Gospel: Matthew 9:35-38
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 was the crowds, he had compassion for them.because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and our lord Jesus Christ. It goes without saying today that Christ Lutheran is extremely excited, our excitement only matched by the members of Oak Grove. I want to thank all the members who worked hard to channel their excitement and love into the celebration of this day, from the music, to the meal and all the prep. It is a long awaited labor of love, of many hands gifting their skills and time and effort to show it. When Jesus says the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few, he is not talking about my church.
Steve, I thought I’d preach one of those sermons where I look back on my 15 years and say here’s what I wish I would have known, what I wish I had learned in seminary. But there’s literally facebook groups for that information. Your days in the parish will be approximately 87% things they did not teach you about in seminary. That may seem like bad news, and you may feel unprepared for the daunting task of learning while doing. That’s good. Stay humble.
You have already discovered that the bulk of your weekly work will not be crafting an eloquent and thought provoking sermon – but may include many more administrative tasks, plumbing problems, communication conflicts, and general hat-switches than putting pen to paper in order to preach the Gospel. But in all of those things. Find the good news. Find the Gospel. Not just in your sermons, but in each task set before you, and especially every time it’s hard.
Jesus tells us the laborers are few, but I could mention any number of labors that God calls to work in his harvest throughout scripture. Who generally run the other way, argue with God, make wrong choices, nearly get everyone killed, and kill others, and cheat and lie, and still God calls them. Isaiah will do. Called to bear witness to God’s kingdom in the midst of greed, violence and suffering. A man of unclean lips. From a people of unclean lips. A people who worship God with their actions but their hearts deceive and from their hearts comes speech that…. Well, we’ve all been there. We are all inadequate to the task, weak and weary. Our speech is less than graceful, and yet we find ourselves raising our hand, But God’s power is made perfect in our weakness and that’s good news.
The beauty of the vows you are about to take and the office you are about to represent is a multi-faceted cut gemstone. Hold it carefully. You’ll look at it and see no two days are ever the same. No two pastors fit within the office the same way. Each has their own gifts and their own struggles. Sometimes the way you cling tightly to that precious gem will slice open your palm and wound you. Sometimes the way you hold the gem you’ll literally see Jesus shining through. That’s good news.
Some days you will kneel in reverence before the throne and realize the hosts of heaven are indeed with you and calling you, and in that very same moment, you’ll have a coal to your lips and experience the searing pain of what it means to bear public witness to suffering you cannot change or prevent. Nothing you can say will take away another’s pain. But your presence can bring the whole host of heaven into that room, even as your lips cannot make words. Believe it or not, that’s good news.
As I wrote this sermon and contemplated both the good news we are confronted with and the Good News we must seek out, I joyfully remembered that our Bishop wrote a whole book on it. What is the Gospel? The Gospel is good news. It is the gift of life, of being forgiven and though it is “inherently elusive”, the power of God for salvation. It is the story of Jesus. According to the Bishop, it’s a lot of other things too, but you’ll have to read it to find out the rest. (Kurt Kusserow, What Is The Gospel?)
This scripture you have picked gives us a snapshot of the story of Jesus, and an opportunity to follow him. Jesus goes to people. He meets people where they are at. Now, you are not called to go to all the cities and all the villages, but you can go to the schools and the workplaces and the neighborhoods. Go to the places where people are in your parish and begin there. Don’t wait for your congregation to come to you. Meet them where they are.
Jesus doesn’t just share the good news, he lives good news. Jesus proclaims what God has done and what God is doing. There are enough preachers who tell people what they need to do to be saved. Don’t be one of them. There are enough pressures put on people who believe they are not enough and are lacking in what it takes to be whole. Tell people and show people where God is already at work in them and teach people how God makes us whole and well. And live like God is present and active in your own life, because you’ll find good news there.
Jesus responds with compassion. You already know this and it’s a crowd favorite to bring up this Greek word, and its Latin roots as well. We do well to remember that compassion means to suffer with, and that it starts with a gut feeling – a physical response to suffering and the plight of others. Some of the hardest work you will do as a pastor is to show up to be with people on the worst day of their life. When you show up with compassion, you meet them with the Gospel, and you don’t even have to preach it with words.
Attempt to always operate from that place, and show up with compassion. When you cannot, vent that to a colleague until you dig down to the bottom of whatever feelings are not compassion. And place those feelings elsewhere with a trusted colleague. Because while the laborers seem to be few, the number is not zero and you are not alone.
Gone are the days where Shepherds compete for sheep, gone are the days of lone ranger ministry where you just heap it all onto your shoulders and get on with your work. Look around at those who have showed up for you today, and think of the many more who are not physically present. Just by looking around the room myself, I am made profoundly thankful for their witness and their ministry and their kindness and a listening ear. Never hesitate to go to a colleague or to your bishop for that matter. The ministerium of ordained clergy and deacons is a misfit tribe of people just trying their best to live the good news in a way that others can see it, publicly. We’re not more holy or more pious than anyone else. And that’s good news, because we are not the only laborers whose work proclaims the gospel and serves the harvest.
You are not called to be the CEO or the CFO or the COO of your congregation, but you are called to be a co-worker in the gospel. You are set aside for certain roles and responsibilities, but your work, shoulder to shoulder with those to whom you minister matters. You’ve already found out that the key to ministry isn’t in how many great sermons you can preach, or how many great programs you can start, or how well you organize your time. The key will be in relationships and compassion.
Bishop Kusserow writes, “If the Gospel needed to be said without using any words at all, open arms just might do it, for in that physical gesture in both an invitation of welcome extended to another and the vulnerability of the self that is risked in the act of extending welcome.” (Kurt Kusserow, What Is The Gospel?)
You will wrestle with that level of vulnerability and your arms will grow tired from extending them for so many so often. That’s good news. Because you are not Jesus. You will struggle mightily to forgive those who harm you, and take advantage of you. That is also good. Because you are not Jesus. Not being Jesus is good news, because we already have a savior. When you kneel, and the weight of those hands is lifted, and you stop worrying about whether you’ll collapse under the weight of your colleagues whose hands are much heavier than they look, then you’ll have a stole placed on your shoulders. Like a memory of the weight, not as heavy most days, but always there. You have been yoked, which means you are not alone, as we are yoked with you. A team of beasts of burden, who shoulder the responsibility of caring for God’s word preached among us and the sacraments of God’s grace showered upon us. But we are also yoked to Jesus, who carries our burdens.
A mentor of mine once told me that the hardest part of the job was learning to give it to Jesus. All the things you can’t fix. The suffering you must witness. The conflict unresolved. The history and the trauma. The daily list of tasks that are never done. The weight of carrying the responsibility of being a public witness to Christ in a world where folks don’t trust the church too much.
Give it to Jesus, hand it over to God as many times a day that you have to. On the days when that beautiful gem of a calling cuts into your flesh. On the days when your lips cannot form words to speak, and your well of compassion runs dry. One the days when the yoke feels too heavy. Give it to Jesus. The good news may be elusive, but it can always be found even in our darkest and weakest moments. Because it is not by your own skill or might that you will live into this role and office, but by the grace of God, with the Spirit’s gifts in abundance for each day. And that’s the good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Pastor Erin Evans