A Sermon for 18 June 2017
A reading from the gospel of Matthew 9:35-10:23 (NRSV). Listen for God’s word to us.
“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. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him. 5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. 11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. 16See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.’”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Have you heard of the difference between a spider and a starfish? This is not a joke. It’s a serious question posed in the book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations (Ori Brafman & Rod A. Beckstrom). In describing the findings of the book, the reader is told that “if you cut off a spider’s leg, it’s crippled; if you cut off its head, it dies” (https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B000TK5BQY/ref=tmm_aud_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1497557999&sr=8-1#audibleProductDescription_1497558171162). Not much use left for a dead spider. They just get swept up into the trash. . . . Starfish are different. Starfish, or sea stars as scientists refer to them today, “are famous for their ability to regenerate limbs, and in some cases, entire bodies” (www.animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/starfish/). National Geographic explains that starfish “accomplish this by housing most or all of their vital organs in their arms. Some require the central body to be intact to regenerate, but a few species can grow an entirely new (starfish) just from a portion of a severed limb” (Ibid.). They’re remarkable too in that their stomachs actually can come out of their shells to envelop prey and digest it before returning back into its body. But that’s just gross so who really wants to think about that. Rather, the authors of The Starfish and the Spider would have us focus on their argument that “organizations fall into two categories: “traditional ‘spiders,’ which have a rigid hierarchy and top-down leadership, and revolutionary ‘starfish,’ which rely on the power of peer relationships” (see amazon.com reference above). Any wonder which types do better in today’s growing culture of inter-dependence? The Starfish and the Spider puts forth intriguing examples like how the Apaches fended off the powerful Spanish army for 200 years. And the power of a simple circle. The need today for catalysts with the uncanny ability to bring people together. And even how Alcoholics Anonymous has reached millions without a top dog – just a shared ideology and those a bit further down the path of recovery reaching back to aid another along the way. . . . Starfish principles built upon the connection of peers, offer a whole different way to be together in the world.
Jesus obviously was a starfish man. He knew God’s mission would be pointless if he approached it as a spider. One slice of the head and it’ll all be over. Instead, he went about calling people together. Like the twelve we hear named in the gospel of Matthew: Peter, Andrew, James and John. Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew, James and Thaddaeus and Simon and Judas too. Jesus called into a circle ones he encouraged to follow that God’s mission might be regenerated after the catalyst of the movement was no longer physically present. We don’t encounter all the details of what they did until after the stories of the gospels give way to the stories of the Acts of the Apostles. But we do learn just a third of the way into the gospel of Matthew that Jesus sent out in his name these men. According to this portion of the gospel, Jesus passed on the healing portion of God’s mission – casting out unclean spirits and curing every disease and sickness. He instructed his followers to go to proclaim in word and deed the good news of a kingdom come near. They were to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons” (Mt. 10:8). They were to rely upon the goodness of their hosts, which God indeed would provide. It wouldn’t always be easy – the world might seem a cruel and unreceptive place. But the Spirit of God would be with them. And, according to the gospel of Mark’s telling of the same occurrence, Jesus gave them each a partner (Mark 6:7). Buddied up they went out as six different pairs to spread the healing work of Jesus further than he ever could have gone on his own. The gospel of Mark also tells of their excited return (Mark 6:30-31), when Jesus tried to sweep them away for a retreat where they could rest and swop stories of all they had seen and done. Truly Jesus was a starfish man.
The gospel of Matthew explains the need for that kind of shared power. Jesus was busy fulfilling the mission of God, when the crowds moved him. Matthew records: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36). It is then that the plea arises for many laborers to be sent out into the plentiful harvest. So Jesus calls twelve together to tell them to go out. Brilliant. Just brilliant to utilize starfish principles. Enlisting in the work of God more than just himself!
It’s needed like that today. For a long time, I think, we had it a bit confused. That Jesus liked spiders over starfish. Maybe a menacing hairy spider insisted it was so. But it’s clear from his actions – his calling a whole dozen together – that his movement was going to take more than just one. Peer-to-peer passing would be key. And while each might have different gifts, we all get pointed in the same direction. “Go! Out there!” Jesus says. “To the crowds for whom I have compassion.” . . . A hymn from the late 1990s says it best – and it’s from the Christians in Cuba so it has a really fun, get-your-toe-tapping, get-yourself-ready-to-get-on-out-of-your-seat beat. The words go: “sent out in Jesus’ name, our hands are ready now to make the earth the place in which the kingdom comes. The angels cannot change a world of hurt and pain into a world of love, of justice and of peace. The task is ours to do, to set it really free. O help us to obey and carry out your will” (“Sent Out in Jesus’ Name,” #2184 in Sing the Faith, 2003). . . . It’s still needed like that today. That every one of us go forth into wherever we find ourselves each week. We’re now the recruits in God’s healing mission. The ones to be hope in the world. There’s certainly enough news to remind us how desperately it is needed. . . . What can you do today to bring healing wherever you will go? Can you speak a little gentler? Listen a bit more intently? Do you know what it feels like to hear words of encouragement when you feel like you just can’t go on? Do you remember how sweet it feels when someone truly gives their undivided attention to the words you just have to get out of your heart? Each one of us is capable of that kind of healing. . . . What about just being there when someone has a need? “Two are better than one,” the wisdom of Ecclesiastes reminds. “For if they fall, one will lift up the other,” the words go on. “But woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help” (Eccles. 4:9a, 10). How many of the people you will encounter this week are alone? I’m not just talking about people who aren’t married or don’t have children at home. Because how many people too are surrounded daily in families, maybe even with loving spouses; and still they feel all alone? There’s great power in someone just being present. Letting us know they have our back. That even if they can’t understand exactly who we are or what’s going on with us; they will remain, at our side, patiently, for however long it takes. Can you calm with a gentle, welcomed touch? Last week I met a chemo nurse who makes a point to go around the clinic every now and again just to offer simple shoulder massages to those there for treatment – but most often to her co-workers with tense shoulders who are able to hook up their next patient. That’s a profound ministry of healing in a place that can feel like a living hell. . . . By the time we get to the end of Matthew’s gospel, the Risen and ascending Christ will give the command to go out into all the world. But first he commanded his followers to go to their fellow Israelites – those all around them each day. And it wasn’t some lofty command like baptize and teach. First it was a ministry of compassion. Healing however they could in his name. It doesn’t always take the miraculous, magnificent acts. Sometimes all that’s needed is us being fully human, which means being fully present in love to the fellow human being at our side.
That’s the power of the movement built on starfish principles. The regeneration of his Way wherever we are each day.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2017 (All rights reserved.)