About a year ago, I told a story to some of my church family that resurfaced this week so I thought it might be time to tell it again. Etienne de Grellet, whom (in America) we call Stephen, was born to a wealthy family in France in the mid-1700s, and when the French Revolution began, the family fled France. Stephen, through a series of life events, found himself across the ocean arriving in New York in 1795.
So we are at the end of the 18th century in the newly formed states, and Stephen is continuing to experience some life-changing events. He is reading and immersing himself in learning, and within a year, he meets a Quaker woman whose conversation about Jesus touches his heart… and Stephen becomes a Quaker missionary travelling all over this country as well as Haiti and then back across to Scotland, Ireland, England, Germany, France, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Greece, Italy and Russia. He meets with rulers and tsars, visits prisons, schools and hospitals, and eventually finds himself back home in America.
Now, by this time, Stephen is a well-known Quaker preacher. It’s the early nineteenth century, and his prayer life is intensely dedicated to discerning God’s will for his life. While he is looking for answers, he remembers a place out in the woods he had visited in the past and he distinctly hears a voice telling him to go preach to the woodcutters working there in the woods. He wrote that the voice said: Go back there and preach to those lonely men.
Well, what else could he do but leave his wife and child at home and head off to the woods feeling extreme happiness all along the way. As he got closer and closer to the place he had remembered, he was jittery and excited – until the camp was in sight. And he realized that the woodcutters had left it days earlier. The camp was empty, and there was no way to know when the workers would be back. It could be weeks.
He was pretty confused because he really believed he had heard the voice of God telling him to come and preach in this place so he went back to praying and asking if he had gotten the message wrong. And, just as he had heard the voice in his heart the first time, he clearly heard the new instructions: Give your message. It is not yours but mine.
Surely he felt silly working himself up to preach to no one, but following what he knew was God’s direction, he entered the main building, walked to the front of the room and began to preach about God’s love in a powerful way like he had never done before. He talked about sin coming between God and men and about how Jesus Christ tears down that barrier. He thought about the woodcutters and his heart was flooded with love for them as he realized that if he could feel that kind of love for those rough old working men, God’s love would be immeasurably more for them – so he began to pray for them out loud.
And when he was finished, he was exhausted, and he looked up to see one dirty cracked mug that had been left behind. The story is that his heart hated that mug. He felt like it was mocking him just sitting there in the silent empty place all broken and dirty – and he remembered how he had grown up surrounded by such fine things. This was a silly errand he was on. He had preached as if there had been hundreds of men in the place knowing all along that he was alone.
But he eventually got up, took the mug outside to wash it in the creek, got himself a drink of water, ate a little bread he had in his pocket and headed home. He said he felt himself surrounded by a sustaining life-giving presence, and on the way home he knew he was not alone.
Now, that’s a pretty good story, but as it turns out, it’s only the beginning. Years later, Stephen was back in London and was walking across London Bridge in a crowd of people. He was wearing his usual Quaker hat and coat so he may have stood out a little bit when someone grabbed him by the arm and said: There you are. I finally found you!
As you can imagine, Stephen was a little startled and said: Friend, I think thou art mistaken.
No, said the man. I am not. When you have sought a man over the face of the globe year after year, you don’t make a mistake when you find him at last.
As it turns out, the man had been one of the woodcutters from the woods years earlier. You see, he had come back to camp that day to get a tool that had been left, and although Stephen never saw him, the man stood outside the building and heard every word Stephen preached and prayed.
He told Stephen how he had been too embarrassed to be found out so he snuck back to the new camp and was miserable for weeks. Well, he eventually got his hands on a Bible and began to read – even though the other woodcutters gave him a pretty hard time about it.
And when he read Jesus’ story of the lost sheep, he didn’t care if they did make fun of him. He started telling them all the stories, and he wouldn’t let it go until every single one of them was – as he said: brought home to God.
Three of them were so changed that they went out to preach to others, and at least a thousand people had been “brought home to God” by one faithful sermon that was preached to nobody.
Church, throughout history, God has used absurd circumstances and improbable people. Jesus says the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few, and I’ve always thought he meant there is more work to do than there are faithful people to do it. But what if that’s not what that means?
What if Jesus is saying: I’m going to use just a few of you unlikely bunch to make a huge difference in your world.
You know, Divine Street may not be one of the mega-churches that we see on TV, but what if the few of us are being called to follow a ridiculous path of saving others in the most absurd ways? Are we willing to look silly for the Kingdom of God? Are we really listening for God’s voice to lead us, and are we ready to be faithful when it might not make sense to us?
Now I know these are difficult virus-driven times when we are struggling to figure out how to even be the church. If we continue down this path we are on, some of our churches may eventually die out. But let’s be honest, we probably weren’t headed down all that great a path before the virus. Church attendance has been on the decline for years as other things have captured our attention. And perhaps that is God’s plan – perhaps we are only here in our communities for a season – but I don’t think so.
As I pray for the church, and dream for the church, and seek God’s will for the church, I am constantly moved to faithfully change course and face what may seem unreasonable. And, as much as I want to be devoted to God’s call, I have to admit that makes me nervous!
I like things comfortable. However… I am convinced that if we plant only for our own benefit, we will harvest devastation from our selfishness. On the other hand, if we plant for the benefit of the Spirit of God, we will harvest eternal life from the Spirit of God.
Paul says: A person will harvest what they plant. So let’s not get tired of doing good, because (if we don’t give up) in time there will be a harvest. So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of faith.
Maybe, just maybe, instead of looking around and lamenting who is not engaged in the church, maybe it’s time for us to look around, offer respect to all persons, and rejoice over the people who cross our paths.
YOU are the ones who are going to make a difference in your community. You who ARE committed – who ARE dedicated to making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The key to transforming lives is faithfully seeking to live in God’s will no matter whether we feel equipped to do the work or even if we feel ridiculous preaching to no one. Gracious, I didn’t study pandemic ministry in seminary, and I certainly am not comfortable preaching by myself to a cellphone each week to be spread all over Facebook. But this is what God’s asking me to do these days. And all I can do is try to be faithful to that call.
Being a faithful laborer in God’s field is risky. Now I’m not talking about risking health during the middle of COVID19. I’m talking about risking ego. I am just as human as you are, and I say things the wrong way sometimes. If I say something wrong in a sermon when I’m in the middle of my own community of faith, then I have the reassurance that my church family knows me and will love me at the end of the day. These days, if I say something in the wrong way, social media is going to slaughter me. That is not a comfortable and safe place to be. But God blesses those who are faithful and God provides plenty of everything we need.
Church, there’s plenty of work to be done for the harvest. There’s respect that needs to be offered to others; there’s tension all around us that needs to be healed. We are the unlikely bunch, the improbable people in the middle of absurd circumstances, and Jesus can use every one of us if we are willing to glorify God in our efforts. WE are the plentiful few!