The Church Has Left the Building

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
June 18, 2017

Matthew 9: 35—10: 14 (CEB)
Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. 36 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. 38Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.”

He called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness. 2Here are the names of the twelve apostles: 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 Cananaean; and Judas, who betrayed Jesus.

5Jesus sent these twelve out and commanded them, “Don’t go among the Gentiles or into a Samaritan city. 6Go instead to the lost sheep, the people of Israel. 7As you go, make this announcement: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons. You received without having to pay. Therefore, give without demanding payment. 9Workers deserve to be fed, so don’t gather gold or silver or copper coins for your money belts to take on your trips. 10Don’t take a backpack for the road or two shirts or sandals or a walking stick. 11Whatever city or village you go into, find somebody in it who is worthy and stay there until you go on your way. 12When you go into a house, say, ‘Peace!’ 13If the house is worthy, give it your blessing of peace. But if the house isn’t worthy, take back your blessing. 14If anyone refuses to welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or city.

Her name is Amanda. I met Amanda almost exactly 10 years ago. I was transitioning into the role of Minister of Youth and Young Adults at First-Centenary UMC, downtown, as she was transitioning out of her role as Director of Youth. She was on her way to seminary at Duke. She received her Master of Divinity, was later ordained an elder, and has served various churches in both East Tennessee and North Carolina. In 2014, she was married to Justin, and in early December of 2016, they welcomed their first child, a son named Owen. On March 5, thinking their lethargic baby might have the flu, Amanda and Justin took Owen to the ER, only to learn that their three-month old baby had a massive tumor in his brain. Further tests and scans revealed that Owen’s cancer was rare and extremely aggressive. Within a few weeks, they were at St. Jude in Memphis where Owen was put in a trial treatment. It didn’t work. They were sent home in mid-May, and Owen was placed under hospice care.

But Owen was a fighter, and when he seemed to be doing a bit better about a week later, Amanda, Justin, and Owen returned to St. Jude, where they learned that Owen’s tumor had shrunk slightly. He received a round of chemo, and the young family headed off for some vacation time with family. While they were at the beach, however, Owen took a turn. A visit to the local ER revealed a massive brain bleed. Owen and Amanda were airlifted to Duke, where they learned the terrible news that Owen’s cancer had grown and spread into his spinal cord. The chemo wasn’t working. Last week, they returned home once again. Owen died this past Tuesday morning. Family and friends gathered on Friday evening to celebrate the life of this precious little baby. I cannot imagine the grief that Amanda and Justin are experiencing right now. They must feel so troubled and helpless.

Her name is Jasmine. I met Jasmine about five years ago through Family Promise. I sat around a table one night eating pizza with Jasmine and her four children, who hung close to this young widow. Her husband had been killed, an innocent caught in the crossfire of dangerous gang violence. She was left alone with her kids and a job that paid too little. Soon after she lost her husband, she lost her home. She bounced around from couch to couch for a while, but with four little ones, it’s easy to outstay your welcome. Though some nights were spent huddled in their dilapidated car, Jasmine managed to piece together makeshift meals and sleeping pallets until her broken family was received by Family Promise. She wouldn’t tell me how she managed to get the food they needed in those volatile months; she was too ashamed. She had been in Family Promise with her kids about a month when I talked with her, and though she was working on finding a better paying job and a suitable place to live with her children, she kept running up against dead-ends. Hope was waning. Jasmine was feeling troubled and helpless.

His name is Chris. Most of you have heard Chris’ story, but I don’t mind sharing it with you again because it has been instrumental in shaping my call to ministry. I first met Chris in 1999. I was interning with the youth group at Fountain City United Methodist in Knoxville. Chris had grown up in that church. He was active in the youth group, and as a young man, he sang in the choir and volunteered as a youth counselor. By the time I came on the scene, Chris had been working with the youth of that church for almost a decade. He chaperoned mission trips, retreats, and choir tours. He planned ski trips. He prepared an annual slide show filled with pictures, and memories, and great music. He loved serving God by serving the youth of this church, and it showed; he touched hundreds of young lives.

Then one day, the pastor told Chris his services were not needed anymore; that he was not to work with the youth any longer. It was devastating to Chris. He left the pastor’s office, gathered his things, and walked out of the church, never to return. The church that he had loved and served for his entire life kicked him out. The place where Chris had learned of and accepted the saving love of Christ turned on him for no good reason, and it hurt Chris enough that he never returned—to any church. Though he still professed faith, I will tell you that it is hard to live and practice faith when you are not connected to a faith community. He was angry and hurt; it remained for him a source of sadness and angst. My friend Chris died the Sunday before Thanksgiving this past year. He was only 46. He had not been reconciled to his church. He still doubted the love of Christ in his life because for one brief moment in time, the one place that was supposed to exemplify that love was judgmental instead. For 14 years, expelled and separated from Christ’s church, Chris was troubled and helpless.

It’s amazing to think that Christ knows every hair on our head, that Christ knows the heart of every single person, and that Christ has compassion on all. I am one out of over 7billion. I have barely left the Southeast United States, and yet I know so many whose lives are troubled and helpless. For Christ to know them all, US all, is nearly unfathomable; yet he does. And it is this knowing that we encounter in our reading from Matthew this morning. In the midst of his healing, teaching, and saving ministry, Jesus pauses for a moment of reflection with his disciples.. He thinks about all the people he has encountered along the way. He looks around at the great throngs of people who are flocking to him for help and salvation. And Jesus sees around him Amanda and Justin, Jasmine, and Chris. He sees these people who are troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. And what is most striking is how Christ reacts, because immediately, Jesus has two very strong and important reactions.

First, Jesus has compassion on the people. In fact, Christ’s reaction is so immediate that it seems instinctive. Now, I don’t know what our immediate reaction is when we are dealing with people who are “down on their luck,” troubled, helpless, and so on. But I’m pretty sure, for myself at least, that most of the time my instinctive reaction is not compassion. It might be pity, or annoyance, or judgment; but I have to be honest in saying I think it’s probably only on rare occasions that I go straight to compassion. And yet, this is precisely what Jesus does; he has compassion on all the people around him.

Then, it’s as if Jesus recognizes the magnitude of the task before him. Because just after we are told that Jesus had compassion on the people around him, Jesus says to his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.” In other words, Jesus sees the pain and hurt that surrounds him; he senses the disease and trouble; he understands the overwhelming sense of helplessness, and he realizes it’s more than he can address all on his own. Christ knows that he needs the support of his disciples, each one working in their own little corner of the world, to offer compassion and hope to the troubled and helpless.

And so Jesus not only tells his disciples to pray for laborers for the harvest, he actually commissions them to go out and to BE those laborers. Then, so that they are fully prepared for the monumental task that is before them, Jesus not only gives them specific instructions, but he also endows them with the SAME AUTHORITY by which he, himself, has been ministering to the troubled and helpless and shepherding the lost sheep.

We often think of the disciples as simply the twelve men Jesus called to follow him. But we need to understand that we are Christ’s disciples, too. We, too, share in this same commission and calling. We, too, are sent out into the world with this same authority and these same instructions. And friends, there are so many who are troubled and helpless, so many lost sheep, that there is no time to waste, not even on those who won’t receive our message and our support!

There is so much work to be done. But let me share with you one final thought about the task before us. One of the things that strikes me about this passage is Jesus’ specific instruction not to go among the Samaritans or Gentiles, but instead to go straight to the “lost sheep, the people of Israel.” Of course, we know that the announcement of God’s kingdom is for all people in all times and places, so why, in this first sending of the disciples, does Christ instruct them to go to their fellow Jews, the lost sheep of Israel? When I think of people like Amanda and Justin, and like Chris, I begin to understand the logic behind Christ’s instruction. There are these people of faith; people who have known and experienced the love of God, who yet hit these “bumps in the road;” who find themselves in life troubled and helpless, lost and hopeless. How much greater is their testimony because in the midst of their troubles, they experienced the compassion of Christ? How much greater is their story because the love of God strengthened them in their weakness. And then…how much better can they relate to others in the same sorts of circumstances? How much more can they share the compassion and love of Christ with people experiencing the same suffering in their own lives?

The harvest is plentiful, friends. We live in a broken, hurting, troubled, helpless, and lost world, but we can’t harvest from inside a building. We have to go out there to do the work of the Lord. So go first with compassion. And secondly, know this: you go with the same power and authority as Christ himself. And most importantly, you go with your own story; a story of how Christ had compassion on you and lifted you out of trouble and distress, and a story of how Christ can do the same very every lost sheep.

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