By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
June 14, 2020
Matthew 9:35–10:23 (ESV)
35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” 1 And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. 2 The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. 5 These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. 9 Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. 11 And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. 12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. 15 Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. 16 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
As the weather continues to warm up my mind moves from hockey to baseball and harvest. While I was growing up harvest was the most important time of the year. It was the time of year that the most important time of our business cycle. Every portion of an economy has a form of harvest. For those in the accounting industry, tax season is harvest. In retail the fourth quarter is harvest, because that is when the greatest gathering holidays are. There are always cycles. Life is filled with cycles and understanding those cycles gives us a greater understanding of the world around us, and when those cycles are disrupted there is usually catastrophe.
In today’s passage Jesus speaks of a harvest. He goes out into the cities and village, he teaches in their places of Meeting while proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and while healing disease and affliction. He looks out at the crowd. He has compassion for them, because they are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. This story is one that speaks of a disrupted cycle.
Cycles are often disrupted. Disruptions come from many different sources. When rain comes too soon or too late the plant cycles get disrupted resulted in something less than ideal. Many of us are facing a disruption in our traditional cycles and our lives seem to be disrupted. Schedules are off, school has not been in session since March, and our jobs and home cycles have also been a bit off. The results I am certain we have all felt: Irritability, fatigue, depression, and a strong desire to get out of the house.
Jesus looks at the crowd, and he sees that there is something not quite right, but the potential is there. He said that the crowd was harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd after he had already healed disease and affliction and then he said that the harvest is plentiful. This caused me to pause as I was studying, because in my mind the healing of disease and affliction would be the harvest. But even after Jesus had brought the immediate needs under control the people remained harassed and helpless.
There are always signs that indicate need. When a plant needs water, we can see it. At first the leaves may droop slightly, and the surface of the leaves may begin to look dusty. The dusty look is because the pores on the leaves are closing to maintain the moisture and the drooping leaves are because cells within the plant have less water, so it is like a deflated balloon. If we do not react when we see the signs of distress, eventually leaves will sacrificed, and if we still do not remedy the situation the plant will die. I mention plants mainly because I have a degree in crop science, I know plants. That is just one system, there are multiple signs on a plant that will tell us many things, discoloration will indicate nutrient deficiencies, and can even indicate disease. And at times plants will emit a different odor when they are distressed. If we learn to read the signs, we can act. I know plants. Before I became a pastor, my job was to maintain landscapes around the community. The yards I managed looked amazing, and the trees and shrubs could have been featured in magazines. I know plants, but my own yard was not something spectacular and I cannot seem to keep a house plant alive if my life depended on it. I can see the signs in others but often I overlook what is right in front of me.
Jesus looked out at the crowd, and he had compassion for them. These were not people across the ocean in some mission field, they were people from the very district of Israel he lived. He saw the crowds around him, after he had healed every disease and affliction and he had compassion because there was more work to do. And if that work would be completed, then the change within the community would be like a harvest of record proportion.
Jesus turns from the crowd and he looks at his disciples and he says, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” I imagine they are looked at Jesus in confusion. These men understood the concept of agriculture, but they did not have skills to manage the harvest. They were fisherman, tax collectors, and one is even known as a zealot which is basically a gang member. He looked at this group of unlikely leaders and he gave them authority over unclean spirits, and to heals every disease and every affliction. Imagine that scene. It is about the must unlikely group imaginable. To make it even better, from the outside their leader is a construction contractor. And Jesus says, “Yep, this place is in sad shape, look at those harassed and helpless people. The harvest is plentiful, and we do not have enough people to do the work, but I am going to give you guys authority to cast out demons, and to heal every disease and affliction. Now Go!”
And he sent them out, with the instruction to stay in Israel. This also caused me to pause. The harassed and helpless people were their own people. The sad bunch that cause Jesus to have compassion was not the pagan Romans, or even the misguided Samaritans but Israel. The people of God were the ones that were helpless like a sheep without a shepherd. Israel at this time had an amazing Temple complex. It could be argued that at this moment the religious industry of Israel was at its peak performance. People from around the empire were coming to this frontier province just to look at the structure that gave this nation pride. And the value within the treasury was the envy of those that sought power. This efficient and effective religious monument held power that was beyond the population it represented. Israel was small, but influential. I have always been small but influential. Yet it was these people that Jesus called harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
He sent the disciples out to their own countrymen. Advising them to go without gathering money, without packing for the journey, and to live off the hospitality of those within the community. He told them to enter a house and to stay there. Make that house the center of their ministry operations within the community. They are not advised to go from house to house. Which I find interesting. There are sent with authority to heal and to liberate, yet they are encouraged to remain in one place. You would think that moving around would be better, going out to find the people, and adding as many stats to the healing roster as possible, but that is not direction Jesus gave. Jesus sent these disciples out to heal, but that was not their main mission, the healing was to ease the symptoms of a greater distress. He sent them to one house within a community to become a place of strength and unity as they taught about the kingdom and challenged those that were causing the harassment and helplessness. They were advised to remain in one place so that they could work to affect a change within the very heart of the community.
