Sunday, June 21, 2020
Second Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 6)
God of the prophets and apostles, you greeted old Abraham and Sarah with news of wonder and life. Send us into the world to preach good news, as Jesus did, heal the sick, resist evil, and bring the outcast home. Amen.
Then 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. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
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; 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.
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. 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. (Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”)
All readings for the week:
Genesis 18: 1-15,(21:1-7) with Psalm 116:1-2,12-19 or
Exodus 19:2-8a with Psalm 100
1. What are the most important signs Jesus gives about the mission of the church?
2. How can your church best balance having a building and being on the move?
3. In what ways has your life been transformed by your encounter with God, with Jesus, with inclusion in the life of the church?
4. Have you ever witnessed someone else’s life being transformed by the welcome they’ve received in church?
5. Who are the unexpected mission partners who have accompanied you in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ?
by Kate Matthews
What is the church to be about? In today’s Gospel passage from Matthew, we learn that the church is to be about healing, teaching, and proclaiming the good news. From the very beginning of the reading, Jesus himself is doing these things, and finding himself facing crowds in desperate need. His heart is moved to compassion for them, possibly one of the most beautiful phrases that recurs in the Gospels.
Throughout this lengthy passage, we feel we are constantly on the move, just as the church is called to be, as it lives out its mission. Jesus doesn’t tell his followers to establish churches in fixed locations and gather there regularly in order to “be” the church or to follow his teachings, let alone to attract others to The Way. Rather, he “sends” them, and, repeatedly, he tells them to “go.”
A bold going-out into the world
According to the “feel” of this reading, then, the church is to be in motion: not dwelling in a static, stay-at-home, preserve-our-level-of-comfort-and-let-them-come-to-us spirituality, but embarking on a bold “going-out” into the world that God loves so passionately, sharing what God has given us with those who have not yet heard God speaking to them, or felt the touch of God’s love upon their lives–or have not known how to name either one.
How do we know this is what the church is to be about? To find an answer, we look (as always) to Jesus and what he was about. Matthew reminds us once again that Jesus didn’t sit still but traveled about, curing and teaching and healing (bringing that Good News to the poor), and when he saw the hunger and need and confusion of “the crowds,” he felt that profound compassion for them. Jesus both moved and was moved.
We too are called to see the need of the world, its hungers and confusion, and like Jesus, we’re called to be moved with compassion and to respond with tender care. And we are called not to sit still but, like Jesus, to be on the move, open to those we meet along the way.
Our reason for being the church
This has powerful implications for how we see our ministry. It’s tempting for us in the church to see its “reason for being” in meeting the needs of those (of us) who “pay our way,” perhaps like members of a private club.
Of course, it’s important that we come together (presumably in a beautiful space) for so many reasons: for worship, primarily, but for learning, too, and for community. That same structure that houses our worship is immeasurably helpful in organizing ministries of outreach (note that word: “out-reach”), of compassion and justice and witness.
We celebrate so many joyous occasions in our churches, and mourn together when sorrow overwhelms us. No wonder we think of these beautiful and beloved buildings, these wonderful gatherings, as our “church home.”
The world beyond our walls
And yet the gospel impels us to interact with the world beyond our walls, right in our own neighborhood, or in places far away, places which our compassion can reach even though we may never physically go there ourselves.
Ironically, our present situation–sheltering at home from the pandemic, self-isolating–has provoked intense conversation about “re-opening” the churches, which have now been “declared essential,” as if any governmental body has the right to make that determination.
An essential church
Yes, the church is “essential,” but opening buildings and gathering in the same place at the same time, is not the sum total, not the heart of what it means to be the church. Rather, it is who and how we are the church, out in the world, even if we have to exercise our call and our ministry across the heartbreaking distance prescribed, for now, by public health experts.
In our safe-distancing, we are protecting and prioritizing the most vulnerable in our midst, a core gospel imperative. Perhaps we need to reflect on how much we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of those others. It’s hard to go without Sunday worship, in person, in community, no doubt; it is truly a sacrifice, seen in this light.
Rising to the challenge of this moment
And still, worship is being held, in most creative ways; teaching is being done; the Good News shared. Front-line workers every single day are performing amazing works of healing and tender care; their efforts are ministry, too. Food banks and justice efforts continue, with amazing generosity and support from congregations. Even sanctuaries are being used for massive food distribution efforts, taking quite literally Jesus’ command to feed the hungry. And community is happening, too, thanks to technology.
