Our gospel text for this morning is all about compassion and courage. Here we find Jesus in the midst of a massive campaign of teaching and preaching and healing all over the country. His twelve disciples are with him and his ministry has drawn huge crowds of people everywhere they’ve gone. Jesus is on a mission.
Yet we see that Jesus’ mission isn’t just driven by his own need to spread the good news of the kingdom; his mission is deeply rooted in compassion. Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw these crowds that had gathered, he had compassion for them. He listens to them and feels their pain and he responds to their needs. And he consciously models this behavior for his disciples to imitate. And he points out to them that there is still a lot more work to be done. He tells them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.”
The disciples may have wondered where on earth Jesus was going to find these laborers – not to mention what sort of harvest they would be gathering in. But it soon becomes clear that Jesus means them. They are the ones that the Lord of the harvest is going to send out to bring the harvest in. And Jesus tells them what they’ll be doing: “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons,” you know, just basic, everyday ministry kind of stuff. Can you imagine how overwhelming it must have been to be handed that to-do list? If I were one of those twelve disciples, I would definitely be wondering how on earth Jesus expected me to be able do all that.
And Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that this mission is not going to be easy. And it’s not just because of the work that he is sending them to do. Jesus warns them that there will be pushback – especially among their own people, to whom they are being sent. And he tells them plainly, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves” – you will be questioned and harrassed and persecuted for speaking the truth in my name.
But Jesus urges his disciples to be courageous. Even as he sends them out without any money or food or a suitcase or even a spare change of clothes, he assures them that God will provide everything they need. If they have the courage to undertake this mission, they will find people open to the gospel message. And the Spirit will be with them continually, guiding them and giving them the words to say.
As I read this gospel text, it makes me think back to the time around when I first started discerning a call to ministry. I had just come back to the church after being away for several years and found my way to Grace Lutheran Church in Lincoln, NE. My pastor there saw that I had gifts and a passion for ministry; and in addition to encouraging me to think about seminary, he started inviting me to get more and more involved in the life of the church.
One of the things that he invited me to do was to teach confirmation. He wanted me to teach a whole class by myself, of the older students who were preparing to be confirmed. I think I might actually have laughed when he asked me to think about it – like: you want me to do what now?? Good one — you’re hilarious. I felt incredibly intimidated by the idea of teaching confirmation. For starters, I was nervous about the prospect of working with teenagers – I was bullied a lot growing up, and I had never been one of the cool kids. But even more than this, I felt deeply unqualified and underinformed for such a position – not to mention the fact that I still wasn’t even completely, 100% positive that I was ready to be back in the church for good.
But my pastor encouraged me to have faith, and reassured me that God had already provided everything I needed. So I took a leap and said that I’d do my best. And then I got to know these kids. There were five of them, all middle schoolers around the age of 13, and I loved them. I quickly realized that one of the most important parts of my job was just to listen to them – to listen to their struggles and their hopes, and then to help them find ways to connect these experiences with their faith. My initial nervousness about working with them was completely replaced by a deep sense of compassion for them.
That sense of compassion gave me the courage I needed to step boldly into the job of teaching confirmation. It made me realize that it wasn’t just about what I felt comfortable with or what I felt capable of doing; it was about what those kids needed and about what God had called me to do. Compassion led me into courage, much like Jesus and his first disciples. And I’m grateful it did, because that year of confirmation ended up being a truly awesome experience for all of us.
Like Jesus’ first disciples, we are all called to enter into mission in the world with compassion and with courage.
God knows that compassion is something that this world desperately needs more of. Our world has fractured along so many different fault lines – and as a nation, we seem to grow more and more divided with each passing day. Our politics has become more about making sure the other guy loses than about actually fighting for what is right. Both sides care more about winning than about how we can all move forward together to build a better future for everyone. And when we are so profoundly polarized, it’s easy to stop seeing the people that we disagree with as fully human, as the beloved children of God that they are.
God calls us to a better way – for our sake and for the sake of the world. God calls us to have compassion for our neighbor. And compassion means more than just tolerating our neighbor or acknowledging our neighbor’s experiences. “Com-passion” literally means “with-feeling” or “with-passion”; feeling the pain and suffering of our neighbor almost as if it were our own.
We are especially called to compassion today, in our commemoration of the Emanuel Nine. Nine of our siblings in Christ – beloved children of God – were murdered in cold blood as they were gathered for bible study, simply because of the color of their skin. Their killer was a member of an ELCA church, a young man named Dylan Roof. Sick with the sin of racism, his prejudice kept him from even seeing them as human, kept him from feeling compassion.
And meanwhile, the world is still being roiled by protests speaking out against systemic racism and white supremacy. Our siblings of color are protesting systems built on injustice, systems that treat them like their lives matter less. I know it may be hard for us to hear what they have to say, and I know that some of us may be upset about the ways that they have chosen to say it – but none of that gives us permission to stop listening. We are still called to listen to our siblings and to love them. We are called to treat them with compassion, to feel with them their pain like it is our own pain. And we are called to let compassion move us into action, so that all of us together can work toward building a better world.
All of this takes courage. It can be scary and overwhelming to open ourselves to the pain of others, especially when their experience of the world is so different from ours. It takes courage to answer our baptismal call to strive for justice and peace in all the earth – to speak out and to act out on behalf of those who are suffering. Like Jesus’ first disciples, we are scared of getting pushback, especially from our own people. Heck, I am scared and nervous right now; I am very aware that this is the second Sunday in a row I have brought up the uncomfortable topic of racism, and I worry about what kind of backlash that will bring my way. But I am still doing the best I can to respond to the call of discipleship with compassion and with courage.
Jesus is still calling his disciples – calling you and me – to tasks that seem impossible and overwhelming. He calls us to cure the sickness of sin, to raise to life those our society leaves for dead, to cleanse our hearts of biases and fear, and to cast out the demon of prejudice and racism from our society. That is a hefty to-do list. But Christ reassures us – just as he did the first disciples – that God will provide all we need. The Spirit will guide our hearts and fill our mouths with the words we need to speak.
And Paul gives us further hope in his letter to the Romans. He reminds us that God loves us and that we have already been filled with God’s love so that we may better love one another. Jesus Christ was so filled with love and with compassion for humanity that he had the courage to die for us – even when we were still sinners! (And even though we are still sinners). This is the love that lives on in all of us.
In this love, we are sent out into the world for mission, and none of us goes alone. The Spirit goes with us, and God’s love flows through us, and Christ waits to meet us in the face of each of our neighbors.
Dear friends, if we dare to look inside ourselves, we will find that our hearts are big enough and our spirits are strong enough to join in God’s mission of justice for the world. So let us answer the call to discipleship in the same way that generations of Christ’s faithful followers have done before us: with compassion and with courage.