Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:Matthew 9:35-10:4
When Jesus saw the crowds, he was moved with compassion. Here in chapter 9, it is not the first time Jesus has seen a crowd. They’ve been following him since chapter 4. In chapter 8, the crowds were so large that he crossed to the other side of the sea to get away. But now in chapter 9, he has come back to his customary side of the sea and he sees the crowds with new compassion.
The Greek word that gets translated compassion is a very strong word. It is a compound word that starts with the word for bowels or internal organs. It means a gut-wrenching feeling, a deep empathy that causes a physical response. It is the kind of real and urgent concern that demands an active response. Something happens so that Jesus sees the people within the crowds around him in a new way.
The Rev. Dr. Joel Hunter is pastor of a 20,000 member mega-church based in Orlando, Florida. This week he reflected on the massacre in the Pulse nightclub which happened one year ago on Wednesday. Right after the event, he told his congregation, “This event has shaken me to the core, not because I have so many friends in the LGBTQ community, but because I have so few. I have to discover why I don’t have more relationships in what is a very vulnerable part of our community.”
oel Hunter is a busy man, with more than enough to do already, but like Jesus, he saw the crowd and their pain brought forth a visceral reaction. Over the last year, he has reached out to form relationships with LGBTQ folks, to provide a platform for their stories to be heard in his church. He speaks to and for the conservative part of the Christian tradition in his area, and he has faced lots of resistance, including the expected allegations that he is a heretic who has turned his back on scripture. In fact, he hasn’t changed his traditional theological understanding of human sexuality at all, but that is not standing in his way. He has been moved to action because he allowed himself to care. Just like Jesus cared.
Jesus sees the crowd which is harassed and helpless. These words imply violence and plunder. These people are oppressed and down-trodden, beaten up. “Like sheep without a shepherd” is a short-hand way of recalling a whole lot of other scripture where the sheep were God’s people, and shepherds were their often unfaithful leaders. In Ezekiel 34, God condemns false shepherds who cared for themselves, at the expense of the people, by depriving them of food and clothing, by not strengthening the weak, not healing the sick, not binding up the injured.
Jesus sees the people as sheep without a shepherd and he knows that his ministry is to be their shepherd. That is the first compelling image in this text.
A second compelling image is of fields ripe for harvest. Harvest time in farming communities is very busy with people at work from sun-up to sun-down, and now, with lights on combines and tractors, even past sun-down. As soon as the crop is ripe, it needs to be brought in, before rain or hail or insects get it. There is a narrow window of opportunity. If that window is missed, an entire year’s income may be lost. Every once in a while, there’s a farmer who is in the hospital or injured, who is too ill to do their own harvest and you hear about other farmers who band together in their busiest season to do the extra work of bringing in those crops. Because the need is so urgent.
Jesus looks at the crowd and is moved to his core on their behalf. They need justice and strength and peace and hope and healing. Their needs are great and urgent. Jesus realizes that their needs are also overwhelming, more than he can deal with. So he tells his disciples “Pray for more workers.”
Then we have the fastest recorded case of being the answer to your own prayers. In the very next sentence, Jesus commissions twelve of those disciples as the harvest workers they were praying for.
Jesus sends 12 people out with a job, a mission. This is the only place where Matthew uses the word apostle. In other gospels, we get the idea that the apostles are kind of super disciples, the inner circle, the ones who lead others. But the word apostle just means someone who is sent, an ambassador, a person going out under the authority of the sender.
The first mission is healing, curing every disease and sickness, just as Jesus had been doing. Secondly, they are told to announce the arrival of the kingdom. Proclaiming the good news that God is drawing near is part of living into that reality, like when a new law is proclaimed and changes a new social order.
Twelve men are named apostles. Because there are only men’s names in the list for this mission, some people conclude that women cannot be in the same category. But remember that for Matthew, this is only the list of messengers sent on one mission. At the end of his gospel, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are sent first by the angel and then by Jesus with a message for the other disciples.
It is therefore not appropriate to deduce from this one list of names that only men can be sent on mission for God. But there are other, more helpful deductions we could make from the list of names.
We could notice the names of Peter and Judas – perhaps the most famous and infamous of the first disciples, just two regular members of the same group at this point. We could notice that there are names which never appear any where else and names which are well-known, which might imply that some on mission for Jesus are more flamboyant and others operate more in the background. We could notice the name of Matthew the tax collector in the same group as Simon the Cananean. That word Cananean, probably indicates Simon’s identification with a group of Jewish nationalists ready for violent insurrection against Rome. Matthew the tax collector used to work for Rome. Jesus’ followers include both the Roman lackey and the Rome-hater. In today’s terms, this might be something like a Homeland security agent on mission with a Black Lives Matter activist.
What we see among these twelve names are rather ordinary people from a diversity of backgrounds, including maybe some activist hot heads and some small business owners. We see them transformed from followers to leaders, from watching Jesus to doing, on their own, the very same things that he has been doing.
That has been the continual task of Jesus’ disciples ever since, continuing his ministry of healing, teaching and preaching. Presbyterian minister Tom Long picks up on the metaphor of the fields ripe for harvest and says, “This is a mission that cannot wait for a more opportune time – when the church is stronger, richer, or more confident.” Like it or not, ready or not, that narrow window is now.
It will not take a lot of effort on our part to see harassed and helpless people. One year after the Pulse massacre, LGBTQ people are no safer, and many would say, even more at risk, in our nation. This week saw the second anniversary of the killing of 9 people in Charleston, South Carolina and also the acquittal of the police officer who murdered Philando Castile. People of color, while exhibiting amazing resilience, are also harassed and helpless in the face of the epidemic disease of white supremacy. Our most vulnerable populations, foreigners, immigrants and children of immigrants, are being harassed on the streets and subways, and separated from families by aggressive deportations which may be legal, but are certainly not moral.
Will we notice? Will we allow ourselves to be shaken to the core, to move beyond our own needs, our own preoccupations, our own comfort or busyness, to respond with the kind of gutsy love displayed by Jesus?
Quoting Tom Long again, “The ministry of the church, like the ministry of Jesus, is a comprehensive ministry addressed to the whole range of human need. Any notion that the church ought to quit getting involved in non-spiritual matters and get back to its ‘real job’ of preaching the gospel and saving souls misses the point. ‘Preaching the gospel and saving souls’ means grappling with disease and the demonic, with social segregation and the powers of death. It means therefore, wrestling with issues of public health care, with racial and social alienation, with the power of domination and oppression that bleed the life out of a community.” 
This text is so basic to our identity as Jesus followers that I almost thought it wasn’t worth preaching. It just summarizes Jesus’ ministry and calls us to do what he did. This has been the church’s identity for millennia. Whether compassionate conservatives or bleeding heart liberals, this is who we are. Right?
I think so, but I’m beginning to wonder. Just a little.
World Refugee Day is Tuesday, June 20. The band Gungor has written a song called Who We Are about our nation’s response to the refugee crisis.
The lyrics of the first verses go like this:
All the world watches as the people run
Jesus saw the crowds and he was shaken to his core with compassion that demanded action. He said to his disciples, “Pray to the Lord for more laborers.” And then, “Scratch that, you will be the laborers. You will be my agents of healing and hope and good news.”
Like it or not, ready or not, this is a mission that cannot wait for a time when we are stronger, richer, or more confident. The question is -- will we be who we’ve always said we are?
 Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, (Maryknoll, NY: Obis Books, 2000) p. 230.
 Tom Long, Matthew:
 Tom Long, Matthew, pp. 116-117.