Rather than a sermon, I offered this week a three-part gloss on the Gospel text, interspersed with songs and followed by participation in four prayer stations.
by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 9:35-10:23
GOSPEL READING, part 1 Matthew 9: 35-10:4
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.
Evangelism 101: What’s the Good News and Who Will Share It?
What is an “evangelist” to you? As a child I thought an evangelist was a visiting preacher who shouted angry sermons that caused people to answer the altar call and “give their hearts to Jesus.” In fact, the word evangelist comes from the Greek eu– “good” and angelos “messenger.” So an evangelist is literally one who brings a good message.
In today’s Gospel text Jesus was an evangelist proclaiming good news. What was that good message? The kingdom of God is at hand. It’s a message about God establishing an alternative way of living in this world that will upend Caesar’s oppressive and violent empire. God’s reign opens up a world of compassion where the last will be first. In Matthew we hear multiple times how Jesus looked upon the crowds and had compassion.
Karen Armstrong and others agree that compassion is the core of all the world’s major religions. Armstrong founded the Charter for Compassion some years ago. It’s a movement that affirms “a compassionate world is a peaceful world . . . where every man, woman and child treats others as they wish to be treated–with dignity, equity and respect” and where “all human beings are born with the capacity for compassion “ that “must be cultivated for human beings to survive and thrive.” She invites others to help make compassion “a clear, luminous, and dynamic force in our polarized world.” She encourages others to “embrace the compassion revolution.”
Jesus was also recruiting people for the compassion revolution. He not only was motivated by it but was also inviting others into it. In a moment we’ll sing a chorus in which the voice of God calls out, “Whom shall I send?” and to which the response from those who hope to accept God’s call reply, “Here I am. . . .I will hold your people in my heart.”
To be an evangelist is fundamentally that: a willingness to hold the people of this world in our hearts. It’s less about what we say than what we do. We are asked to respond to God with nothing more than and nothing less than a commitment to compassion. At its root, the word compassion means “to feel or suffer with” others.
Compassion is what Jesus felt and said and did—preaching that the meek would inherit the earth, for instance, and that a little child would lead, and that the peacemakers were blessed. But Jesus didn’t just pity those who’d been harmed by the Empire. Jesus SAW the crowds and ACTED with compassion for them, healing them, teaching them another way. As he gazed with eyes of compassion, they seemed to him like sheep without a shepherd and (mixing agrarian metaphors here) like a field that could provide sustenance for a needy world—if only there were laborers to harvest the goodness of those fields. Jesus needed helpers. So he recruited the first twelve disciples.
Jesus the evangelist didn’t tell people what notions about God or the hereafter they needed to adopt. Jesus had bodily good news for sick and oppressed people. And he called to others to join his compassion revolution.
SONG “Here I Am”
GOSPEL READING, part 2 Matthew 10:5-13
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 labourers 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.
Evangelism 201: Who Will Receive the Good News and How?
A couple of points snag my attention in this passage. Initially Jesus narrowed the range of his ministry in ways that seem unfair. It’s possible to see this as a purely strategic and necessary decision. Thomas Merton once said, “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.” Some of us are inflicting violence upon ourselves when we try to do too much. Even Jesus had to say “no” at times.
But it’s also possible Jesus himself had to be converted to a bigger understanding of God’s kingdom. A few chapters later (Mt. 15) Jesus’s pivotal encounter with a Canaanite woman will cause him to break his own rule, and by the end of Matthew’s Gospel he will urge his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19). Was Jesus being strategic when he initially limited his ministry of compassion to fellow Jews? Or did he have to overcome a prejudice?
Note next how vulnerable the disciples had to be when going out into the world with their “good message”: no money, not a change of clothes. Their only sermon? “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” You and I see glimpses of heaven right here when we reject the acquisitive ways of Empire for God’s ways. In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus was trying to create a more just world. As the Hebrew prophets said over and over, we are called to enact systemic justice.
Cultivating compassion may seem ineffectual. But Walter Brueggemann explains: “Replacing numbness with compassion is the end of cynical indifference and the beginning of noticed pain that signals a social revolution. . . . One thing the dominant culture cannot tolerate or co-opt is compassion, the ability to stand in solidarity with the victims of the present order. It can manage charity and good intentions but has no way to resist solidarity with pain or grief.” (1)
Justice and charity are two different approaches to meet needs in a hurting world. The Bible recommends both but speaks much more about doing justice than giving alms/doing charity.
what we do for & with others
a communal act
addresses a root problem
informed, reflective, creative
empowers others to act
what we do for ourselves & to others
an individual action
addresses a symptom
not necessarily informed, reflective
can maintain helplessness
What are examples of how Open Table provides charity? (Congregation offers examples: collecting money for a particular urgent need, etc.)
What are examples of how Open Table works for justice? (Congregation offers examples: advocating for marriage equality and immigration rights; creating Free2Be; etc.)
In my experience, charity can make me feel a little smug about myself. Justice often makes me feel uncomfortable.
This Tuesday we will do both. We will provide food for families without housing—an act of charity. But we are doing so through an organization that advocates for fair housing and addresses root problems by assisting heads of families in finding jobs and receiving job training, continued education, and counseling to achieve justice. Doing justice is harder than giving charity. Justice is usually “political.” What are other reasons doing justice is more challenging for churches than giving charity? (Discussion)
SONG “Bring Your Best to Their Worst” p. 21 in songbook
GOSPEL READING, part 3 Matthew 10:16-23
“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.”
Evangelism 301: What Are the Consequences of Sharing Good News?
Matthew is writing in a time of persecution. The followers of Jesus who were forming a sect within Judaism, were splitting off or getting shoved out. Christianity was also entering a time of official Roman disapprobation. Matthew was bucking up those who had lost friends and family, saying that Jesus predicted this. Especially in that culture one’s “blood” family was necessary for identity and survival. So Matthew was trying to assure them that they had family beyond their family of birth.
Some of you have felt shunned by family in order to be fully who you are and live out God’s affirmation of who you are. Some of you have shared that you have been “unfriended”–on Facebook or perhaps in reality–when you have verged from the religious, political or social norms of family and friends. What is a “good message” to you may not feel like a “good message” to others even though we try to express who we are and what we are pursuing in words that are both clear and compassionate.
As a church, we have occasionally experienced loss of members who felt we were engaged in work they could not support. We try to reach consensus on our major decisions. But we can’t be all things to all people and move forward in courageous ways. So we try to say goodbye with sincere appreciation and love if someone tells us they are no longer feeling called to join us in our work for justice. If someone lets me know they will be leaving Open Table, I appreciate the chance to hear and learn from them and, if their decision is firm, I thank them for their time with us–in a personal exchange but also, if they’re willing, in a worship service. It’s healthy for us to bless them on their way with genuine thanks. Most churches don’t do this. It can feel as if both parties failed one another. But I hope, if you should ever feel your spiritual path no longer coincides with ours, that you’ll give us that chance to express a gracious goodbye. We try to communicate clearly and compassionately. But let’s admit that there are good reasons some may choose to leave our faith community. Don’t slink off or stomp off. We would like to say we love you and will keep loving you and will thank God for our time together.
SONG “God’s Eye Be Within Me” pp. 28-29 in songbook
ENACTING OUR PRAYERS
PRAYER STATION 1
Matthew says that when Jesus saw the crowds “he had compassion for them.” As followers of Jesus, we try to regard others with compassion.Use one of the slips of paper to name a situation or individual for whom you are feeling compassion or for whom you wish you could feel more compassion. These will be read aloud later. Take some moments to enter imaginatively into their situation. Pray for them with love. Leave the paper in the glass bowl.
PRAYER STATION 2
Create “headlines” in the Jerusalem Times for the Good News that Jesus preached. How would you distill the heart of Jesus’s Good News (Gospel)into a headline? Express in your own words an aspect of the Good News of Jesus that you have come to understand and appreciate? Write it on the flipchart as a “headline.” Then take time to give thanks that you have experienced this Good News. Pray for those who need to hear such good news.
PRAYER STATION 3
The Good News of Jesus celebrates God’s upside down kingdom where the first are last and the last are first and where life overcomes death. Recall now the life, death, and life again of Jesus with thanksgiving. Receive the bread of life and cup of compassion, knowing that at Christ’s Open Table, all are welcome. Pray silently: “Your kingdom come.”
PRAYER STATION 4
Your offerings carry the Good News of Jesus to those who may have lost hope. As you give, pray for those whose lives may be impacted by this offering. Know that some of our offerings and actions are charitable but others are acts of justice. For instance, this Tuesday we are providing food for families without housing—an act of charity. But we are doing so through an organization that advocates for fair housing and addresses root problems by assisting heads of families in finding jobs and receiving job training, continued education, and counseling to achieve justice.
TIME OF SHARING AND CLOSING PRAYERS
(1) Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Second edition. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) 91.