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Sermon for Sunday 14 June 2020

First Reading                                    Exodus 19:2-8

2{The people of Israel} set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, 3while Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: 4‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” 7So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. 8All the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.

Psalm                                                              Psalm 100

1Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands; serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song. 2Know this: The Lord himself is God; he himself has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. 3Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise; give thanks to him and call upon his Name. 4For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his faithfulness endures from age to age.

Second Reading                               Romans 5:6-15

6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — 8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. 12Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned — 13for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. 15But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.

Gospel                                        Matthew 9:35–10:8-23

935Jesus 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. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

101And 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. 2The 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; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. 5These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ 8Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay.” 9Acquire “Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. 11And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14And 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. 15Truly, 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. 16Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19When 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. 20For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”

Good for What Ails Us

Before modern medical science really took off in the last ¾ century or so, there were a lot of home and folk remedies being prescribed by well-meaning individuals, and by con artists and swindlers.  Now to be clear, I am a fan of proven homeopathic medicines.  I believe God created everything around us for a reason.  Recall what God said in Genesis: “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food” (1:29).  Abuse aside, we’ve neglected these beneficial plant-based treatments in favor of synthesized treatments, many of which have numerous adverse side effects.  However, there have been snake-oil salesmen who have accompanied their “miracle cure” with the phrase that the supposed cure they were selling was “good for what ails you.”  Now according to my father and his father, the classic, all-purpose remedy for nearly every condition was a tablespoonful of castor oil.  Thankfully, I was spared being subjected to this cure-all.

After considering a title for this sermon, I “googled” the phrase “good for what ails you” on the internet.  My search resulted in quite the interesting list of old and new products and activities that were, or are, supposed to be good for what ails us.  Among the results, there were a couple of online sites that promoted humor as a good remedy for just about anything bad.  Another site featured a jazz song with the lyric, “love is good for anything that ails you.”  It’s hard to argue with either of these two!

According to the world wide web, Siberian ginseng and Yemeni honey are exceptionally good for you.  Add to the growing list of good for what ails you, is massage therapy, owning a pet, and aromatherapy.  My favorite, however, among all the old creams, salves, and liniments from a century ago was, Brame’s Pain Knocker.  This magic elixir contained, 1.5% tincture of opium, 1.5% chloroform, and a whopping 88+% white liquor!  Now that’s a cure for what ails you!  That is if it doesn’t kill you in the process!  Kidding and snake-oil salesmen aside, what is it that ails us?  More importantly, what ails the world today?

One can hardly turn on the TV today without seeing the protests around the world.  Now I need to be clear here, I don’t want to turn this sermon into a political debate.  And to accomplish that, I must be clear about some basic facts, and to date no one has debated, or denied, these facts: first, Mr. George Floyd did not deserve to be killed.  Two, the offending officer in the George Floyd incident has been charged with the crime, as well as the other officers involved.  Their subsequent guilt, or innocence, and punishment is to be decided in a court of law and by a jury, not the court of public opinion.  Number three: those who feel that an injustice has occurred, or feel deprived of the basic liberties afforded to all citizens of the US, or who feel they have been discriminated against, have the right to peacefully protest within the bounds of the law.  Number four, we need to listen. 

Now listening requires two things.  First, we need to know what a person or group is upset about.  We need to hear a clear message with well thought out arguments.  Generalizations and vague statements are not helpful.  We need details and suggestions and a willingness to work together for a long-lasting viable solution.  Lasting change will not come over night, so don’t expect an instant change.  Now, in the case of the current situation, I disagree: all lives matter, period.  No single ethnic group can be singled out for special treatment.  The Bible is clear, we are to love our neighbor.  When Jesus gave this command, He didn’t add in limitations.  Additionally, the preamble to the Constitution is also clear: all are created equal.  So, the name calling, and ridiculous accusations needs to stop; none of that is helpful.  We need to remember that respect is both given and earned.

Number five: law enforcement officers are not inherently evil, nor are they targets for aggression.  The overwhelming majority of police officers who dedicate their lives to protect and serve, are good, decent and committed law enforcement personnel who do an outstanding job day in and day out.  They care deeply about the job they do, and the people they serve, and want to do what’s right.  They deserve our support and respect, not ridicule and condemnation.  Number six: breaking the law is breaking the law; it doesn’t matter which side of the badged you’re on.  I don’t care how upset or passionate about an injustice you are, there’s no excusing violence against others, damage to property and looting.  As my parents were fond of reminding me, “two wrongs don’t make a right.”

