Harassed and Helpless

Matthew 9:35-10:8

Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.  36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;  38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” 

1  Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.  These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;  3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;  Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him. 

5  These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,  but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

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When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

There’s more than a little irony in that statement.  In reality they had a lot of shepherds.  They had layers of government starting with the well-organized and highly structured hierarchy of Roman authoritiy enforced by a pervasively deployed military.  In addition to the Romans, there was the territorial tetrarch, Herod Antipas, who also had his own small army to ensure compliance with his whims.  Then, more or less voluntarily, the people were subject to the religious hierarchy with its class structure, requirements and factions. 

Oh, they had shepherds.  Too many shepherds.  But they were the kind of shepherds who were more interested in their fleece and mutton than in leading them to green pastures.  

They had shepherds.  But no one leading them with purpose.  No one showing them a vision of a better day.  No one giving them hope.

And then came Jesus, moving through the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, the basilea—the reign, the rule, the sovereignty of heaven.  Jesus stood up in their sacred places and announced that the reign of heaven was arriving, was at hand, was in reach, was happening.  

This euangelion – the word that is translated as good news, or gospel, the word that gives us our word evangelism—this good news that Jesus preached was a promise of hope to a hopeless people, a people harassed and helpless.  

This good news was also—make no mistake—political.  

Jesus stood up in the holy places of his people, in a territory under the iron-fisted dominion of the Roman Empire, in a region also under the capricious authority of an impulsive local king and declared publicly that the Reign of heaven was beginning.  The people listening to him understood that Jesus was talking not just about a new spiritual reality, but about a restructuring of all reality—a restructuring that would include politics, economics, and social structures.  They had heard the promise from Isaiah and the prophets.  They had seen the outline in the egalitarian laws of Torah with its profound concern for the stranger, the alien, and the poor.  They knew the promise of the kingdom.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed by the powers that were supposed to bring order and stability to their lives and helpless to do anything about it.  So he stood in their holy places and announced that the future that had been promised for so long, the hope they had waited for, was within reach.  They understood that he was saying that the revolution was beginning.  They just didn’t understand how he intended to conduct it, that it would not begin with fighting in the streets but with the transformation, the conversion if you will, of hearts and minds and lives.

It’s been two thousand years and we’re still misunderstanding Jesus even when we have his words and his methods right in front of us.

One of my colleagues shared with us in a meeting this week that she was frustrated and more than a little heartbroken because she got pushback from some members of her congregation for being too political in her last two sermons.  I know her well and I know she preached from the gospel text.  But here’s the thing—She’s black, a black woman pastor, preaching to a mostly white congregation.  With all the things happening in our country right now following the murder of George Floyd, with the demonstrations and riots, she had to say something.  After a lifetime of living in a culture where simply being black makes her and her children and her grandchildren “harassed and helpless” she had to say something.  The culture set the agenda and the gospel texts opened the door to speak.  She wasn’t political.  She was personal.  She described the experience she and her family and friends have had living with racism in this country.  She describe how racism is deeply rooted in so many of the systems in this country. She described how what they have experienced is contrary to the love and teaching of Jesus.

But there were people in her congregation who didn’t want to hear what she had to say even though it was rooted in the gospel.  It made them uncomfortable.  The words of Jesus, the Word of God spoken from the context of her life made them uncomfortable.  

The Word became flesh and stood among them.  But it wasn’t just spiritual or academic or religious.  It was real.  And it didn’t just speak words of comfort.  

So they pushed back.

Somewhere early on we, and by “we” I mean The Church universal, got lost in our religion. We forgot that the purpose of our religion is to help unite us for the practice of our faith.  And somewhere along the way as we wandered through the labyrinths of our theologies and liturgies and litanies even our vocabulary began to shift.

Take the word evangelism.  It means to share the gospel, the good news.  But somewhere along the way the content of the good news got swapped out.  Today for most people sharing the gospel means telling people that Jesus is our Savior or converting people to Christianity, however they might describe that.  But what was the good news, the gospel that Jesus told his disciples to announce?  Did he say, “Go out and tell everyone about me.  Tell them I’m the Son of God and that I’m here to save them and give them eternal life.” 

