This morning I want to call out of you some of your religious imagination.
Suppose you lived a long time ago back in Galilee, and you were one of those folks who was following Jesus around. You heard him speak, and it was as if he knew your very heart. You looked him in the eye and felt for the first time that there was a possibility that God was real and cared about you. You saw him heal sick people, throw demons over the cliff. He would absolutely break you up with his humor. You even sat down with him and ate and drank and told stories. You really like him. But he is different. He doesn’t seem to be afraid of the things you are afraid of. He talks back to the high and mighty, and you love to hear him do that. He is fun to be around.
Then one day you are sitting by the Sea of Galilee, your toes in the water. The sun is bright. You feel its warmth and your eyelids keep closing. Jesus comes and sits beside you. He says, Tom, or Suzy, or Sally, or Harry, I want you do something for me. Right away you are ready to do it. You want him to like you. You want him to be your friend. He really has taught you a new way of looking at life and seeing God. So you are ready.
Then he says to you, “I want you to go out from here to your friends and tell them the good news that the Kingdom of God is near to them. I want you to cure the sick. I want you to raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.”
Suddenly you are wide-awake. You want me to do what? Excuse me Jesus, but I am not in that league. I mean, you can do it, and don’t get me wrong, I like hanging around with you. You are really good at that stuff, but not me. I wouldn’t know where to begin. Ask me to do anything else but don’t send me out there. I’ll be embarrassed. I’ll fail. It ain’t me, Lord, you’re looking for.”
He doesn’t seem to hear you. He just assumes you are going to do it. You. By yourself! The only other thing he tells you is not to waste time on people who will not listen to you, but to “pay attention to those who do.”
Yup! The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few, aren’t they? We have had a good harvest here at St. James’s. We are blessed. We are strong. We are smart. We are good. But which of us is going to do the work of Jesus? Jesus sends the disciples out because he understands that religion is not believing in God in someone else, it is believing in God in you. The Good News is that God loves you. God rejoices in everything you do for God, even the smallest things, whenever you use your life to act on his behalf. God appreciates you even if your best thought is all you have to give. God knows that faith is not a spectator sport. You cannot be a follower of Jesus on the sidelines. It never, never works.
A long time ago I was a Director of Admissions at a number of good universities. I interviewed lots of students, read untold files and recommendations, examined all sorts of test scores, all designed to gain acceptance and sometimes money. It was the incarnation of the undying American myth to be better than the next guy. It is the world in which we live, except that is not how Jesus sees us.
Jesus preached not to the successful but to failures. In fact, the successful wondered at his preaching because Jesus’ preaching was out to change them, ask for sacrifices, and make the unseen God the center of their lives. Jesus would have a hard time preaching to us, because we sit in the seat of the successful in our day. In this congregation we have a lot of wealthy folks, maybe we don’t consider ourselves wealthy, but compared to most of the rest of the world we are off the charts. We are educated. We are successful. And we are Episcopalians. Failure in this community is generally viewed as a capital crime. We don’t want to fail. We don’t want our children to fail. We don’t like people who fail, whether it’s at their jobs, their marriages, their parenting, or their golf game.
We don’t believe that we need any help, and if we do we feel as if we have failed. Jesus consorted with harlots, drunks, publicans, lepers, and anybody else that needed help. My point is that Jesus addresses God’s love to the alienated, the estranged, the unloved and the unlovely. People like us have a hard time hearing Jesus, because deep inside we believe we are self-sufficient, or at least we work hard at appearing that way. But even deeper inside there is that place that haunts us and that we dare not show anyone, a place of doubt, despair, failure, uncertainty, vulnerability and sadness. And it’s in all of us and Jesus knows it. And I know it.
When Jesus sends his disciples out, he knows that they don’t have to go far to find the sick, the leper, the hurt, because all of us qualify. How often I hear St. James’s described as a wealthy, powerful, traditional Virginia church. Whenever I hear us described that way my heart breaks, because in God’s eyes we are none of the above. We are a collection of reluctant, hard-headed, broken people, the very ones God wants to save.