We remember our ancestors in faith who certainly continued to be the church in the most isolating of circumstances: plague, pandemic, war, persecution. and natural disasters. Today, “church” happens in small and most unexpected ways: each day, at the end of her newscast, a commentator tells the story of one or two people who have died from Covid-19, her voice sometimes wavering from the deeply moving stories she shares. In those few minutes, I imagine that thousands of us feel that we have been one in that sorrow, that we have grieved and even prayed together.
Finding church in unexpected moments of sacred reflection
Today, I “attended” worship at Coral Gables UCC online for Pentecost Sunday, including Communion. That, it seemed, was gift enough, until I happened to check social media, where the writer Anne Lamott had shared her thoughts on the strife and sorrow following the death of George Floyd, in the midst of our social isolation, and the demonstrations and violence that have erupted.
Her post begins: “I wish I had my Sunday School kids today, during the devastation of the pandemic and the terrifying images of murder and protest. I would tell that I am lost, too, but from the wise old pinnacle of my years, I would assure them that we can trust God no matter how things look and how long things take.
“The pain inside us and right in front of us is nothing compared to the power of love that surrounds us,” she continues, and then she preaches a little sermon on Psalm 61: “When my heart is overwhelmed, lead me to the rock that is higher than I,” and with her words, across the miles, she fortifies us for another day.
The church has never closed
I had barely finished reading these words when a friend, a longtime social justice leader in the church, called in anguish over what is happening in downtown Cleveland and in cities across the land, what had happened in Minneapolis, and what has always been happening, day in and day out, to people of color in America.
Many years ago, she rode a bus down South to register voters, and she is aghast that today we are not farther along in the work for racial justice. For years, she was executive director of a shelter for women who were victims of domestic violence, so she also has a keen awareness of what people are going through in being isolated. Together, we shared a time of lament, followed by resolution, no matter “how long things take.”
All of these blessings, all of this wisdom, and I never left my home. Still, it seems that church “came” to find me.
This work is essential
The Bishop-elect of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Missouri, Deon K. Johnson, puts it this way: “The work of the church is essential. The work of caring for the lonely, the marginalized, and the oppressed is essential. The work of speaking truth to power and seeking justice is essential. The work of being a loving, liberating, and life-giving presence in the world is essential. The work of welcoming the stranger, the refugee and the undocumented is essential. The work of reconciliation and healing and caring is essential. The church does not need to ‘open’ because the church never ‘closed.’ We who make up the Body of Christ, the church, love God and our neighbors and ourselves so much that we will stay away from our buildings until it is safe. We are the church.”
We will have to draw on untapped reservoirs of creativity in order to exercise our gifts for ministry, for compassion, justice and joy, in the face of unprecendented obstacles. This is our hour to rise to that challenge. And we are reminded by Anne Lamott that “grace bats last.”
All of God’s children are precious
The image of “sheep without a shepherd” in this Gospel text calls us to reach out into the world, to see all of God’s children as precious and loved and deserving of our attention, energy, resources, and care. We have perhaps too often interpreted this phrase only as referring to a shortage of pastors for the church, an internal problem “we” need to do something about, like recruiting more students for seminary.
However, the tender image of sheep without a shepherd more properly, and more poignantly, speaks of a world that is looking to the church, to people of faith, with questions and doubts and real, human needs.
Through this story of the way the heart of Jesus responded to the crowds, God is still speaking to the church that is the Body of Christ in this world, today. Jesus, through his compassionate response to the suffering of the crowd, embodies his own instructions to his disciples on how to be the church, “the Body of Christ” in the world.
Jesus’ actions demonstrate his instructions about the work and travel of his disciples, those who follow him and allow God to continue to work through them.
Practice, practice, practice
What is the good news that God is still speaking today? It is about more than just proper religious beliefs: right beliefs are only the beginning point, or, perhaps we find our way toward those right beliefs (not merely saying what we have been taught, but experiencing its truth) through faithful practices of mercy and compassion, and the lessons we learn along the way.
If the way to get to Carnegie Hall is “practice, practice, practice,” we can also say that the way to faithful Christianity is “practice, practice, practice.” Perhaps right beliefs, then, are really the realizations that arise from our experience of God’s love, as we offer that love and receive it as well. In the midst of practicing, we learn. The truth dawns on us.
