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Sermon for Sunday 18 June 2017

FIRST READING Exodus 19:2-8a

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. 8aAll the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.”


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 9:35-38; 10:5-15

9 35Jesus 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.” 10 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. 9“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.”



Over the years, I’ve known several women who could easily be described as chronic redecorators. However, this one particular woman I know, had a beautiful home which always seemed to be in a state of change or rearrangement. She was, for all intents and purposes, a gifted artist, and enjoyed the task of redecorating, which always resulted in stunning rooms and creative living spaces. This knack, however, did reveal a secret about herself. The family would joke that they always knew when she had something on her mind, because the furniture in their living room or den would be rearranged or there would be new paint cards on the kitchen table. What’s worth noting is, this kind of behavior isn’t uncommon. Many people with concerns or issues on their minds will find ways to occupy themselves, while they work things out in their minds. This can be good. It can be healthy. It can serve a purpose, so long as it doesn’t become obsessive, or a way to compensate or avoid.
I say can be, because not all rearranging or recreating is helpful. Sometimes we move or change things because we sense despair and failure and we think that moving the furniture, as it were, will drive the dark of doom away. While writing this, I was reminded of a documentary on the Cold war that contained a scene from a scratchy black and white film made in the early 1960s. Air raid sirens have signaled an impending nuclear attack, and there in her kitchen was a woman preparing a pan of lasagna for the evening supper. One would think the sound of the siren would bring about panic, but instead the woman continued her duties; deliberate, focused, careful. When you stop and think about it, what else could she do? The message I took from the film was to keep on task, don’t get sidetracked when things around you are in a panic. But this isn’t how we normally react. When things seem to go wrong, or something is troubling us, we start to rearrange or recreate. The same is true for our churches.
It seems that the last decade or two has wrought an epidemic of restructuring within many mainline Protestant churches. There’s a sense of uneasiness and if one listens carefully, you can almost hear the sounds of moving furniture. In many of our denominations and churches there has been a lot of deconstruction, reconstruction, and rearrangement. From the ELCA, to the Episcopalians, to the Presbyterians, to the United Church of Christ, with several more in between, the furniture, as it were, is being moved. Process Teams and Task Forces have been formed and empowered, along with all manner of well-meaning groups, who have come up with a myriad of organizational options in the vain hope that structural change will stop the hemorrhage of membership, resources, and vision that most communities are now experiencing. But is this what’s really needed? Were we simply avoiding the truth through rearrangement, restructure, new rules, or a redefining of the Bible, our doctrine and dogma? Is this how Jesus brought in the kingdom? Listen again to how Matthew describes Jesus’ process of doing the Father’s work and of ministering to the people.
“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. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matt. 9:35-36)
As we look at our institutional church life and watch what’s happening all around us, I believe this passage offers a powerful message. It shows us a Jesus on the road; a Jesus engaged in the ministry of healing and hope; a Jesus busied with preaching the Good News. There is, in the economy of language used to describe it, a wonderful sense of energy and enthusiasm about the work Jesus is doing in the “cities and villages.” He traveled far and wide teaching in the synagogues, ministering to the people, healing their illnesses, and curing what the Gospel refers to as “every sickness.” Nowhere in this passage does Matthew describe the institution of new programs. Nowhere, can I find, where Jesus redefines God’s word. Rather, He quotes, teaches and clarifies the scriptures. What Jesus does, is look around and takes action on what’s important. Jesus sticks to the basics.
In this passage, it’s as though somehow, in the midst of His ministry, Jesus stopped and took a break. And while He was knocking back a cool drink of water, He couldn’t help but notice how tired and dispirited the people seemed. It was hard to miss the fact that they were “harassed and helpless … like sheep without a shepherd.” The people were confused by the constant contradictions from their own religious heritage and that of the Roman government. The religious leaders were busy creating more and more rules for them to follow, rather than teaching God’s word. If you listen carefully, while reading this passage, you can almost hear the Temple and Synagogue furnishings being rearranged. So, Jesus sits down, one imagines, and sighs.
Jesus turns to His disciples and he says, “See? The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out more laborers…” (v.38) To hear about the activity and power of Jesus’ ministry on the road is inspiring. It comes full force as a challenge and a call to each of us. What we need, today, isn’t more programs, restructuring or gimmicks; what we need is to stop, with Jesus, and notice that the people around us, too, are harassed and helpless, “like sheep without a shepherd.”
Folks today are harassed by a culture gone mad with narcissism, political correctness, inclusion at all costs and the pursuit of wealth and material gain. People are tired and confused by a government embroiled in infighting, power struggles and childish behavior rather than governing for the good of the people. They’re tormented by a society filled with mixed messages and who seems to put a price tag on everything and everyone, turning everything into a commodity. People become distracted by churches that seem to be far more concerned with the exigencies of institutional survival, rather than living out the gospel of God in Christ Jesus. And this leaves many who are helpless, or rather, feel helpless to do anything about it. And, as we sadly saw this past week, some react in angry, vicious and destructive ways. The headlines said it all: “The Price of Rage–Angry Political Rhetoric Fuels Deadly Hate as Congressman Remains in Critical Condition.”
What you and I need to understand is, that a true disciple of Jesus isn’t helpless in the sense that we cannot or are unable to act. We’re only helpless when we’re weak and without resolve. No. We only feel helpless because we — need vision and leadership. We need people willing to pray, to announce the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ and to reach out to their neighbors and meet the needs of a hurting world. Scripture tells us, “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps [God’s] law…(Prov. 29:18)” And Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) What we in the Church need to confront is the truth, that real, authentic discipleship and leadership has been abandoned for soft tissue concepts like “enabling” and “empowering.”
Faith communities have been left to drift, fracture, or simply dissipate while concepts and styles of leadership fill seminary classrooms without producing leaders. The articulation of clear vision and powerful motivation has given way to consensus and caution. Leaders are taught in seminaries and leadership workshops across the nation to “delegate” their authority, and to let the people lead. All of these, of course, are wonderful and excellent ideas that are appropriate in community processes. But they do not, they cannot, replace the role of leadership. We, as the “Priesthood of all Believers”, need to get back to the basics, just as Jesus’ example of ministry taught us.
In the midst of the frantic pace of reorganization and restructuring in our churches, there’s an unspoken truth illustrated by today’s Gospel passage. We don’t need more programs, gimmicks, more rearranging or additional restructuring, nor do we need to be entertained. What we need is for people to look to Jesus and be willing to become Spirit-filled, Spirit-led disciples and leaders. Jesus looked around and saw that what the people needed was a shepherd, someone to show them the way. They needed to be taught God’s word and be challenged to live as God commanded. Jesus looked around and saw, as we need to see, that the people are “sheep without a shepherd.” We’ve been called to be bold in our witness and to reach out to others.
We need disciples and leaders who are willing to live a life that is pleasing to God in our everyday lives and in the Church. We need people who have clarity of vision and a sense of passion for the gospel. We need disciples and leaders who love the Lord and who are willing to share God’s love with others. We need people who are not afraid of ridicule or of being shunned. What we need is Spirit-filled, Spirit-led Christians who will teach, inspire and equip others to do great and wonderful things in Jesus’ name. We need to go, teach and live out the gospel of God in Christ, and we need them to go and reach out to those who are harassed and helpless.
The bottom line is, we don’t need more programs, rearranging or restructuring. We don’t need Strategic Planning or Quest for Quality. We don’t need reorganization. What we need is people willing to pray. We need people who are willing to heed the call of the Lord of the harvest to be laborers for the kingdom. We need people who are willing to be faithful disciples and shepherds.
The membership of many of our churches may be waning, but there’s a spiritual hunger out there, which is near famine proportions. Inside our churches, inside this church, we’ve been blessed with incredible gifts and we need to use these gifts in ministries of healing and evangelism; in the tasks of feeding the hungry and bringing justice to the oppressed. Our folks are prayerful, good people, but we must be willing to answer the call to be laborers of the harvest; willing to step forward as shepherds.
I guess it probably, at this point, needs to be stressed that the leadership we’re talking about isn’t dictatorship. The Christ-centered leadership we need isn’t for people with control and power issues. We need to also recognize that leadership styles vary and each can be effective. The best leaders use a wide variety of styles and approaches to ministry, and we need to pray for the wisdom to know which is needed. Leadership is the ability to lift up people to new heights, to call forth their gifts in new and powerful ways, to articulate a vision that includes and touches everyone. We need prophetic, Spirit-filled caring leaders in all positions, from the bishop to the prayer warrior.
Jesus points out that the people are like sheep without a shepherd. A shepherd in Jesus’ day had an interesting job. By day he made sure that there was grass for the flock to feed upon and that predators were kept at bay. Every night the shepherd would make a crude wall or corral out of sticks and brush, and before he would let the sheep inside, he would walk over every inch of the enclosure, making sure that scorpions, snakes, and other dangers were removed. Then he would bring the sheep in for a night of rest and safety.
Not only do our churches need leaders who are bold and prophetic, but also, we need leaders who will work to create safe places for the Christian community to grow and thrive. Anyone walking into one of our churches must feel welcome and safe. Each person must be placed at ease, able to open one’s heart to what we have to offer in the gospel and in community. In this ease and safety, these same people must then be challenged to go deeper into God’s word, deeper into their faith and deeper into discipleship. The ministry to which we are all called, is a powerful and world-transforming task.
Our call is a gift of a wonderful God. We simply cannot squander this incredible gift in a haze furniture reshuffling. We don’t need to create more programs, we don’t need to require people to jump through ever smaller hoops of doctrine and ideology. We don’t need gimmicks, nor do people need to be entertained. What we need is Spirit-filled, Spirt-led people willing to go back to the basics; people who look to Jesus and the example He set for us. We need people who are willing to lead in sharing God’s word in love to a harassed and helpless generation. We need to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send us as laborers into the fields ready for harvest. Our prayer this day needs to be, please, dear Savior, free us so that we might step up as your shepherds for your sheep, to reach out to all in need, and with you as our example, find a renewed vision for your Church. In Jesus’ name.

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