Don't Fence Me In
At Vacation Catechetical School this week, we dealt with the 2nd Table of the Law, Commandments (4-10), using the theme "Fences." The 2nd Table said Luther puts a fence around your neighbor's wife, life, possessions, and reputation. When we trespass these fences we rightly feel guilty and the Lord would lead us to repentance and forgiveness. But other things can wrongly fence us in, so that we cry out in the words of the famous Western song, "Don't fence me in!"
Jesus says, "The harvest is plentiful," and He wasn't talking about food but souls. I have often mentioned the handwringing that goes on across Christianity over the dying of churches. Denominational leaders, parish pastors, lay people, are asking, "Where have all the followers gone?" They are fenced in my decreasing birthrates, the falling away of children between Baptism and college, declining church attendance, and fewer workers for the harvest.
Only at the latter point does Jesus see a fence rail. "The harvest is plentiful," says Jesus, "but the workers are few." Two things: one, you can translate this in terms of physical size. The harvest is large; but workers are small. Then you have this picture. One lone cowboy astride a horse at the bottom of the hill and a horde of Indians on horseback thundering toward him. Two, this is the Greek structure that compares 2 things. It does so delicately in Greek but we can only clumsily duplicate it in English translating: on the one hand the harvest is numerous; on the other hand, the workers are few. The Greek construction holds up 2 contrasting things and looks at them. Jesus isn't afraid to do this, and that's the point.
Don't fence me in with the declining numbers of the body of Christ; Jesus says the harvest is huge. This isn't an isolated teaching. In Isaiah 11 the Church looks to be nothing but a dead stump of a tree, but behold a branch is growing. In Ezekiel 37, the Church is nothing but bones bleached white in the sun. The prophet doesn't know if these bones can live, but the Lord does, and by His Spirit they do. Then jump to the New Testament, John 4. In Samaria where living together, aka fornication, was routine and as accepted as it is today, in Samaria where heresy had flourished for centuries, in Samaria where the apostles could see no harvest Jesus says, "As you look around right now, wouldn't you say that the harvest is 4 months away? Well, I'm telling you to open your eyes and take a good look at what's right in front of you. These Samaritan fields are ripe. It's harvest time!"
Don't fence me in with the paucity of the harvest, which is false, or the scarcity of the workers which is true. Jesus proclaims Himself Lord of the harvest, i.e. He owns it. It's up to Him to bring in the sheaves. As He holds before your eyes the plentitude and the pittance, He only commands one thing: pray. He says, "You must be moved to [literally] beg the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest." His is in the emphatic position in Greek. Read your OT. When Elijah is sure there is absolutely no other believer left, the Lord scoffs and says, "I've got 7,000 more of you." To the Colossians who are troubled by the same errors we are, i.e. that feelings trump theology, Paul says, "The Gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world." Do you think the Gospel has stopped doing that? No more that the rain can stop fructifying the ground.
Don't fence me in with numbers, and not with reason either. Jesus says, "Behold, I commission you as lambs in the middle of wolves." They are not even going as full grown sheep but as lambs, and they aren't going out in the midst of domesticated dogs but wolves. If you've ever seen a wolf on the prowl for prey, there is an intensity and ferocity that is scary. Nobody in their right mind would put their little lamb out in the field with one of them let alone a pack of them! We're back to crazy, aren't we? Don't fence me in with your appeals to what makes sense, is reasonable, or common sense, because this is none of those things, but the Lord of the Harvest wants to highlight what He is doing. Your insert leaves out the important word "Behold." Jesus wants you to look at this craziness up close and personal. He wants you to know He knows exactly who and where He is sending us.
One of my sons tells of rabbit hunting with me and a member in a swamp, really a floating bog, in Louisiana when he was between 10 and 12. He says 10; I think 12. Because you can drop through the floating vegetation of a bog into the water, I didn't think it was safe for him. So I left him up against a deadfall. He says he had a .410. I think he had a 20 gauge. Either way it was a single shot. He said, "What if a coyote comes?" I said, "Shoot it." At the time, I thought this reasonable and safe; what could go wrong? He at the time didn't think that way; still doesn't. I think now he is right, but what I did is nothing in comparison with what the Lord of the harvest does. He doesn't leave them where a coyote might come by, but sends them out where He knows wolves were. He doesn't leave them with a single shot anything, but sends them out with nothing. And they weren't even 10 year-old boys, but lambs.
