During the sermon on Holy Trinity Sunday last week, we heard through text and sermon about how God’s activity through the Holy Trinity is God’s living out the divine promise of “I’ve got you covered.” The Trinity’s ongoing presence and work as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit functions to show us who God is and how God operates throughout the universe. We acknowledge that though the Trinity is a mystery, and we don’t fully understand exactly how it is possible, it is through in Trinity that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has us uniquely covered – simultaneously creating, redeeming, and making us a holy people.
So, last week’s “I’ve got you covered” text and sermon addressed the how and what of God. This week’s gospel starts out by telling us the why of God.
Today’s gospel text begins by telling us how Jesus went about the cities and villages – in other words, how he went to every type of people and every kind of community. Then, we come to verse 36 we read: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
In and through Jesus, God responds to our suffering out of compassion. Jesus brings God’s comforting Word, teaches people who need to hear that Word about the true nature of God, and heals their sicknesses out of compassion. But the thing is, this word as we read it here, compassion, is truly a watered-down version of what the word written in Greek really means.
So, for instance, when you hear the word, “compassion,” what do you think of? What does it mean? <accept responses> To feel for? To take pity on? To want to help?
Good answers. It’s a good start. Yet if you look at the etymology of the English word, compassion, it goes a little further; ‘compassion’ comes from the Latin cum, meaning ‘with’ and passio, meaning ‘suffering’. So, when we have compassion, we are suffering with another person, or feeling their suffering.
To go a step further, we have the Greek word actually written into this text; splanknizo, or, in this case, splanknizomai, since it is in verb form, means to “feel in the viscera.” In plain English the closest way I can put that is, ‘to feel in the gut’ – to feel to your very core – to have a gut-wrenching reaction to something - to feel it so deeply in your insides, that you literally feel something within you move.
God sees the helplessness of God’s creation and God acts out of compassion. God doesn’t simply feel badly for the people who are suffering, God acts because God feels our pain and is moved to the very core by the plight of humankind. God knows how harassed – how out of sorts, beleaguered, and overwhelmed we are - how much we suffer from depression, oppression, and suppression; that is what affects God, moves God so much that God sends Jesus Christ to us as the Word incarnate, to heal our pain and brokenness, and save us from our sin.
That is the truest meaning of the word translated here, and it reason for God’s action; it is the reason that Jesus reaches out and heals and cures the people he encounters on his journey through the cities and towns and villages; through the city streets and along the country lanes through which he passes. Jesus doesn’t simply feel badly for the people, pity them or judge them as pitiable, rather, Jesus sees their humanity, and he is moved to ease their pain.
But Jesus cannot do this work alone, because he knows that one day, he will leave this earthly plane and will need workers to carry on the work he has begun. He will need apostles who will likewise speak the Word, teach, and heal.
So, in a touch of irony, Jesus summons these early disciples, and instructs them to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.
Now, when I was in seminary, a very wise professor told us, “when you pray, be sure that you do not pray for something, for which you are not willing to be the answer.”
In the very next verse of our text today, Jesus calls twelve of these disciples and gives them the authority – read this as marching orders – to do the same as he has done. So, on the one hand, Jesus says, ‘pray for workers to help with the harvest’ – on the other hand he says, ‘now, you are to be first among those workers.’
As the disciples go, they will proclaim the good news of the kingdom of heaven, and they will do this not for pay, nor for their own glory or benefit, but only for the sake the other, and the fullness of God’s kingdom.
I recently had a conversation with a woman who told me this story: she, along with her husband, had just joined a new church, but were not yet well known there, when an unbelievable tragedy befell their family. They were devastated, grieving, and suffering great pain and loss.
The incredible tragedy they had suffered was announced to the congregation in several forms of communication that went out, and members felt deeply sorry for anyone who would suffer such a loss, and they dutifully prayed for her family.
But what the woman told me was that not one person from that church called, sent a card, or reached out to her and her husband.
She and her husband had joined that church seeking to be part of a faith community. But perhaps because they weren’t all that well known yet, it seemed like the compassion of the members of the church was only skin-deep.
While prayer is very important, that family needed to know by the actions of their faith community that they were moved to the very core of their being by the pain and loss the family had suffered. Instead, the silence they experienced was deafening and only served to increase their pain; they felt betrayed and isolated by the community they thought would stand by them in their hour of need.
The result? The woman told me that though her faith in God was not shaken, her faith in the community of the church was shattered. They now felt it futile to belong to a church. What was the point? The community had failed them. The lesson for us all: our compassion needs to be more than skin-deep and it needs to be evident in our words and actions.
Whether the need comes from someone within the community itself or comes from one of our neighbors, Jesus calls us to know gut-wrenching compassion for those God places on our path and along our journey.
As a church, we’ve been doing a lot of talking about numbers. We talk about the numbers of people who come to worship. We talk about the numbers of people in the community around Easton whom we would like to bring into the body of Christ at Grace.
Jesus calls us to look past the numbers and see the people who are hurting, harassed and helpless. Jesus calls us to reach out to those in need of hearing the good news of God’s “I’ve got you covered” in a believable way – through our words and our actions. The best way to tell others about God is to show others about God, by modeling the love and compassion of God not only by what we say, but also by what we do.
The compassion of Jesus described in this text is a model for all of Christ’s disciples. Our text names those disciples whom Jesus sent out, even names some who failed him in some ways. Yet even in their failure, they have served the larger purposes of God.
In our baptism, we were each named as well. We were named children of God and workers in the new community to which we were joined, along with all the other laborers needed to serve the harvest of God.
The work is not easy. It is taxing. It is emotionally exhausting, it will not always be successful by our measures of success. But faithful service to God serves the larger purposes of God’s kingdom, to heal the hurts and feed the souls of those who most need to experience the love of God through the care and fellowship of the followers of Jesus. It matters not whether we are able to discern “success” or not. We may never know the difference we have made in a person’s life – the reward is not ours to enjoy. But showing compassion through action in the name of Jesus Christ is our purpose in life and in this community for the ministry we share in God’s kingdom here on earth.
Jesus sends us out in mission: to be the heart and guts of Christ for people. Jesus urges us to pray not only for our work but that more workers may join us, for the sake of the mission of God. Jesus models loving, compassionate caring that is more than skin-deep, but is demonstrated as well in faith through action.
Through the Holy Spirit, God grants us gifts of ministry for healing, and blesses us with the apostolic mission of the church. God grants us fellowship with all the workers who are sitting in the pews beside you here today, plus other workers who are sitting in pews in other churches hearing the good news of the compassion of Jesus and our commission to follow in his ways. This fellowship includes those who have yet to join us.
So today we go from “I’ve got you covered” to “Feeling it in the gut: the mission and ministry of Christ”. How does that work as a title for this message? It may not be very catchy, but it’s pointed. Christ’s love and presence are real, and he calls for ours to be, as well. May God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, grant that it may be so.