The Answer to Our Own Prayers
35 Then 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. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."
1 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. 2 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; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, "The kingdom of heaven has come near.' 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
This is the Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, O Christ.
This really is Jesus at his best: Energizer bunny Jesus. Superhero Jesus. ALL the cities and villages, curing EVERY disease and illness. He always seems to know when to stay silent and when to speak up, when to be tender and when to upend a table. No one can do all this as well as him so why not just stand back and let Jesus be Jesus.
Might make sense to us - but Jesus has other ideas.
All along he’d been gathering up followers - drawing them close and teaching in what one might call an “action-reflection” model. Watch me cast out these demons. Now listen to this sermon. Watch me cure this illness. Now hear this parable.
And they were happy to do it - follow his lead, sit at his feet, take in the wondrous holy work and words of Jesus. And I don’t know about you, but had I been one of those first disciples I would have been more than happy to simply sit and listen.
But as it turns out, Jesus doesn’t allow his students to stay seated.
Like any good teacher, his methods are so savvy that sometimes we don’t even realize we’re learning. Like when Rabbi Jesus calls the disciples, the learners together and says, “Hey, come pray with me.” They gather round and pray along, “The work is plentiful, the laborers few” (this was an old Jewish saying, by the way, one that would have been familiar to them.) “Send us more laborers, there’s work to be done.”
Only he knows what they don’t - that they are the laborers.
They are the answers to their own prayers.
And it is in that moment Jesus bestows upon his disciples a new title: apostle, or, “one who is sent out”. Sometimes we hear these words used interchangeably: disciple/apostle, but make no mistake, there is a distinction. Disciples, learners, formed and shaped by words and prayers, who are members of an apostolic church - one sent out as bearers of the good news.
I don’t know how the twelve felt that day as they received their new titles and diplomas. My guess is they would have been happy to stay in the classroom at least a few more rounds, but that’s not what the instructor had in mind.
However, as Jesus shows them the door, the newly minted apostles each receive two graduation gifts to take with them:
The first is authority. Authority is great! It is power. People who have authority have influence. They can control things with their authority. As disciples of Jesus, members of the “priesthood of all believers” as we call it in our tradition, each of us also hold that authority to proclaim the hope of resurrection to a tired and weary world.
But if not exercised with prayerful discernment, authority can also be dangerous.
Douglas Hudgins served as pastor of First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi from 1946 to 1969. It was, according to historian Charles Marsh, “the single most powerful religious institution in Mississippi during the civil rights years.” Hudgins’ position at First Baptist allowed him authority in a wide range of circles: he was chaplain of the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol. Director of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce. President of the Jackson Rotary Club. Law. Business. Civic Leaders. It’s not hard to imagine the influence he held in his community.
Just before Thanksgiving, in 1967, members of the Klan bombed the home of Rabbi Perry Nussbaum, the leader of Jackson’s Temple Beth Israel. This act of violence occurred just weeks after Beth Israel’s newly constructed building had also been bombed and destroyed, also by the Klan.
As Rabbi Nussbaum stood outside his home with his traumatized wife and neighbors, he said over and over that while this was the work of the Klan, the atmosphere of violence was the results of local Christian leaders, like Hudgins, who were doing nothing to change it. He asked his neighbor, also a local minister, to get Douglas Hudgins on the phone and tell him to make a public statement about the violence.
The neighbor called Hudgins, who was deeply offended that Nussbaum would try to tell him what to do with his authority. He immediately hung up.
Hudgins did, then, go to Nussbaums house to tell him how sorry he was that his house had been bombed. Witnesses who were there that day said that Rabbi Nussbaum responded by getting in Hudgins’ face and shouting, “Doug, if you’re really sorry about this, get on the pulpit Sunday and tell your people this is wrong.”
Hudgins preached that Sunday. And in his sermon he made a vague reference to the attack, without mentioning Nussbaum or the fact that it had been his home or the fact that it was bombed by members of the KKK. He concluded by saying, “‘The Lord works in mysterious ways.’… retreating into a piety” (I am quoting the book now) “that disconnected language from reality, which fashioned a serene, self-enclosed world, undisturbed by the suffering of blacks and Jews.”
Missing from Hudgins’ exercise of authority was the second gift Jesus bestowed upon his apostles as he sent them out - the gift from every word and action in Jesus’ own ministry sprung forth from: compassion.
