Rev. Hogue Sermons
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Highland Park Presbyterian Church
David Hogue, Interim Pastor
Some Sundays the lectionary texts are chock full of rich stories, wise sayings, and so many implications that they deserve a month-long series of reflections. This is one of those Sundays. Since childhood I’ve loved the Genesis account of Abraham welcoming the three strangers with typical Middle Eastern hospitality; his enthusiastic plea that they stay with them, his feverish attempts to provide a rich feast, his rapid deployment of family and staff. I’m still startled when God predicts that 100-year-old Abraham will at long last have a son with his wife Sarah. I still chuckle when Sarah laughs at the possibility.
But this week my attention was drawn to Matthew’s account of naming and sending out the apostles. Other Gospel writers place this story in different timeframes. But in Matthew, Jesus is right in the middle of active ministry – teaching, preaching good news, and healing all kinds of illnesses in all the cities and villages around him.
And immersed in the lives and suffering of the people, Jesus is struck by the hopelessness of their plight: they were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” A Shepherd. It’s such a familiar image in biblical texts, but it’s much farther from our daily experience today than it would have been for first-century residents of Palestine. We are more likely to think of shepherds when we watch a Christmas pageant or read Psalm 23 than we are to encounter real-live herders of sheep today. But we can still imagine Jesus looking out over those villagers barely eking out a living for their families, trying to pay taxes to the Roman government and to the temple and still hope to have anything left over. They were leaderless, longing for a Messiah, and vulnerable to the many false prophets who were competing for their attention. Harassed and helpless indeed.
Our world today is so different from theirs. Many of the struggles we face deserve the name we give them – “first-world problems” – a term that reminds us that we don’t usually face the life-and-death threats of day to day living that many in our world do – and that Jesus’ fellow citizens did. We like to think we’re in control, at least most of the time, and that we know where we’re headed. At least up until recently. It’s tiring to think about it yet again, but the corona virus jarringly reminded us of the limits of human knowledge and control, how nature can take deadly turns that take time to understand and correct, how an apparently strong economy can reel under the blows of a virus; how our livelihood and our financial resources can shrink in a matter of weeks. And dramatic reminders of racial inequalities demand that we realize the limits to the progress we thought we had made – how the long-term legacy of slavery is far from eradicated. Our leaders offer contradictory steps to take, so the advice we get is confusing and we have to sort it out for ourselves. We may not face the problems of 2,000 years ago, but we recognize “harassed and helpless.”
Sheep without a shepherd. Got it. But then the text suddenly switches metaphors in midstream – harvests and field laborers take center stage. (Some of you will see what I did there, introducing that third metaphor of a flowing stream.) OK, it’s agricultural imagery still, but we former English majors are experiencing whiplash. We can’t imagine a creative writing professor ever approving such an abrupt shift of image without marking it up in red ink and demanding that we make that first image come alive before we introduce another! A harvest of plenty, and not enough workers to bring it all in? Where does that come from?
Well, at least now there’s an image that’s more timely than sheep. This spring we’ve heard reports of farms struggling to gather produce because of shifting immigration practices and the threat and reality of viral infections – and literally tons of food left to spoil. A few weeks ago it was meat packing plants that shuttered due to infections, and the meat supply was threatened because workers were ill or at risk of becoming ill. And we’ve all noticed rising grocery prices that result partially from those shortages. So at least that’s an image that resonates for us. Literally, the harvest is plenty and the laborers are few.
And it was probably literal for Jesus, too; finding laborers in those desert fields could not have been easy. But Jesus’ concern was broader: there was an absence of spiritual leadership, a lack of vision for the common good, a loss of devotion to God. Many false preachers were roaming the countryside, but those ushering in the kingdom of God were few. Jesus’ heart broke; he told the disciples to pray for laborers. But he demanded more than just thoughts and prayers. Jesus immediately drafted them as laborers for this spiritual harvest.
Hard to miss the sense of urgency here: crops threatening to rot in the field, hunger or even starvation on the horizon for those waiting for food on the table; there is no time to waste, and in a poor country, no food to waste either. So Jesus commissions the Twelve to extend the work he himself had been doing. They would represent him; they would carry out his work. And therein lies the rub. Just look at the four tasks he gives them: cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Really? Aren’t those the same tasks Jesus himself was doing? And none of them is Jesus! I don’t know about you, but to me that is one intimidating to-do list. Cure the sick – maybe. Or at least I know good medical providers who can cover that. Cleanse the lepers – well, probably the same: we now call it Hansen’s disease, and there are very effective treatments. But cast out demons? Raise the dead? Those are a stretch.
It’s tempting to say Jesus may have empowered the disciples to work literal miracles; maybe they could raise the dead and cast out demons. But surely that doesn’t apply to us. We know better; and we have new and improved ways to treat illnesses, physical and emotional. That was just when the church was getting started, right? But Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t let us off the hook so easily. These directions to the Twelve aren’t confined to them alone. The Gospels were all written down long after Jesus’ earthly life. Mark was the first, and Matthew’s Gospel was composed much later – probably about 90 in the Common Era. And maybe the question of miracles is not at the top of our list today; we’re not required to know exactly what those tasks looked like back in the day.
I keep wondering what the messages are for us today. Maybe the word to us in these days of pandemic and social unrest is something different. All four of those tasks that Jesus entrusted to his followers were focused on human suffering: physical disease, the spiritual illness called demon possession, the grief of those who had lost loved ones, and even the social illness that treated lepers as outcasts because the society feared contagion. Lepers were forced to shout “unclean” if someone came near who was not infected. Talk about social distancing. Maybe the question to us today has more to do with how we are called to respond to the pain in our own world: to those infected with corona virus or those who have lost someone to that invisible killer; to those who are suffering financial loss or loneliness; surely it includes those who suffer oppression because of centuries-old patterns of racism and social inequality. How are we to carry Jesus’ compassion for them into the world?
It fascinates me that Jesus demands that his disciples begin at home – that they reach out only to the house of Israel. They are not to reach out to Samaritans or Gentiles or anyone else. That would come later when he would send them literally to the ends of the earth. But not now. I can’t help but think that our stay-at-home orders have forced many, or perhaps even most, of us to spend much more time with family than we have for a very long time, maybe more than we thought we wanted to. “Lockdown” means that we have shared computers and space and books and refrigerators and bathrooms and even the air we breathe with family. That has been a gift for many of us, time for which we’re grateful. But time together can also reveal hidden resentments, or create them; forced time together makes it harder to escape the inevitable bumps of human relationship or overlook those mildly annoying habits of our partners, parents, or children. So maybe home is a good place for some of us to start praying that the Kingdom of heaven come just a little nearer.
Even closer to home, some of us can begin with ourselves. As a white male, I have found myself convicted by a meme that is circulating on FaceBook. It goes like this: “No matter how open-minded, socially conscious, anti-racist I think I am, I still have old, learned hidden biases that I need to examine. It is my responsibility to check myself daily for my stereotypes, prejudice and, ultimately, discrimination.” Our Presbyterian tradition of confession, and an even older Roman Catholic practice of examination of conscience, would both find this a familiar practice.
For others of us, our neighborhoods or work relationships might be the villages to which God is calling us. For all of us, I suspect, the injustices we have been seeing with our own eyes call out for us to help cast out the demons of racism that have possessed our nation for far too long. Perhaps telling and understanding the stories of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others is what “raising the dead” looks like today. Perhaps the meaning of their lives will find new life in our work for justice to “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” in the words of the prophet Amos. Maybe that is part of what the nearby Kingdom of God looks like.
The artwork in today’s bulletin depicts the 134-foot tall mural of the risen Christ on the south panel of the Hesburgh library tower at the University of Notre Dame. If you are a football fan, you will recognize that image that is visible from the football stadium; it shows up during every televised game. Christ’s upraised arms immediately reminded fans and players of the referee’s signal for a score, and soon became known as “Touchdown Jesus.” Now, truth be told, I’m not a big Notre Dame fan; Northwestern grad school (“Go, ‘Cats!”) and growing up in Columbus, Ohio (“Go, Buckeyes!”) mean that my football sympathies lie elsewhere. But that imagery of Christ, the fountain of knowledge, surrounded by saints, and scholars, and doctors of the church does inspire me, even when I am rooting for Notre Dame’s opponents. For it reminds me that throughout the ages, those of us who seek to follow Christ are sent out into the world; we are commissioned to preach the good news that “the Kingdom of God has come near.” Directed and empowered by the risen Christ, we are to make known the justice and mercy of God.
Heather read from Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning, and those words shed important light on all that is going on around us. “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” Suffering is never an end in itself; it is not the last word, whether that suffering be COVID-19, or racial oppression, or social rejection, or death itself. Suffering is also not designed to make us stronger. But enduring suffering, resisting illness and injustice transforms us as children of God, produces character, brings us hope. In the verses that follow this morning’s Gospel reading Jesus warns his followers that this will not be easy work; they will be resisted and criticized, called up for charges, even betrayed and killed. But they were not dissuaded by threats or enticed by public sentiment and easy paths. They saw a plentiful harvest, as do we. And they became laborers in that harvest. May we, too, find our way to today’s fields.