Don't fence me in with your reasonable approaches to church growth, evangelism, or church workers for that matter. You think this is crazy? I haven't even begun. Paul puzzles over the OT truth that we are counted as sheep for slaughter. "As it is written: For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered'" (Romans 8:36). But only Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. Only Jesus is the scapegoat that both carries our sins and bleeds and dies, suffers and cries to pay for them. Only of Jesus do we sing: "For the sheep the Lamb has bled/ Sinless in the sinners stead" (TLH 191:2). Don't fence me in with how and where Jesus sends His workers. It is less reasonable than what I did with my son, but what He did for us sons and daughters, no what He did for us ungodly enemies makes not a lick of sense either. The numbers don't add up. The worlds sins on one side of the scale and the holy life and blood of God on the other?
Don't fence me in with results. Jesus says here that the kingdom has arrived no matter the reaction of the people. In this age of social media where the much criticized soundbite of the politician has become the currency of the population, "churches" (small c') live and die by being liked on Facebook and getting 5 stars on Google. O how churches that stand for anything at all are hammered in social media as unfriendly, unwelcoming, and as the absolute worst thing of all: unloving. Well, whether the Gospel or the Gospel messengers (Look at the text; the 2 aren't distinguished.), are welcomed or rejected the kingdom of God isn't helped or hindered. "Onward Christian Soldiers" in this way can be rightly understood. The Church (big C) does move like a mighty army, but not a visible one.
It is by faith we see that the Church is not fenced in by a poor response, few workers, or absolute rejection. Wherever the voice of Jesus is baptizing, absolving, or communicating His Body as Bread and His Blood as Wine, there the kingdom of God is most certainly present. It has to be there because you can't hear what isn't spoken; you can't reject what is not present. The Gospel is the message that God has unilaterally established peace between Him and fallen, unbelieving, filthy mankind by His Son. He sent His Son not only as a lamb in the midst of wolves but to be devoured by wolves. He sent His Son who was purer, more innocent, and less blemished than a lamb never having soiled His coat with a sinful deed, word, or even thought. He sent this Son to suffer and die. But maybe you're hardened to me referring to His sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, and crying. Hear a lamb bleating woefully, balefully, hopelessly.
When I'm trying to call in coyotes, I use an electronic call that mimics a dying rabbit. It is a horrible sound. I can only call so long with it. Another son was with me when I shot a wild hog. He remarked that the squealing of this wild, filthy, destructive pig was terrible, and it was. How much more so that of the Lamb of God dying for your sins. I know what some of you are thinking. What about Isaiah 53? Yes, it says, "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth." He didn't answer the church's unjust accusations. He didn't respond to their taunts or ridicule while pinned to the cross. But Hebrews 5 says He prayed in Gethsemane with "loud crying and tears." And He cries in anguish on the cross, "My God why have You forsaken Me?" So hear the bleats.
And whether anyone else at all hears those bleats and believes they are for them and their salvation doesn't matter. The Word of God is not bound. Hear Paul writing from prison: "I suffer trouble as an evildoer, even to the point of bonds; but the word of God is not bound" (2 Timothy 2:8-9). Don't fence in the Kingdom of God. Jesus sees countless people streaming into it from every corner of the globe. We don't go by what we feel or what we see or what experts tell us; we go by what God's Word says. We are fenced in sort of. We're fenced in by God's Word. That is the boundaries of our faith, our life, our hope. And nowhere in it is the Church portrayed as hopeless.
Here it is fitting to bring up the Collect. We pray, "that the course of this world may be so governed by Your direction that Your Church may rejoice in serving you in godly peace and quietness." This prayer is one of the most ancient dating at least till the 5th century (Strodach, 194). It was written during the disasters of dying Western Europe. The city and nation of Rome were under almost constant attack being ravaged by the hordes from the pagan North (Ibid., 193). Talk about being fenced in? Their response? Do as Jesus commanded: pray. And so the Church has been praying for almost 1500 years. When you pray you look past the fences and focus on God's Word. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (20190728); Luke 10: 1-12, 16