Sermon: Proper 7 Year A*
June 21, 2020
The Rev. Eileen Weglarz
Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
If we were to take a survey, we would likely find that most of us have been victims of some kind of stereotyping. Mine is usually attached to the fact that I am a priest. Every once in awhile someone will say things like, "Well, you wouldn't know about that! You live in an ivory tower." The plain fact is that the speaker doesn't even know me, but then that is what gives birth to stereotypes in the first place.
I'm usually able to avoid an immediate defensive reaction. "What do you mean?" I ask. "Oh," he says, "you live behind safety glass. You don't walk the streets like I do. You have your head in the clouds. You're out of touch with real people."
"If I did walk the streets," I ask, "what would I see? If I actually got in touch with people, what is it that I would feel?" With this question the conversation either stops or accelerates. Or, he might say, “Just go out in the real world and find out for yourself." In my most recent exchange, however, my assailant told me what it is that I'd find.
With welling anger he said, "They're all pigs out there. Nobody cares about anyone else. The world's full of cheats, liars and bums." To be honest, I think he wanted to crawl into my ivory tower and keep me company.
What people don’t realize is that for those of us clergy who serve and live in downtown churches, we see and hear from, show up with the police for, visit in the psych ward of the hospital, get in the middle of family brawls, and give our last dollar to—the people in the streets. To be honest, most folks in walks of life other than that of clergy barely even see or experience these things, except for the police and schoolteachers and a few others.
When one really walks the streets and really gets in touch with real people, what is it that one sees and feels? Matthew tells us that when Jesus did it, Jesus saw harassed and helpless people and felt compassion. These were the same people that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees moved among. But they seem to have seen them quite differently.
Remember the Pharisee who shows up in the temple and thanks God that he is not like the sinner who was there pouring out his heart to God? Remember the Good Samaritan who did what was needed for a victim of a beating and theft, when the Pharisees and other so-called people of faith simply walked by, pretending not to see, even crossing the street to avoid him? There are so many examples of indifference, callousness, and simple sinfulness—the sin of omission, the sin of indifference, the sin of stinginess. Today they’d be hoarding toilet paper during a pandemic!
The words of Jesus suggest that these leaders looked at the same people he did, but what they saw were only possibilities for neglect or even oppression (Matthew 23). They, too, might have seen the people as helpless and harassed, but they reacted with something other than compassion. The "real people" they saw were human animals upon whom they could heap burden after burden, at the same time as they willfully ignored their rights or plights (Matthew 23:4, 23). They saw them as people whose yearnings for better times were to be thwarted and blocked (Matthew 23; 13). They saw them as targets for their power lust and as audiences for their showy performances (Matthew 23:2, 5-7).
Why does this seem vaguely familiar? Two thousand years later, and we still see this same scenario played out, as we have down through the centuries, concerning our black brothers and sisters, or refugees and immigrants, or the poor and helpless, or any category of people someone doesn’t like. Maybe it’s female clergy… We make it political instead of humane. We lash out from a place of anger in our own souls. And in doing so we lose our humanity, and I might add, God’s blessing.
Most people are oblivious to it unless it is on the news or we read about it in the newspapers. Or there is protest, a march, an uprising of some sort. And then we wonder why? Or we find fault with it if our political party doesn’t support it.
You know, as an aside, nowhere in the scriptures does Jesus get involved with political parties. And yet, well meaning Christians have subverted their Christian compassion to support a political agenda, or principle, or person. I say, as Christians, WE are to support the ministry of Jesus, and the purposes of God as proclaimed in the teachings of God’s Word!
But back to the people on the streets…Jesus, however, saw all the same people and had compassion on them. He saw them as sheep without a shepherd, not people to be exploited or criticized, or ostracized. It must be that compassion makes all the difference in what one sees.
It was compassion that propelled Jesus through "all the towns and villages." It was compassion that he enacted when he preached "the good news" and healed "every disease and sickness." It was compassion by which he still saw the people when he completed his walk, and it was compassion by which he continued to serve them.
When one really walks the streets and gets in touch with real people, one need not see "cheats, liars and bums." Compassion paints a very different picture. Compassion helps us cut through the quick and preset judgments of stereotypes. It sees through appearances into the heart of things. The stereotype says "bum" but compassion says "shepherdless sheep." By compassion Jesus also called the disciples together and gave them a task. Prior to that call the disciples themselves were sheep without a shepherd.
It has been said that a life is a story with a shape. But if that is true, observers of our era would point out then, that what most people have is not life. The events that constitute their days are all separate, like the articles in a newspaper. Pointless, with no goal, no purpose. And they go through their days as they go through the newspaper, reading here and there, moving haphazardly in all directions. A life, like a good story, needs a beginning, a middle and an ending to give it shape.
