Big harvest, few workers

Goose Pond UMC
January 13, 2019

Luke 10:1–12 (CEB)

After these things, the Lord commissioned seventy-two others and sent them on ahead in pairs to every city and place he was about to go. He said to them, “The harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest. Go! Be warned, though, that I’m sending you out as lambs among wolves. Carry no wallet, no bag, and no sandals. Don’t even greet anyone along the way. Whenever you enter a house, first say, ‘May peace be on this house.’ If anyone there shares God’s peace, then your peace will rest on that person. If not, your blessing will return to you. Remain in this house, eating and drinking whatever they set before you, for workers deserve their pay. Don’t move from house to house. Whenever you enter a city and its people welcome you, eat what they set before you. Heal the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘God’s kingdom has come upon you.’ Whenever you enter a city and the people don’t welcome you, go out into the streets and say, ‘As a complaint against you, we brush off the dust of your city that has collected on our feet. But know this: God’s kingdom has come to you.’ I assure you that Sodom will be better off on Judgment Day than that city.

I want to do something a little different this morning — I normally stick very closely to the Revised Common Lectionary, but this morning’s scripture is not the lectionary passage for this week. And this isn’t going to be a normal sermon.

I thought I would talk a little bit about the lay speaking program, and its long history in the Methodist movement. As you know, I’m a certified United Methodist lay speaker, which means I’m not an ordained minister but I am approved by the United Methodist church to preach.

Me and my close personal friend John.

The use of lay speakers goes back to the earliest days of the Methodist movement, in the 1700s in England.

John and Charles Wesley, of course, had been a part of a small group called the “Holy Club” at Oxford University, and it was there that they, and others, began an organized program of religion that included study, and works of charity, and small-group accountability.

Later, both John and Charles went to the American colonies — these were the days before Independence — and spent time in Savannah, Georgia. John had already been an ordained minister in the Church of England; Charles was ordained as part of the preparation for the trip.

The mission trip to Georgia was not all that either John or Charles had hoped for, and each of them ended up returning home to England sooner than expected. Not long after this, both brothers had profound, pivotal spiritual experiences. John Wesley was struggling with his theology about what it meant to be saved, and he was concerned that — even as a ordained minister, a spiritual leader, and a missionary — he didn’t feel assured of his own salvation. John Wesley’s transformative experience came in a small group meeting in a house on Aldersgate Street in London. As one of the speakers read some commentary by Martin Luther about the book of Romans, Wesley said he felt his heart “strangely warmed.”

The Wesley brothers were two of a number of participants in a revival movement going on in England at the time. In cooperation with some of the other leaders of the movement, particularly George Whitefield, they ended up establishing religious societies in various towns and parts of England. Because of some theological disputes, some of the various leaders ended up sort of going their separate ways. George Whitefield, a fiery preacher who had been close to Wesley, parted company with him over the issue of predestination. Whitefield was a Calvinist who believed in predestination, the idea that God chooses specific people for salvation; Wesley was an Arminian who believed in free will and was solidly opposed to predestination.

The term “Methodist” was originally applied to several different leaders and movements, but it gradually came to be associated with John and Charles Wesley and their network of societies.

John and Charles Wesley were both strong supporters of the Church of England. They lived and died as members of the Church of England, or Anglicans, as they are known. Now, the Church of England, at this time, was the official, sanctioned church of the British government. It was the king’s church, and in countries where you have an official state church, piety and patriotism are tied together in ways that tend to make me a little nervous. I think when church and state get too close together, it’s not good religion or good government. But at the time, in England, the Church of England was the official church. Other churches were allowed, but any church other than the Church of England had to register — apply for a sort of license to operate what was called a “dissenting” church. 
John and Charles Wesley had no intention of starting a new church. Charles was especially outspoken about this, and sometimes when John would take some bold step, it would be Charles who was wringing his hands wondering if it was going to result in Methodism burning its bridges with the mother church.

