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I’ve been bemused over the last year to watch Christians arguing with each other over whether or not it would be a good thing to live in or have or build a “Christian” nation. What sort of country would you like to live in? What kinds of morals would help everyone flourish? Should Christians leave their thoughts and feelings on the threshold of every public building they enter? Should we live in a pluralistic society or one founded on Judeo-Christian principles?

It’s nice to think about, but it feels like we are a long way off from those debates being anything more than purely theoretical. Christianity—if you live under a rock, perhaps you haven’t noticed—is no longer the guiding moral and philosophical structure undergirding Western culture. Sure, many people are Christian, but what that means is so disputed, it doesn’t have the power, at this point, to meaningfully shape the way most people live. Also, I live in New York state so….

Anyway, a lovely friend pointed me to this eye-popping television moment:

You should definitely click to watch the extremely brief clip. The contestant is asked to pick a category and an amount of money, the question pops up, and then Miriam Bialik reads it.

All three contestants stand dumbfounded, like when I’m asked to add any numbers without also being handed a calculator. The internet, of course, went nuts. Lots of people do know the answer to that question—it’s “hallowed” in case you forgot too—and were appalled that something so easy should be unknown by people who probably did a lot of studying to be on a show where knowledge about a variety of topics would be extremely useful.

Everyone knows the Lord’s Prayer—don’t they? I mean, of course they don’t. Almost no one knows it. It has to be learned by heart, along with the Ten Commandments and the 23rd Psalm, in places like Sunday school and while driving from Target to little league and when being tucked into bed at night. It’s not a hard prayer. All the words are fairly simple and comprehensible, except for the word “hallowed.” But it is the sort of thing that has to be learned. Those three intelligent people hadn’t learned it, because no one taught it to them. There were no Christians around them who told them about this prayer or helped them learn the lines, or explained what it meant and why they might want to say it. There was no swirling cloud of Christian-ish content out of which they might absorb it.

So anyway, this morning, if you happen to shuffle into church for some reason, you might hear that Jesus went

throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, for they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

It might be tempting to think that Jesus had it easy, for all the people would go to Synagogue—or at least enough of them that what he said would be heard by a substantial number who could then repeat it elsewhere. Going through all the cities and villages, he was sure to meet a lot of people who didn’t know, yet, his prayer, but they certainly knew the Ten Commandments, and a lot of other Bible verses besides. The people had some basic common knowledge of the Law and the Prophets.

Still, they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. This is a subtle and yet complete indictment of the teachers and rulers of all those people. If you make the effort to go to church on Sunday or to learn some Bible verses, you do not want to come out of that experience feeling harassed and helpless. Quite the opposite. You want to go and be built up in knowledge and wisdom and understanding.

But that’s usually how it goes. The people who are supposed to be feeding the sheep, in every age, often become confused and mistake the task entirely. They ever so slightly alter the food so that it isn’t nourishing anymore. They might say basically true things, but enough wrong things that the grace of God is obscured. In this way, many Americans neglected to teach their children the Lord’s Prayer, but did feed them straw like, “God helps those who help themselves,” and “What goes around comes around,” and “Do unto others before they do unto you.”

Every Sunday my eldest child writes up a Faux Bible Quote on the board in the church hall before her father arrives to teach the Adult Sunday school class. You should totally follow her on Insta, hashtag she’s so clever hashtag Things Jesus Never Said. Here is one of my recent favorites:

Then the Lord Jesus said wearily unto his disciples, ‘Please make the little children go away, I don’t want them for they are so annoying.’ Matthew 19:13-15

And this one is pretty funny:

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go.’ The Gospel of St. John 23:44-45

And finally, for the Feast of Pentecost:

Then the Holy Spirit descended and rested as a flame of fire over their heads and they began speaking in tongues. When Peter saw that the Jews, Romans, and Greeks all understood him he stood up and proclaimed, ‘Stop war, hug more.’ Acts 2:1-8

Isn’t she clever? She scrolls through Insta all week looking for what kinds of motivational things are saying, and then she glances at the Bible and finds the two invariably contradict each other. What the Bible says, and the wisdom by which the average person is ordering her life, have nothing to do with each other. But many people think they are basically the same, or at least so similar as makes no matter.

But the words of the Bible are the words of life, and the words of our age will always leave us harassed and helpless, looking around for something else to soothe, to nourish, to follow.

So anyway, looking around at all the crowds, Jesus decides that the best way to cope with the situation is to choose twelve fairly mediocre guys, such as would do as good on Jeopardy as any of us, and give them “authority” over all the bad things that are making everyone’s lives so wretched. The twelve are named, and one of them is a traitor. He sends them out, and doesn’t let them take anything with them to make their lives more comfortable. Their task is impossible. They must entirely rely on him, and they must open themselves up to the needs and sorrows of everyone they meet. They must, by a great distance, somehow, mysteriously, bring Jesus, who isn’t physically going with them, to proclaim the gospel and heal all the diseases. They don’t have the power or intelligence to do that. But Jesus gives them his authority.

“Authority” is a tricky word. No one, today, wants anyone to have it, except themselves. Jesus, though, gives his own to his disciples. Another way of thinking about it is that he gives himself so completely, a good measure pressed down, shaken together, that his own power spills out to rescue those lost sheep. The apostles don’t have to be amazing people because they aren’t the ones rescuing the sheep. Jesus is, and yet, for reasons that still baffle any reader of the Bible, he uses them and their spare, helpless, poor dependence on him to accomplish the task.

At first, they are to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But then, since we are on this side of the Feast of Pentecost, we know that eventually, they go even to Samaria, and finally to the ends of the earth. And though they die, yet there are still sheep in every place whom Jesus means to rescue. And so there are still Christians, wandering into church, feeling guilty about not telling their neighbors about the hope that lies within them, tucking their kids in at night with The Wheels on the Bus, too tired to remember what those other songs and prayers were.

But it’s ok because the Lord does not put us to shame. While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. While we were his enemies and didn’t know anything, not even the Lord’s own prayer, he caused someone to say it, and explain it, so that it made sense and could be prayed day by day. The field, as Jesus said looking out over the house of Israel, is ripe for harvest. There are so many people who don’t even know who he is and have never heard of him. It may be that if we ask for help, Jesus himself will deliver yet more people from their troubles and sins, and that yet more sheep might jostle into the pew, trying to catch a breath and a bite.

Hope to see you there!

Photo by Andrea Lightfoot on Unsplash

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