There is nothing we like to complain about more than our work, it seems to me. And yet there is nothing more defining than what we do. It’s how we introduce ourselves, how we understand ourselves. We measure ourselves by the jobs we have. I remember when I was shepherding my dad around to more doctors than I could count, I sat and listened as he answered the questions they asked over and over. There was one time when it came to that question, “What do you do?” that he seemed to have gotten tired of talking about what he used to do, or that he was retired, and he said, “I’m a woodworker!” True, he has a garage full of tools and stacks and stacks of wood (more than he could use up even if he churned out folk-art birdhouses from now until Jesus came back); true he sometimes puttered around out there; true he had plans, half-finished projects all over. So, I guess he worked in wood. It was how he wanted to define himself. It was how he saw himself now. Fifty years of pastoring didn’t matter to him anymore. “I’m a woodworker,” he declared in that doctor’s office.
What is the work that you do that defines you? In particular, what is the work our faith demands from us? Or we might ask, “What is the calling that is on our lives?” I know it gets tricky there. Faith, we think, is supposed to help us in our lives, help us be better at whatever we do, whoever we are. It isn’t supposed to define us; it isn’t supposed to add responsibilities to our already overfull plates, to add burdens to our already laden backs. “Come and I’ll give you rest.” We look forward to heaven as a place where we’ll finally be able to get the sleep we need. Rest in peace.
Besides, a few hundred years of Christian theology tried to separate the ideas of works and faith. The fear was that an emphasis on work, on our effort, would cause us to think we were responsible for earning our salvation. That our actions, our choices, our work either brought us closer to the kingdom or took us farther from it. So, to avoid confusion, we taught that what you do doesn’t matter. You can’t earn your place in God’s house. That truth gives birth to a misunderstanding that brought about a people of faith who don’t know how to be a community or how to be laborers in the harvest of the Lord.
Back up a few verses in chapter 9, you’ll find Jesus working. He heals two blind men. Then he tells them not to tell anyone about it. But they go and tell everyone about it. The word spreads, and Jesus’ fame grows, as does the opposition. Verse 34 has the Pharisees complaining that he is consorting with demons. The rest of chapter 9 is his response to that accusation. He doesn’t argue the logic of their complaint as he does a couple of chapters later when they really start getting on his nerves. No, for now, he just works. He labors in the harvest of the Lord.
And then Matthew tells us why. We are given the clue not only to the labors of Jesus but to the motivation for our working as followers of Jesus. Jesus worked, Matthew tells us, because Jesus saw. Jesus sees us. Jesus sees what is really going on in our lives. He sees what burdens we bear, what fears we harbor. Jesus sees us. He really sees us. And even though that scares us, it shouldn’t. Because he sees, and he cares. He has compassion, Matthew says. His heart goes out. He sees us in our lostness, in our emptiness, under attack by enemies within and without; and he loves us. Although we are harassed and helpless, he loves us. He doesn’t say, “Well, they should have known better.” He doesn’t say, “You’d think that by now they would have figured it out.” He doesn’t say, “What a bunch of losers.” He has compassion for them.
The labor of the kingdom becomes possible when the motivation is right. Church growth programs for the sake of church growth - or institutional survival these days - don’t work. Mission work done to enhance the reputation or the status of the worker doesn’t help or heal.
When Jesus saw the crowd, he had compassion. So, he turned to his disciples. Or he saw the crowd, and then he turned to the community. What’s the difference between a crowd and a community? This is a crucial issue for the church today. We’ve been a crowd; we think like a crowd, and we act like a crowd. We’ve done some good work as a crowd, that’s for sure. We can be proud of our “crowdness.” We’re not, for the most part, an unruly crowd. There’s no danger of becoming a mob, which is a crowd gone wild. But we are mostly in the crowd mindset, and Jesus wants us to be a community. The laborers whom Jesus asks us to pray for come from a community; they won’t come from a crowd.
What’s the difference? A crowd is a collection of individuals who have come together with common hungers and needs. They occupy the same space, but each person is there to meet individual needs, to satisfy individual hungers. They might share, or they might not; that doesn’t matter much. They come in and they go out, and the value they place on their gathering is on whether their needs were met or at least acknowledged. The crowd is acutely aware of the struggle of their lives; they are harassed constantly and burdened by living, and they don’t know what to do about it. They are looking for a leader who will bring them some comfort and solace, and they are likely to follow any shepherd who comes along. They are like hungry sheep who hope this shepherd knows where the food is and can bring some light into their personal darkness.
A community exists for one another and is open to those who haven’t yet found their way in. It isn’t about meeting needs or satisfying hungers; the community is about building relationships. It is about belonging and serving. The secret that each member of the community knows is that individual hungers are more than satisfied in service to others, in hospitality that puts others before self, in setting aside personal preferences in favor of the attempt to see the other and to see the world through the other’s eyes. The members of the community don’t starve themselves; they don’t deny their own neediness but discover themselves surprisingly satisfied by the labor in the lord’s harvest. This is, in part, because the needs and the hungers change when we are taken out of ourselves long enough to love someone else. And, in part, because the deeper needs to connect and to love and to know and be known are sometimes redefined as something more surface, like happiness or recognition.
Jesus knows that the crowd needs workers to be among them. He also knows that those workers won’t come from the crowd, but from the community. So, he turns to us and asks us both to pray and to be the answer to our prayers. And then he sends us out, as he sent the disciples out. He gives us power, as he gave them power; and he sends us out to make the world more like the kin-dom of God. The power we are given isn’t something mystical; rather, it is our giftedness and our resources and our experience. We have the power to impact our world for Christ.
Then, he sends us out together, which is a blessing if we would acknowledge it. We tend to think it is an individual thing, this vocation stuff, this labor thing. We tend to think we are called as individuals when we are called to labor in the vineyards. And indeed, we are each called, but we are called to labor together. We called, in short, to be a community and not a crowd. We are called to do incredible things, maybe even unthinkable things, maybe even things that make us laugh out loud just to imagine. Ask Abraham and Sarah if you can get them to calm down long enough to explain it to you. It’s one of those scenes where you can’t help but laugh along with them. They are so giddy with amusement, or with amazement, or with the sheer audacity of the promise that is laid out before them that they can barely stand up straight. Two old coots destined for the geriatric ward are heading toward maternity; it just is too ludicrous to be believed.
Maybe your church isn’t called to have babies, but there is certainly a call to give birth to something in your community. Something that would give life, something that would give joy, something that would bring hope and unity in the midst of a difficult and divided time. We’re too old; our time has passed; we don’t have it in us; these are the excuses that keep us from following our call. I’m sure those words were running through Abraham’s and Sarah’s brains as they listened to these strangers make a promise. They were given a calling that was both a blessing and a burden at the same time. Giving birth isn’t an easy task; just ask any mother in your congregation. But is it wonderful? Afterward, sure, but even during. Through the labor, through the pain, is anything too wonderful for God? That was the word that they clung to when it got difficult in the days ahead. That was the whispered promise that got them through the labor of giving birth and the labor of raising a child named laughter. Is anything too wonderful for God?