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Face the Harvest

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A few weeks ago I was reading the story of Zaccheus to my grandchildren. When I was finished, I asked them, “What can we learn from this story?” The answer came quickly: “That God loves short people, too.” That is an important truth to grasp when you are not yet four feet tall!

Another look at the same story may yield some additional insights of importance for those of us who would do ministry in the spirit and style of Jesus. Zaccheus the tax collector is only one of many “outsiders” in whom Jesus took both interest and delight. In fact, the Gospels abound with stories of Jesus’ encounters with people who had little or nothing to do with the religious “establishment.” There was another tax collector named Matthew whom Jesus invited into His inner circle of disciples. There were a host of “unclean” people—lepers, demoniacs and physically “polluted” people, like the woman with the issue of blood—and morally tainted individuals like the woman taken in adultery and another He met beside a well in Samaria. Jesus “hung out” with Roman centurions, repentant prostitutes and, in the memorable language of the old Prayer Book, “all sorts and conditions of men.” His last recorded conversation before His death on the cross was with a convicted felon.

Most of those encounters ended very well indeed. Sick people were healed. Guilty people were forgiven. Men and women who saw themselves as being “a million miles from God” were brought near, and if we might borrow a familiar children’s book description, “they lived happily ever after.”

Surprisingly, Jesus’ interactions with the religious “insiders” of the day were often very different. They did not routinely have happy endings. One of the earliest episodes in His public ministry revolved around a trip to His hometown synagogue in Nazareth. While the day apparently began well enough, it ended with an angry crowd of “righteous” people trying to throw Jesus off a cliff! His relationship with the Scribes and Pharisees was notoriously bad, and you need to search the Gospel accounts with some degree of care to discern any insider dealings that turn out well. (I am thankful, at least, for the story of Jairus, the synagogue ruler, and for the implied outcome of Christ’s late night visit with Nicodemus.)

Jesus’ own explanation for His decided preference for keeping company with outsiders is found in His response to the angry challenge of the Pharisees when He invited himself to Zaccheus’ house. “. . . the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10).

This familiar story has led me to a rather troubling conclusion. I have been thinking about all of the classes I took in seminary in which I was taught how to prepare messages designed to satisfy the tastes and needs of insiders. I learned how to visit church members who were sick, how to marry and bury the faithful, how to organize a church for maximum effectiveness, how to catechize the children of the members and many other things expected of the shepherd of a local church. My seminary did offer one class in evangelism. It was an elective course, not required, but I took it anyway.

The shocking conclusion to which I have come is that despite Jesus’ clear ministry orientation toward “seeking the lost”—the outsiders—virtually everything about my training for ministry was designed to help me face and serve the insiders. In light of the fact that Jesus told His disciples that they should have the same orientation and focus that He did—“As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21)—I have come to the startling conclusion that my training for ministry—and the way many are still trained to do ministry—was, at best, deficient and at worst entirely wrong-headed! I was taught to face the congregation of insiders. And by long tradition, the congregation has been taught to sit and face the |pastor. But that’s not Jesus’ way of doing ministry at all! The first rule for doing ministry Jesus’ style (for both pastors and congregants) must certainly be this: Turn around and face the harvest!

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