I love the church. I see it as a way that God has blessed the world. For all its (our) flaws, it is such a wondrous thing that God uses us. It is amazing that God sees us as His Bride, veiled in white, without spot or blemish. For many of us, this metaphor about the church seems strange. I think especially men struggle with the thought of being a bride. But it is interesting to think about how the various New Testament metaphors work together to show us something of our calling, anything from the “bride” and “body” metaphors that reveal something of our union and unity with Christ, to the “the people of the Way” that emphasize following the example of Jesus. No one metaphor or even Greek word captures the concept of the church in all its fullness, so what we see in scripture is something like the many facets of a diamond. Each side shows us a bit more about this mysterious role we play “co-missioning” with God.
There are many biblical names for the church, a primary one is ecclesia meaning “called out ones,” a term borrowed from the Greek city state governing tradition. It once meant a meeting place where the citizens could speak their minds and try to influence one another in the political process. The early church borrowed this term and filled it with new meaning, getting back to the “called out ones” definition it implied. Within the church, however, I think it always kept that communal and participatory spirit. One can see this dynamic in our monthly meeting for business. As God’s set apart or “called out” people, we come before God together seeking leadership, but also bringing ourselves into the process of how God’s will will be carried out among us.
Of all these descriptions and metaphors for the church, perhaps the most forgotten one is its most mundane: workers. While lacking a bit in the “romance” department, there comes a time in any relationship where we come face to face with the realities of the ordinary, what Wendell Berry eloquently describes as the art of the commonplace. Many of us can remember fondly a time of our first connection with God, the initial “falling in love” side of our relationship. Like any good marriage however, our relationship with God can take love into some new areas of our lives as our relationship deepens. Yet often love requires work, it requires us actually taking our own baby steps toward the place our relationship with God is going. In the gospel of Matthew we find this short description of Jesus leading His disciples by example—almost daring them to follow Him into a new place, a place it seemed that was full of work we might share with Him:
“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Mt. 9:35-38)
In our day, work can be so overwhelming. It spills beyond the healthy boundaries we want it to, like a river flooding beyond its bounds. Technology like smartphones has brought the office even to our dinner tables, it would seem. Yet in the sea of opportunities for work that hem us in on every side, how can we keep our eyes open? Jesus saw these people God had put in His life. His eyes were open to their poor state and He had compassion on them. He challenged His disciples to look around at all the work God wanted to do in bringing these people spiritual leadership. He asked them to be willing to be sent out like workers in the fields.
I worked on a farm a bit in Kansas, and I know that there are different stages of farming, stages like planting and cultivation, not just harvesting. When the harvest comes though the work kicks up into high gear. I like many of you, have worked literally from sunup to sundown—for weeks on end—trying to bring the harvest in to be stored away in safety. In farming, as in life, there are seasons. Seasons for planting, cultivating, and harvesting; times of starting new works, developing these works to maturity, and completing them. This works exactly the same in spiritual leadership. There are no shortcuts, and there is a lot of work to be done before we will ever see a hint of fruit. Yet we must keep the big picture in mind. We must be in tune to where we are at in the cycle, and be responsive to the needs of this time. As Jesus reminds us, sometimes the biggest contributions we bring are not our skills, or even our gifts and talents. It is our willingness. It is our eyes of compassion that can see beyond the urgency of the present moment, beyond the ordinariness; eyes to see the ways where we can use our own two hands to make a difference in the lives of those God has put around us.
I have the feeling that so few of us have embraced the part of our relationship with God that helps us see life as workers, not because we don’t love God or have compassion, but simply because we are so busy. In our world today, each day comes to us with a smorgasbord of opportunities, whether they be for work or play. Yet the church is essentially relationships; with God and of course others, both those who know and have yet to know God. If we fill our lives too full, we may well be workers (and working ourselves to death in fact), but we can too easily be workers for the wrong harvest, pouring all our time and energy into things that do not allow us any time for our roles as messengers of God and spiritual leaders who point to Him. Like many of you, I am in the same boat. I have kids and a car payment, and seemingly endless hurdles to jump and deadlines to meet.
How do we discern which opportunities to pursue and which to say no to? We have to say no to some things… or our relationships with God and each other will become dilapidated and we may well even drive ourselves mad. I think Jesus points us to an answer, though it is not an easy one. We have to suit up and go to work. We have to go out into the fields and do what we can, even in the face of more work than we could ever do. I heard a story once about an ocean storm that brought thousands of starfish out of their habitat and onto the shore. As thousands lay dying like “fish out of water,” one small boy started throwing them back one by one. A cynical man nearby tried to tell the boy to stop, that what he was doing didn’t matter in the face of all that need. The boy said, “It mattered to that one!” and “It mattered to that one” and kept on flinging starfish for as long as he could.
Even at our best, there is no way we can fix the urgent need of our world for God. We can only do our small parts, yet these parts matter. They utterly and truly matter and it’s easy to forget that. The part we play as workers of the field is important, for we become the hands and feet of Jesus that touch people’s lives. But like the man in the story we can become cynical in the face of the great needs of our world today and this cynicism can paralyze us. The thing is though that we are not trying to do it all by ourselves. We are workers working together… working for the same Master and working on the same harvest. How can we be a church that seeks to live this out? How can we resist the cynicism that paralyzes us and the business that fragments us?
The church is often likened to a sporting event: lots of people in the stands who desperately need exercise… watching a few people on the field who desperately need a break. In our day with all its busyness, a lot of people have not even felt like investing the time of coming to the stands. The problem with all of this is that it misses the point of “co-missioning” with God. Church was never supposed to be mostly something we consume from the stands, it is supposed to be about following Jesus, becoming like Him as disciples. Like it or not, this takes work. It takes risk. It takes us prioritizing our time not merely around worship on a Sunday morning, but around strengthening our relationships with God and each other. Some things, many things in the spiritual life, cannot be done for us. Change starts first in the heart of the one who seeks it. But first we must ask ourselves how badly we want it. May we pray this week that God would give us eyes to see what God wants to do in us and through us. May we see our daily walks with more compassion. May our willingness grow, not merely our skill.