Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously.
(Preached on Sunday, June 18, 2017)
This is an amazing passage of scripture. The first amazing thing is Jesus’ vision. When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. When I am confronted by crowds, usually my defenses go up and I steel myself for an uncomfortable experience. All I see are crowds: an obstacle in my path to wherever I am trying to go. When Jesus saw crowds, he saw needs. There is something here about the ability to see faces beyond (or within) the faceless masses. I am struck by how anonymous people can become when walking or gathering in large groups. Even when strolling through a mall, faces blend in with one another and individuality seems to be lost in a an amorphous sameness. Jesus, however, did not lose focus on the individual within the crowds and directed his attention to the concerns of their hearts and the needs of their lives.
And the needs of the world are great! Seventy-three-year-old Hazel sits in a chair by her bed in the nursing home. A hand towel pinned to her dress catches the drool from her mouth. She remembers things from 35 years ago as if they happened yesterday, but she couldn’t tell you what she had for breakfast. Her adult children despair that she can’t remember their names. Jesus sees her, though, and has compassion on her.
Larry, a Viet Nam vet, reeks of body odor, because he hasn’t had a bath for weeks, nor have his well-worn clothes been washed for about the same length of time. His body craves cheap wine that he buys with his Social Security check when it arrives near the first of the month. He roams the streets, panhandling for change, his form of making a living. Larry knows which soup kitchens serve hot meals, and when. He also knows which shelters are cleaner and safer than others. On these he is an authority. Every day is Saturday for him. Jesus sees him, though, and has compassion on him.
Jessie is a 38 year old mother of a pre-schooler and a toddler with a loving and supportive husband and lovely home. Yet there are mornings she has trouble getting out of bed, overwhelmed with life, the world, responsibility. She struggles to remember she is loved, that she is a good person, that she knows how to take care of her daughters and husband and herself. Some days she is frozen with depression, sadness and fear. Jesus sees her, though, and has compassion on her.
Yes, the needs of the world are very real. And they are very great. Is it any wonder that Jesus felt the need for more help? That is the second amazing thing in this passage. Can you imagine standing there with Jesus looking out over the crowds and hear him voicing the need for more workers to meet the great need? Barbara Brown Taylor helps us imagine that day with one of her marvelous descriptions:
There you are, perfectly content to be a follower, when Jesus comes home all worn out one day with his hair hanging in his face and his clothes ringed with sweat and dirt. He looks around at those of you who have been with him all along and says, “The harvest if plentiful but the laborers are few. I need some help, and I’m nominating you.” Then he holds his big hands over your heads and says a prayer that travels down your backbone like a chill, giving you authority over demons, over disease – even over death – and when he had finished, you open your eyes and look at each other to see if you can tell any difference. Next you take a deep breath to test whether anything has changed inside. Do you feel wiser, stronger, more capable? Nope. Just blessed, sort of. Just tingly and curious and, well, ready – not for anything in particular, just generally ready for whatever is next.
Then he starts calling names, “Jim and Bill, you take Baldwin; John and Nancy, Batesville. Bob and Gil, I’m thinking Alto for you …. Here’s what I need you to do: preach the kingdom, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the outcasts, cast out demons. Boy, do I need a weekend off. You all have a good time. I can’t wait to hear the stories you bring back. Now get out of here! Go, go, go!
Because the need was so great, Jesus sent out his followers to replicate his own actions. That is another amazing thing. That Jesus would/could heal, raise, cleanse and cast out is one thing – but that his followers would perform similar acts is quite another. These must have been some pretty amazing individuals! Except, they weren’t. Just look at the list of again. There does not appear to be one university graduate, or scholar, or priest, or county commissioner, or village rabbi, or upper class dignitary among them. They are a rabble of nobodies. First there were four fishermen – blue collar workers. Two had Greek names, making them probably Diaspora Jews, foreigners really. Two may have been zealots from Galilee, that is, terrorists; and one of those betrayed Jesus. There was also a former tax collector, one who questioned everything, and two others about whom we know nothing but their names. These were the people to whom Jesus entrusted his work. It was these nobodies to whom he gave “power to kick out the evil spirits and to tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives.”
This is the way God works, taking ordinary, everyday people, people who do not seem to have all of the qualifications and credentials, and saying to them: “You! Yes, You! I have a job for you!” And then God promises to be with us and give us everything we need to carry out this job.
What is that job? It is spreading God’s compassion, just as Jesus did. Not compassion as a touchy-feely bit of pity, but compassion as doing something for the confused, fearful, broken and hurting people of the world. Helping them. Gathering them together and serving so that they know they matter and are important and have value. It means loving them to the point of self-sacrifice. Compassion is more than empathy. Compassionate people embrace the “harassed and helpless.” Compassionate people walk second miles and share their coat and cloaks with the poor. Learning to feel for others until one’s heart wants to break is the beginning of compassion; but compassion is determined to go further. Compassion embraces the “harassed and helpless” in order to give them the gift of a better tomorrow.
Former Methodist Bishop in Alabama, Will Willimon, tells the story of two women whom God empowered to share in Jesus’ work in Cullman, a small town in northern Alabama. The two older women came to visit him in his office in Birmingham at the end of one very long, discouraging day for him. He just wanted to go home, but he listened patiently as they told him about their ministry. “Gladys’s grandson was busted, DUI. We went over to the youth prison camp to visit him. Sad to say, we had never been there before. We were appalled by the conditions those young men were packed in there like animals. We got to know them. Are you aware that only ten percent of them can read? An illiterate 19-year-old and we wonder why he’s in prison!” “Well, we began reading classes,” the other one said, “Sarah taught school before she retired. Then that led to a Bible study group in the evening. We’re up to three Bible study groups a week. Two friends of ours who can’t get out back cookies for the boys. We’ve also enlisted two wonderful nurses who help with the VD. Some of them said those cookies are the first gift they’ve ever received.” Willimon figured they were there because they wanted the Conference to now take over this ministry, or to help with funding it. But no, they said, they didn’t need anything. He was puzzled why they were there sharing their story with him. They said: “Well, we know that being a bishop must be one of the most depressing jobs in the church – too many things that we are not doing that Jesus expects us to do. So Gladys thought it would be nice if we came down here to tell you to take heart. Something’s going right, that is, up in Cullman.”
That is the way God works: taking two very ordinary women and showing them those in need of compassion in their lives. And then filling them with the power of the Holy Spirit to be able to respond and pick-up the work of Jesus: sharing the good news of God’s love, driving out demons, and bringing healing to broken lives. Folks all around us need healing from emotional, spiritual and psychological pain; folks need to be raised from drifting hopelessness; folks need to be cleansed from the guilt that hangs on them like last week’s laundry; folks need to have their personal demons exorcised; the fields are ripe and heave with the harvest – are we up for the challenge? God believes in us. Let us believe in ourselves and in God and accept the job God has for us – to share God’s compassion, God’s love, God’s tender care for those hurting souls in the world around us.