With those statements made, I need to make one more statement.  The church has failed over the past 5 or 6 decades.  Jesus’ last earthly command was for us to go, baptize, make disciples, and teach.  Sadly, the church has set aside this primary command and now the world is evangelizing the church.  Let me repeat that:  that church has failed to baptize, teach and make disciples and because of our apathy, the world is now the one influencing and instituting changes in the churches.  The body of Christ has failed to be the salt and light in this world and because of this, the world has lost its moral compass.  What’s being embraced today isn’t what’s right or wrong, and personal accountability, but situational ethics.  We’ve embraced and promoted the notion of “if it’s right for you, then it must be okay” so that now, nothing is wrong.  And as I’ve said many times in the past, the world hates and refuses to embrace the notion of labeling something as sin!  The moment you do, you’re instantly branded as a hater, a bigot or a xenophobe, and according to society, you are definitely not a Christian.  I said all this to point us to what Jesus saw in our Matthew reading for today, which also perfectly describes the world we live in today.

Our gospel reading for this morning tells us that Jesus went out to the towns and villages, teaching, preaching, and healing every kind of disease and sickness.  Now I want to stop here.  Notice what isn’t said in this passage; there is no mention of forgiving sin.  What we see here is that Jesus was paying attention to the needs of the people.  He went to them, and I’m certain He took time to listen and He met their needs.  Like a good shepherd, He provided what the hurting masses need.  With that in mind, let me ask you this: if we were to compare Jesus’ reaction to the needs of the masses and how the church today is responding to the needs of the world, how are things different, or the same?  And a second related question, are we actually accomplishing the work of God’s kingdom? 

How can we show God’s love and set before the world an example of living a godly life, if we simply sit in our churches and only do what’s convenient?  I know there are limitations.  I know we must choose carefully where we use the gifts and talents we have in order to do the most good.  However, do we pray as we should?  Do we honestly listen when the opportunity presents itself?  Are we personally involved when the opportunity arises?  Jesus went to the people, discovered what they needed and provided.  He provided what they needed most first.  And this is so very important.  If we’re unwilling to show God’s love to others through our lives, how are we supposed to be the salt and light in this world? (Matthew 5:13-16).

Next, beyond the physical ailments, Jesus also noticed that the crowds were harassed, confused, and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  An aggressive predator can leave a flock of sheep either quivering and prostrate, paralyzed with fear or scattered, running helter-skelter, crazed with panic.  Scripture tells us that we are, in fact, being stalked and attacked in this life, by the predator of all predators — the devil, who is compared to a roaring lion, sneaking and prowling around to find someone to attack and devour (1 Peter 5:8).  Don’t kid yourself, satan is still alive and working hard to undermine the work of the kingdom by using any means at his disposal, and that includes people. 

Look at the fear and confusion in the streets.  Innocent people are being harassed and confused by those who are more concerned with spreading lies and hatred than about justice.  This is the work of the devil, plain and simple.  As I said, our passage for today, harassed, helpless, and confused, sounds like symptoms that fit our time and world.  But this goes beyond the events of the past two weeks.  Today, there are a good many people who feel harassed and helpless, locked into jobs and schedules, for example, that enslave and control rather than bring satisfaction and contentment.  The disease we experience at work or in our mismanagement of time, or in our chasing after the wrong things, then negatively affects all of our most important relationships, including our relationship with God.  And when that happens, the devil roars with delight.

In this post-modern, self-focused and narcissistic culture where everything is presented as being relative, where all values are neutral, where Christian values are dismissed and where no absolute truth can be known with any certainty, confusion and instability reign supreme.  The world today is busy dodging personal responsibility and running helter-skelter, all the while looking for a quick fix from one self-help guru to the next.  Consequently, it never finds lasting peace and wholeness and a solid place upon which to build their lives and our future.  All the while, the body of Christ is sitting at home, or in our churches, frustrated because things are going to hell in a hand basket.   Meanwhile, satan sees it all and purrs with contentment at our confusion.

Everywhere we turn, we’re confronted with a society and lives full of physical, emotional, social, and spiritual sickness.  How do we respond?  What effect does the crowd have on us?  Does its frenzied panic suck us in?  Does its weary resignation fill us with fear or loathing?  Do we lock ourselves in behind closed doors and complain that nothing is being done?  Or, does the sight of the crowd, harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd, fill us with compassion, as it did Jesus?  My hope is the latter: that seeing the greatness of the need, we are first driven to our knees in prayer, asking the Lord of the harvest to send us out, and then we’re compelled to action.  This bring me to another nuance here in this passage that needs to be pointed out:  Jesus wasn’t just “sorry” for the crowd, as one translation has it, He was deeply moved.

