The Gift of Presence
For nearly two weeks, those of us in the Saint Paul Area Synod have been blessed by the presence of ou[...]
Sermon for Saturday of the Week of Easter 5
May 20, 2017, Saint Paul Area Synod Assembly, Burnsville, MN
The Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Texts: Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-38
35Then 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.”
Even if we didn’t know what comes next in the story, we could tell by the way this reading ends that Jesus is making an appeal to his listeners to be the laborers who are needed, to be those who respond to God’s call to bring in the harvest. In the context of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus and his followers faced a world of uncertainty and anxiety, and brought into it a word of hope and reassurance in God. This was a word that was badly needed then, and one that is badly needed now.
For I believe that there has not been a time in modern life in which there has been a greater need for compassion and hope than at the present moment. Jesus saw the crowds—restless, uncertain, anxious—and his heart went out to them. He shared their pain, suffered with them, and responded to their need with a message of reassurance and courage and trust—that the God who sent him was their God also, merciful and sure, and as close to them as Jesus himself.
I know from talking with pastors and deacons and laypersons in my synod that our church lives now in anxiety about the future. Nothing seems as predictable as it once was; old certainties have faded. How, they ask, can our congregations have done so much so well for so long and not be packed to the rafters with grateful, generous members. Why are so many otherwise well-intentioned people apparently indifferent to their need for community in God? Why, indeed, is church not important to our own children and grandchildren as it has been to us? What have we done?
And in our nation, the spirits have been more sharply divided than ever since the last election—and not just then, but for a long time leading up to it. As a historian, I know better than to think that major shifts in public life just happen all of a sudden—the kind of separation into two worlds of thought we are experiencing right now doesn’t just occur overnight. Gradually, our neighbors have been drawn into seeing themselves within opposing narratives.
The stories we tell about the reality around us are not all the same. Some live in hope for a better, more complete sharing of our resources in ways that are kind to the earth and at the same time compassionate toward those who lack advantage and privilege. Other see reality as a competition for resources that will never quite reach as far as they need to, and which must be defended and fought for, and sacrifices made to protect those closest and most important to us. One narrative sees value in difference and diversity; the other sees challenge and loss in the breakdown of tradition and a unifying myth of identity.
Harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, Jesus’ listeners looked for certainty and direction and hope and liberation from his message. So do we. Where do we go from here? What comes next? For our church, for our nation—even for our neighborhoods and our families? How can we hear the voice of Jesus right now?
I believe our faith compels us to engage with one another in ways that are kind but honest, and that ask us to account for the choices we make in our lives and with our resources. How we live on this fragile earth; how we interact with each other across differences and govern ourselves collectively; how we regard the needs of others as needs of our own—all these questions are moral questions. They are God questions. They are church questions. And they are questions we must ask ourselves.
I believe that God is using us, using our church, our congregations and we ourselves to be messengers of hope in our time. I believe Jesus’ compassion lives in and among us as Jesus himself is present in our worship, in our teaching, and in our hearts. And Jesus still calms and consoles us and gives us strength for what we have to do—which is to look around us for the signs of the harvest he calls us to reap. For we are the ones Jesus calls, the laborers needed for the harvest.
We are the ones called by Jesus for this hour and this place, to be signs of God’s love in our world. We are the ones who claim a story of love and sacrifice and redemption and forgiveness that needs so badly to be heard right now. We tell of a God who, in the midst of our anxiety and uncertainty, breaks into our self-made narratives and provides a new one.
And listening to Jesus suddenly we realize that the scarcity we think we see around us is actually within us—keeping us holding tight to that which we should be sharing generously. Suddenly, as with new eyes, Jesus helps us see that those neighbors different from us who seem to challenge our ways of being with alternate, unfamiliar ones are not threats but gifts, waiting to open us up to new angles on human experience.
Here’s the surprise: that harvest out there Jesus is speaking of is not prospective members—the mythical “young families” whom we may lure in to our churches by baiting the trap with good VBS or peppy music or polo shirts instead of vestments—in fact, the harvest before us is not an external one at all. The harvest that is so plentiful is our own capacity to change, to be able to see the world around us not as a field to be plowed or a struggle to be won, but as a gift to us to teach us new things all the time; to open us up to practice the compassion Jesus shows us; to see others not as objects but as friends.
This is the labor to which Jesus calls us: to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is the harvest God offers: to be transformed by that neighbor-love into people of true compassion, able to feel one another’s pain and joy, and growing together—across differences—into the God who loves us all, and shows us that in Jesus. Amen.