What is evangelism?
What should evangelists do when they encounter human suffering and need during their travels? Thomas Long says that “Any notion that the church ought to quit getting involved in non-spiritual matters and get back to its ‘real job’ of preaching the gospel and saving souls misses the point. ‘Preaching the gospel and saving souls’ means grappling with disease and the demonic, with social segregation and the powers of death. It means, therefore, wrestling with issues of public health care, with racial and social alienation, with the powers of domination and oppression that bleed the life out of a community.”
Do you think Long’s definition of preaching the gospel matches what most folks today think of as “evangelism”? How do we hear his words in the midst of a global health crisis (on top of chronic health care problems), and shaken by a dramatic illustration of “racial and social alienation” and “the powers of domination and oppression” in the wake of the brutal killing of another unarmed African American man by police?
Many people today are uncomfortable just using the word “evangelist,” let alone applying it to themselves. How have we come to this? Is there a way to re-claim our role as evangelists, as bearers of Good News? What are different ways that the members of your church are moved to compassionate response, to outreaching and proclaiming, to being about the work of God in the world?
St. Francis of Assisi is often quoted as saying, “Preach the gospel, and when necessary, use words.” How does his instruction go with the instruction and the example of Jesus? When this global nightmare is over, what will people say about the church’s witness during this time? What will we have “preached”?
Unlikely partners in mission
As you look over the list of those early disciples, you may notice the several descriptive details given, about Matthew the tax collector and Simon “the Cananaean,” two people who would have been on opposite sides of the Roman controversy, since Matthew was a tool of the empire and Simon would have been a passionate revolutionary opposing it. Yet they both found their lives transformed by their encounter with Jesus.
Who are the people in churches who might be surprised to find themselves sharing a pew, sharing communion, sharing their lives, with one another? God still speaks to us, to the world, in ways that surprise us, pulling together and planting together and then sending out together the most unexpected of mission partners. Who are your unlikely partners in ministry here, outside the church building?
Needed: a change of heart
Boundaries and preconceptions are obliterated by the dream of a church that truly welcomes all, but transformation–a change of heart, or hearts–often needs to happen to make it possible for that dream to become reality.
Such transformation makes it possible for diverse people to come together and discover, and experience, their shared humanity and graced condition in the eyes of a loving God who sees the “sheep without a shepherd” and responds with compassion and tender care. There are surprises inside and outside the walls of the church, every single day.
God at work through the church
It’s God who works through us and through the life of the church, and it’s God who sends the workers who are needed. As you look around–inside and outside the church walls, who are the workers for this harvest, which cannot wait, workers whose ministry needs to be empowered and supported?
God is supplying the needs of the church for the harvest in ways that we may not recognize unless we think in fresh, new ways. Who, then, are the unexpected workers, the teachers and apostles (“those sent”), whose “descriptive details” might make them unlikely, but highly effective, bearers of good news in your community? Does your community receive–and send–them that way?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Michael W. Smith, 21st century
“I think if the church did what they were supposed to do we wouldn’t have anyone sleeping on the streets.”
Clarence Jordan, 20th century
“The proof of Easter is not a rolled-away stone but a carried-away church.”
James Forbes, Whose Gospel?, 21st century
“The progressive spirituality I believe in is deeply rooted in the conviction of Dr. King that God’s dream of the Beloved Community sets the agenda for the church.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 20th century
“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
Mother Teresa, A Gift for God: Prayers and Meditations, 20th century
“I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.”
Henri J.M. Nouwen, 20th century
“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.”
Kellen Roggenbuck, 21st century
“We need to be the church that serves and loves people now, today, exactly where they are. Until then, we are simply managing decline.”
“Evangelism is more about being than being perfect.”
“Your message is only as loud as the actions that accompany it. Live your message and it will be heard loud and clear.”
Luis Espinal (Jesuit poet who was tortured and killed in Bolivia), 20th century
“A religion that doesn’t have the courage to speak out for human beings doesn’t have the right to speak out for God.”
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, Based on the English Standard Version, 19th century
“You may break the clods, you may sow your seeds, but what can you do without the rain? As absolutely needful is the divine blessing.”
Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, 21st century
“I liked those ladies! They were helpers, and they danced. These are the words I want on my gravestone: that I was a helper, and that I danced.”
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