Shift 2: Service

Scripture:  Matthew 10:1, 7-8

Today his name is virtually unknown, but Lorenzo Dow was one of America’s most famous celebrities during his time.  For instance, his autobiography was the second best-selling book second only to the Bible.  His notoriety was so great that it became fashionable to name children after him, and U.S. census data reveals that in the middle of the 1800s Lorenzo was in fact one of the most popular names in the United States.  Lorenzo Dow was a Methodist preacher active in the late 1700 and early 1800s.   His style was equal parts eccentric and charismatic.   He was infamously unkempt, with one commentator writing that his long beard had “never met a comb.”  He wore clothes one set at a time until they were worn through.   This gave him the look of a modern day John the Baptist coming into town.   One of his favorite tactics is that he would ride into a small frontier town during the height of business hours, stand in the middle of the town and shout in a loud, booming voice, “In one year, Lorenzo Dow will preach in this very spot.”  He would then ride away, but sure enough exactly 365 days later Lorenzo Dow would return to the same town to preach in the spot he made his proclamation from and he would often find a crowd waiting for him.

Lorenzo Dow was a preacher during what historians call the Second Great Awakening.  It was during this time that preachers like Lorenzo Dow traveled across the newly independent United States leading campfire revivals and spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.   Lorenzo Dow reached the height of his popularity right at 200 years ago. In the 1820’s an eccentric and charismatic preacher was a proven and effective way to spread the good news.   I am not sure what worked for Lorenzo two centuries ago would work today.   If a preacher showed up in the middle of a small town and proclaimed they would be back in a year, I think they would probably be completely ignored.  Even if the approach was given a modern day spin, such as a Youtube video instead of preaching in the town square, then it is likely that the video would just get lost in 30,000 hours of videos that are uploaded every hour.

Lorenzo Dow’s mission is the same was our mission today.  He preached from town to town to proclaim the good news, to introduce people to the life-changing love of God, and to make disciples.  His tactics for accomplishing that mission would not work today, but the general strategy he employed is still viable, and it is the same general strategy that Jesus used.  Lorenzo Dow did not wait for people to come to him to share the good news.  He went to them, and as this morning’s scripture show Jesus did the same.   Assuming people know where we are and then waiting for people to come through our church doors when they are ready has never been a winning strategy for making disciples.  If we are serious about making disciples, if we are serious about wanting to see more people experience the all-surpassing love of God, then we have to go to the people and show them God’s love.

This morning’s scripture comes from an occurrence in the ministry of Jesus that honestly is a bit irregular.  The gospel writers were not terribly concerned with creating a tight, linear, and chronological account of Jesus’ life and ministry which makes it hard to exactly date when some of the events in the gospels happen, but it is likely that this morning’s scripture takes place twelve to eighteen months in Jesus’ ministry.  At this time Jesus’ ministry as a traveling rabbi was growing.  He had attracted followers and even close disciples.   He was well on his way to successful ministry as a traveling rabbi based on the conventional wisdom of the era, but then Jesus deviates from the script.  He sent his disciples out on their own to do the very thing that he was doing.

This is now how it was done at the time.   The way it was supposed to work is that the disciples spend years and years following Jesus around.   They were supposed to devote themselves to memorizing every aspect of the rabbi’s teaching.  Typically in the first century rabbi model, the rabbi would only send the best of the best disciples out on their own.   When this disciple went out on their own, they were expected to recite the teachings of their rabbi.  In an era before printing presses or copy machines, it was through these disciples that a rabbi disseminated their message.   However, Jesus did not do that.  After less than two years, he sent his twelve closest disciples out on their own.  There is no way that they could have learned everything, because Jesus was not done teaching them.   Yet, Jesus sent them out anyway.   When we look at the verses we highlighted for this morning’s scripture we get a clear sense why Jesus did this.

The entirety of chapter 10 is devoted to what Jesus says as he sends his disciples out.  The majority of it focuses on having faith and trusting God through the hardships they might face.  It is verses seven and eight thought that contain what Jesus told his disciples to do as they go out from town to town.  Jesus instructed them, “As you go, proclaim this message:  the kingdom of heaven has come near.  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.”   As we consider the instructions that Jesus gave his disciples before sending them out, I think there are a couple of major takeaways that we can get for today.

The first takeaway happens so fast that we can almost miss it.  Verse 7 begins with the phrase, “As you go”.   Jesus did not set up a worship life center in Capernaum with the expectation that people would come and seek him out.   No, Jesus traveled all around Galilee, Judea, and beyond to take his message to the people.   Jesus instructed his people to do the same.   This is the same strategy that Lorenzo Dow used as he went town from town.   Lorenzo Dow was just following the example set by the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley.  Because Wesley kept a meticulous journal we actually calculate how far he traveled.  During his time as the leader of the Methodist movement in England, Wesley traveled on horseback for 250,000 miles, which is enough to encircle the earth ten times!  Lorenzo Dow could have found a pastoral seat at an established New England church, John Wesley could have taken appointments out of an office at Oxford, and Jesus could have made the people come to him.   In all cases though, they went to where the people are.  They did not confine the good news inside a building but took outside of four walls.

If we are serious about wanting to follow Jesus, then we also have to go.  We need to meet people where they are at because that it what Jesus did and that is what Jesus asks his disciples to do.  One of the elements that becomes apparent though from reading the gospels is that meeting people where they are at can be messy because sometimes people lead messy lives.  Jesus regularly ate in the home of sinners, he hung out with some of the most shunned people in a community.   He paid attention to the needs and pains that others overlooked or dismissed. When Jesus sent out his disciples he was empowering them not just to do what he did but to do it for the same reason.  If we back up just a touch in the gospel of Matthew we read Matthew 9:35-36: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.  When he saw the crowds he had compassion on them.”  The very next story in Matthew is Jesus sending out the twelve to preach the same message and do the same miracles, but they are to do it for the same reason.   To follow Jesus we are to go to the people who need the message the most, and we are to go full of compassion and action.

This is the second major takeaway then, that when Jesus sent his disciples out he sent them out to act.   Unlike the common practice of the day, Jesus did not send his disciples out to just repeat talking points.  He sent them out to take actions.  Jesus gave his disciples authority and expected them to use it.  This is because being a follower of Jesus, being a Christian is not a passive faith.   Our faith is meant to be active, it mean to be lived out in our lives.   The Christian faith is not just cerebral of theoretical.  Following Jesus is more than just a club membership, it is meant to be a living, vibrant faith that we put into practice in our lives.  One of the primary we do this is through the actions we take, and the actions Jesus instructed his disciples to take was to help other people, to meet them, and to serve their needs.

It is true, in this morning’s scripture, Jesus did also indeed instruct his disciples to proclaim the message the kingdom of God is near.  However, the disciples were not just to use words to proclaim this message.   Their actions, the way they served others, is part of how they were to proclaim the message.  The disciples did not just say the kingdom of God is near they showed it by how they healed the sick and drove out the demons.  In the same way our actions, the way that we serve others, is how we proclaim the message of God’s love and saving grace.   The old song goes that they’ll know we are Christians by our love, but they will only know our love if we show them, not just tell them.  We have all heard the proverb and understand the truth of that actions speak louder than words.  We have to put our love, the love of God into action.  The way we proclaim the gospel, the way we preach the good news is to practice the great commandment of loving our neighbor.  We share the good news of Jesus when out of Christian love we serve others.   We share the good news of salvation when we meet the needs of others.  As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “The good news to a hungry person is bread.”   One of the most effective ways we can share the good news, and in turn make disciples, is by putting our faith into action, by meeting needs, and by using our actions to serve others.  If we do that then we will be bringing the people we serve good news.  This is the first great takeaway:  We share the good news of Jesus and we share God’s love through our actions.

There was a time when churches just needed to open their doors and people would come.   There was a time when a clever sermon title on a sign would entice a new person to check the church out.   Those days are past.    There was a time when a charismatic speaker like Lorenzo Dow could show up in town and kick of a revival.   However, in a day and age where we can watch entire seasons of TV shows on demand, coming to church to hear a dynamic preacher just is not a draw anymore.   What still works though, what tactic has not passed is to do what Jesus told his disciples in this morning’s scripture:  Go to where the people are and show them the kingdom of God through how you love them and how you serve them.    To fulfill our mission, then we must reach out and meet people where they are at.  We must seek to show love by serving people outside our doors.   In his book the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Bishop Robert Schnase writes “service is one of the fundamental activities of church life that is so critical that failure to practice it in some form results in a deterioration of the church’s vitality and ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ.”    To put it bluntly, we cannot fulfill our mission, we cannot make and nurture disciples, we cannot transform the world unless we seek to serve the world around us.

Lorenzo Dow was a preacher during the second great awakening when America discovered religion like never before.  I believe we are due another great awakening, but this revival will not be the result of traveling preachers.  What will lead to revival in this day age are followers of Jesus who seek to put the love of God into action by how they see the needs and meet the needs of their community.   Revival will come when churches go outside of their wall to serve those who are most in need of compassion.  May we all be willing to do that, and may we the world know we are Christians by our love, by our love.  Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

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