The Rev. Melanie McCarley
It’s strange, really. During this awkward season in which we are living, when many of us feel as though our lives have been put on “pause” if not “stop”, the Gospel lesson for today focuses on The Great Commission. It seems a bit out of place. After all, what can we do? In so many ways we’re stuck.
In today’s lesson Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. And so he says to his disciples: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Then he summons these same disciples and gives them authority to cast out unclean spirits, and to cure every disease and sickness. And as he does this he bestows upon them this, rather minimal advice: “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.” That’s it—oh a few more directives about taking no gold, silver or copper in one’s belts, staying with people who are worthy and the occasional need to shake off the dust from your feet when you are not warmly received.” And, of course, there is a warning to beware of wolves, wolves who are more than happy to eat people, like the disciples, who are sheep. And, to be clear, there is the possibility of flogging, interrogations and even death. But you are not to worry, about what you are to say in these times, because the Spirit will give you words. That’s about it—and off they went.
Now, pay attention to where we are in the Gospel. Chapters 9 and 10. Really---could Jesus be serious? These disciples hardly have a clue about who he is much less what the kingdom of God happens to be. How can they do these things that he is asking? Do they understand the kingdom? Do they even know what it is really about? How can they proclaim such a thing?
It’s ludicrous, if you think about it. It’s like…..It’s like telling someone that the best way to learn to swim is by tossing them out of a boat on the English Channel and telling them to move their arms and legs until they make their way to France. It’s like tasking college freshmen with the challenge of building a skyscraper even though they do not yet understand the basics of engineering and the mathematics undergirding such technical marvels. Goodness, it’s like asking a beginning clarinet student to write a symphony. Well…you get the point. How can Jesus consider these disciples prepared? They don’t know what they’re about, much less what the kingdom of God is supposed to be. But here they are—handed their diplomas before they have even finished the core courses. And off they go.
In essence, what Jesus is doing here in the tenth chapter of Matthew is telling disciples, who more than likely don’t grasp the full richness of Jesus’ kingdom to go proclaim that same kingdom’s nearness. It sounds crazy. Maybe it is.
But then again, perhaps it really is the best way to learn. How do you learn to play the piano if not by playing? For that matter, how do you lean to swim—not by reading about it, that’s for certain. You learn by getting in the water and flailing about. You learn to paint by painting, to cook by cooking and to sing by singing. You may not be any great shakes at first—but there is no substitute for getting out there and doing what it is you feel called to do.
What’s more—as the gospel points out—you’re needed. The harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few. Here, I’m reminded of the doctors who just a few months pasthadn’t quite graduated from medical school being sent out to care for patients suffering from COVID-19. They didn’t even have their diplomas in hand. And yet they were sent out in the midst of a crisis, the likes of which our country has never seen. I think also of the nurses, technicians, transport people and others—none of whom had signed up for the hazards of this particular journey, responding to those in need.
And now….now, with the death of George Floyd, we find ourselves on the brink of another moment of crisis in our country in which citizens have risen up to demand decisive action to dismantle racism.
It’s not convenient. It’s certainly not safe—on a host of levels. But, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “The time is always right to do what is right.” And I suspect Jesus would agree.
Here’s the common denominator mandating a response to these various situations. Compassion. Jesus had compassion on the people. Doctors and nurses had compassion on the ill and many citizens of our country have compassion for those stigmatized by nothing more than the color of their skin. Compassion is the common link motivating people for action on behalf of the kingdom of God.
Here is what I believe the Gospel says to us in our current predicament. The time is always right to usher in the kingdom of God. The time is always right—but not necessarily convenient. Wouldn’t it be convenient if the issue of racism could be put off until the pandemic was over, or if the pandemic could take a break so that we could enjoy the summer months travelling, barbequing with friends and generally whooping it up with abandon. But life doesn’t work that way. What’s more, God knows this. Jesus understands. And, he’s realistic about risk and what that entails.
How does this affect us? What could Jesus be calling us to do? I’m not advocating that we act loose and careless with a pandemic, certainly. But I do believe that the kingdom of God is real, and it is real now—not just when it is convenient for us to act. What’s more, the task of ushering it in belongs to all of us, not just those with seminary degrees. You don’t need to be fluent in Hebrew and Greek to proclaim the kingdom. You don’t need to have read the Bible in full or given a public testimony. You don’t even need to be free from doubt, you just need to proclaim.
How do we do this? Well…think of it this way, the kingdom is present whenever people pray the way Jesus taught us to pray. The kingdom becomes real when we act in ways that call forth the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. So, when a person wears a mask as a means of protecting others, this is a way of bringing forth the kingdom of God; when a child colors a picture and sends it to a doctor, nurse or someone who cannot easily get out, they are ushering in the kingdom. When we call for an end to systemic racism, this is bringing forth the kingdom; when we behave in ways that bring wholeness and health to all people, this is ushering in the kingdom of God. We may feel as though our lives are on “pause” at the moment; but make no mistake, this time in our lives is ripe with possibility.
It’s easy enough to think that the success of those disciples, many of whom didn’t really know what they were doing were simply blessed by God. But the same can be said of you and of me. In many ways, we are not prepared for what we are facing, but we are called. What’s more, we too have been blessed. The harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few. Go forth and proclaim the kingdom of God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.