The 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6, Year A)
18 June 2017
18 June 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
Earlier this week, I set out to research how sheep act if they are without a shepherd. I found this article from 2005, Associated Press, about 450 sheep who jumped to their death in Turkey. The article reported how, “…first one sheep jumped and then the stunned Turkish shepherds, who had left the herd to graze while they had breakfast, watched as nearly 1500 others followed, each leaping off the same cliff. In the end, 450 dead animals lay on top of one another in a billowy white pile…those who jumped later were saved as the pile got higher and the fall more cushioned.”
And, surprising me more, was the fact that this was not the only article reporting this kind of behavior. Apparently, sheep are notorious for bad behavior if left to themselves. Once spooked whole flocks can be lost – due to lightening or predators. Their nature is also to live in community with each other.
Jesus must have seen that notoriously bad sheep behavior before. He recognized a similarity with the following crowds, acting like spooked sheep. The people were stressed by life, starting with small living quarters – whole families in one-room upstairs, above the one-stall animal room. They were helpless to avoid the stench of poor sewer systems draining down the middle of the streets. They were often slaves of wealthy Roman citizens, harassed by their owners. They were helpless under the weight of heavy taxes, which for Jewish people could add up to more than half their income. Additionally, any illness – physical or mental – would surely mean loss – of homes, of livelihood, of family members. When Jesus saw those crowds, harassed and helpless, he had compassion on them.
The crowds today are no different. They are stressed by life: Harassed by the conflicting schedules of softball and dance and choir and homework and morning breakfast meetings that go until lunch. Harassed by the city inspector (or the neighbor’s expectations) to keep the front yard mowed and the trash cans off the curb. Harassed trying to schlep the groceries in the house with a kid under one arm, the dog running on a leash and the elderly parent calling on the cell phone. Harassed under the tyranny of emails, texts and voice mail demanding immediate response. They are helpless to fulfill promises made to attend an event for a colleague while defraying the cries of a spouse who states they are not home enough. They are helpless to heal their best friend’s cancer or their brother’s addictions or their own loss of memory. They are harassed and helpless living under the weight of 21st century velocity of life and the incarnational limits of humanity.
When Jesus sees these crowds – sees us, harassed and helpless, he has compassion on them – on us. Feeling harassed and helpless is not a sign of failure but of being human.
And just as sovereign rulers had done for thousands of years before him at their accession, Jesus promised to turn the world upside-down and proclaimed amnesty; freedom in the Kingdom of Heaven from abusive taxation, from unjust legal penalties, and from physical – or mental – illness. Jesus proclaimed the good news and had compassion –felt in his guts, so deeply.
And these harassed and helpless crowds were so ready for freedom – so ready for the “harvest.” They were so desperate to receive what had long been promised to the gathered people of Israel.
Jesus knew that shepherding requires co-workers. Not perfect people, but the people he had. So, out of the crowds, Jesus called over the disciples. He qualified them to be co-workers in the field, giving them authority and the tools to heal in his name.
With his focus toward the house of Israel, Jesus emphasized community for people of faith to live and flourish. Notice he called together people who disagree? Matthew, a tax collector and minion of Rome and Simon the Cananean, a Zealot and enemy of Rome. Yes, even in his first vestry, there were people on both sides of the Roman aisle who worked together for the Kingdom of Heaven, in the service of community, doing God’s work in the world.
So you know what comes next, right? It is so obvious what today’s gospel message is about. But if it is so obvious what happens next, how are we so comfortable standing by? Let’s be curious about that. Yep, today’s gospel message is that Jesus summons us, not perfect people, but the ones he has. He reminds us, by the authority of our baptism to have compassion on the crowds.
Jesus summons us today, to have compassion so we can bring back to the flock those who have gone astray.
Jesus summons us today to be wounded healers, to cure the sickness of isolation and loneliness, to raise the dead at heart, reminding them that nothing can ever separate them from God’s love.
Jesus summons us today to cleanse the “lepers” by touching and seeing people who feel untouchable and unseen because of age, gender identity, sexual orientation, skin color, ethnicity, religious (or even non-religious) understanding, or seen as disaffected by our community.
Jesus summons us today to welcome back friends who have broken with us, betrayed us, resented us… to cast out the demon of guilt and to forgive over and over and over.
Jesus summons us today to become co-workers of his grace and love.
And when we feel harassed and helpless, Jesus asks us to get real. Because what matters most is that God came in Jesus in the first place to tell us that God loves not the persons we are trying to be or have promised to be or want to be, but the ones we are.
A few years ago, during our Ashes To Go prayer offering on the running trail in Tucson, a purple-haired and pierced mother showed up with her teenage daughter. We prayed together, the lay healers and I, and offered the Ash Wednesday prayer, ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Through tears, we invited her to come pray with us at our parish – just over the bridge across there.
The next year, the same woman showed up with her daughter. She shared how helpless she felt to help her mother’s illness, so could we pray for her, too?
The third year… she did not show up.
So we went back to church for the late afternoon family Ash Wednesday service. As I reached out to begin the imposition of ashes, the first & second person in line was this woman and her daughter. I was so surprised I said, Oh, you came! Yes, of course, she replied, this is my church, this is my community that prays with me. News is that this woman has begun participating in the weekly healing service, offering her healing prayer to others. Through her harassed life, she found a world of freedom by becoming a co-worker with Jesus in the Kingdom of Heaven. And every Ash Wednesday I see her face in my heart and her countenance, ready to hear the good news of freedom.
My sisters and brothers, we have received deep compassion without payment and today, Jesus asks that we give without payment.