No, he did not.

He said, “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’

That’s part of his genius, by the way.  Go first to people who already know what you’re talking about.  You won’t have to spend a lot of time explaining what you mean by “the kingdom of Heaven.”  Start with an audience that knows how to hear you.  Start with a vision they’ve already heard about.

Why aren’t we saying that, or words to that effect to the people we know who are ready to hear it?  Maybe evangelism wouldn’t be so frightening if we started our conversations with something like, “You know, I think an egalitarian society, a culture of equality is a real possibility.  I think, with God’s help it can be done.”  Or maybe something even simpler.  “You know, I think we really can have liberty and justice for all.  A more perfect union.  Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What’s stopping us?”

And look at how Jesus tells his disciples to demonstrate what the reign of Heaven looks like:  cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.

We can do that.  Well some of it, anyway.  

There’s a story that St. Francis told his brothers one day that he was going to go to a nearby village to preach and asked a young novice to come with him.  On his way he passed an injured man and stopped to tend to his wounds and helped him back to his home.  A little farther down the road Francis and the novice came upon man who was homeless and hungry.  Francis shared some food with him and arranged for him to stay at a nearby house.  And so it went as they traveled down the road, they would encounter someone in need and Francis would care for them.  As the sun dropped lower in the sky, Francis told the novice that they should turn around and head back to the monastery for evening prayers.  “But,” said the novice, “you were going to the village to preach to the people!”  “My friend,” said Francis, “that’s what we’ve been doing all day.”

Proclaim the reign of Heaven.  Cure the sick.  Raise the dead.  Cleanse the lepers.  Cast out demons.  

Cure the sick.  We may not have the power that Jesus had in his hands to heal with a touch, a power he passed on to those first disciples, but we have other kinds of power.  We have the power to see to it that everyone gets proper medical care.  

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation 27.9 million people in this country still don’t have health insurance of any kind.  Last year 24% of Hispanics did not see a doctor because of cost concerns. The same statement applies to 21% of blacks, 19% of American-Indian Natives, 15% of Native Hawaiians and other pacific islanders, 14% for whites, and 11% for Asians.

Jesus tells us to cure the sick.  Why not start by helping the sick have the most basic tool they need to get to the people who are best equipped to cure them?  Why not start with universal health care?

Raise the dead.  We may not be able to revive dead persons like Jesus did, but we know we can revive dead hopes and dreams and opportunities.  We know we can help to open closed doors.  We know we can create a more level playing field.

Cleanse the lepers.  Who has been declared “unclean” in our culture?  Who has been cast out of the church or the society?  I think that in a figurative way, being Reconciling in Christ, opening the church to LGBTQ people has been and continues to meet this marching order from Christ.  The difference, of course, is that LGBTQ persons never were unclean.  It was the church’s position and opinion that needed to be cleansed and still does in some sectors.  We can do that.

Cast out demons.  This is our most immediate task, and easily the hardest.  The ingrained racism that’s rooted so deeply in our hearts and in our culture  is, plainly and simply, demonic.  It is clearly the mandate of Jesus to rid the world and our own hearts and minds of this demonic infection that threatens to destroy us.  But to do this means that each and every one of us will have to do some difficult ongoing work.  It means we have to educate ourselves.  It means we have to open our eyes to all the pernicious ways racism has wound its roots into our laws and lives.  It means that we need to be intentional about listening to our black friends and all our friends of color so we hear and understand more about their experience and see through their eyes.  It means that we learn how not to become defensive when we hear about white privilege, that, in fact, we learn to see it and understand how those of us who are white have lived by different rules.  It means that, in the name of Jesus, when we see injustice or unfairness, we name it and stand up to it, that we stand alongside our brothers and sisters of color who are standing up for their rights.  

These are the signs of the reign of heaven. Healing. Reviving. Restoring. Cleansing. Standing against evil.  These are the things we can do that preach the good news that Jesus proclaimed, even when we have no words.

As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”  With liberty and justice for all.

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