But for most people, observers say, there is no middle and no sense of an ending. "What governs," Cynthia Ozick writes, "is not pattern but drift."1 People simply "float in purposelessness as they would in a swimming pool."2 What gives shape to human days and transforms them into life is a task. Not just something or other for a person to do with head and hands. What gives shape and life is an activity that has some value in the future, for the doer, for others, and for the course of history, or as we say in the Church, for the Kingdom of God and God’s intended purpose for humanity and the world in general.
What Jesus gave his disciples was a job that has value for the only future that there is, for the disciples, for the helpless and harassed people, and for history. He gave them his own authority as the one who brought the kingdom, the rule, of God near. Tell the people, he said, that "The kingdom of heaven is near. I give you power, he said, to do the works of the kingdom. This is not the stuff of drift or purposeless floating. To be called into the work of God is to be given a middle and an ending.
It is to be given Life with a capital L. It is to show Love with a capital L. This is the same life, of course, that has been given to us. Each Sunday when we come together it is this gift that we celebrate. Each Sunday it is this gift of life that we remember and that is renewed and nourished by the Love of Almighty God.
Not only as individual people do we have life, but we have it together, in community. We are a people with no other work than the work of God. And we are joined with one another, with the disciples themselves and with all others who share that work.
To say that it is "the compassion of Jesus that calls" seems so much more accurate than to say "it is with compassion that Jesus calls." Compassion is activity. Compassion does something. It is not primarily a feeling, even though feelings are involved. It is not a sense of pity, or of pain, or of sorrow. To say, "I feel sorry for that person," or "I am distressed over their situation," is not yet compassion. To suffer indigestion over the plight of the world's hungry is not yet compassion. Even to cry ourselves to sleep at night over the suffering of another is not yet compassion.
Compassion acts. It walks through "all the towns and villages." It calls. Compassion also sends. It is little wonder that Matthew has connected the compassionate Jesus to what has been labeled the "Little Commission" (this commission being contrasted with the Great Commission in Matthew 28).
The compassionate Jesus cannot just sit around and feel sorry for the helpless and harassed people he saw. Nor can he just sit and wait until they somehow manage to come to him. He understands their situation of despair as the time of God's harvest. They need, and are ready for, new life. His compassion acts. He calls his disciples together and sends them out into the "fields."
Jesus, of course, sends us too. And what both the disciples and we are to do is carry out the same ministry of good news that Jesus did. This involves preaching, healing, cleansing, driving out evil spirits, and raising the dead. In terms of harassed and helpless people, it means setting them free from whatever harasses them. Securing their human rights is one way. Ending the stereotypes that label them is another way. Thwarting any power that seeks to oppress and victimize them is still another to which we are called. In terms of a shepherdless people, the ministry of good news means offering a future in the name of God.
To share the good news is to offer people a middle and an ending by announcing that God reigns, and then proving it! You and I know more about this than the disciples did when Jesus sent them to "the lost sheep of Israel."
What the disciples learned later, and what we now know, is that God has made Christ the head of every principality and power, the Lord of all lords in heaven and earth. There is no enemy of ours that can withstand his strength. This is guaranteed. It is news to be shared with all boldness. One day every eye will see his glory. No one and no thing can keep our stories from the glory of that ending. With wonderful abandon Jesus tells his followers that they can afford to enter this good news ministry with gusto. "Freely give," he says.
These words probably mean that we should minister without thought of pay. But they might also suggest that we can spend Jesus’s gifts lavishly. They need not be hoarded. It’s not about balancing a budget, although a budget will need to be created, no case where expenditures are greater than income. We cannot give the gifts away fast enough. God's treasure house cannot be emptied. All of this is so when we get our vision and mission in the right priority of what needs to be done for the Kingdom of God.
What a marvelous task this is that gives shape to our days and sends us out to spend what is not even ours! We need not worry about our abilities or our resources. What we need is given to us. Everything essential is supplied in exorbitant quantity. All we need to do is spend it in his name. "Come," he says. "Go," he says. "Come, go and freely spend."
And before you say, “Oh no, there goes the church budget,” let me tell you something, that I have seen again and again in my 72 years of life (I’ve been following Jesus since I’m 4). When you make a decision as a faith community or as an individual person with a fire in your belly for doing God’s bidding, God provides lavishly! And often, to your amazement.
But when you sit and brood about, “Where are we going to get the money” to do this or that, maybe fix the roof or the cracked sidewalks, and you don’t have a VISION for God’s work in the world, the money dries up.
And that my friends, is what is called lack of faith.
Jesus calls us to be his disciples, and have a vision for what he can and will do through us, when we give ourselves to compassion, to unmitigated generosity, and to faithful service. Never in our lifetimes, has there been a more fertile time for planting seeds of justice, mercy, or generosity. The Kingdom of God is waiting!
*Sermon adapted from Caller and the Called, by Richard L. Thulin, CSS Publishing Company.
1. Cynthia Ozick, Art and Ardor: Essays. New York: E.P. Dutton, Inc., 1984, page 6.
2. This is a description used by Anatole Broyard in Aroused by Books. New York: Random House, 1974, page 211.