As we all know, compassion complicates everything.
Compassion makes us look at things we want to turn away from.
Compassion makes us listen to people we want to ignore.
Compassion can make us change our mind about things we were just so sure were true.
It makes us care about things we do not have the energy or the time to care about,
and do and say things that win us no popularity prizes, votes, or financial gain.
What would Douglas Hudgins’ response have looked like, had his authority sprung forth from even an ounce of compassion for his neighbor?
Earlier this week Nick and I listened to a panel discussion by African American faculty and alumni of our seminary - all of them leaders, authority figures deeply steeped in compassion, there to share their experiences, challenges, and fears.
The moderator pointed out our current context: COVID-19, economic crisis, an international uprising against racial injustice: “So!” she asked them, “How do you feel?” And they pretty much all said, “Tired.” Exhausted, in fact. From having to relive trauma, from being asked to speak on behalf of their entire race, navigate the divisions of sexism and classism within the black community.
“But,” one alum piped up toward the end, “I do feel hopeful.”
Several panelists commented on the hope has given them to see so many leaders, especially young ones coming together to offer what authority they possess within their communities in the name of compassion for their fellow human beings. And not just one Jesus-like figure, per se, but a plurality of leadership - again - the priesthood of all believers. The apostolic church.
And you and I are seeing it too - compassion in action. Corporate leaders, educational institutions, faith leaders, not just issuing statements but instituting concrete changes that reflect a willingness to listen to and look at the problems that have been contributing to a climate of hate in our society for generations. We have a long way to go, but when those with authority begin making decisions based in compassion, we see the light of redemption breaking through the darkness.
I want to close us out with what may be the one and only sermon illustration I ever give involving NASCAR racing - but it’s a good one.
On Wednesday, NASCAR officials banned the Confederate flag from all races. Now there are plenty out there who either disagree with this decision or just don’t see the point in it.
For a long time, Bubba Wallace, the first full-time African-American driver, was himself somewhat indifferent to the flag’s presence. But in recent years he made an effort to educate himself on what the flag signifies and came to appreciate that while for some it’s a sign of Southern heritage, for many it is a clear marker of white supremacy.
In 2015 the NASCAR association requested, but did not require, that its fans stop bringing the flags into the stands of its stadiums. However, in recent weeks as so many have testified to the way the presence of this flag in our country acts as a symbol of hate Wallace decided to use his voice to seek more definitive action over the flags.
And his voice was heard.
The decision to ban the flag from the sport was met with mixed reactions. And perhaps some of you agree, or disagree, or are feeling indifferent about the matter.
But I’d like to offer this perspective:
Authority, in this case the authorities of the NASCAR empire, acted from a place of compassion. And knowing their decision would not be met with cheers from many of the voices used to sitting in those stands. And knowing there would be damaging financial ramifications, they did it anyway. Because compassion listens. And compassion makes us see when we’ve been wrong. And compassion leads us to use our authority to right wrongs when and where we can.
Some days I’m racked with guilt that my compassion is not strong enough.
That I’m not making the most of my authority.
Jesus made it look so easy.
When he handed over his authority and compassion we might have thought they were gifts but sometimes they can feel like a real burden. Some days I’d be so happy to just let Jesus be Jesus. And then I look around at see all the apostles at work around me, and I remember that I am a member of the apostolic church. We are discipled by the Holy Spirit through words and prayers - washed in the waters and fed at the table so that we can be sent out to do God’s work, which takes many forms.
Recently, actress and activist Viola Davis said this:
“Some are posting on social media. Some are protesting in the streets. Some are donating silently. Some are educating themselves. Some are having tough conversations with friends and family. A revolution has many lanes. Be kind to yourself and to others who are traveling in the same direction. Just keep your foot on the gas.”
So, fellow apostles, here is my attempt at a paraphrase for you:
Maybe your compassion leads you to social media. Maybe it takes you to a protest in the streets. Maybe you are sewing masks, or taking groceries to your neighbors. Maybe you are listening to ideas you would have previously ignored. Maybe you are diligently calling friends who can’t leave the house or sending cards or figuring out how to use Zoom. Maybe you are having tough conversations that test your capacity for compassion.
The apostles’ path has many lanes. But remember, to you and others traveling in the same direction, Jesus has offered two gifts: authority and compassion.
If you’re going to use one, don’t leave the other behind.