“A Skeleton Crew”:  Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”  So says Jesus in these instructions to the team of 70 that were sent out to bring the good news of the kingdom of God.  Those words really resonate with me, but not necessarily in terms of the mission field.   It brings to mind another kind of field….actually it brings to mind an orchard.

Some 45 years ago, I spent a couple of weeks picking cherries in my Uncle Don’s orchard.  The laborers must have been few, for me and my cousins Kevin, Bruce and Bobby to get pressed into service.  We weren’t exactly fireballs when it came to working.  Or maybe I should just speak for myself!

When it was time to start picking, we assembled in the orchard.  I can’t recall exactly, but it seemed as though there couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 of us on the picking crew.  And as I said, half the crew was comprised of me and my cousins.  Seeing the meager assembly of labor prompted one of the orchard partners to proclaim, “this is what I call a skeleton crew!”  I didn’t know enough to be insulted.

When I saw that orchard, with row after row of trees bursting with fruit that needed to be harvested immediately, my heart sank.  I had no concept that people actually picked all that fruit by hand.  Fearful of the snakes and the poison ivy, I waded in with my bucket. My cousins and I were what they call “ground pounders”;  the ones not to be trusted with ladder-setting.

It was neat to be part of a working crew, and I heard a lot of stories and jokes during that two weeks. We had great lunches in the farmhouse, although we weren’t invited in every day!   Fried zucchini, ham and green beans, homemade applesauce and gallons of sweet tea filled the old oak table.  It was my first experience with physical labor and I have never lost my appreciation for the people who do it for a living.

The handfuls of cherries became bucketfuls, and the buckets became holes punched on my picker’s card. Slowly but surely we made our way down the rows.  I was astounded at how fast the men picked and the way they were able to strip off the cherries without crushing them.  But like all harvests it was a race against time.

By the end of two weeks I had an incredible case of poison ivy and had earned enough money to buy a bicycle.  As I turned in my picker’s card Uncle Don remarked, “ if you hadn’t been here we would have had to pick for a whole another day.”  It was incredible to think that my meager efforts had translated into a day’s worth of cherries. I’ve never forgotten it.

As I noted, the gospel of Luke records Jesus saying that the harvest  is plentiful but the laborers are few.  And like our cherry harvest, there is a sense of urgency.    Time is short and everyone is needed.   “Carry no purse, no bag, and greet no one.” In other words, get a move on because it is time to gather in the harvest from the good soil that has produced a hundredfold.

Luke is the only gospel to record these sayings and the sending of the 70, a skeleton crew.  These are the ground pounders who are going out to share the good news of the coming kingdom.    They were missionaries in the truest sense of the word.   They were low in number and low in skill.  What did they know about evangelizing?  Yet from the fruits of their labors, 2000 years later there are a billion believers world wide.  An amazing harvest.    But you know, I think that most of the time we’d rather pick cherries—snakes,  poison ivy and all—than share our faith.

Bringing people into the kingdom is not just a job for the professionals.  These days it seems that only the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses knock on doors.  In fact, I was visiting one of our members at his home, when the door bell rang and it was the Jehovah’s Witnesses!   That was pretty funny and they chose to not stay when Harold told them that his pastor was already visiting him.  But we sell ourselves short when we think we are not equal to the task of sharing the good news. 

Not so long ago I was making a nursing home visit, accompanied by a retired pastor who often went with me when we brought home communions.    As we closed our visit, my ministry companion leaned down and said to the elderly resident, “Joe, God loves you!”  I was really struck by the power of that statement.  And I so often forget to say those simple words to those in my pastoral care.

Really what more do we need to say?  It certainly does not take any special skill, saint-like faith, or special training to labor in the orchards of the Lord.  It takes an unwavering conviction that we have been sent, like the 70, and share the harvest of the Spirit.    How much fruit goes to waste because someone has never heard the words, “Joe, God loves you”?  Eternal life begins today.  There’s no time to waste because God’s love is there for picking today. 

Some years ago, there was a shortage of labor at apple harvest time, here in Adams County. Something had happened down south and the pickers just never got up here in time.  I remember because we used to walk on Yellow Hill, and the neighboring orchards were full of applies, unpicked, and eventually falling off the trees.  We would come home for our walks with pockets full of apples, and made applesauce with the windfall on the ground.  But the orchard owner had to watch the harvest go to waste, receiving nothing for his investment. 

“We’d have had to pick another whole day if you hadn’t been here.”  That’s what my Uncle Don said to me.   Maybe God says to us, “By sharing the good news with others, you’ve brought the kingdom one day closer.”    We may be a skeleton crew, but we’re a skeleton crew powered by the Holy Spirit.  Day by day, year by year,  row by row, as disciples we  wade in with our buckets.   And  disciples have been doing just that for 2000 years –on  a mission–underequipped, lacking in skills or any real qualifications for the job except for the ability to say, “God loves you, Joe.”    

Henri Nouwen once said that “one of the most important spiritual disciplines is to develop the knowledge that the years of our lives are spent are years ‘on a mission.’  God, set our feet on the way, and give us the strength to be your missionaries.  God, bless us with good companions as we labor in your orchard.