The Greek word used here in verse 36 — splang-nis-theis — means that Jesus was filled with a gut-wrenching compassion, an empathy that drove Him to reach out to those in need with both words and deeds.  This is the same gut-wrenching compassion that would lead Jesus to the cross to die for the crowd, for the world, for you and for me, while we were yet helpless and harassed, confused and lost enemies of God.  Remember our epistle reading?  “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).

Jesus came with the remedy for what ails the world and it’s no snake oil!  The good news of the reign of God’s love and healing came to earth in Jesus.  The love of God has broken into our world in a radically new and paradoxically powerful way, bringing life, health, wholeness, and cleansing through the forgiveness of sins.  Part of the paradox of the good news is that Jesus’ followers — formerly harassed and panicked sheep without a shepherd themselves — are integral to God’s cure.  We who have been baptized and marked with the cross of Christ forever are claimed, gathered, and sent by God’s goodness for the sake of the world because “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9:37b).

The harvest is indeed plentiful, and not just in the fields outside the walls of churches.  For example, look at the number of people who attend churches that in reality teach nothing, but civil religion veiled as Biblical teaching.  The world has so infiltrated the teaching and dogma of many denominations that you can’t tell the difference between a social club’s rules and guidance from many churches.  Other than the occasional mention of God or Jesus, there’s little to no difference. 

There are so many people today, both inside and outside of churches who are harassed and helpless and confused, trying desperately to face life on their own; they are indeed sheep without a shepherd.  The compassion Jesus has and exemplified, compels us to reach out to them and, listening to what they’re saying, do our best, with God’s help to meet their needs and share God’s love with them.  But more important, they need to see the love of God lived out in our lives.  Jesus said then, what we need to see today, the harvest is plentiful.

We can also go beyond the obvious examples of today’s news and even look at surveys.  Statistics show, that more than 50% of the residents in our surrounding communities have no formal relationship to a Christian community.  Oh, when you initially ask someone, they’ll tell you they have a church, but dig a bit deeper, and many have either not attended in years, or have never attended at all.  They claim the church because it was grandma’s church.  Our society is in trouble.

The moral compass of our nation and world is broken.  The body of Christ has failed in its duty to go and evangelize and in turn it has allowed the world to evangelize the church.  The result?  There are harassed and helpless people out there; around the corner from where we live, working in the same factory, in the next cubicle to ours, living across the street, right next door.  They are lost sheep without a shepherd, and without even knowing it, they desperately need to hear the good news.  The world is in dire need of hearing and seeing the truth of God’s love lived out in us.  The question God asked of Isaiah is still valid for us today; whom shall I send?  (6:8).  I hope our answer is the same as the prophet’s; “Lord send me.”

Who is caring for them, for the lost, the harassed, the confused?  Who will have compassion on them?  The harvest is plentiful — it’s the laborers who are few.  That’s why Jesus told His disciples then, and tells us today, to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers to bring in the harvest.  Prayer is the first step; it’s not a substitute for work, but the work cannot be done without prayer.  So we to pray and work.  Notice one more thing of you will.  Immediately after Jesus tells His disciples to pray that God would send out laborers into the harvest, He sends those whom He asked to pray out as the answer to that prayer.

The principle at work here is what Martin Luther taught in his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer: whenever we pray that God would do something, we, first of all, pray that God would begin with us.  We are the ears, hands and feet of Jesus, the laborers in the field so desperately needed now, today, in our world.  We are part of God’s answer to the prayer for laborers to bring in the harvest.  The one who prays, does what God wants done, and the one who prays is ready to go where the need is and where God sends.

There’s no escaping it: like the disciples before us, we are an integral part of God’s remedy for what ails the world.  Ordinary people like you and me are called by God for His extraordinary work in the world.  Jesus’ ministry is also ours: to do no harm, but to embody in our words, actions and attitudes God’s remedy that’s good for what ails the world.  Where there is brokenness, we need to bring reconciliation through the amazing power of the forgiveness of sins, revealed in the cross of Christ.  When people feel excluded and ostracized, we, through compassion and understanding bring the cleansing touch of welcome in Jesus’ name.  Where life is overshadowed by the fear of death, we can bring hope by proclaiming Christ’s resurrection.

Wherever we find evil at work, whether at home, in the church, at school, at work, in society in general, or whether half-way around the globe, we can, with God’s help oppose it in Jesus’ name.  Christ’s gut-wrenching compassion compels us, so that others may be freed from bondage to falsehood and injustice.  The compassion of the Triune God drives us to action so that the harassed and helpless of this world might come to know Jesus as we have come to know him: He is God’s answer and very personal remedy for what ails the world.


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