The labourers are few

Luke 10:1-20

What a good job Jesus isn’t in charge of organising the rotas!

Can you imagine? Everybody’s milling around in the foyer after the service, and then Jesus steps into the middle of the room, clearing his throat and holding up a clipboard as he says loudly, “excuse me, can I have everyone’s attention for a minute? I still need seventy volunteers for a little job this week. This is a great chance to go out into strange and dangerous neighbourhoods, and invite yourselves into people’s homes. It will be like you are defenceless lambs sent out alone into the midst of ravenous wolves. Oh, and please remember not to bring anything that might make it easier or safer or more comfortable for you to do that, okay? So just come on over here where I’ve got a sign up sheet. Thank you!”

What a way to recruit volunteers! How does he expect anyone to come? Everyone knows you have to persuade people, and talk down the jobs as being not very much, it won’t take much time, and it won’t require commitment. What is he thinking?

Of course, Jesus wasn’t asking for volunteers. That’s a pretty important thing to notice right from the beginning. Jesus appoints the seventy, and sends them out. He doesn’t ask for volunteers, and he doesn’t wait to see who comes forward on their own. He’s the Lord, after all; he can do what our Church Administrator can only dream of doing. But still, “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves”? This is clearly dangerous territory, and he’s sending them out completely unprepared, and unable to fend for themselves? And wolves aside, without money, how can they buy food or get a place to stay? Without a bag, what are they supposed to do about extra clothes if they get cold or wet or just dirty from the road? Doesn’t he know they’re going to need these things?

I think one reason this passage is so hard for us to make much sense of, is that it goes completely against one of the fundamental values of our culture, which is self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency is so important to our sense of satisfaction that there’s a whole industry dedicated to equipping us to go out and test it in ourselves. If you go to an adventure sports shop, you’re going to find everything you need to make it on your own in the wilderness. And I do mean everything: high-tech boots specialized for maximum performance in different activities; socks and clothes that keep rain out or pull sweat away from your body, or trap heat in or breathe to let heat out; shelters that can withstand gale force winds but pack down to the size of pillow; food that never spoils, takes up almost no space, and tastes like it’s from a gourmet restaurant if you just add water; and so on and so on and so on. You can be fully prepared for any contingency you might encounter while you’re alone out in the wilderness, any situation that might endanger or just inconvenience you.

But the whole point of what Jesus is doing is ensuring that he’s sending these seventy apostles out completely unprepared! They’re not permitted to have anything that might enable them any level of self-sufficiency. So, they’re the complete opposite of self-sufficient; their well-being is utterly dependent on the people to whom they have been sent, some of whom will respond with hostility rather than hospitality. And you can never tell which you’re going to get until it’s too late.

During World War Two General McArthur asked an engineer how long it would take to build a bridge across a certain river. “About three days.” The engineer was told to go ahead and draw up the plans. Three days later McArthur asked for the plans. The engineer seemed surprised. “Oh, the bridge is ready. You can cross it now. If you want plans, you’ll have to wait a little longer, we haven’t finished those yet.”

Sometimes the biggest problem with plans is that they work. You’ve only to ask politicians over the last couple of weeks, and you’ll find people from all parts of the political spectrum queuing up to tell you how their plans have gone wrong. Almost by definition, a plan is something we expect to succeed. But in order to ensure it succeeds, sometimes we tailor the goal to meet the plan, rather than the other way around. The formula for success, it has been said, is to “under-promise and over-deliver” as you plan your work. If you do that, you can ensure that your plans are always successful, because you never promise more than you can achieve. But in the process, it’s very easy to lose sight of the whole reason you’re doing something in the first place; being “successful” begins to matter more than what you’re succeeding at.

Jesus is clearly not concerned about being “successful” in the way our culture generally understands success, which may be why he’s so blunt with the seventy about how difficult and dangerous this mission might be. This isn’t going to be easy, he tells them; not everybody can do this. It’s going to require an extraordinary amount of time and effort; and no matter how hard you try, you’re not going to be able to control the outcome. Some of the people you visit will not share in the peace you offer; sometimes whole towns that you visit will reject you. But that’s not the point. What Jesus is most concerned about is ensuring that as many people as possible get to hear the good news that God’s kingdom has come near. That’s the point; that’s his goal, his definition of success. Because you never really know who’s going to respond and who’s not, who’s open to God and who’s not. You never really know who is desperate to hear good news; and you have to go out to them because you can’t expect them to come asking about it if they haven’t even heard it.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing our church, as it is most mainstream British churches, is that pretty much our whole plan of how to be church is designed to welcome people in to hear the good news. That’s how everything’s planned. And that’s how we evaluate our success: how many people attend worship, how many people join the church as members. And that plan seems to have worked pretty well until about fifty or sixty years ago. But, for all sorts of reasons, fewer and fewer people across the country are coming in now. But that doesn’t mean they’re aren’t interested in God; perhaps some haven’t heard first-hand about God. Or, more painfully, perhaps the church as a whole hasn’t given them enough reason to think that we, and by implication, God really cares about them in a non-judgemental and loving way? Is time for a change of plan?

All are welcome is quite right, but we need to take a step back, we need to be more strategic about how engage with people, in order that that get as far as being welcomed when they do come in. A young salesman was disappointed about losing a big sale, and as he talked with his sales manager he lamented, “I guess it just proves you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” The manager replied, “son, take my advice: your job is not to make him drink. Your job is to make him thirsty.”

Our possible uniting with our Methodists sisters and brothers, our building development project, is not about maintaining an institution, nor about shoring up a building. It’s about equipping ourselves to go out and make people thirsty for God; it’s about increasing our engagement with the community who cross our threshold, to make them thirsty; and it’s about quenching that thirst with God’s overwhelming love for them.

You might be thinking that this wasn’t what you signed up for. That’s not why you joined a church. Maybe not, Jesus agrees. But the harvest is plentiful, and the labourers are few, and I wasn’t asking for volunteers. I am sending you out, but I’m not sending you unprepared: I’m giving you good news to share, and partners to go with you and help share it. That will be enough; go, and you will see.

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