June 14, 2020
Deacon Alexandra Benson
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Compassionate Servant, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I’m not going to lie – I cringed a bit when I first read the Gospel text for this morning. My mind and heart have been feeling weary these days, after months of living into an ever-changing and utterly confusing COVID-19 reality. Add to that the heaviness and heartbreak of the realities of racism in our world and the intensity of the anger, fear, and division that grips our nation, and quite honestly, I’m ready for some comforting, peace-filled words from Jesus.
But, alas, we get a story of Jesus sending his apostles out like “sheep in the midst of wolves” instead. Awesome.
This honestly isn’t too out of character for the book of Matthew. After all, this is a book that begins the story of Jesus with the story of King Herod, a corrupt and power-hungry ruler, who slaughters innocent children out of fear of his own authority being challenged. From the very beginning, the world is not exactly a happy and safe place for Matthew. People are scared and angry, and life probably felt overwhelming and out of control for them too.
So, perhaps these aren’t the words I was wanting from Jesus. But maybe they are just the words we need in order to grapple with our current reality. Because this is ultimately a story about being sent into the world as disciples of Jesus in uncertain, scary, and divisive times, which might be exactly what we are called to do these days. The book of Matthew takes seriously how the followers of Jesus act. For Matthew, faith is not just a list of beliefs or the practice of showing up to worship on Sundays or a program for self-help and positive thinking, but a radical and countercultural way of being. It is a way of life rooted in the very life of Jesus.
In fact, before Jesus sends his apostles out, he is doing the very things he is about to tell them to do. He heals people and loves people and shares the good news of the Kingdom of God and creates quite a stir among the authorities of the day. Matthew tells us that “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, for they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” These words were originally written in ancient Greek. And the Greek word for compassion in this instance means something like “to be moved from one’s inner organs.” It’s a pouring out. It’s a visceral and profound response when we witness suffering or a need. This is such a vulnerable and human portrayal of Jesus – and I believe it sets the stage for we too are called to let this world’s suffering move us to the point where we can’t help but act in service to our neighbors.
So, what exactly are the disciples called to do in the divisive and frightening times they are living in, and what of this might translate into our reality? I think there are few things we can take from this.
First of all, this is the work of the kingdom: share the good news – that God’s presence is near, that the Kingdom of God is breaking through even here and now. That the love of God knows no bounds and is not confined to the world’s systems or stereotypes or hierarchies. God’s spacious love has been set loose in the world through Jesus, and no power on earth can stop it.
The work of the Kingdom of God is also the work of healing and the work of liberation. It’s work that requires being in community with people who are hurting and sick and afraid and alone and overlooked. It’s work that requires all of us to open our eyes, ears, hearts, and hands to our neighbors who are suffering – people we know and people we have never met.
The work of the Kingdom of God involves radical generosity. Jesus tells his disciples that they have already received without payment and now they will give without payment. It’s knowing the abundance of love and mercy and hope we have received in Jesus and trusting that there is always enough to go around.
The work of the Kingdom of God requires vulnerability. The disciples are sent to new people and new places, not knowing how they will be received. We too might have to show up to conversations or experiences that are awkward or uncomfortable, not knowing how they will go or how we will be received.
Jesus tells his disciples to leave everything behind for the sake of this work. Discipleship may require us to leave some things behind so that we can receive with arms wide open the newness that is to come. When we cling too tightly to our possessions or to our imagined futures or to systems that are not working for the good of all people, we lose the ability to see the good that might emerge once we let go. When are thoughts are so preoccupied with clinging to what we have now or what we thought we had, we lose out on the capacity for imagination, for joining in the work of God and creating a world that truly celebrates the diversity and goodness of God’s creation.
This may require us to rely on the hospitality and graciousness of others, which, I’ll be honest, is not always my strong suit. I like to be in control; I would rather give than receive most days and I would like it to be on my own terms. But the kingdom of God invites us to experience mutual relationship with each other – we can’t always give and we can’t always receive. We are called to learn from each other, to ask forgiveness of each other when we mess up, to each do what we can to make things right, to start again as many times as it takes.
And, while it may sound really lovely in a sermon, this work is messy and it is scary and sometimes it feels like there is no clear path forward. These days it can be tempting these days to want to look away from the pain we see all around us, the grief or guilt we feel in ourselves, for the sake of our own comfort. It can be tempting to start to pretend that we don’t know what we now know, that we don’t see the suffering of our neighbors because it is simply too distressing or too exhausting. But, siblings in Christ, that is not the work Jesus sets before us. As Rev. Dr. Joy J. Moore recently wrote about this passage, “The Prince of Peace has come. And he is sending us into the chaos.” (1)
We are being sent out like sheep in the midst of wolves, and yet Jesus tells us not to be afraid. It an be really hard to simply not be afraid – I don’t really know how to do that. But I think what we can do is do our very best to trust that no matter what, we are of God and we are God’s beloved. We can remind ourselves over and over that no matter what, our neighbors are of God and they are God’s beloved. No powers of this world can change that. We can trust that God goes with us every step of the way and that God will not abandon us in this work because God is already out there, in this world and beyond, making all things new. And we get to be a part of it.
So, friends in Christ, take heart. Do not let fear have the last word. Do not let apathy have the last word. Do not let hate have the last word.
For love is being born in the world again and again, and that love is calling your name. And not even death can stop it.
- Moore, Joy J. “A Living Word when We Can’t Breathe.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5438