Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
On any given night in the United States there are on average 564,708 people who are homeless. In our country there are 46.7 million people living in poverty– line up 20 random people in the U.S. and you will find that 3 of them live in poverty. 17.4 million people in our country are food insecure– never confident that they will be able to provide a meal for themselves or their family. And that is just in our country. The hard facts and statistics surrounding injustice and what I would call sin in our communities are overwhelming.
I firmly believe that one of the principle ways the Church is called to respond to the unconditional and abundant love of God that we have received, is to share that love with others. People need to know that they are cared for by God and God’s people. When you are homeless, hungry, neglected, or forgotten, it can be hard to believe that you are a loved and redeemed child of God. I am happy for the work that our denomination does to combat injustices around the world. We do great advocacy work through Lutheran-Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of NJ which is currently addressing the crushing cost of housing in New Jersey. Lutheran World Relief is tirelessly working to provide sustainable food sources and water to places in need around the world. Saint Bart is engaged in this good work too. We host the Share Food Program which provides low-cost food packages, we give out free clothing at the Clothes Closet, we send volunteers to work at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen each month, we provide food gift certificates, and we’re planning on hosting a Community Resource Fair to help people connect with other resources in and around the city. This is good work and I firmly believe that the ELCA and Saint Bart are making a real, positive difference in the lives around us.
That being said, I have to admit that I am susceptible to despair. When I think about the immense needs of the world or even just of our city, I have to admit that I sometimes feel like it is all just a drop in a cavernous bucket. 17.4 million people are food insecure in our country and once per month 3-6 of us from St. Bart head over to TASK to help provide one single meal for a couple hundred people. 46.7 million people live in poverty and we give some free clothes to 50 or 60 families. It is good work, no doubt, but I can’t help but feel a little hopeless at times. It feels like there is a tidal wave of injustice and sin crashing over our ship, and we are armed with only a ladle to bail out the water.
Jesus sends 70 of his disciples out to do some important Gospel work. He sends them out to the places he himself plans on visiting to heal the sick and proclaim words of hope in God- the same work God calls us to today. He gives them a few warnings also. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” There is a lot of work to do- a lot of people in deep need who must experience this saving word of God, but it seems like there aren’t enough people to do all the work that is required. Then he says, “See, I am sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves.” There will be active forces and people who want to stop the good work Christ is sending you to do. You put yourself in danger by sharing the Good News. You yourself are in danger of being poor, shunned, and hurt. Jesus knows this is going to be hard work and he tells his disciples. Jesus does not sugar coat the realities of responding to the grace of God.
The apostle Paul knows that this is true too. He writes to the Galatian church urging them to restore transgressors with gentleness, to bear each other’s burdens, and to work for the good of all people. This is hard work and the odds of success seem to be stacked against us. Paul warns that “…you reap whatever you sow.” He could be referring to a number of things here, but I think it makes sense that Paul is warning that there are true consequences for trusting in ourselves rather than God, of being prideful, and of being selfish. People will get hurt (including yourself) as dissensions rise, the poor are trampled down, and guilt for not being “good enough” for God or others is heaped upon those who are already despairing. But Paul also offers a word of truth and encouragement, “…let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” The good you do in this life, in response to the love God has already given to you, may feel insignificant in the face of a tidal wave of sin and injustice. Paul, however, reminds us that all acts of love stemming from the grace of God’s love makes a difference. God is present in those acts of love and so they are never wasted. We may not be able to see the results right now, but God has promised us that all Good News proclamations of word and deed are a part of the complete restoration and saving of God’s beloved world.
I heard a story once that partly illustrates what I think Paul is saying. There was a woman walking along the shore of the beach when she saw that the sand was littered with what must have been hundreds of beached jellyfish. She carefully made her way further down the sand and she came upon a small boy. This boy was scooping up the jellyfish, one at a time, into his plastic bucket and then dumping them back into the water. She watched this continue for several minutes and finally said to the boy, “I see that you want to save the jellyfish, but do you really think it will make a difference? There are hundreds of them and you only have that little bucket.” The boy silently turned around, scooped another jellyfish into his bucket and tossed it into the water. He said to the woman, “I saved that one.”
The church can make a difference and transform the lives of people, even if it is not every person in the world. I think of a man from my internship congregation, Greg, who was taken care of in the church’s bucket. Greg was a recovering alcoholic, lost all of his money from his addiction, had significant medical issues, no family except for one daughter who visited him on occasion, and very little contact with the church. He joined St. Paul Lutheran, came to worship each week where he heard about God’s unconditional love for him, and he experienced the love and grace of God in the welcome and friendship shared with him in our adult catechism class. He found acceptance and hope that he had not experienced before.
More than celebrating the small parts of the world that are healed in Gospel acts, we can be bold to confess that every Gospel act ultimately contributes to the entire healing of the world. It is God’s work, our hands. It is sowing seeds for eternity. It is God’s very own love which was first given to us. I cannot say exactly how this will come about, but we can trust that God’s work is not wasted and the tiny seed that is sown blossoms into a tree greater than we can imagine.
Jesus gave himself on the cross. From one perspective, what good did that Gospel act do? An itinerant rabbi got himself killed for saying that he was a king (while Caesar is still sitting on the throne). Maybe a handful of people were inspired by his messages about forgiveness and grace that he died for. But what else? From another perspective, what we confess happened, and we are still seeing it unfold, is that sin and death were defeated by the Son of God who gave himself for us. This single act of Gospel love unraveled the bonds of death and opened wide the way of eternal and abundant life.
One detail that I have found to be very comforting from our Gospel reading is that Jesus sends out the seventy to places he himself intended to go. Jesus is going to be there too. The tidal wave needs of the world are so overwhelming that we may be tempted to just give up on the gargantuan task of proclaiming Good News when there is so much Bad News with which to compete. We have been promised, however, that the words and deeds of God’s unconditional love shared with our mouths and hands, truly contain the power to transform the world for good. Not just a small part, a single jellyfish, but the entire world. The details are fuzzy at this point, but we are given faith to trust that Christ himself will come after us and then we will see all the world rejoicing in the transforming and life-giving grace of God.