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 saw 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.”
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. These 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; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When 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; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When 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.”
hen I lived in Chicago, I liked to go running along the shore of Lake Michigan. It was a beautiful place to run. To one side, the blue of the water stretched as far as the eye could see until it met the blue of the sky on the horizon. To the other side was a fantastic view of the Chicago skyline, all glittering and shiny.
The only trouble was that my preferred route for getting to from my apartment to the lakeshore took me directly underneath a certain tree, and in that tree lived a certain red-winged blackbird. That bird did not like me.
It waited for me in that tree, and every time I would pass underneath, it would attack me. With a shrieking call, it descended. I heard it coming over my headphones, and started looking all around, desperately trying to spot it above me, my arms waiving wildly above my heads. I would feel its wings against my hands, its little talons grasping at my hair. Then, just as suddenly as it began, it stopped. Having passed sufficiently beyond its tree, the bird would turn back to the safety of the branches and wait for next time.
Because, of course, there would be a next time. We were both too stubborn to change anything in our situation. I was too stubborn to change my path to a more bird-free route. The bird was too stubborn to find a new home where it would no longer be offended by the sight of my countenance. Now, I’m sure that there is some sort of personal revelation waiting for me in that story, but I refuse to see it.
We are told that when Jesus looked out at the crowd in today’s gospel reading, he saw that they were harassed and helpless. When I hear this, I cannot help but to think of my ill-tempered bird and picture the crowds of people being attacked by great flocks of irritable red-winged blackbirds. I cannot help but imagine Jesus looking out and seeing a great mass of arms waiving wildly in the air in a futile attempt to ward off the shrieking birds.
Of course, this is not what was happening. That which harassed these helpless crowds was not so easily seen. And though they flailed about mightily, it was not a flailing that could be observed by looking upon them. The crowds that day were afflicted by something entirely different than angry birds, they were afflicted by the great occupying force of the Roman Empire. They lived in a world where they had no political agency. They lived in a world where they were mired in poverty, a world where there was no upward mobility because cleverly designed taxes siphoned off their wealth to feed the empire and turned them one against the other. They lived in fear that should they do anything to protest, anything to rock the boat, that the full force of the empire could shrieking down upon them.
They were a people afflicted, a people harassed. They put on a good face, though, and did their best to hide it from their children. They did their best to hide it from one another. They did their best to hide it even from their own selves. But Jesus, seeing the crowd, could see right through them.
There is something about Jesus that calls the harassed and the helpless to him. It was true two-thousand years ago and it is true today. Just as the crowds gathered around to see Christ back then, are we not also crowding together here in this place, seeking Christ today?
We don’t like to think of ourselves as harassed. We especially don’t like to think of ourselves as helpless. But that does not change our reality. Our affliction may not come at the hands of an occupying empire, but that does not mean it does not find us in a thousand different ways.
It can come as an illness that goes from bad to worse—a cancer that defies treatment, reappearing and popping up just when you think you have it beat. Or as mental illness that reaches out and touches entire families and the relationships that bind them together. It can find us when our children struggle with addiction and each new day brings the fresh terror that this might be the day that brings the phone call and the news that they have gone a step too far, that they have taken a step from which there is no coming back.
It can find us in struggling relationships and failing marriages. It can find us as we struggle to see a path forward in the face of bills that we can’t afford, bills that we can’t pay. We are harassed by the struggles we face in our lives, big and small, that pile on us, one after another, until we feel overwhelmed. Until we feel smothered and utterly helpless.
But we put on a good face. We hide it from our children. We hide it from our spouses. We hide it form one another, even as we sit side-by-side in our pews. If we push it down deep enough, we even hide it from ourselves. But Jesus looks at us and sees behind our good face. Jesus looks at us and sees right through us.
This is the beginning of the Good News. For Jesus looks at us and sees through us to the heart of what afflicts us, and what he sees brings forth not judgment. Jesus sees us, and it brings forth compassion. For the Good News of the Gospel is that God comes into the world, not to judge the world, but out of compassion for it. Compassion for us. And in Jesus, God’s compassion for us is demonstrated.
How does Jesus demonstrate this compassion? He heals the people. He drives out the things that afflict and harass, the things that shriek and grab at them. He makes them whole. But he does more than that. Jesus gives us one another.
Looking at the great crowd of harassed and helpless people, Jesus had compassion on them. So he sent the disciples to them. Two-by-two, Jesus sent the disciples into the world to heal the afflicted and to the helpless bring aid. Two-by-two, he sent them out to proclaim the Good News.
Now, the disciples were not any less harassed or helpless than the crowds around them. Arguably, they were more so. But that did not matter, for this is what it means to be a disciple of Christ—to be sent. It is to be sent into the world to be the agents of Christ’s compassion, even as we ourselves need Christ’s compassion.
My friends, even as we crowd together here, seeking Christ this day because of the many and varied ways that we are harassed and helpless, we are also sent. We are sent to one another to bear the Good News. We are sent out into the world, so ripe with need, to bear the Good News. And the Good News is this, that we are not alone, for Christ has given us one another. And the Good News is this, we are not alone, for Christ is with us and will always be with us.
Preached by Adam Yates