Matthew 9: 35 - 10: 8 (9-23)
Object: one of our banners for the sanctuary, picturing Jesus and some sheep.
Key Verses: 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." (Matthew 9: 36-38)
The other day I stumbled across this banner and was rather taken by it. Of course, the banner depicts Jesus with a bunch of sheep. This is a pastoral scene which gives us all kinds of good and warm feelings.
As I looked at this banner, a song came to my mind, one with which you might be familiar. When I see this banner, I think of the song, I Just Wanna Be a Sheep:
I just wanna be a sheep
Baa, baa, baa, baa
I just wanna be a sheep
Baa, baa, baa, baa
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
I just wanna be a sheep
Baa, baa, baa, baa
There are other verses which note things that you DO NOT want to be, such as a hypocrite, a Pharisee or a Sadduccee. Nope, don’t want to be one of those. But if I WANT to be SOMETHING, brothers and sisters, I want to be a SHEEP.
So the first verse of the song says: “I just wanna be a sheep.”
But I think there might be a verse missing, a verse that we may have to insert.
Notice that there is no verse which begins: I just wanna be a HARVESTER; that is the verse we need to add.
If there was, the new verse could look/sound something like this:
I just wanna be a HARVESTER
Yeah, yeah, yeah , yeah!
I just wanna be a HARVESTER
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!
I pray Jesus will send me out there
I just wanna be a HARVESTER
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!
Apparently there is no such verse. And in some respects, I think for good reason; we
would rather be a sheep than a harvester which raises all kinds of difficulties and struggles for us.
I see this Sunday the second Sunday of Pentecost, as being a Sunday of transition, a new direction. We are changing seasons in the church year and with the changes come some notable issues and concerns.
No longer are the paraments white, no longer do we hear wonderful stories of seeing the resurrected Jesus, no longer do we sing Easter hymns of joy. Now, we see green paraments which are meant to suggest the growth of the church and we hear stories not of joy, but of work.
From now on we hear stories of work, getting on with the work of the church.
And that is hard.
Wouldn’t it be nice to just be a sheep? Wouldn’t it be nice to stay all cuddled up, safe in the arms of Jesus? Wouldn’t it be nice to lie beside green pastures, to break bread with the Lord, to have our cup runneth over?
Instead, we sheep are encouraged to be HARVESTERS. And that is hard.
Harvesting is hard and WAS hard and I imagine that when Jesus 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," his disciples might have said, “Uh oh!”
Why? Because harvesting WAS hard in the days of Jesus walking on this earth.
Harvesting was backbreaking work.
Two thousand years ago, there were no combines, no air conditioned cabs, so people had to harvest grain by pulling it up by the roots, or cutting it with a type of sickle, according to circumstances. The grain when cut was generally put up in sheaves which were afterwards gathered to the threshing-floor or stored in barns.
Harvesting continued with the process of threshing which meant spreading the sheaves on the threshing-floor and causing oxen and cattle to walk repeatedly over them. On occasions flails or sticks were used for this purpose. There was also a “threshing instrument” which was drawn over the grain; the Hebrews called this moreg, a threshing roller or sledge.
When the grain was threshed, it was winnowed by being thrown up against the wind and afterwards tossed with wooden scoops. Sometimes harvesters used a shovel and fan for winnowing. The refuse of straw and chaff was burned.
Figs, grapes, vegetables, pomegranates, fruit were picked by hand.
Obviously harvesting was very labour intensive.
Harvesting could be a form of employment. Harvesters were often itinerant workers.
Some of you may be able to relate to that because maybe you saw or experienced threshing crews on the prairie many years ago. People hired out for threshing crews and would go from farm to farm. The legend of threshing crews always included large meals and many people gathered at the table.
In the day of the gospel writers, if a farmer did not have a big enough family, he could hire itinerant workers. Large landowners obviously needed hired hands so they too would hire itinerant workers to harvest. Absentee landowners were the same.
So a harvester was a worker who bounced from job to job. He didn’t usually get paid well for back-breaking work. He often had to rely on the hospitality of strangers. If the itinerant worker was lucky he was fed and maybe even sheltered. Otherwise he would show up in the village markets to hopefully get picked up for a long day of labour.
No doubt the disciples cringed. Harvester?! Can’t I just be a sheep?
But Jesus doesn’t just see people as sheep.
While we are indeed sheep and follow Jesus, at some point Jesus calls upon us to be workers in the kingdom of God. Jesus calls upon us to exercise the same compassion with others that he has extended to us.
Jesus had compassion for the crowds and as such, he taught and healed and gave people hope. As Jesus selects his followers he does so, because he sees a harvest and he sees that nobody else cares. So he recruits followers to send them out into the fields, into the crops, to where the harvest is. They are to go and give people hope. They are to take care of their backyard first.
Our gospel opens with the sentence: “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.”
You see, Jesus had been doing that for quite a while. If you go backwards in your Bibles, from Matthew 9: 35, all the way back to 4: 23, you will see that Jesus has been: teaching, proclaiming, healing and curing, all the way along. He teaches the sermon on the Mount, he cures blind people, deaf and dumb people, people who are bleeding, he raises people from the dead. The whole time he goes along and he tells people that these are all signs of the kingdom of God, that God’s reign is being established in, with, through and under his person.
And now... we come to these WATERSHED VERSES, today’s gospel reading, Matthew 9: 35-10: 8 . Jesus continues to preach, teach, heal, cure and proclaim the kingdom of God. And then Jesus turns to his disciples and says:
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Oops!
From now on, in the second section of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus shifts responsibility and the call to action. Jesus seems to figure that it is no longer satisfactory for him to go about his ministry on his own; it is time, for the whole organization to get involved. It is pretty easy to figure out WHO he shifts the responsibility to; it is to his followers.
He gathers a whole bunch of people, the good, the bad and the ugly. He gives them instructions on how to go out into the harvest. He sends them out. He tells them that it is not going to be easy, that this might involve scorn and persecution, but he tells them not to be afraid because he will be with them at all times.
I personally don’t imagine that they were happy campers.
And yet, in the end, maybe this is the only logical conclusion to this Jesus movement. Jesus goes about the countryside, extending mercy, compassion to those he meets. His heart goes out to all that he encounters.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, The Greek word for compassion refers to deep, emotional feelings located in “the bowels” of one’s humanity. We find that Jesus was compassionate in many circumstances and the word, “compassionate,” is used to describe him.
Jesus extends compassion, not because he is such a nice fellow, but because that is what the kingdom of God required of him. He was a shepherd to harassed and helpless sheep. That compassion took him to the cross, because that is what the kingdom of God required of him.
Jesus knew that such compassion was the way of God. He also knew that such compassion was rewarding and fulfilling, not just for those who received, but for those who gave of such compassion.
For his followers, all of this took on special meaning.
Christ died for his followers, not when they (we) were righteous, but while they and we were ungodly sinners, and because of him they and we have been given hope through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
As people of God we are endowed, blessed, gifted, with the holiness and righteousness of God. We are a kingdom, of priests, of ministers one to another and a holy nation to bring hope to the lost and sick and oppressed, who are harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.
What does all of THAT mean?
It means that the harvest is plentiful, and the laborers are few. It means that a world starved of compassion, NEEDS compassion and there are very few people out there who are compassionate. Those who have experienced compassion, especially the compassion of Jesus, become the laborers.
Sometimes that doesn’t seem like something we want to hear on a Sunday morning.
But strangely, it brings joy. I have seen that joy in a lot of different situations and times in this church, as we have given of ourselves, extending compassion to others by offering food and clothing.
It means that people who need companionship and community are invited into fellowship.
Still…. wouldn’t it be nice to just remain a sheep? Sure would! We STILL ARE sheep. We are still part of the flock of Jesus. But Jesus gives us another role. He wants us to be HARVESTERS too, for we have been given a precious gift that he wants us to share with others.
Still…. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Matthew 28: 16-20
Objects: the Pastor’s certificate of ordination and degree of Master of Divinity
Key verses: And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit..... (Matthew 28:18-19)
These are two very important documents in my life. The first certificate indicates that I was awarded the degree of Master of Divinity from Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon. The second certificate indicates that I was ordained on June 16, 1991 by Bishop Marlin Aadland. These two pieces of paper give me the authority to preach and tell others about Jesus. I have been educated and tested and examined and I was found to be worthy to graduate from LTS and to be ordained by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.
Do YOU have degrees similar to mine? You DON’T? Oh my, I guess the rest of you are NOT qualified. The rest of you are not WORTHY to be witnesses of Jesus.
You know, that’s the way we think in the church; the pastor is worthy, the pastor is qualified and the pastor goes out and tells people about Jesus. The rest of you, the rest of us..... stay home. That’s the way WE think, but that is NOT the way that GOD thinks. I have lots of stores and anecdotes to tell you.
Some of you may have heard of the Alpha course.
The Alpha course was started in 1977 by the Reverend Charles Marnham, a curate at Holy Trinity, Brompton, a Church of England parish in London. It started as a course for church members regarding the basics of beliefs commonly held by many believers in Christ but then began to be used as an introduction for those interested in the faith. The Very Reverend John Irvine, at that time a curate at Holy Trinity, Brompton, took over running the course and developed it into the 10-week format which continues to this day. In 1990 the Reverend Nicky Gumbel, a curate at Holy Trinity, took over the running of the course at the invitation of the Reverend Sandy Millar (vicar at that time) and oversaw its revision and expansion.
Nicky Gumbel appears on the DVD lectures in the Alpha course.
Nicky Gumbel was a reluctant convert to Christianity, a man who was a lawyer and a skeptic. Eventually the lawyer became a reluctant Anglican priest who then became the face of the Alpha program which has become a very prominent, world-wide program for telling the story of Jesus.
Who would have thought? Those who have met Nicky Gumbel readily agree that HE would have never imagined such an explosion of Christian witness, and Nicky Gumbel himself is “blown away” with the thought that HE had a hand in such witness.
During one of the Alpha course videos, Nicky Gumbel told the story of a young man who was a party-animal, a womanizer and a non-believer. He had nothing to do with the Christian faith, yet God answered the prayers of his mother and the young man turned his life around. Eventually the young convert to the Christian faith became a priest, and then a bishop and finally one of the most influential theologians of the Christian faith. The man is most commonly known as St. Augustine.
By the way, St. August was born in November 13, 354 AD and died August 28, 430 AD. For those who are not quick on the math, that is roughly 1,600 years ago.
St. Augustine had a huge influence upon an insecure German monk by the name of Martin Luther, who was searching for a gracious and loving God. Martin Luther read a lot of the writings of St. Augustine.
Who would have imagined that LUTHER who struggled with doubt all his life, would have been a major vessel in proclaiming the story of Jesus?
Speaking of the most unlikely of witnesses, consider the disciples of Jesus. Throughout the gospels, the disciples of Jesus are painted as a bunch of goofs: they accompany Jesus in his ministry, they see all the signs and miracles and wonders and they miss the boat. At one point they confess that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Messiah, but as quickly as they come to that realization, they slide back into some form of semi-consciousness. THEN, when they were REALLY needed, they failed miserably.
Okay, so they didn’t always “get” Jesus. At least they could have stood by him and offered their support or their lives. When the heat was on and Jesus was being arrested, tried and tortured, the disciples of Jesus fled. They hid behind closed doors and were reluctant to come out into the open. It took some brave and courageous women to venture out and discover the empty tomb, but most, if not all of the disciples of Jesus continued to cower.
We are tempted to criticize the disciples, but we should not imagine that we would have done better. Jesus does not rebuke them. He understands their doubt, but he speaks to their faith. He understands their frailty, but calls them to carry on his work. "It is not to angels or perfect believers, but to the worshiping/wavering community of disciples to whom the world mission is entrusted.”
These underachievers were running true to form, but then what would you expect from a bunch of fishermen, tax collectors, social misfits and outcasts?
So what to do with these guys?
Jesus ENTRUSTS them with a mission, THE mission.
Jesus sends these underachievers out, to baptize, to convert, to teach, to tell God’s story of Jesus. Imagine that you and I, our ancestors, 2 millennium worth of believers, were dependent for OUR faith story, upon such an incompetent and disloyal bunch.
Yet, Jesus entrusts his story to THEM. Here is grace, the grace of Jesus in action. But such graceful action has always been a part of Jesus and the way of God. The history of the Judeo-Christian faith is full of stories and people who were not the obvious choices. The way of Jesus, the way of God has always been to use the supposed weakest links to accomplish God’s purposes.
There are in fact, so many underachievers, that one doesn’t know where to start, but how about this for an example.
How about Moses? God called Moses to lead God’s people out of slavery from Egypt. Moses was a runaway who hid out in the Sinai peninsula, quite convinced that he did not have the skills or the desire for such an important task. At one point, his greatest objection to such a mission is the fact that he does not perceive himself to be a capable public speaker. God fixed that by appointing Moses’ cousin Aaron as the PR guy. God needed to liberate God’s people, to keep the story going. God entrusted the runaway with the vitally important mission; Moses liberated the people from slavery and led them towards the promised land.
Or.... how about the prophet Jonah, who complained and belly-ached and avoided the task of proclaiming God’s story in what he perceived to be hostile territory. No matter how much Jonah avoided or messed up, God pressed Jonah to proclaim God’s story. In the end, God ended up sending Jonah by boat and then via the belly of a whale, in order to get Jonah to the appointed destination. Jonah finally got it; he became God’s messenger.
Or.... how about the apostle Paul? Paul is probably the most influential Christian witness but he started out as an antagonist, a persecutor of early Christians. You can read in the book of Acts, how Paul, then known as Saul, stood by, holding the coats of those who were stoning the Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Yet.... most amazingly, God used Paul to proclaim the story of Jesus. Paul embarked on many missionary journeys, established many churches and his writings form an important part of our New Testament scripture.
It has ALWAYS been this way; the Bible is replete with people who became important parts of God’s witness. The spirit of God moves in gracious and amazing ways.
As usual, God uses the average, the ordinary, to accomplish God’s purposes. Of course, all the stories and individuals that I have mentioned are famous examples. We need not get self conscious or self-deprecating and imagine that God would NEVER use “little old me,” to tell God’s story. God DOES use the ordinary, everyday people to get the job done. That INCLUDES you and me. Whether we believe it or not, whether we understand it or not, God uses US to tell the story of Jesus.
Today’s gospel reading has often been called “The Great Commission.” The great commission is not about OUR abilities or our belief, but it is of grace. We who doubt are given the job. It is not because we have been good at it, or have earned it or have been deemed worthy. Rather, it is because we have been claimed and we have been committed. God has taken us to God’s self.
These degrees of mine are not worth a hill of beans. These “SHINGLES,” as they are often called, give me no authority and certainly do not contribute to my ability.
In the gospel today Jesus says that HE has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. “Go therefore,” he says. In other words he says, “BECAUSE I have been given the authority, I am sending YOU to be my witnesses; you who are unqualified, you who wonder, you who doubt, you who fear.
Ah you say, but the pastor STILL has 2 more degrees in theology than I do!
But that is not true. YOU have the same degree in theology that I do.
It begins HERE, at the baptismal font. Water is poured upon us, God claims us and God says that we are worthy, no matter what WE think. We are washed and sent out because God chooses US.
In Lutheran doctrine, we say that EVERYTHING originates with our baptisms. The ultimate degree that we are conferred with is our baptisms. Our Confirmations, our Ordinations, all are rooted in our BAPTISMS.
That is why, in the Lutheran Church, we do not consider Confirmation or Ordination as a Sacrament. We say that Confirmation and Ordination are just ordinances, religious directives that bring order and enhance our faith life.
The Sacrament of Baptism on the other hand, conveys God’s love, forgiveness, God’s acceptance of us. Our Baptisms send us out to be witnesses for Christ. And our Baptisms tell us that we are not qualified with anything other than the grace of God.
Because God believes in US, even though we struggle and doubt, we are given the job. We are not particularly able, nor are we necessarily good at it, or have earned it or have been deemed worthy. Rather, it is because we have been claimed God that we are given the task.
How amazing. Thanks be to God. Amen.
The Day of Pentecost
John 20: 19-23
Object: a balloon
Key verse(s): When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. (John 20: 2)
I hold in my hands, an empty balloon. In a way, you could say it is a “dead balloon.” A "dead balloon" -- has no life; it continues to lie wherever you put it. The balloon doesn't move; it has no power.
Take a "dead balloon" and do what Jesus did -- blow on/in it. What happens? It's full of air; but it is going nowhere until that power is released. [As an illustration, the "powered balloon" can be released.]
Under the "spirit's/breath's/wind's" power, the balloon can move. It goes out. However, when the wind power within the balloon is released, you don't know where the balloon is going to go; but you know it's going somewhere.
