Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd...
Reflection by Kate Matthews
What is the church to be about? In today's Gospel passage from Matthew, we learn that the church is to be about healing, teaching, and proclaiming the good news. And the church is to be about movement, not static, stay-at-home, preserve-our-level-of-comfort-and-let-them-come-to-us spirituality, but a bold "going-out" into the world that God loves so passionately, sharing what God has given us with those who have not yet heard God speaking to them, or felt the touch of God's love upon their lives, or have not known how to name either one.
How do we know this is what the church is to be about? To find an answer, we look (as always) at Jesus and what he was about. Matthew reminds us once again that Jesus didn't sit still but traveled about, curing and teaching and healing, and when he saw the hunger and need and confusion of "the crowds," he felt profound compassion for them. Jesus both moved and was moved. We are to see the need of the world, its hungers and confusion, and like Jesus, we're called to respond with compassion and tender care. And it also seems that we are called not to sit still but, like Jesus, to be on the move, open to those we meet along the way.
Our reason for being the church
This has powerful implications for how we see our ministry. It's tempting for us in the church to see its "reason for being" in meeting the needs of those (of us) who "pay their way," perhaps like members of a private club. And yet the gospel impels us to interact with the world beyond our walls, right in our own neighborhood, or in places far away, places which our compassion can reach even though we may never physically go there ourselves.
The image of "sheep without a shepherd" calls us to reach out into the world, to see all of God's children as precious and loved and deserving of our attention, energy, resources, and care. We have perhaps too often interpreted it only as referring to a shortage of pastors for the church, an internal problem "we" need to do something about, like recruiting more students for seminary. But the tender image of sheep without a shepherd more properly, and more poignantly, speaks of a world that is looking to the church, to people of faith, with questions and doubts and real, human needs.
Through this story of the way the heart of Jesus responded to the crowds, God is still speaking to the church that is the Body of Christ in this world, today. Jesus, through his compassionate response to the suffering of the crowd, embodies his own instructions to his disciples on how to be the church, "the Body of Christ" in the world. His actions demonstrate his instructions about the work and travel of his disciples, those who follow him and allow God to continue to work through them.
What is the good news that God is still speaking today? It is about more than just proper religious beliefs: right beliefs are just the beginning point, or, perhaps we find our way toward those right beliefs through faithful practices of mercy and compassion, and the lessons we learn along the way. Perhaps right beliefs are really the realizations that arise from our experience of God's love, as we offer that love and receive it as well.
What is evangelism?
What should evangelists do when they encounter human suffering and need during their travels? Thomas Long says that "Any notion that the church ought to quit getting involved in non-spiritual matters and get back to its 'real job' of preaching the gospel and saving souls misses the point.'Preaching the gospel and saving souls' means grappling with disease and the demonic, with social segregation and the powers of death. It means, therefore, wrestling with issues of public health care, with racial and social alienation, with the powers of domination and oppression that bleed the life out of a community." Do you think Long's definition of preaching the gospel matches what most folks today think of as "evangelism"?
As you look over the list of those early disciples, you may notice the several descriptive details given, about Matthew the tax collector and Simon "the Cananaean," two people who would have been on opposite sides of the Roman controversy, since Matthew was a tool of the empire and Simon would have been a passionate revolutionary opposing it. Yet they both found their lives transformed by their encounter with Jesus. Who are the people in churches who might be surprised to find themselves sharing a pew, sharing communion, sharing their lives, with one another? God still speaks in ways that surprise us, pulling together and planting together and then sending out together the most unexpected of mission partners.
Needed: a change of heart
Boundaries and preconceptions are obliterated by the dream of a church that truly welcomes all, but transformation--a change of heart, or hearts--often needs to happen to make it possible for that dream to become reality. That kind of transformation makes it possible for diverse people to come together and discover, and experience, their shared humanity and graced condition in the eyes of a loving God who sees the "sheep without a shepherd" and responds with compassion and tender care. There are surprises inside and outside the walls of the church, every single day.
It's God who works through us and through the life of the church, and it's God who sends the workers who are needed. As you look around--inside and outside the church walls, who are the workers for this harvest, which cannot wait, workers whose ministry needs to be empowered and supported? God is supplying the needs of the church for the harvest in ways that we may not recognize unless we think in fresh, new ways. Who, then, are the unexpected workers, the teachers and apostles ("those sent"), whose "descriptive details" might make them unlikely, but highly effective, bearers of good news in your community? Does your community receive--and send--them that way?
God of the prophets and apostles, you greeted old Abraham and Sarah with news of wonder and life. Send us into the world to preach good news, as Jesus did, heal the sick, resist evil, and bring the outcast home. Amen.
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.