One of the things that amazes me about scripture is that there’s always something new to uncover. Even though I’ve read the Bible cover to cover and many of the stories of the gospels have been the basis for numerous sermons over the years, there are still times when I’m surprised. It happened for me in our passage from Matthew for this morning. We heard that Jesus was going around teaching and proclaiming the good news, and healing people, and then he notices the large number of people. Jesus was just out there doing his thing, when all sorts of people started showing up around him. It’s not surprising, of course, he is curing every disease and sickness, and he’s got a pretty compelling message to boot. But still a lot of people are now gathering. Crowds of them, in fact.
A sermon based on Matthew 9.
Jesus has compassion for them, as he is wont to do, because they are like sheep without a shepherd. They are a people harassed and helpless. Their leaders have deemed them unworthy of attention, and treat them with contempt rather than with mercy. And here’s what struck me like lightning this week: Jesus’ response is to declare the need for laborers in this overwhelming harvest, and that his followers should pray for them to appear. In the very next sentence, he says that they’re the answer to those prayers, and he sends them to participate in gathering that harvest by showing compassion to those who need it.
I had never made the connection between the compassion piece of this—of Jesus seeing the people gathered as sheep with no shepherd and being impacted by that—and then the call of the disciples to share compassion on his behalf with the crowds of people. I think for much of my ministry I saw the sending of the twelve as an efficiency thing. Jesus growing the business, if you will. Yet now I see it in a new way as a desire from Jesus to share compassion with a needy people. People who do not have leaders who bring comfort. People left to wallow in their own misery. And this current state of theirs is seen by Jesus as a field that is ready to be gathered in. They are ripe to hear that message of love.
But not all of them. Because in his instructions to the apostles, Jesus says, “See I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves.” Which seems incomprehensible to me. They’re bringing a message of compassion and love, of mercy and benevolence, and there will be some who want to rip them to shreds and devour them? They’ll be offering words of hope, and yet others will want to destroy them? Really?
And yet the more things change, the more they stay the same.
What is it about a message of love and acceptance, an announcement of hope for the downtrodden, that brings out the fangs in others? Why do some among us want the crowds of those on the margins to remain in a state of being harassed and helpless?
A 2017 Boston Globe Spotlight Report opens with these words,“Google the phrase ‘Most racist city,’ and Boston pops up more than any other place, time and time again.” The journalists go on to push back against those who would decry using the internet for such research. The reporters write, “A national survey commissioned by the Globe this fall found that among eight major cities, black people ranked Boston as least welcoming to people of color. More than half — 54 percent — rated Boston as unwelcoming.” The reporters described their desire to tease this out, and their “findings were troubling.” They put it this way: “Here in Boston, a city known as a liberal bastion, we have deluded ourselves into believing we’ve made more progress than we have. Racism certainly is not as loud and violent as it once was, and the city overall is a more tolerant place. But inequities of wealth and power persist, and racist attitudes remain powerful, even if in more subtle forms.” (Dec 10, 2017, Boston Sunday Globe)
Highlighted in that report was this fact: “The median net worth for non-immigrant African-American households in the Greater Boston region is $8.” The Editorial Board of the Globe felt it necessary to clarify that line with another stand alone article titled, “That was no typo: The median net worth of black Bostonians really is $8.” 8 bucks. Less than a couple of lattes from the local coffee shop. That’s the net worth—or less than that—for 50% of African American households in our region.
You might be wondering how I got from Jesus’ sending out the Twelve on a mission of love to racial inequality. You see, when I’m reading the Bible, I often consider where I might find myself in the story. Of the three groups represented in today’s gospel—the crowds of helpless people, the disciples, or those who want things to remain as they are—I can see myself in the later two, but not the first. I can see myself on my good days helping out and bringing a message of love to those who have been harassed and helpless. And on other days, well, I see where I like being a privileged person in our society. I don’t have to worry about my son getting pulled over and not making it back home at night, while every African-American family I know has had “the talk” with their kids about their interactions with law enforcement. I’m grateful to get a bargain on the items I buy at Target—nearly all of them manufactured overseas by companies paying far less in wages than what it would have been in the US. I don’t notice when the bowl of Cheerios I eat was processed illegally by a migrant pre-teen working the graveyard shift in Grand Rapids (another recent news story, this time uncovered by the New York Times). We know the accounts of the rise in hate crimes against religious minorities and the high rate of suicide by LGBTQ teens, but many of us can easily turn a blind eye to them since that doesn’t impact us or our families. And those Black families in Boston, well, it’s easy to dismiss that as a situation of who works hard and who doesn’t—a myth we like to believe when we’re well off—but I know my crafting a weekly sermon is nowhere near as difficult as what’s faced by those standing on their feet all day working for an hourly rate. The median net worth for whites in our area, by the way, is $247,000.
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” “The harvest is plentiful, but that laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
But be careful. When you pray for laborers, the answer to the prayer might just be you. Look at what happened to the apostles.
So, friends, I know it can be overwhelming when faced with a plentiful harvest and the reality that there are so few turning toward the fields. Let me suggest to you then 18 ways to answer this call to have compassion and love:
- Meditate. Spending time in quiet soaking up the love of God for you and for all of creation each morning can greatly shift your mindset. Check out The World Community for Christian Meditation.
- Buy extra groceries for our community free fridge or the Southborough Food Pantry the next time you’re out. Or go to BJs or Costco and buy multiple items of things for them—just not the supersized containers. 1 in 5 households with kids in Massachusetts are food insecure.
- Donate your time to a worthy organization like Daniel’s Table, St. Francis House, Project Just Because, or any other other of our Open Plate offering recipients. A full list can be found on our website.
- Give money to the Mass Bail Fund, allowing low-income people to be with families and their communities while awaiting trial rather than being imprisoned, just like those with more resources.
- Donate your gently used clothes to a worthy organization.
- Contact your local congresspeople both here in Massachusetts and at the Federal level to promote change on any number of things from homelessness and LGBTQ protection to racial inequality and the climate crisis.
- Reach out to a neighbor who is different from you and get to know them.
- Invite a friend to church.
- Sign up to be a mentor for a teenage inmate through Straight Ahead Ministry in Worcester.
- Read a book or watch a film about racial disparity and the need for justice. White Too Long by Robert Jones, the book and film Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson or the Netflix film 13th all fit the bill.
- Sponsor a child through Compassion International.
- Donate children’s books to Raising A Reader Massachusetts to increase literacy for low income children.
- Give new or gently used household goods to Fresh Start Furniture Bank.
- Get involved with the MANNA community at our Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston, a ministry for the homeless.
- Eat less meat. If Americans cut their meat consumption in half—from 4lbs to 2lbs each, still 8lbs a week for a family of four—the world’s grain supply would grow 15%, helping address the 800 million undernourished people in our world.
- Fund a micro-loan through Kiva online for people looking to better than lives in our country and around the globe.
- Share the good news of Jesus’ love. Tell others about him!
- Pray for change. But know that God might answer that prayer with you!
And there are many many more ways. Spend a half hour to imagine what you can do to bring love and compassion to those who need it. Brainstorm, dream, ponder, and then act. Go out into the field. Participate in the harvest. Don’t just give lip service to it, but be one of the few who engage.
Because Jesus looks at the crowds who are eager to hear his message, who long to be healed by his touch, and he has compassion. And then he sends out his followers to proclaim that message and share his way of love in tangible ways. Let us do so ourselves. Let us respond to that call to be laborers into his harvest. Let us make a positive difference in Jesus’ name, because there are scores of people longing for it.