If you were a member of a Methodist society, John and Charles Wesley wanted you to continue to attend your normal Anglican church, and they particularly wanted to encourage you to take communion as often as possible. John Wesley would not be happy with the fact that we only have communion once a month; he would want us to have it every Sunday, the way that the Catholics or the Episcopalians or the Church of Christ do. He was a big believer in taking communion as often as possible.

But as much as John and Charles Wesley professed their love of the Church of England, some of the individual leaders and ministers in the church were very suspicious of the Methodist movement. They thought of the Methodists as fanatics, and some thought it was only a matter of time before they tried to break away from the church.

So in many parts of England, you had people gathering together in a Methodist society, but they might not have the support of the local Anglican church, or the local Anglican minister. In fact, for much of Methodism’s early history it’s quite likely that they didn’t have the support of the local Anglican minister.

As the movement grew, it needed leaders — people to preach at those society meetings. And while there were some ordained Anglican ministers who considered themselves Methodists, there weren’t nearly enough to go around. As Jesus stated in the Bible passage I read earlier, the harvest was big but the workers were few. So John and Charles had to approve un-ordained persons to lead those society meetings.

They would set up circuits — and John Wesley would personally decide which speakers were assigned to which circuit. The speakers were given strict instructions and guidelines, and told only to support the official positions of the movement.

From time to time, though, some of these lay speakers would get carried away. As I said, it was Charles Wesley who was the voice for making sure the Methodists didn’t ever give any appearance of trying to break from the Anglican church, and it was Charles Wesley who was the voice of discipline when it came to dealing with these lay speakers. Charles was not afraid to decommission speakers who had been commissioned by his brother. In one case, Charles Wesley wrote a friend of his that John had turned a tailor into a preacher, and he, Charles, was going to turn the preacher back into a tailor.

The Anglican church, and therefore the Wesley brothers, believed that only an ordained minister should preside over communion. And in some cases, that was a problem for some of the Methodists on the front line. If they felt their local Anglican preacher was unworthy, and hostile to them as Methodists, they might not feel welcome going and taking communion.

From time to time, some of the lay preachers, or the members, would push the Wesleys to make changes, but the Wesleys didn’t want to do anything that would seem to break away from the Church of England. They continued to consider Methodism an attempt to reform the Anglican church from the inside.

If some of the lay speakers could have become ordained, of course, they could have begun serving communion. But there were still many officials within the Church of England who were suspicious of the Methodists, and so it was hard to get Methodist candidates ordained.

Meanwhile, the Methodist movement had spread to the British colonists living over across the Atlantic — and that created a problem. As I said, the Church of England was the official church of the British government. And so, when the Revolutionary War ended and America won its independence from Great Britain, it also became independent of the Church of England. The church recalled its pastors back to England. Some went back home, others considered America their new home and stuck around. Only two ordained ministers who were Methodists remained in all of the U.S.; one of them was Francis Asbury.

The Anglicans who were not Methodists formed what we now know as the Episcopal church. But the Anglicans who were Methodists appealed to John Wesley for help. Wesley took the extraordinary step of ordaining several ministers to go and start a new church in America. Charles Wesley was furious about this. He did not believe that his brother had the power to ordain clergy, and he was certain that this defiant act by John would lead to a break with the Church of England.

But John had a different interpretation of the rule, and besides, he believed special situations called for special measures. He sent Thomas Coke to America with the commission to ordain new Methodist ministers. Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke became the leaders of Methodism in America, and while at first John Wesley tried to micromanage the American branch of Methodism, Asbury and Coke and other leaders eventually took it in their own direction, following Wesley’s theology but not all of his organizational commands. Wesley wanted them to call themselves superintendents, but they decided to use the title “bishop.”
As America grew, Methodism grew with it — but we had our own problem, not too different from what Wesley had experienced; there were not enough ordained ministers to go around. This led to the famous Methodist “Circuit Rider,” who would travel by horseback from town to town, preaching at a different church on his circuit every week. A circuit rider might need six weeks to visit all of the churches on his circuit. Again, the harvest was plenty but the workers were few.

That, by the way, is how Methodists came to celebrate communion once a month. That’s not an official position or direction of the church; in fact, some church leaders, following John Wesley’s lead, have encouraged us to have it more often. But the once-a-month communion is a holdover from the days when you might only have an ordained minister once a month.

