And then notice how God answers their prayer in Matthew 10, verse 1: “[Jesus] called to him his twelve disciples” and gave them His own authority over unclean spirits and every disease and affliction. Verse 5: “These twelve Jesus sent out….” The Twelve Apostles, named in Matthew 10:2-4, were the ones whom God chose as His first laborers into the ripe harvest fields of Israel. Later, in chapter 28, Jesus would send the representatives of His Church into the field that is the whole world. Be careful, disciples, what you pray for! You may be God’s answer to your own prayer!

However, lest we think that this passage is about us and our work, we are reminded that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ,” (Romans 10:17, ESV). It is the Word of Christ alone that opens closed ears and gathers men and women from fields of hopelessness and sorrow. But we should not expect so many millions simply to catch a rumor on the wind and call on the Name of Someone about whom they know nothing. The answer to sin and helplessness, my friends, is not “blowin’ in the wind.” Pray, brothers and sisters, for God to send laborers. Pray also for the harvest fields. While they are ripe with unsaved people, this wheat has a natural tendency to resist the caring hands of God’s workers. It does not see anything wrong with going to seed in the field that is the world. It wants to “bloom where it is planted,” so to speak. It cannot see that once it has bloomed, fast and fleeting, it quickly dies where it is planted.

But how will they know that God wants to gather them into His barns unless someone tells them? As long as there is even one person who does not believe that Jesus Christ is his Savior, as long as even one person is still harassed and helpless in her sin, this remains the prayer of the Church: “Lord God, send out laborers into Your fields.” Since this prayer is given to us by Jesus, the one true Son of the Father, and since we have been baptized into the Body of Christ [along with William this morning], we can be sure that our Father hears this prayer. It is the will of God that laborers be sent into fields ripe for the picking because His compassion is for all lost sheep, whether Jew or Gentile, male or female. When you pray for laborers to be sent to work in the fields of the Lord, God answers your prayer with an unqualified, “Yes! That is My will, and I will do it.” St. Paul, quoting the prophet Joel, says that “everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13; Joel 2:32). Peter used the same words on Pentecost. “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed?” Paul asks. “And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent” (Romans 10:14-15, ESV)? Paul takes it for granted that preachers-laborers-are sent. That means that we cannot send ourselves to mission fields, no matter how great a need we might see there. It is not up to us to send ourselves; God sends, and we are sent. Pray, then. God may answer your prayer by sending you to His fields to work. Or He might choose to send someone else, even someone less qualified than you, and ask you to support the laborers with your money and your prayers. Our part is not to question God’s wisdom in whom He sends, but simply to pray that laborers would be sent.

Let us not forget, however, that every person here who has been baptized and given saving faith is called to bear witness to the One who saves, to give a reason for the hope that is in you, to be salt and light. You, co-laborers in the Church of God, are to do what the people did in Matthew 15: “[G]reat crowds came to [Jesus], bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet and he healed them…” (15:30, ESV). What a relief to know that you are not responsible for the healing! Your responsibility is simple, but important: bring anyone you can to the feet of Jesus here in this place that He might heal them. He has promised to do it. This witness is the responsibility of the whole baptized priesthood of the Church. But, even with this common responsibility, not everyone here is called and sent as a full-time laborer. Through the Church, God calls and sends certain men to be pastors. Here is a double offense to our human reason!: first, that not everyone is called by God to publicly preach His Word and give out His Sacraments-not even everyone who feels called. Second, these men whom God calls are not more perfect, not more holy, not more Christian than anyone else. I also confess the words: I, a poor, miserable sinner. These are not words of discouragement, but rather a call, as always, to pray. Pray for me, whom you have called to be your pastor-please! Pray for the places where God is forming pastors: seminaries, vicarage congregations, and congregations like this one, from which we pray that God will raise up laborers. Pray that I and other pastors will “follow the pattern of sound words” according to the teaching of the Apostles and Prophets (2 Timothy 1:13); that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we will “guard the good deposit entrusted to [us]” (2 Timothy 1:14, ESV). Pastors are, St. Paul says, “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:1, ESV). And I echo Paul: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, ESV). The faithful pastor knows that the Lord has given him into the service of the Gospel “for building you up and not for destroying you” (2 Corinthians 10:8, ESV). Thank God, then, for the laborers He sends to work His fields, whom He keeps steadfast in His Word and Spirit!

But what are we to do when our pastors fail us? At this congregation-as in every congregation of which I am aware-you have had experiences with both faithful and unfaithful shepherds. You know what it feels like to be served faithfully for many years. And you also know what it feels like to be unable to place full trust in a called servant of God. Notice that in the list of the Twelve sent out as laborers, Judas is included. So what do we do when our pastors act more like wolves than shepherds? How can we place our trust in fallible, and often messed-up, men? And pastors feel the same way. What are they to do when the sheep act like wolves, hiring and firing and disregarding the sacred call of God? How can they serve congregations that sometimes couldn’t care less what God’s Word has to say? There is more than enough distrust and disillusionment to go around among us sinners. And God is not silent about failures on either side of the pastor-people relationship. The people of Israel knew about unfaithful and self-serving shepherds. In Ezekiel 34, God said to Ezekiel: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? … The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them” (34:2, 4, ESV). Those words cut to the heart of every pastor! But the shepherds of Israel also knew about obstinate and wicked sheep. Isaiah 30: “For they are a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of [Yahweh]; who say to the seers, ‘Do not see,’ and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions, leave the way, turn aside from the path, let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel'” (30:9-11, ESV). The question is, what do we do with failure in either the shepherd or the sheep?

The answer is found in the one Laborer whom God has sent who never misleads, never abuses His authority, never fails. And yet He becomes the greatest failure in your place and mine, taking all our failures as His own. He who was faithful in everything allowed everything to be taken from Him, and to us who have not been faithful is given the faithfulness of our Lord. Jesus was sent by the Father to gather in His harvest, including you. God chose you in Christ “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Ephesians 1:4). He strengthens the weak, He heals the sick, He binds up the injured, He brings back the strays, He seeks the lost. Do not put your trust in men! Put your trust in Jesus Christ, who is the one true “Shepherd and Overseer of [y]our souls” (1 Peter 2:25). Using the imperfect laborers whom He has sent, He preaches His perfect word into your ears and mind, into your heart and mouth: “I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” “My dear children,” He says, “Take and eat, this is My Body; take and drink, this is My Blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” Jesus has nourished you through His called and ordained servants, and you “are planted in the house of [Yahweh]; [you] flourish in the courts of our God. [You will] still bear fruit in old age; [you] are ever full of sap and green, to declare that [Yahweh] is upright” (Psalm 92:13-15a, ESV). You have the very life of Christ the Vine coursing through your veins, so your life now gives witness to the compassion of your Good Shepherd.

It is true that sinful humans are God’s laborers in the field. But it is also true that the work of those laborers does not determine whether the harvest is ultimately gathered in. The Lord of the harvest is the one who will, at the end of the age, gather those who are truly His (Revelation 14:14-16). Only Christ can guarantee the success of the Word that is preached by His chosen servants. I, your sinful human shepherd, will fail you, and you will fail me, because we are all precisely that, sinful. Still, pray to the Lord of the harvest! Pray for faithfulness in the midst of human weakness, which simply means what it has always meant: confessing our sins and receiving Christ’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of each other. Behold, “[t]he harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few[!]; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Indeed, He has already answered your prayer, and He will continue to do so, as long as there is a harvest to be gathered in.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 6/11/08

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