Sermons That Work

Scripture Is Replete with Images…, Proper 6 (A) – 2008

June 15, 2008

“Jesus went about all the cities and villages.” — Matthew 9:35

Scripture is replete with images and stories of journey. We could site, for example, the epic journey of Abraham and Sarah from Ur in present-day Iraq – the center of ancient civilization – to what was to become the promised land of Israel. Later, the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt, trekking for many years through “the wilderness of Sinai” on their return to a promised homeland, which likely none of them had ever seen. And in the New Testament, Paul makes his way across the Mediterranean world, spreading the good news of the gospel and proclaiming, in the profound words of our second reading today, “that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

It sometimes must seem as if the people of the Bible cannot sit still. They are always on the road. But these are not tourists or sightseers on holiday. There is purpose behind each journey recounted in scripture. Each crossing comes with promise and proclamation. “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant,” the Lord tells the Israelites in our first reading, “you shall be my treasured possession … a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” The journey will have a purpose. It will be worth the effort. Israel must only keep “all these words” that the Lord has commanded. In response to the Lord’s challenge, the people proclaim – perhaps a bit too enthusiastically – “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” As the Israelites were to discover – and as we ourselves know only too well – that is often easier said than done.

Jesus is also on a journey in our gospel account today. He travels “about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.” There is a note of urgency in his travels, for our Lord knows the anxieties and helplessness of the people. “The harvest is plentiful,” he observes poignantly, “but the laborers are few.” And without the harvest to feed them, the people will starve. Jesus commissions his newly minted apostles to enter the harvest and to journey to the people with his message of the kingdom. His instructions to the apostles, direct and insistent, begin with one word: “Go.” No ifs, ands, or buts. Just go. And, “as you go, proclaim the good news.” Avoid, for now, gentile and Samaritan alike. Make a bee line instead for those in need of the Lord’s comfort, “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

To these “lost sheep,” the apostles are to proclaim that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” To those who are infirm or anxious, they bring the healing and hope of the kingdom. And to those without means, they are to “give without payment.” This is indeed good news. The apostles travel afar to proclaim that the kingdom “has come near” – not a kingdom of territory and frontiers, but a moveable kingdom accessible to those who yearn for it, a kingdom where the fearful are welcomed in, where everyone sooner or later belongs. No immigration problems ever.

Unlike earthly kingdoms, which are subject to war and dissension, the kingdom the apostles proclaim brings reconciliation and peace. Yet this kingdom of the heart is not pie in the sky. It is the promise and proclamation made anew to each generation of God’s people. It is the fulfillment of covenant. The kingdom is still near to those who seek its comfort today. It is not bound to this earth any more than we are. Its gates are opened wide in spite of – or perhaps because of – our sin and despair.

We have a share in this kingdom, as God’s people by adoption. If the crowds of Jesus’ day were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” as our Lord describes them, the people of our world are hardly less anxious and fearful. Two thousand years may have come and gone, but the human heart has not changed all that much. Our communities are still fractured by mistrust and suspicion. Violence and war tear us apart. Diversity and distinctions among peoples and individuals do not bring joy and wonder at the greatness of God’s work among and within us but become instead stumbling blocks to understanding and harmony. But in the midst of human misfortune and pain, the kingdom has still “come near” to each of us.

The harvest of which our Lord speaks is full and ready to be gathered in. Then as now, it is not so much a harvest of grain and grape as it is of spiritual nourishment and the sustenance found in the nearness of God. The laborers are still few. But “go, and proclaim,” commands our Lord nevertheless. “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” No small task, but then we need not travel far to find those in need of the good news of the kingdom. They are as near to us as is the kingdom itself. In fact, they are the kingdom. For our part, we need only brave our fear, and with the Israelites of old zealously proclaim, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”

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Christopher Sikkema


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