Jesus sent them with authority, but he sent them to live with and among the people. He sends them with the authority to ease affliction, but their mission is to show a different perspective of life. He sent them knowing full well that many within those communities would be so consumed and distracted from God that they would not be able to bear an alternate perspective, and Jesus encouraged them to not worry about it. To shake the dust off their feet and to move on to the next house and to try again. Remember again that these communities that Jesus is sending them to, are communities of good people of Israel. The chosen people of God, they are the people that God chose to reveal Himself through for the world to see. Their very own people might reject what they have to say even though they are healing diseases and giving freedom from spiritual bondage. And Jesus says that it would be more bearable on the day of Judgement for Sodom and Gomorrah than for those communities that would reject the disciples of Jesus.
I want us to take a step back before we dwell in Sodom and consider the shaking of dust off their feet, because this I believe will give us an insight into what exactly the tone is. This practice was a condemnation of the land. As I was studying, I read that this was a custom performed by of the people of Israel that were wanting to enter the Holy Land from areas deemed pagan. They did not want to contaminate the scared soils of Israel with the dirt so to speak. Jesus sent the disciples into communities within Israel, their own people. And he was commanding them to shake the dust off their feet before their own countrymen to illustrate that their land was contaminated and that the disciples would not carry that dust into sacred space.
I want us to think of this for a moment. Jesus says to shake the dust from your feet in communities that reject the gospel, and that those communities are worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah can be found in the book of Genesis, and these communities were deemed so sinful that God in his righteous judgment destroyed them with burning sulfur, which in my mind I imagine they were covered with lava and ash like Pompeii. There are a few theories about the cause of this harsh judgement, and I will allow you just consider that on your own. Jesus is telling his disciples that the rejection of their ministry within a community is even worse than whatever caused God to wipe out Sodom. What could possibly be that bad?
Jesus traveled through the cities and villages, healing every disease and every affliction, and he looked at the crowds and had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Harassment and helplessness are what sparked Jesus’s compassion. There were institutions within the community that took advantage of people. Institutions that installed barriers and restrictions that caused hindrances within the population. And these hindrances caused disruptions within the various systems and cycles within the community that prevented healthy growth and an abundant harvest.
Today if we are to look across our nation, we can see signs of dis-ease. There are protests in city centers, and in some areas these protests have turned violent. We can condemn the violence, but violence occurs when communication is no longer effective. We have violence because somewhere along the line we as communities failed to see the signs that were causing the disruptions, or we in our efforts to fix problems constructed institutions that harass and leave people helpless and hopeless. Am I calling for war within our communities? Absolutely not. I am encouraging us to take a step back and listen.
Jesus says that communities will resist the change that Jesus encourages. They accept with open arms the acts of healing and the deliverance from the influence of evil, but they resist change. And those that seek to change the direction often face harsh treatment. Jesus says, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the didst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.”
I always struggle with the concept of being wise as serpents and innocent as doves. This is probably because of my irrational fear of snakes. But snakes are very aware of their surroundings, they are constantly flicking their tongues out to test the air and when they get the proper sense they silently wait until the proper moment to act. Doves on the other hand are out where everyone can see them joyfully flying causing no harm, and at times they seem as if they are unaware of what is going on around them. We need to be both, ready to act, and when we act only causing no harm. But we have work to do. We cannot just sit back and allow our communities and the communities around us to remain harassed and helpless. We will be opposed by governing bodies and religious institutions, we will be challenged by family and those that wield authority’s power, but we have been given power over diseases, afflictions and spirits that cause bondage and we are commissioned to use that power to promote the abundant life of Christ and prevent harassment and empower those that were once helpless.
This is the purpose of the church in the world. We are here to respect that of God in all people. We are to be stewards of God’s creation. We are to be instruments of healing and change in disease and affliction. We are called to be compassionate and be willing to give ourselves so that others can experience the hope that we have in Christ. We are called to use every aspect of our lives to encourage and empower our communities to become part of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
As we enter open worship and participate in the communion of Friends, I want us to consider our communities and where we are in them. We all have opinions and ideas that we see as being the right way to live. As we sit in silence, I encourage us all to consider those ideas and the positions others might have. Are we promoting the compassion of Christ or are we participating in the harassment and helplessness that infuriated Christ? Lord, forgive us and help us in our unbelief. Amen!