So, tonight’s theme is “Equipping for mission”. I’m here to share with you some of what we’re doing in Priorslee, and some of our understanding of mission that has informed what we’re doing, and has come our of our experience there. I’m also here to find out if God is calling any of you to come and be part of it. I’m going to do this by asking you to look with me at the first section of Luke 10. This, along with similar passages earlier in Luke, in Mark and in Matthew, are some of the go-to texts for mission thinking. To draw out everything that could be said about mission from this passage would take a lifetime. But what I’d like to do tonight is to draw out two themes that struck me this week, and relate them both to what we’re doing in Priorslee and to encourage you to think about what God is saying to you through them. The two themes are Urgency and Vulnerability.
I do a bit of gardening. This year was a good year in our garden. In a contrast to last year I actually got tomatoes that turned red rather than stayed stubbornly green. But this, in turn, led to a different problem. When I went on holiday over the summer I had a greenhouse full of tomatoes that I knew would ripen and then start to rot before we got back. I had courgettes that were well on there way to being marrows, and lettuces that would go to seed. I had to get some of them harvested before we went away, and give away the surplus, and I had to arrange for a neighbour to come in and take the tomatoes as they ripened. A ripe harvest cannot wait.
For a grain farmer the harvest must be collected and got into somewhere dry before the Autumn rain comes. If it isn’t harvested it will rot in the fields. This aspect of farming would have been a living reality for the folk Jesus was talking to. They understood the urgency of harvest.
This urgency is highlighted by how Jesus expresses his command to his disciples to pray about the situation.
Firstly there is the word he uses for prayer. It is not the usual word used for prayer in the New Testament. It is a word meaning, to beg, to urge, to implore. It is what you do when you really want somebody to do something. It’s the kind of asking you do in life and death situations.
Secondly there is the word he uses for what the Lord of the harvest is to be urged to do. This is also a strong word, a word of force. It is used most commonly in the New Testament to describe what Jesus does to demons. He throws them out. Jesus tells his friends to implore the Lord of the harvest to drive workers into the harvest field.
And he does means worker. This is the third choice of word that suggests urgency to me. The harvest field needs workers. People who will actually roll their sleeves up, take up their tools, and get on with it. There is work to be done, hard labour, and if it is to be done before the storm comes, then workers are needed.
I wonder if you know the story about how the camel got its hump. According to Kipling’s Just So story, the camel did not originally have a hump, but it did have a very bad temper and refused to do any work. Whenever it was asked to it just said “humph” So the horse, the dog, and the ox who were all working very hard, and didn’t think this was fair, complained about the camel to the djinn of all the deserts. The djinn went to find the camel and told him to get to work. The camel just said “humph”. The djinn warned him to get to work and not to say “humph” again, or he would regret it. The camel said “humph”. So the djinn gave him his very own “humph” which would enable him to work for three days without eating or drinking. By this means the camel was driven to do the work that he was intended to do.
Now, of course we have to understand that Jesus was talking about a particular situation in his ministry. In that time and in that place the harvest was ripe, it was ready to be collected. This isn’t the case in every place and at every time. If we stick with the agricultural metaphor, there are other things that need doing at other seasons. Sometimes it’s ground clearing, sometimes it’s sowing, sometimes it’s tending and pruning the plants. There are all kinds of things that need doing in different seasons. They do however, have a few things in common.
They all need to be done at the right time, in the appropriate season. There is no point in sowing before the ground is prepared, it’s a waste of seed. If you go out to harvest if you haven’t sown any seed then you will be disappointed. Each task has its season, and one of the key tasks in mission is being able to tell the time – what season are we in?
All of these stages require work and workers. They all require people who are willing to invest time and energy. Unless we persevere in the cold and dark days of winter, we will not see the shoots of spring. Unless we persevere in the scorching sun of summer then we will not reap the harvest.
And all these tasks must be done if there is to be fruit in the end. The end goal of all of them is the harvest. And what is the harvest? The harvest is not converts. The harvest is mature disciples who can join in the work of making new disciples. Conversion is a milestone of the journey of discipleship, not a destination or stopping place.
In Priorslee we have not yet done much harvesting. We have been there two years and we have been doing a lot of ground clearing and sowing. We’ve been getting stuck into the community, making friends, earning trust. We are beginning to see the shoots of some exciting things happening. We’ve now got good links with one of the local schools. We’ve started a monthly Sunday afternoon GodStories. We’ve been doing mission audit surveys in the community. We are looking forward to the harvest.
We need workers to help with all this. To be honest, as I’ve prepared this I’ve reflected that we’ve probably not been as forceful in our praying about this as Jesus says we need to be. We have been praying and listening to God about the situation, and about a team to come and work with us, but I’m not sure that we’ve been besieging heaven with the urgency that Jesus conveys in this passage.
So, the first theme is Urgency.
The second is Vulnerability.
Jesus could be a really cheery soul at times couldn’t he. The next verse is his rallying cry to the troops. It’s like King Harry’s speech at Agincourt, or William Wallace in Braveheart. It starts off OK. This kind of speech always starts with an acknowledgement that the enemy is huge, and that we are outnumbered and out gunned. Lambs among wolves is a bit extreme, but surely there’s a rousing battle cry round the corner, a cry of Freedom, an appeal to great courage. No. Jesus goes off the accepted “eve of battle” script here.
He tells his friends that not only are they going out into a hostile world but that they are to leave everything behind. They are to leave behind their money, with all the self sufficiency, status, and respectability that symbolises. They are to leave behind their travel bag and spare sandals, no contingency planning here. They are to leave behind their social networks and conventions of politeness – don’t even stop to pass the time on the road with acquaintances.
It feels a bit embarrassing to be asked to speak on “Equipping for mission” when Jesus seems to be more interested in de-equipping for mission. Jesus’ friends are to leave behind just about everything to go on mission. On reflection, this shouldn’t surprise us when we think about who was sending them.
In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi he describes Jesus as someone:
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Jesus is our leader and example in mission. He is our model of vulnerability. He left behind all the resources of heaven to come on mission to earth. It must be nearly Christmas, I’ve seen the John Lewis ad on the telly, and one of the key messages of Christmas is that Jesus came in poverty, as a baby, with nothing. Completely emptied, de-equipped. Just himself.
When I moved to Priorslee there was a sense in which I was forcibly emptied by the context. I hadn’t been a full-time minister for very long, just for three years of a training curacy. However, I’d been part of the traditional Anglican church since I was born. In my sending church I was on the PCC, a cell group leader, chair of the finance committee. With that background, and then three years working full time in a normal parish I was accustomed to some of the fulness of an inherited mode of church and ministry. There were people around, there were buildings I could use, I had a recognised role in the community. I was quite full.
In the early days of the type of church plant we are embarking on there are very few resources to hand. There is no building, there are few people, we are strangers. Everything we do depends on the generosity and hospitality of other people. This is a vulnerable place to be. It empties us of self-reliance, power, and control. I feel empty, but hold on to the fact that this emptiness is one that God is looking to fill with a new way of being, one that is more dependant on God and less dependant on treasures stored up on earth.
That new way of being is one that can only come about if I am willing to be vulnerable and to receive hospitality.
You see, having told them not to take anything with them, Jesus tells his friends to accept the meals that are served to them, to stay in one house, and to receive the hospitality of the household. From this instruction it can be understood that the “people of peace” are those who serve and provide for the incomer. This can seem counter intuitive, especially if we feel that we are the ones who have something to share. What is clear is that there is a sense in which we can only speak authentically into a community if we are as ready to receive from it as to give to it.
For me this is vividly illustrated by the parable of the Good Samaritan. Many of us have heard this story so many times that we miss the connection between the question asked at the beginning of the story and the answer given at the end. I certainly did for many years. A man is told by Jesus to love his neighbour. He asks, “Who is my neighbour”. Jesus tells the story of the traveller, attacked by robbers, ignored by the religious elite of his own people, and rescued by the ancestral enemy, the Samaritan. At the end of the story Jesus asks, “Who was neighbour to the man who was robbed.” The answer is “The one who showed him mercy” – The Samaritan.
In other words we, as the hearers of the story, are in the ditch and our neighbour is the one who serves us. Let me say that again. The story of the Good Samaritan puts us, beaten up, in the ditch, and our neighbour is the one that binds up our wounds. The person of peace is someone who serves, and we have to be willing to be disclose our vulnerabilities and receive their care.
Having put aside all our worldly equipment, the first bit of equipment that Jesus gives us for mission is received from the hands of the ones that we go to. We can only receive it if we are vulnerable to them.
The second bit of equipment is given by God, and requires just as much vulnerability to receive and to use. It is implied by Jesus’ command to his followers about what they are to do in the places they are to go to. They are to cure the sick and tell people that the kingdom is near. The disciples were not trained medical staff or experienced preachers, yet Jesus tells them to heal and to tell. The only way that they could do either of these things was by the authority and power that Jesus had given them. They then had to have the faith to use that authority and power.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I offer to pray for healing for people and tell them that the kingdom is near, I feel pretty vulnerable. I would love to be able to tell you that it always goes really well, and builds up my faith and I get bolder and bolder and the feelings of vulnerability fade away. But that wouldn’t be the truth of my experience. Sometimes my feeling of vulnerability overcomes my faith. Lord have mercy. But it is also my experience that there are times when I have been obedient, opened myself up to using the power and authority that I have been given by Jesus through the Holy Spirit’s presence in me, despite the risk of looking foolish and often at those times good things have happened.
As I come towards the end of what I’m going to share this evening, I would like to pose a few questions for you to consider.
Is there a task that God is calling you to work at urgently? Is there a task that you see needs doing that you need God to send help to achieve? What is God calling you to leave behind? Who is God giving you to be vulnerable to? Will you heal the sick and tell people that the Kingdom is near?