There have been many times in the history of the church for the church to manifest itself as the body of Christ. There have been times when the church has stood up to the challenge, and times when the church has utterly failed.
When Madalyn Murray O'Hair challenged prayer in schools, this was an opportunity for the church to stand and speak out against this movement which has fostered other anti-religious movements in our nation and even around the world. The church failed to be the church in response to this attack.
When the civil rights movement evolved in the '60's, there were many churches who did not speak out in support of the rights of those marchers whose civil liberties were being violated in sight of the whole nation. In fact, forty years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., declared the eleven o'clock hour on Sundays as the most segregated hour in this nation, it continues to be the most segregated hour of the week in this great nation. The church has failed to address this issue.
With the epidemic of HIV and AIDS running rampant in our country and countries around the world, it has not been until the last fifteen years that our government has begun to take it seriously, and still many of our congregations remain silent regarding the subject. Oh, we can have heated discussions regarding sexuality and gay and lesbian relationships. We can talk about whether or not gay clergy ought to be allowed to preach or teach in our church or from our pulpits, but we have not united to tell our governmental appointed and elected officials that it is mandatory that more funding be made available to find a cure for this disease that is killing thousands of people every day.
Yet we have the story of Jesus in our text. Jesus went about the cities and villages teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowd, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless-like sheep without a shepherd.
We don't have to go far or look far to see people who are harassed and helpless. We don't have to go far or to look deep to find opportunities to allow the mandate and commission of Christ to "Go and do" be realized.
As we reflect upon times and places where the church has failed, let me be careful to share with you that as a resident and a pastor in New Orleans-this great city that was ravaged in August 2005 by the flood waters as a result of Hurricane Katrina and hit again two weeks later by Hurricane Rita-that the church has stood up and come forth in ways I have never known or witnessed the church come forth before.
As we re-remember the pictures of the people of God in New Orleans wading in the flood waters, as we listened to the stories of them skirmishing for food and fresh water, as we remember visuals of the elderly and young babies in the 90-degree heat of the August sun waiting for help to come, there was no help.
We saw people standing on the roofs of their houses waiting to be rescued, many dying from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Many more died than will ever be reported. It was an embarrassment to us as a nation. The world watched as our federal government failed to respond. They watched as our state government failed to act. They watched as our city government was crippled and unable to do anything but cry out for help.
Well, the church responded to that cry for help. The church saw and responded like never before, sending help in the form of gift cards, in the form of money donated to every entity that claimed to be raising money in behalf of those who were victimized by this horrific disaster that has been categorized as the worst natural disaster to ever hit this nation.
The ecumenical church, the church universal, came forth as the body of Christ to minister to the needs of this devastated people as they were moved to every state in the country. The church opened its arms and doors to welcome them into their communities and helped to provide new starts for those who had become displaced.
When the city reopened, the people of God from congregations around the country began coming to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region to help restore the homes of the people who had lost so much. They gave up their vacations and raised money to buy supplies needed to restore homes and provide meals and water to the residents of this region of our country. Yes, it's a great time to be church!
These are words spoken by H. George Anderson, the former bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, over ten years ago:
I don't think it was a great time to be the church then as we were struggling with sexuality issues. It was not then as we were avoiding the rabid racism that still permeated the church and our nation, but now is a great time to be the church.
The church continues to manifest itself as the body of Christ almost three years after that ravaging flood turned the lives of hundreds of thousands of peoples upside down. The church is at last manifesting itself as the church triumphant.
Verse 37 of this text says, "Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.' Then Jesus summoned the twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to cast them out and to cure every disease and every sickness."
The church ecumenical has done so much to help so many over the past two years; but if you were to visit, you would find that there is still so much more to be done.
The public hospital has not reopened, so we need neighborhood clinics to heal the disease, both mental and physical. There is psychological and social healing that is needed. Our public libraries are not open. Many public schools remain closed and abandoned. Public housing is being demolished even as I speak. Everything that is public is being negatively effected.
"Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.'"
We are overwhelmed, but we are not overwhelmed with problems but with opportunities. There are opportunities for the church to be that visible witness of the kingdom of God in ways that our best preachers could never put in the most eloquent of words.
"Therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." We need you to consider coming to New Orleans and see what God has done, is doing, and is about to do. More than that, you should ask God if there might be some small role that you can play in this new thing God is about to do.
"Then Jesus summoned the twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to cast them out and to cure every disease and every sickness." We have already been given authority over every unclean spirit and sickness and disease. We can ease the dis-ease the people of God are living in by working in our churches, communities, and on our jobs and schools to send or bring help and hope.
This is a call to discipleship. This is an opportunity for you to be that disciple that Christ has given authority to bring help, health, hope, and wholeness to those who are marginalized in this region of our nation and indeed around the world. You have been commissioned. Will you go?
This is a great time to be the church!
Let us pray.
Most gracious God, our Heavenly Father, Lord, we are grateful for the hope that you bring to your people as we stand in need of hope, as we stand in need of help. Send laborers into your vineyard that the people of God in this devastated region of our nation and places around the world might be strengthened and encouraged and realize that there is a reality in serving a true and a living God. We pray this prayer trusting in your mercy through Jesus Christ our Lord, in whose precious name we pray. Amen.