These are controversial and difficult times for the Church, and I hear and read a lot of discouragement and uncertainty among our fellow Christians. Many writers call this a “post-Christian” age, but others who have looked into the matter point out that the Church isn’t declining in numbers, though it is declining in influence. What is really going on is a shift in public values.
To simply matters, there are three large groups which make up most of America. One group is definably religious, and mostly Christian: people who attend worship regularly, who can articulate their faith and who make an effort to live out in practice what they say they believe about God and Christ. Then there are those we are used to referring to as “cultural Christians”: people who maybe grew up in an active church family, or at least among articulate and committed Christians, but who don’t do much to express and live out any sort of principled commitment to Christ. Finally, there are those who are either NON-Christian or even ANTI-Christian: those who have come up with a different set of beliefs and values, and who are actively hostile to Christian beliefs and values.
Now, always before, the “cultural Christians” – the ones in the middle who don’t really make much effort to believe and belong to any organized religion – have defaulted to Christian beliefs and values when asked. But now many of them no longer do that. The online webcomic XKCD (actually, I think it was Adam4D) explained this by showing three stick figures standing next to each other. The first figure is definitely Christian, and remains so; the third figure is definitely NOT Christian, and remains so; and the second figure, well . . .
Used to be, the first figure would say, “I’m a Christian!” The second would then say, “Me, too.” Finally, the third would say, “Well, I’m not!” The result is, two-thirds of society affirmed Christianity as its default position, so it looked like the Church was succeeding in its mission.
But the situation today is more like this. The first figure says, “I’m a Christian!” The third says, “Well, I’m not!” And the second says, “Me, neither.” The result is, two-thirds of society no longer affirms Christianity as its default position, so it looks like the Church is faltering in its mission -- as if nobody wanted to become Christians anymore.
If you define the Church’s mission as winning the popularity contest and setting the course for society as a whole, well, that might be true. And I certainly would like to win that contest and set that course, but I think that what Jesus had in mind was a little different.
Matthew says, in the Scripture passage we just read, that when Jesus “saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus doesn’t break up his audience into groups – Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Galileans – and worry about which support him and which don’t. Jesus looks at all the crowds, all mixed up together, and he notes their harassed and helpless condition, their lack of guidance and protection.
They don’t know who they are. They don’t know whom they belong to. Some of them are living in grinding poverty, while others are well enough off financially, but are nevertheless unhappy or confused or afraid. And these people, who need a shepherd, and might welcome the offer of one, are found across ALL the groups within Jesus’s society.
The same is true today. Yes, those “cultural Christians” in the middle – who once reflexively claimed a Christian identity, even if they didn’t think much about it, and who affirmed the rightness of Christian values, both public and private – who are now increasingly influenced by pop culture, by what celebrities think and what is constantly promoted on TV or social media – YES, those folks might well have among them many who are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
But the same can be said for the NON-Christian or ANTI-Christian folks. There are lot of unhappy or confused or aimless folks there, too. And some of the most strident, who have placed their faith in some cause or ideology or set of beliefs which must inevitably fail them, may come to a state of discouragement or overload where they are looking around for something better still.
And, to be perfectly fair, Jesus’s description encompasses a lot of people who are very articulate about their faith in Christ and active in their participation in church. Oh yeah, you can find overwhelmed or discouraged people – unhappy people, angry people, confused people, lonely people – everywhere, even within the four walls of this church.
So, if we re-think the mission of the church as finding the wandering and the woebegone and offering them someone to follow and someone to share their load, then that’s something DIFFERENT from just trying to get members of this or that group to change their allegiance and become members of our group. For all across our society, there are people – within and without the Church – who are in great need of a shepherd and who would be glad to follow one, if one were offered.
So Jesus said to his disciples then, and says to his disciples now, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.”
There are not fewer people who need Jesus now than there used to be, for EVERYONE needs Jesus. And – though you might not think it – there are not fewer people now who might respond to Jesus’s invitation than there used to be. The question is, rather, are they being invited to do so? And by whom?
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. And so we see Jesus moving immediately to name some laborers, to go out into the harvest on his behalf. Their names are known to most all of us: Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John the sons of Zebedee, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot. Please note that at the time of their being named and sent out to do Jesus’s work, they are not the spiritual giants we are used to seeing them as. They are very much untried, tentative, not very confident and not much less confused than those they are sent to – and one of them fell away completely and betrayed Jesus in the end. Jesus gives them authority over unclean spirits and the ability to heal disease and infirmity, but what they really offer is just their own story of who Jesus is and what he has done for them.
They didn’t know who they were. They didn’t know whom they belonged to. They were, all of them, “good Jews” according to one definition or another, but their lives were lacking something. When Jesus called them to follow him, he filled that empty place in their lives. And they are determined to follow him wherever he leads, to live out their lives in expectation of what he will make of them.
The case is the same today. Spiritual giants are thin on the ground, unfortunately, and Jesus’s work must be done by those who are very much untried, tentative, not very confident and not much less confused than those they are sent to; in fact, by none other than you and me. But this is what we have to offer.
We know who we are. We know whom we belong to. And we are determined to follow Jesus wherever he leads, to live out our lives in expectation of what he will make of them – of what he will make of us. We don’t have all the answers, but we have at least SOME answers, and they satisfy our souls.
And the mere fact that we have Jesus as our shepherd, so that we know these things - these few things that make such a difference to us -- makes a deep impression on others. Maybe not on those WE would most wish to impress – those closest to us, for instance – but somebody always notices. God sends us to people we didn’t know we were being sent to. God brings others into our lives we didn’t know he was bringing.
And the example of your faithfulness will not go unnoticed, I promise you. Just by following where Jesus leads, you show somebody that it’s possible to have a direction for one’s life – the right sort of direction. Just by living by God’s will, you show people who are torn and pulled this way and that a way to live that might seem more fulfilling than what they’re doing. Just by extending ouyr friendship to others, you show God’s friendship to those who need a friend. It’s not about winning the argument with the world. It’s about being who you are, and knowing WHOSE you are, and being willing to share with others your hope in Jesus Christ.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
No matter what anybody says, there are just as many people who need Jesus today as there ever were. And there are just as many people, of all kinds, who might decide to follow Jesus, as ever before: if they knew how; if they knew somebody else who knew how; if somebody wd invite them to come along and show them how.
You and I are the laborers sent by the Lord of the harvest to gather others so we can follow Jesus Christ together. We have not been chosen because any of us is a spiritual giant – but because he is, and he is enough, for us and for everybody. Amen.