May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
What a week this has been. We had a shooting in San Francisco leaving 4 dead, a shooting at a congressional baseball practice because – well – they were republicans – that left an officer and a congressman in the hospital, a building fire in London where at least 30 are dead and scores more feared to be, and a verdict in the trial of Officer Yanez in the shooting death of Philando Castile in front of his girlfriend and her 4 year old child, it was the one year anniversary of the Orlando massacre at a gay nightclub, and we just learned that seven sailors are now confirmed dead after a tragic collision near the coast of Japan. And those are just some of what transpired since we worshipped just one week ago out on the glen across the street. This is only in one week – not counting all the other things that have occurred in the weeks prior.
Good God what is happening?
And why does it feel we asking that so very much these past several years?
I wondered if perhaps that is some of what Jesus was seeing all around him in the gospel that we heard today. It begins in this way “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” I think it is also why St. Paul, in the letter to the Romans, writes about suffering, though sadly this very passage has been used with what I would call theological malpractice. He writes “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Neither Jesus or St. Paul were trying to say that we must suffer, or that we must have times in our lives when we feel harassed and helpless. How crazy would that be (and yet, some pastors in decades past, and perhaps even today, would say just that very thing). No, God loves us and no one who really loves someone wishes ill upon them, or creates that for another – that would be sick. But, both Jesus and St. Paul are saying that crap happens – and terrible things sometimes too – things out of our control, things in our control.
Our lives today are filled with it too – lost jobs, illness, death of those we love, tragedy in the world and in our lives, isolation, loneliness, fear, marginalization (not being seen as worthy)… This, sadly, is not new. It has been around since the beginning of human existence. But perhaps, with the focus of the 7×24 media coverage, and the advancement of technology for the spread of information – real or fake – it all seems to be cascading down around us in ways that seem unending these days.
Nevertheless, at the core of many of the tragic events of this week is something we need to pay close attention to – because it is rooted in these very things – fear and anger about those who are different, looking out only for ourselves and no one else – lacking compassion for others. Philando Castile died for the crime of being black – because his blackness was at the root of the fear of Officer Yanez. Congressman Steve Scalise, Capital Officers David Baily and Crystal Griner, staffer Zachary Barth, and one other, were gunned down because James Hodgkinson was angry about Republican political views (though one can reasonably argue that mental illness was really the cause). And while it is too early to know fully the details of why the building in London went up in flames so quickly and so devastatingly, despite modern building codes, it is being theorized that a renovation placing cheaper flammable cladding on the outside of the building, along with inadequate fire exits and suppression systems, amounted to a case of “corporate manslaughter” – of valuing profit in pockets over people they don’t know.
What do we make of all of this?
What are we to do in the face of it all?
Jesus tells us. But before we get back to the gospel, I want to look for a moment at the passage from Romans, and to the theological malpractice some have done with it. When St. Paul writes about suffering leading to endurance, character, and hope, he is not trying to say that we should therefore be content in suffering, or in seeing others suffer. That’s the old “God only gives you what you can handle” nonsense. What he IS trying to say is that people of faith have reason to hold on to hope in the darkest of times in a way that is, for some others, more difficult to grasp, because they know that God walks with us, loves us, is ever present in our joys and in our sufferings – that they are not alone in the darkness of despair.
Yet this is not some magic formula either. Like, “hey, I’m a Christian, so I don’t really ever suffer.” If that were true – if Christians never suffered, felt pain, fear, or loneliness, never felt “harassed and helpless,” our churches would be empty.
So what does that mean for us today then? Where do we, in the sufferings of our world, find hope? That is where the gospel comes in.
Now, before I go there, other things were happening this week – wonderful things too. One of them was our nursery school graduation. It is always so much fun to see them in their little caps and gowns processing up the middle aisle of our church and receiving their diplomas – including one of our Sunday School kids – Jocelyn Treuberg. It is bittersweet too, because I will miss these kids (well, except Jocelyn – who will continue to be a parishioner even though she is now all “grown up” and ready for public school).
I love that our primary ministry is a nursery school, because even on those days when I wonder what God was thinking when calling me to the priesthood, these kids can break through straight to my heart. The other day I really needed to get up from my desk, I was walking Lexi, my church dog, and the kids in our school having fun in the playground, so Lexi and I walked over there to say “hi!” One of the girls, who had skinned her knee and had a little ice pack on it noticed that Lexi only had three legs. She asked what happened. Now, thinking it might not be good to tell her that Lexi had injured it and then it had to be removed (don’t need her thinking that will happen to her from a playground scrape), I said “Oh, you noticed that she is missing a leg. Well, she is a different dog, just like people are different from one another.” At that, another child standing there said “But if we weren’t different, no one could tell us apart!” That warmed my heart, and brought a smile to my soul.
“If we weren’t different, no one could tell us apart!”
And Lexi’s difference, her vulnerability, is making a difference too.
In the gospel, Jesus sees the people around him harassed and helpless, vulnerable and suffering, and he responds with compassion…and, something else too. He turns to his disciples and sends them out to bring hope to the suffering world. Notice that rather than just addressing it himself, Jesus does something profoundly important for us today – he sends his followers. Jesus sends his followers to be him in the world – to see, to heal, to love, to bring hope. It is the great commission, and it is clear that Jesus wants his followers to know that it is something they must be intimately engaged in – not just watching from the sidelines. They are to be him in the world, or as one commentator noted “To be sent by Jesus into the world, is to be Jesus in the world.” In other words, you can’t phone this commission stuff in from Deluth.
