Sunday, July 18, 2017
OK, so let’s see how well you were listening to the gospel this morning…how many disciples are there? And can you name them? Andrew, James, John, Peter, Philip, Bartholomew, James, Thomas, Matthew, Simon, Thaddeus, and Judas (of course). Well, I hate to tell you, but you’re wrong – at least, partly. There aren’t just twelve disciples in the Bible, in fact, there are many followers of Jesus including women that we consider disciples – the twelve we just named were only the first. That’s what disciple means – “follower.” Sometimes we use the word, “apostle,” which means “one who is sent.” So Jesus sends the FIRST twelve disciples to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” and “to proclaim the good news, ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” But we read this in Matthew not as an interesting history book of what these twelve men did in following Jesus as good information to know, we read this today to hear Jesus calling us, too, to be his disciples, his apostles. Jesus sends us, too, to follow the example of those first disciples to also heal, cleanse, and proclaim the good news. We are apostles of Jesus, too! Jesus sends us, too!
Did you ever want to be a missionary, or do you remember as a child if your church supported a missionary? When I graduated college, I joined a program through the ELCA called Young Adults in Global Mission that was basically like a Lutheran Peace Corps. We showed up at a retreat in Chicago the spring of our senior year to interview for different positions around the globe to serve as volunteer missionaries for one year. We didn’t get to pick where we would go for that year – we were assigned at the end of that retreat. I was SURE I was going to go to Kenya or South Africa. I mean, that’s where the best missionaries go, I thought – to Africa. I loved to travel and had plenty of travel experience and cross-cultural competence, so even though it would be different and challenging, I would be a great missionary in Africa.
Well, I was shocked when I was told instead that I would be going to Slovakia. I didn’t even know where that was on a map. I found out I had to learn Slovak. I learned it would be cold most of the year, like living in South Dakota where I went to college. So much for African safaris and living in sandals for a year. It took me awhile to get used to the idea, but I ended up having an incredible year of learning and growing as I served among the people of Slovakia.
Jesus asked ordinary people to follow him, and he asked people to be local missionaries. He asked fishermen, a tax collector, a political zealot, farmers and shepherds, prostitutes and servants, business people and lawyers. He did not ask the smartest people who went to rabbinical school and knew the Torah by heart. They were not “priestly” “churchy” people. But they followed him when he asked, and he gave them power even to raise the dead. He also sent out those first twelve apostles with specific instructions to go “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus sent them to share the good news about God and God’s kingdom with their friends, in their own country, with their own fellow citizens. Maybe some of them dreamed like me that they’d get to go far away to exotic lands and peoples like I thought a “real” missionary would do. But Jesus didn’t ask them to go very far at all, at first.
Jesus’ words, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” is as true today as it was for Jesus and his first twelve disciples. We no longer have to go to Africa or even to Slovakia to be missionaries sharing the good news about Jesus and the kingdom of God. In fact, Christianity is growing so fast in the global south we brought the Lutheran bishop of Tanzania to Nebraska last year so our Nebraska pastors could learn from him how to be better evangelists. We are not doing such a good job at being missionaries right in our own country, in our own city, right where we live. Fewer and fewer people go to church regularly or call themselves Christian – the statistics are not good. We could debate about how we might cast out demons, cleanse lepers, and raise the dead today – those acts of healing may not be what our neighbors and friends need. But Jesus sends us, too, to be his apostles, to follow him and share the good news of how God has been active in OUR lives and how we see God’s kingdom breaking in here and now.
It’s scary – it sometimes is easier to talk to someone you don’t know very well about your faith rather than share it with people you already know. Sometimes we make up excuses about why we shouldn’t share our faith when there’s an abundant harvest of friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances who are looking to hear a word of hope, who are looking to find meaning, who are looking to be a part of something larger than themselves. For example, I was at a congregation recently where a woman shared that she had a friend at work who was going through a difficult time. They talked every day, and this woman kept her friend on her prayer list, but she never told the friend she was praying for her. One Sunday her friend showed up to visit at her church. Her friend was actually angry that she had never invited her to come to church before. She said something like, “All this time I was asking God for a sign that he was with me, that somebody cared, and you never told me you were praying for me. I didn’t even know you were a Christian”
Pastor Eric Elnes of Countryside Community Church in Omaha tells another story of being woken up in the middle of the night to drive to a friend’s house he hadn’t seen in a few years. He had a gut feeling that something was terribly wrong. He felt silly because when he arrived at the house, about three in the morning, the friend said he was fine, but they talked over coffee and caught up anyway. A month later, the friend showed up and confessed to Pastor Eric that actually at the moment he heard the knock on his door, he had been loading a revolver, thinking of killing himself. Knowing his Christian friend cared and had shown up at that moment saved his life. God sends us, nudges us, and even urges us to share the good news for people who need to hear it. Jesus is calling us to be his disciples, to be local missionaries.
God uses where we are and sends us sometimes not very far to be signs of Christ’s presence for others. We have been given this precious gift – we ALL have gifts to share.. So shameless plug – next Sunday we’ll be starting a five-week series on the gifts of discipleship that all of us have been given by God through our baptism. We’ll be learning that we don’t have to be special pastors or missionaries, we don’t have to be the smartest or the most talkative, or whatever keeps us back from going where God sends us. God wants to use you for who you are, to be a laborer for his harvest. Amen.