Full of air, releasing the power, this is no longer a “dead balloon.”
Speaking of “dead balloons,” in the gospel reading for today, Jesus enters a locked room and encounters 11 “dead balloons.”
This was the evening of the resurrection day, the first Easter Sunday. In the wee hours of the morning, some of the women had gone to the grave of Jesus, only to discover the empty tomb. The news spread quickly to the disciples, the inner circle; the body of Jesus was missing.
If they hadn’t done so to that point, the disciples of Jesus surely went into hiding. The disciples of Jesus had been hiding behind locked doors for fear that the Jewish leaders might hunt them down. This Jesus movement had all of a sudden, fallen apart and with the crucifixion of Jesus, they could have only imagined what other terrible things were to come their way.
The disciples of Jesus were deflated; they were “dead balloons.”
Jesus steps into this room of “dead balloons.” To those “dead balloons” Jesus first says, “Peace be with you.” He speaks what might be the most comforting words that they were ever likely to hear; they are words of calm and words of FORGIVENESS. What a joy and relief it must have been, to hear those words, ESPECIALLY at a time like that.
In the gospel, Jesus breathes upon his disciples to remind them that he is with them. God’s Holy Spirit is among them and because of that, the presence of Jesus is with them. His words, his teachings, his actions, are right there in front of them at all times. They are never alone, because the grace and forgiveness that came from God, that sent Jesus, that accompanied Jesus throughout his life, ministry, death and resurrection, THAT is with them also.
On the one hand, this is a wonderful experience and on the other, it presents a troubling future. The disciples who were fearful have had a great rush of joy as they encounter the risen Christ, but there is an instant DOWNER. SAFE AND SECURE, hidden away from a hostile world, they are now sent out to encounter that hostile world, a world that runs contrary to their beliefs.
Jesus says to them, “Peace be with you,” but immediately after that, he says, “As the Father has SENT ME, so I send YOU."
Now there will be no lounging around with Jesus, no keeping Jesus to themselves, no luxury of lingering with Jesus, no staying behind closed doors; no safety and security of staying within their closed circle of disciples, no hiding from the world. The world that they fear is the world into which Jesus sends them.
What happens to the balloon after it has "spent" its power? It seems dead again. All out of power. It's flat. There's no more "spirit/breath" within it.
On one hand we are not like that balloon. Jesus promises that the Spirit will be with us forever. We will never run out of the Spirit's power. The Spirit given to you in baptism remains forever.
On the other hand, over and over again in Acts, we read that certain disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. Their filling didn't just happen once, but over and over again. So we also need to be refilled. Weekly we return to church as a refilling station.
We receive Jesus again in the hearing of the word and in the sharing of sacrament and through the fellowship of the saints.
And full of the Spirit, Jesus propels us back out into that world.
Do you feel propelled?
If not, you are in luck; today is a PROPELING Sunday. Today is the Sunday of Pentecost, the day which has traditionally been celebrated as the beginning of the church, the birthday of the church.
Today is also an important day in our church, because traditionally we celebrate Confirmation, as these young people affirm their baptisms.
After two years of Confirmation classes with me, all of you may feel like “dead balloons.” You may feel like you have graduated from church that all the air inside of you has been spent and your “balloon” is done.
But that couldn’t be further from the case, on Confirmation Sunday.
Today is a propelling Sunday in which Jesus breathes upon you and into you and gives you the gift of the Holy Spirit. He breathes into you and then sends you out into the world to be his witnesses.
As you are propelled out into that world, you don’t know where it will send you, but God through Jesus will indeed send you.
But Jesus doesn’t just propel you Confirmands, he propels the rest of us too. God through Jesus continually breathes into you, the Holy Spirit and releases you. And when you are spent, God breathes the spirit into you again. And again.
We are reminded of this in our Confirmation ritual. At the end, we welcome you as our Confirmands and we invite you to join in the mission of the church, to speak and act out the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As you are filled with the spirit, as WE are filled with the spirit, we are released to do the work of God in this world. So we are going to CELEBRATE your Confirmation at that point, by joining you and filling up our balloons and releasing them.
Together, we are propelled out into this world. Jesus reminds us: “As the Father has SENT ME, so I send YOU."
Thanks be to God.