Jesus knew something about righteousness. It was not a possession to be driven around town like a shiny new car. The best righteousness is invisible. True righteousness stresses laughter, warmth and love. It embraces and includes and is never used to exclude.
How many times in your life has somebody asked you the silly test question… “Are you saved?” And you fumble for an answer, not certain what to say, feeling as if you are being tested against some invisible standard.
The next time somebody asks you that give them my answer: “I’m sorry that you have asked such a question, because if you knew Jesus, you would never have asked.” It shuts them up.
The answer to the question is not “are you saved?” Of course you are. The real question is, “what are you going to do about it?” Jesus is sending out his friends so they will see the power of love of God first hand, not through him, but in themselves and in others.
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Folks, that’s us. All of us say “Baaa.” We are the ones that raise the compassion in Jesus. He sees where you are helpless, hurting, sick, alienated, or outcast, and he says,” Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
In every setting in the Bible, Jesus seems to have that uncanny ability see the pain in others and love them in that pain. Even when they are behaving badly—for he never fails to recognize that what is deserving of censure at one level, is worthy of compassion at a deeper level. What Jesus understood was that God does not punish us for our sins, our sins are enough to break us by themselves. God takes on the task of loving us back to health. God does not desire the death of one sinner, no matter how evil or bad we may seem to ourselves.
I heard a story this week about Oola, a woman who lives in Tanzania. She was married. Her husband beat her. He sold her to other men. She had borne eight children. Seven had been born dead. The only way Oola survived was by sewing. She was just 30 years old when her eyes began to fail her. She became so depressed she was going to kill herself. By coincidence—and by the way, I do not believe in coincidences—she meant a husband and wife who traveling in Tanzania. They were Christians. They saw the enormous pain on Oola’s face. They stopped and listen to her story. They bought from her husband and took her to a Church community. They told her that God loved her and that they would be God’s hands and eyes for her. The Church they brought her to cared for her. The next time these Westerners saw her, she was seated on the first bench of an outdoor Church. She was clapping and singing. She walked seven miles to get there carrying goat’s milk as her only offering. And she said, “I still cannot wait to die to see my seven children when it is time. But I have learned that God loves me enough to use me and there are others in this world that I must still love.”
That’s transformation, healing, and ministry. And the reason it happened is because two people paused to care. We do not have to travel to darkest Africa to find people like Oola. They are in our neighborhoods, our families, among our friends, or the pew beside you.
Peter Gomes, the Minister at Harvard, tells a story of sitting next to one of Harvard’s leading scientists at dinner one night. As they became acquainted over the celery, the scientist said to Gomes, “Oh yes, you’re over there in that church, pretty building; now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against religion. It’s all right for those who need it, but personally I think it’s a crutch.” Gomes took the bait. He said, “you are precisely right. Religion is a crutch. It’s not meant for the self-sufficient. It is support for the lame, the blind, the paralyzed, the lost, and there are an awful lot of people, some of whom reside on the faculty who might be able to walk a bit better, see a bit more clearly, and understand life more dearly if they could see themselves limping about. By the way, what makes you think you do not have a limp?”
Who needs the church? I do! You do! The sick, the crippled, the blind, the deaf, the dumb, the less than perfect, the far from whole. We need the church and the Savior whom it seeks to serve because on our own we have nothing but our pride and that won’t get us anywhere. We need the Church, dear friends, because we need each other when we confront our failures and embrace our hopes; we need to do it together. This is why Jesus calls us out and sends us to others so that we, in being his hands, his words, his love, can be made whole. I am convinced Jesus sent out his disciples to heal so that they would be healed. By the grace of the Lord Jesus and the love of God and the sweet communion of the Holy Spirit we are kept in that relationship which offers us healing for all our diseases, and gives us the great privilege to bring that love to others.