Sermon: 2nd Sunday after Pentecost
14 June 2020 – Archdeacon Mark Long
Romans 5:1-8 and Matthew 9:35-1:8; NRSV
Good morning to you all! Today marks 80 days since we went into Lockdown in South Africa, and despite the fact that the Alert has been downgraded to Level 3 the pandemic is still ramping up, and the Western Cape Health Department estimates we can expect in the region of an additional 8,000 deaths in the Western Cape in the next six to ten weeks (nine times the deaths over the last ten weeks): so please, while we do need to reengage with life in the real world, I do plead that we continue to be extremely careful. Of the just under 1,000 deaths from the virus so far in the Western Cape the majority have been in the 55 to 70 year-old age-group. Please stay home if you can, wash your hands regularly and sanitize, wear a mask properly, and maintain social and physical distancing (including resisting the temptation to pop in to see a family member or catch up with a friend). The reading from Romans today encourages endurance in the face of suffering, and this ongoing pandemic is certainly testing us in this regard. Please be careful, and remember that it is not primarily about protecting yourself, but protecting others. The greatest threat we face is that many are asymptomatic, yet infected; and that could define any one of us right now.
The gospel reading today offers us some important insights into both the heart of God and into the call on our own lives. We hear that when Jesus saw the crowds he had compassion on them, an insight into the empathy God has for the downtrodden and hurting in our world. The crowds are drawn to Jesus because, in a world dominated by the harsh circumstances of Roman rule in Palestine at the time, the people are searching for hope and longing for any opportunity to regain some form of control over their lives and circumstances. Jesus’ teaching and ministry can never be disconnected from the tough political, economic, and social realities of his day. The evil, the disease, the sickness that Jesus refers to (10:1) all has its roots in the tough realities of living in a colony on the outskirts of the Empire. You and I read, or hear, passages of Scripture like this one from Matthew’s Gospel through our privileged and largely comfortable lives, causing us to misread and mishear what God is saying to us, leading to an interpretation that too often disconnects Scripture from the realities of our day, causing us to be discomforted by any implication that the political and economic and social issues and discontent of our own time may in fact be the context of ministry and mission to which we as God’s people are called to be present. Right at the moment we are devastated by any suggestion that our churches, our schools, our communities are curators of systemic and institutionalised racism. If my Facebook newsfeed is anything to go by, we respond with superficial judgement of violent protest by people of colour around the Western world and in our own Nation, and fail to see the depth of grief this violence points too. We fail in the test of our empathy.
Jesus response in seeing the harassed and helpless crowds, is to note that the harvest is plentiful; and he invites those with him to also see the opportunity this offers, and encourages them to ask “The Lord of the Harvest” for the resources to meet the overwhelming need visible before them (9:36-38). Jesus goes a step further, and from the larger group of disciples calls out the Twelve – and we must not miss the reference to the tribes of Israel in this number – and gives them responsibility for this task. This is not a mission to the ends of the earth, this is a mission to God’s people (10:5-6), and to the hurt and helplessness that God’s people are experiencing. James Alison, Roman Catholic Priest and Theologian, makes the important point that Twelve are chosen to underscore the point that this is about God’s people, and that while we subsequently may have attributed great prominence to these twelve disciples there was nothing particularly significant about them at this point in the Gospel narrative, except that they are representative of the diversity of political and economic outlook and social layering in Palestine at that time. Jesus’ choice of the Twelve speaks to the inclusive nature of God’s love for God’s people, and their commissioning to “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (10:8) is a profound indication that God’s desire for God’s people is for their healing and their wholeness. Additionally, these disciples are sent to walk alongside the crowds, to be part of crowd’s experience and hardship and to be a healing and life-giving presence in their midst. It’s an overwhelming task, which we see in Jesus comment that the “… labourers are few” (1:37). However, the Twelve – and again we need to note the reference to the Tribes of Israel – are resourced, and more broadly God’s people (Israel) are resourced by being given “… authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” There is a purpose to this, which is to announce to God’s people that God has not forgotten or abandoned them, no matter the harsh daily reality of life in a colony on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, that the “The kingdom of heaven has come near” (10:7) and is accessible. The reference to the Tribes of Israel by implication means that not only are God’s people to experience God’s presence in strengthening them to cope with the daily challenges of life in Palestine, but that God’s people (Israel) become that healing and life giving presence in the wider world, and we see this begin to be lived out in the life of the early Church subsequent to Pentecost. While the mission of the Twelve is “… to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”, we know from the book of Isaiah that the mission of the house of Israel is to the Nations; and in the context of today’s reading, to be a source of healing and hope in the wider world.
You and I are part of that greater world, and are privileged to be part of God’s people in today’s world. As the Twelve were given an opportunity to be a resource for healing and hope to Israel, and Israel to the wider world, so we carry a similar authority. We do, however, need to remember that with authority comes responsibility, and we remain fully accountable for the authority we have been given and the manner in which we choose to exercise that authority. You and I, just like the Twelve, are ordinary people. However, unlike the Twelve we are predominantly privileged members of our society – visible in our ability to meet online this morning – which means that we find it that much more difficult, perhaps even impossible, to truly relate to the depth of struggle that the majority of humanity experiences daily. It is not surprising that we are reactive – and sometimes violently so (even if only in language rather than action) – to much of the grief that is poured out, be it #feesmustfall, #metoo, #blacklivesmatter or other prominent movements of our day, because our privilege buffers us from the the pain these protests express, and too often we have the resources to respond without having to get too personally involved. My experience of visiting a number of the projects we support through our Ministry to The Needy Outreach programme, is that actually being on the ground, having conversations with those we support and help, makes such a difference in my ability to relate to the realities on the ground. So this is not to say that we trivialise the importance of these movements, or that we don’t care, and that our generosity in sharing our resources with those less fortunate than ourselves isn’t given with genuine concern; but it is to acknowledge that we are discomforted by anything that challenges our privilege and security, and that we automatically react in order to protect ourselves from any perceived threat to it. These are natural human responses, but ones we may not wish to acknowledge or own up to, in fear that we may be proved hypocrites or liars. The pandemic and ongoing effects of lockdown have leveled the playing fields globally, and many who have been assured of employment and income suddenly face the unexpected challenges of unemployment and possible homelessness on a scale unprecedented since the World Wars and the Great Depression a century ago, and this adds other levels of fear to our already anxious lives.
These are times in which we need to hold firmly to our heritage of faith, a heritage that all the way back in the book of Genesis declares that God created humankind and declared this creation to be not just good, but very good (1:31). As human beings we are all inherently good, and we need to trust that fully. However, we need to recognise that inherent goodness does not obviate brokenness, and both our goodness and brokenness need to be held in tension; and we need to own both. When our goodness is challenged, we need to find the courage to be vulnerable and take the time to listen – a form of reverse confession – to those who experience the effects of our brokenness; and once we have heard to then find the courage to transform that which is broken in our lives, trusting that God is with us to heal and rebuild hope; and through listening to become instruments ourselves of healing and hope for others in our world. These are extraordinary times, which call for an extraordinary response. Change on the scale demanded is difficult and unprecedented for most of us, and seemingly beyond our experience in so many ways. We need to trust as never before that the reign of God is near, that God is present, and that we are resourced by the Holy Spirit to live life in all its fulness.
I close again with a prayer by Pádraig Ó Tuama from Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community:
God of Yesterday,
we knew you then:
your promises; your words;
your walking among us.
But yesterday is gone.
And so, today, we are in need of change.
and change us.
Help us see life now
not through yesterday’s stories
but through today’s.