And how does he send them…armed with vulnerability. They are to bring nothing that would protect them, that would give them an advantage over those they are called to serve. In fact, they are to rely upon those very people, an act of complete humility – which, is the very definition of the incarnation, isn’t it. They are to take on a cloak of vulnerability, as a dog with three legs, that in this way, they may open a door – a door to conversation, to listening to the other, to compassion, to service.
Too often, we think that being Christian means to decide who is good, who is deserving, who is in or out. Or just as bad, even while well meaning, we think serving in the name of Christ means coming from a position of power to those who are weak (sometimes weak because of our power). We ladle food in their bowls, hand them money, or donate from a distance – but we don’t allow them to see us in our own weakness too.
I think the reason Jesus sends them out like this, like lambs among wolves, isn’t that those who are being served are the wolves (no, the wolves would be those who prey upon them – who may even prey upon his followers). No, the reason is that by coming to lambs as lambs they come to be Jesus with Jesus in the world – as God did in coming to us as the Incarnate One.
God knew that was the only way humanity would truly understand or be open to relationship was to be one of us, because in seeing the other, the one in need, as our brother or sister, walking humbly in the world, there is an abiding grace of opportunity for relationship through mutual vulnerability. It is perhaps the strongest we can ever be to be willing to shed our armor of control, of power, of strength, and walk to meet the one whose daily lives have never seen armor, or even dreamed of it.
That is meeting the other, the different, the sheep as a sheep.
That is walking the road toward relationship, understanding, compassion.
That is who Jesus was – the God taking on the vulnerability of humanity in Jesus.
That is our journey as followers of Christ.
And when we embark on that journey, amazing things can happen. Not just to those we encounter, but to our own souls, because those we encounter are Jesus too, and amazing things happen when we see Jesus.
But sometimes this meeting the other face to face is something thrust upon us – something we don’t hear a call to, but are pulled into through circumstances out of our own control. It is what we do with those moments that define us. It is how we respond that can change the world for those on the margins, or add to the suffering they live daily. And this week, the powerful and the marginalized were thrust into just that very place where their lives have become entangled in their mutual outcome of vulnerability.
You see, Congressman Steve Scalise has a track record of voting against marriage equality, which has the effect of denying rights to gay men and women all over the country because they love differently, and he has a conservative voting record when it comes to immigrant rights too. Yet, while we pray for his recovery, and for his family in the difficult days ahead, I also pray that in his new found vulnerability – because even a white, male, politician can feel vulnerable in a hospital bed (those opened back gowns are the great equalizer), that he is able to be a sheep that sees a sheep. Because the officers who were on his security detail – the ones who put their lives on the line and were shot protecting him and others – one of whom is still in the hospital…those two officers…one is an immigrant and the other is gay – and both are black.
You can’t make this stuff up – well, actually, apparently you can all the time, but this is not fake news.
Despite their differences of power, this shooter set Congressman Scalise, and Officers Griner and Bailey, on a trajectory toward a fleeting level playing field of vulnerability. What happens next is up to the one who can, through his own privilege, shed that vulnerability once he is healed. Will he see the person he once seemingly could not see? Will he have compassion for them and respond with the love of Christ? Only time will tell. That is between Steve Scalise and God.
As for the rest of us…we, like Lexi, have a role to play – and it is a role that Jesus is calling us to in this broken world – to stop amid the hustle and bustle, which sometimes is the way we protect ourselves – being too busy to be vulnerable – to stop, to listen, and to go forth. To accept the commission, going into the world to meet eye to eye the very sheep standing fearfully amidst wolves, not as a wolf, but as a sheep – a sheep bearing the knowledge of God’s love.
To be clear, we are not sent to be slaughtered ourselves. What would be the point of that? That is not the way in which we are to understand vulnerability here. We are not meant to be weak, but to be strong. Strength is not a measure of power, but a measure of how power is used. Nor is the definition of rich the one with the most wealth. The weakest person on earth is the one who abuses power and hurts others. The poorest person on earth is the one with means who uses that wealth with no concern for others.
No, this is not Jesus telling us to be weak, or to be impoverished. This is Jesus telling us to be our kick-butt powerful people we need to be, as he was – the son of God who came to humbly serve.
We are sent in this way that we might come to listen before speaking, to see before showing, to be led before guiding. Only in this humble way will we be symbols of hope in this suffering world. Only in this way will we be models of love in this world of hate. Only in this way will we be Jesus, rather than just talking about Jesus.
Jesus says in the gospel that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” The harvest is plentiful – sadly enough. It is a harvest born of bigotry, hatred, fear, isolation, and greed that has created so many who feel helpless. The laborers – sadly today we think it is the government, or the clergy, or…well, somebody will do something. But Jesus is “looking at you kid,” and at me, and at anyone who will listen to his voice – the voice of our shepherd, calling us – his sheep – out into the world to those who feel lost – we are the laborers!1 And we must begin our work as he did, with compassion – which means not to feel sympathy, but to feel their pain in such a way that it deeply affects us – not to the point of disabling our own lives – but in such a way as to enable our ministry. And that type of engagement – to feel compassion – requires a level of commitment that involves the heart, rather than only the mind.
Jesus is calling us to go out and serve as he served. To live our ministry in a model of mutual dependence – the cornerstone of building relationship – the very foundation of a better world. To feel compassion, and in vulnerability and humility respond with love and hope – to the Jesus in them – as the Jesus we are.
For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here: