Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 18, 2023

Matthew 9:35-10:23

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Last summer we had a drive-in movie here in our church parking lot. We watched the movie “Overcomer.” As some of you will recall, “Overcomer” is about a girl named Hannah who, though she is asthmatic, runs cross country for her high school. Hannah makes it to the big state championship race. Her father, who is hospitalized, can’t be there to cheer her on, but he records an audio track for her to listen to through her earbuds as she runs. You see, Hannah’s father used to run cross country himself. He looked at the map of the course, anticipating the challenges and obstacles she would face. He timed everything just so, and told her to push play when the starting gun went off. As she runs, in her earbuds she hears her father’s voice telling her about the challenges she should watch for. She hears her father’s voice coaching her through the steep hills. She hears her father’s voice telling her he loves her and to not to give up.

In our gospel reading for today, Jesus isn’t sending his disciples out to run a cross country race, but he is sending them out to run a challenging course with many obstacles.

Jesus saw the crowds and had compassion for them. He saw so many people who were harassed and helpless. They were like sheep without a shepherd. They were set upon by predatory and destructive forces. Sometimes they were their own worst enemy. They were threatened and bewildered, hurting and afraid, wandering and lost.

Then Jesus 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.” Jesus saw these masses of people wandering aimlessly, limping and lost, as an opportunity. These are the people he had come for. This was the reason he came. It was time to gather them in. It was time for the harvest!

And so, in order to multiply his work of proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, Jesus commissioned his disciples to go out into this harvest, gathering people into his kingdom. Jesus gave his disciples authority to do ministry in his name. He gave them power to act in his stead, bringing his healing, his forgiveness, bringing new life in his name.

But this wouldn’t be flatland farming. This would be more like farming in the Palouse, with all its hills. Knowing there would be many hills to climb and much difficult terrain, knowing there would be many obstacles in their way, many challenges to overcome, Jesus gave them instructions. He coached them. Jesus knew it would be a difficult path. He knew it would be painful at times. Jesus anticipated exactly what would happen to them and he talked them through it all so that they would endure.

But this isn’t just a historical record of what Jesus said a long time ago. We confess that the scriptures are God’s living word for us today.

Like the disciples, we too are sent out into the world to proclaim good news to those who are like sheep without a shepherd: those who are lost, those who are wandering, those who are vulnerable to malevolent forces, those who are stubbornly going their own way. We as the church today are commissioned and empowered to gather in the harvest, to bring people into the kingdom, to do ministry in Christ’s name, so that they will know the healing and hope and new life he brings, so that they will know the truth that sets them free, so that they won’t be without a shepherd anymore.

Like the disciples, there are many hills to climb as we run this race. There are many obstacles in our way, many challenges to overcome. But through this living word we have our Lord’s voice in our ears coaching us, instructing us, guiding us, encouraging us. Our Heavenly Father continues to anticipate the hills and valleys we will face. He already knows the trials and troubles we will go through, and through his word, from the page to our ears, he talks us through it all! Let’s listen to this voice coaching us today:

“Go nowhere among the Gentiles,” Jesus says, “and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus told his first disciples to go to their own people, at least at first. This might have been like starting your kid out with training wheels, because later, after the resurrection, at the Great Commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus commands them to make disciples of ALL nations, all ethnicities, every tribe and tongue. He tells them they will be his witnesses not only in Jerusalem and Judea, but in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

But perhaps there is something for us in this instruction too. Opportunities for proclaiming the gospel are often close at hand. We don’t need to go looking far afield to bring in the harvest. There are people very close to us who don’t know or don’t trust in Jesus, people who are lost, who are like sheep without a shepherd. We can start there!

Jesus goes on to give instructions about traveling light, which is always good advice when you’re running a race. This is about trusting in God to provide what we need. It is about humbling ourselves to receive the hospitality of others as we carry out this ministry.

And then comes our first steep hill, our first big challenge: Some people will not welcome us or listen to our words, Jesus says. They will not receive the peace of Christ we proclaim. This is disappointing, to be sure. But we aren’t to be discouraged. We aren’t to let that rejection cling to us and weigh us down. “When that happens, shake the dust off your feet,” Jesus says, “move along.” Neither are we to get angry or judgmental over their rejection. We leave all of that to God.

But there’s an even steeper hill up around the corner: not only will there be apathy and unbelief, Jesus says, there will be wolves! “See, I am sending you out as sheep into the midst of wolves.” There are those who will snarl and snap at the Christian message, those who despise the Christian church. It isn’t hard to see these wolves among us today as our society continues its long slide into paganism and hostility towards Christianity. Those who prefer to be their own gods don’t much like hearing about a God above them. For those who are convinced of their own righteousness, the proclamation of forgiveness and the need for a savior is considered offensive. Those who kneel before the pantheon of self-defined truths do not like to be challenged by the One who called himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Hedonism, a philosophy which holds the pursuit of pleasure as the highest good, is increasingly becoming the prevailing philosophy of the day once again, as it was in the Roman Empire, and anything that challenges this unbridled pursuit or asks for any restraint or responsibility is viciously attacked.

It’s getting scary out there, to be sure, but before we get too anxious about it, Jesus coaches us through it. His word is put into our ears, telling us he already knew it was going to be like this. He tells us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. That is to say, we are to be realistic about the fallenness of human nature and shrewd in dealing with it while maintaining an innocent, dove-like heart. Or, conversely, we are to maintain an innocent, dove-like heart without being naive or foolish.

“Do not worry about what you will say when you are under attack” Jesus goes on to say. “The words will be given to you at that time. The Spirit of your Father will speak through you.” It is not ultimately clever rhetoric or human reason or the perfect social media post even a carefully polished sermon which will ultimately matter in this struggle, but the simple words of proclamation that our Father gives us to say as we proclaim the good news of Jesus: “The kingdom of heaven has come near!” The words he puts in our ears will be delivered to our tongue, and that will be enough.

Then comes the hardest hill of all. Even families will be divided over the gospel. It is important to know that this isn’t something God wants. The last words of the Old Testament from the prophet Malachi proclaim that in the coming kingdom God will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. This is what God wants!

The New Testament is filled with instructions and exhortations for encouraging strong, healthy, loving marriages and strong, healthy, loving relationships between parents and children, brothers and sisters. The Christian family is a microcosm of the Christian church, and so very important. It is a cell both in the body of Christ and the body politic, and it is so important that it be healthy and strong.

Jesus is simply acknowledging that faith in him will sometimes, for some people, bring divisions in family relationships. We know this is true, right? Sadly, we still see this today. I have people in my office on a regular basis trying to navigate relationships with loved ones who have rejected Christianity. It’s so hard, so painful.

An acquaintance of mine used to teach at a Lutheran university in Irvine, California. He had a Muslim student who converted to Christianity while she was there. When word got back to her family, she was completely cut off, financially and emotionally. She was dead to them. I’m not sure what they were thinking, sending her to a Christian college, but that’s how extreme it can still get today in some cultures.

But again, we hear our Lord’s voice in our ears, coaching us through it: “The one who endures to the end will be saved.”

This is NOT to say that our salvation is up to us. That would contradict everything else the Bible says about how we are saved by the grace of Christ through faith in Christ. That would contradict what Paul says in our second reading about how it was while we were still weak that Christ died for the ungodly. It is Christ’s work for us that saves us, not our own strength – full stop.

What Jesus is doing here is coaching us. He is encouraging us. He is saying that even when everybody hates you because of his name, DON’T GIVE UP. Endure in the faith. Hold on to him. Keep your eye on the finish line of his salvation. That’s what matters most.

Dear friends, hear the voice of your Heavenly Father in your ears today. First hear him telling you he loves you. Hear him telling you all is forgiven for the sake of his Son. Hear him telling you that he proves his love for you in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Hear him telling you that in him, the kingdom of heaven has come near to you.

And then hear him sending you out into the harvest, out to combine the hills of the Palouse. We have a mission to carry out. We have a race to run as we bring the good news to those who are lost and wandering, those who are harassed and helpless, those who are like sheep without a shepherd. There are parts of this race that will be difficult, painful even, but our Lord has already anticipated every hill and hardship, and he continues to put his voice in our ears, coaching us so that we will endure.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church