Meanwhile, the churches, or in some cases small home groups, might want to meet more often, for prayer and Bible study. And so there was a need for lay people to step up and take a leadership role during those periods when an ordained minister was nowhere nearby.

There is still a need for that. Some years back, the program within the United Methodist Church that had been known as “Lay Speaking Ministries” changed its name to “Lay Servant Ministries,” and it expanded to include other ways of serving the church, but there’s still a great need for lay speakers. In some cases, some smaller churches have been assigned lay speakers for the long term.

When I first became a lay speaker, you would take a basic lay speaking class and you would become a local church lay speaker, which meant you were authorized to preach in your own home church. (I actually preached at a couple of other churches while I was still a local church lay speaker — just because there was a need and I was available). Then, you would take an advanced class, and after that you were considered a certified lay speaker and could speak at any United Methodist church. You are expected to take an advanced class at least every three years in order to stay certified. They have advanced classes in a variety of topics.

When they changed the program from Lay Speaking Ministries to Lay Servant Ministries, they made it easier for anyone to become a lay servant but they made it harder to take the title of lay speaker. Now, you still take the basic class, but then you have to take several different advanced classes in various topic areas — one on speaking, on on pastoral ministry, one on the history of the church, and so on. Only after you’ve completed all of those subject areas can you be considered for approval as a certified lay speaker. And you still have to keep taking classes every three years in order to remain certified.

I was grandfathered in under the old system — I don’t think that was automatic, but the director of lay speaking ministries for the district asked for it in my case. And by now, I think I’ve covered all but one of the topic areas.
Beyond the certified lay speaker program, there’s a training program for people to become lay pastors — which is a greater and greater need, in cases where there’s not an ordained minister available to take an appointment. I haven’t yet taken that lay pastor course, although I may in time.

This is communion Sunday. The rule in the United Methodist church is that while anyone can administer the elements, only an ordained minister can bless them — can say that part of the communion ritual that asks God to make the elements be to us the body and blood of Christ.

But the good news is that an ordained minister can do that blessing in advance, and it’s even sometimes done by telephone. That’s what happened this week. The Rev. Jim Beaty is a retired pastor who attends the same church where I’m a member in Shelbyville, and he blessed our elements on Friday.

In the Bible passage I read you this morning, Jesus sends out 72 of his disciples in ministry. These were not rabbis or priests; they were ordinary people. And at this point in time, they had not yet been filled with the Holy Spirit, and in fact their understanding of Jesus and his ministry was far from complete. But this was a preview, if you want to call it that — a first look at what was to come. Jesus told the disciples that the harvest was plentiful but there weren’t enough workers to bring it in.

In the United Methodist tradition, we honor and respect those who are in ordained ministry. I served for a year or two on the District Committee on Ordained Ministry, often called “D-COM,” which is a body, made up of both lay people and ministers, that meets at the district office and that has the responsibility for evaluating those in ministry. People who are considering a calling to the ministry have to come before D-COM at various points, and those who are in active ministry have to appear before D-COM once a year. Even in the brief time I was on D-COM, I was impressed by the commitment and calling of the men and women I encountered there. As the son of a minister, I have nothing but respect and admiration for those who have devoted their lives to this sacred calling.
But it’s also clear that ordained ministers aren’t the only ones called to bring in the harvest. God calls all of us, whether you’re an ordained minister, a lay speaker or none of the above, to share the Gospel message with those around us. God calls all of us to be leaders in the church. God calls all of us to be in ministry to the people around us, to show compassion for those who are sick or discouraged or in need. God calls all of us to be lay servants, whether we’re a member of the Lay Servant MInistries or not.

The 72 disciples that Jesus sent out in ministry may not have felt prepared or qualified; I have a suspicion that a lot of them did not feel prepared or qualified. But the saying goes that God does not call the qualified, he qualifies the called. God calls all of us into ministry, and God will extend grace and wisdom and protection to all of us as we step out in faith.

The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. God wants you to help bring the Kingdom to the people of your community.