Text: Luke 10:1-20 (“The harvest is plentiful”)
When I lived in Saskatchewan from July 2011 until December 2013, I was immersed in rural culture. The three churches I served were connected by 40 km of highway along the border with Montana. Driving between them each week kept me up-to-date with the progress of fields of wheat, canola, and chick peas. One year, there was even a beautiful field of sunflowers.
Although every bit of land was in use as either a farm or a ranch, few people lived there, which was different from when this region was settled 100 years ago. Back then, a farm house was built every quarter of a mile. Every eight miles there was a school and a church. One hundred years ago, lanterns lit up the prairie each night as tens of thousands of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe arrived to break the sod.
Things changed after World War II. With the mechanization of agriculture, the ranches and farms grew in size until today almost all of the original homesteads and towns are gone. While still productive, the countryside is dark. The harvest remains plentiful, but the workers are few.
This is not what Jesus meant in the Gospel passage we just heard, but it is the first thing that came to my mind when I read it. One hundred years ago, most Canadians were involved in agriculture. Today the figure is around two percent; and the decline continues. In June, Sharron Lee told me about a CBC report on robotics in agriculture. Some dairy farms now use robots to milk cows. At a lettuce farm in Japan, robots do all the weeding and harvesting.
This has been the trend for the past 300 years. Driven by competition, successive revolutions in technology have shifted labour power from agriculture to manufacturing; from manufacturing to services; and from industrial services like design and finance to more personal ones like healthcare and education.
These revolutions have been accompanied by astonishing advances in knowledge, technique, and communication. Human population has increased from less than one billion to more than seven billion; and traditional notions of family and faith have changed.
I spoke about these changes at the Intercultural Ministry Picnic on July 9 (And thanks to Yoon OK and Everjoyce for organizing that event). I noted that all of us over the age of 25 could be considered immigrants. We have migrated from a place of tradition called the 20th Century to a strange new world called the 21st Century. People who move to Edmonton from Asia and Africa face greater culture shock than those of us who were born in Canada. But from time to time, any of us might be thrown off balance by radical economic, technological, and cultural change.
Another marker of this change appeared last week in the Anglican Church of Canada. Close to 70% of the delegates to the General Synod of the church voted to allow the blessing of same-sex marriages. As with the United Church of Canada in 1988, this change (which I believe is a gracious one) will cause both joy and pain. But it is a change that seems as inevitable to me as the emptying of the countryside in Saskatchewan after World War II or the worldwide shift of labour from agriculture to manufacturing to services.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus encourages his disciples to engage more people in the work of healing and teaching. To do so, he sends out 72 followers in groups of twos, which is the inspiration for a Christian church called the Two-by-Twos. I have never met anyone from it. But Donna Skoreiko told me recently that some of her relatives belong to this church.
Most of us don’t find literal inspiration in today’s reading, and so we don’t head out in pairs to surrounding towns while carrying not even as much as knapsack.
This is not to say that we don’t try to spread the Good News. On Thursday, I spent time focusing on another pair of forces that our congregation uses to spread the Word: Facebook and Twitter! Janice, Mary-Anne and I spent the afternoon with Paula Kirman learning about social media. Paula is working with us this summer to help with marketing and social media.
I learned a lot on Thursday, and I look forward to another training session in August. If you follow our congregation on Facebook and Twitter you will have noticed a big increase in posts since the beginning of May. I don’t know if this activity will bring more people into our programs or Sunday gatherings, but I am pleased that Council approved this project, and I am impressed with what Paula is doing. I hope we can continue to improve our social media outreach in the future.
As you probably know, social media is more than just Facebook and Twitter. On Thursday, Paula introduced me to Instagram and Tumblr, which are social media apps with a more visual bent. For some reason, the experience made me think of a sonnet by the English Romantic poet, John Keats. Called “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” Keats wrote this poem in 1816 after reading an English translation of Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad. Keats did not read Greek, and so it was not until he read George Chapman’s translations of Homer’s ancient epics that he understood what all the fuss was about.
When I was introduced to Instagram on Thursday, Keats’ poem came to my mind and I wished that I had the skill to update his sonnet into one called “On First Looking into Mill Woods United’s Instagram Account!”
But since that is not the case, I am now going to recite Keats’ original:
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer
Much have I traveled in the realms of gold
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific — and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Is this what life feels like for many of us today? When we buy our first smartphone or browse for the first time through the listings on Netflix, do we feel a bit like Spanish explorers in the 1500s who for the first time reach the western edge of the Isthmus of Darien and realize that there is another ocean beyond the Atlantic and that the world is twice as big as people back home in Spain believe? Do we then look at one another with wild surmise in stunned silence?
As work and church continue to be revolutionized by technological and cultural shifts, this is how I sometimes feel.
We follow Jesus and proclaim the realm of God in changing circumstances. These not only include using social media apps like Instagram or Tumblr. They also include changes to the moral teachings we inherited from our grandparents.
It is an ongoing challenge but a gracious one; for in the church, the realms of gold we travel are not only works of art like Homer’s Odyssey or Keats’ sonnets. We travel in the Grace we call new life in Christ.
Whether we proclaim this Good News from a pulpit or in discussion threads on Facebook or Twitter, our message remains the healing power of Love.
And for this gracious truth I say again,
“Thanks be to God.”