Lambs and Wolves

Note: I preached a version of this sermon on July 3, 2016 at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Jesus said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest. Go on your way. See I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.’”

Recently a Messiah member shared an article in Living Lutheran entitled “We Will No Longer Be a Welcoming Church.” The author, a Lutheran pastor in Colorado, observes that “welcoming” is passive. We wait for people to show up so we can welcome them.

Instead, his congregation has challenged itself to be “invitational.” That is, to deliberately and affirmatively invite people into fellowship with God through our community. 

He phrases this challenge in several steps, including:

  • Try using the phrase “my church” in conversation with one person each week.
  • Think about what your church is good at and use it to finish the phrase: “my church is really good at ______”
  • Invite someone to a volunteer activity or community event at church
  • And the hardest: “Would you like to join me at church this Sunday?”

This is not entirely fair of him, because for pastors all of these conversations are hard to avoid. A lot of us are looking for that one person a week we don’t say the words “my church” to. I know this may not come as easily to everyone else.

But it is more powerful than we often realize. When we talk about welcoming, we make certain assumptions about ourselves and the people “out there”:

  • We assume they have some latent desire to go to church
  • We assume they know we’ll be happy to see them if they come
  • We assume we will be happy to see them if they come

And fair enough! We like church, so why not them? We’re good, friendly people who will be nothing but happy to have new people among us.

But what if these three assumptions are not always true? What if people don’t feel the need to build their Sunday—much less their life—around God? What if people have reason to believe they will not be greeted warmly at a church, whether because of their sexual orientation or their ethnicity or anything else? What if people really have felt unwelcome and unwanted, even among good church goers?

This is a struggle. After the Orlando shooting I looked to see if there were any Reconciling in Christ Lutheran churches in that area. This is a designation that says, explicitly, that LGBT people are welcome in a church without reservation or condition. And I saw to my surprise that not a single Lutheran church within 50 miles of Orlando was a Reconciling in Christ church. Surely many of the churches in that area are as open and welcoming as can be. But I was suddenly very grateful that Messiah took this step and became a Reconciling in Christ church after a lengthy process. It seems like a small thing. It is a small thing. But it’s powerful to say to people who have reason to fear rejection: you do not have to take a gamble in this community if you want to come and weep and pray and seek healing. 

After all this is our faith: not that the Good News was waiting around for us to show up. But that Jesus sent people to share it—not aggressively, not with high-handed techniques, but with compassion and healing. 

Today we hear Jesus do something new in Luke’s Gospel: he sends out disciples ahead of him to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God on his behalf. He tells them to do this without purse for money or extra sandals for the road. Put yourselves in the debt of the people you visit. Heal their sick. Proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. 

And he does this with a really interesting image: The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few, so ask God to send more laborers. 

There’s a great harvest for God out there, waiting for you, so go get it. And ask for help! Don’t wait for the crop to harvest itself. 

It’s an exciting image, maybe even a comforting one. To look at the world around us and see a plentiful harvest. People who don’t know what the world can be. People who don’t know what they can be. Imagine the possibilities!

But then Jesus switches gears: See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. It’s a plentiful harvest out there, but also a fearsome and dangerous field.

Now of these two images, the harvest on one hand and the wolves on the other, I have no doubt which is more persuasive to Americans today. We are very anxious, even fearful of each other. We arm ourselves against each other. We don’t trust our shared institutions—schools, governments, news organizations, even churches. We view people with different political beliefs as suspicious. We have become more likely to surround ourselves with like-minded people, even at church, even in the places we choose to live. 

This is not crazy. We’ve had a frightening instance of just how persuasive fear can be just this week in our own little town. We really are strangers to each other, in so many ways. The thought that the stranger next store could be hoarding explosives or guns or whatever is the sort of thing that can keep you up at night.

And obviously this makes it hard to go beyond welcoming to inviting people into fellowship. It can feel riskier than it even is. What if this is the wrong kind of person? What if they think I’m the wrong kind of person? 

It’s a painful thought, especially on a national holiday. Must we really be alienated from each other? The Romans used to say, “Man is a wolf to man.” Must we really be wolves to each other? 

But it is this very risk, the risk of the Gospel, that helps us to see each other differently. The disciples Jesus sends out were not a “welcoming church” in the way we might think of it today. Their attitudes were surely not perfect, they harbored suspicions and fears and places of ignorance about the people around them. They didn’t go out with their own good nature, they went out with the grace of God. They didn’t go out with their own confidence, they went out with the word of Christ. They went out unarmed, as lambs, just as Jesus himself goes. Heal the sick, find the lost, share good news. They did this. And some of the people who heard from them did this for others. And some of those did the same. And someone eventually did it for us. Someone bore the risk of danger and rejection. And here we are. Amen.  

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