12 December 2018
Jesus calls his disciples in today’s Gospel reading, sending them out to “proclaim the good news”. But when we start to look at the list of names of those he calls we realise that they are all ordinary people, fishermen, farmers, tradesmen. They hardly look like a dream team and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were aware of that themselves. They probably knew themselves well enough to realise that they weren’t really up to the job – “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons…” Oh, sure, Jesus, and what shall we do after lunch…?
Still, perhaps they thought to themselves that they would be able to pretend. So long as they went far enough away from home, to a place where no one really knew them. Maybe then they might be able to maintain some façade of holiness long enough to impress those they had landed amongst
No such luck. Jesus is quite specific. They are not to go among strangers with their message – not to the Gentiles, not to the Samaritans. It wasn’t that Jesus had anything against these groups – he ministered to them himself. But to their own people.
For the listeners of Matthew's gospel whose neighbours and families were persecuting them, there would have been no difficulty seeing themselves as the defenseless sheep among the wolves.
They faced the kind of persecution where they could be flogged and dragged before governors and kings - local rulers who aren't just handing out parking tickets but death. This isn't about Jews betraying gentile Christians, its not about strangers betraying strangers - Its all about sons sending fathers and fathers sending sons to be imprisoned, tortured and killed.
But here's the shock, they hear the call of Jesus and Jesus is sending his followers to go to the very people who are persecuting them, "go to the lost sheep of Israel" their own family and friends.
And so the disciples needed to start where they were, with the people they knew, if their ministries were ever going to be rooted in reality. And their good news wouldn't necessarily be welcomed. They are sent not just to those who will support and encourage them, but also to those who seek to wound them or worse.
They were going to people who were locals.
They weren’t to be like travelling snake-oil salesmen, turning up with some novelty cure and then getting out of town before anyone saw through the pretence. What Jesus calls them to is that depth of genuine connection with people that we see in his own ministry.
When Matthew describes Jesus' feelings at the sight of the needy, ragged crowds with the Greek word esplangchnisthe, it is a word that is all to do with the bowels. He is saying that Jesus is gutted. Jesus feels the crowds distress as if it was his own. Jesus calls them to a ministry rooted in love not in slick packaging. But how can they find that connection?
“You have received without payment; give without payment”, he tells them. ”You have received…” that’s the important thing. They themselves were in need – and still are – and it is this that they must remember as they deal with others who are in need, because it is not in their strength but in their weakness that they will find most powerfully God’s love, the love that they are called to pass on.
Matthew describes the crowd that Jesus met – people like those they will meet – as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. The image is a powerful one– the Greek word translated as harassed literally means “coming to pieces, coming apart at the seams, disintegrating” and the word helpless means “tossed about”. It is the image of a lamb caught in the jaws of some wild animal – that’s what happened to sheep without shepherds in Jesus’ world. Ask our farmers Harold or David what a sheep that been worried by dogs looks like.
Being broken, shredded, is part of being human – Jesus himself shares it on the cross – and it is the place where we are most likely to find God’s healing love. Jesus calls his disciples to know that in their own lives, and then to use that knowledge to help others.
When we look at our crowds, our city, what do we see? It is vibrant, full of beauty, with many good and gracious people and families. But do we see the downside? Are its liquor outlets on almost every corner, the tinny houses in our neighbourhood and the evidence of last night's business in our car parks, saying something about people being torn apart, lives being wasted as they take refuge from boredom, and wanting to dull the edges of being without hope. Where there is no sense of compassion for another human being so even killing becomes a form of recreation. Can we see where the need is?
What do we do?. Jesus give us a metaphor of urgency. The Harvest needs labourers - NOW. We are city people, but even here the urgency of all the fruit ripening at once is seen when there are bags of fruit for any who want it left on Sunday mornings, when the bottling and making jom and pickles starts. Fruit doesn’t wait. People don't wait. The time is now.
The image of picking the harvest is a good one for New Zealanders. It has a romantic image for those going overseas , backpacking. We joined in the grape harvest in Burgundy, they say, and there was a huge celebration at the end of the harvest, where we danced all night. They have suppressed the reality of harvesting by then or they haven't really done the work and just joined in at the end.
Sometimes we forget these passage were practical pictures of daily life which Jesus used to show how the mission was to be carried out in daily life. How would we write, for example about harvesting today in New Zealand?
Listen to this account of backpacker fruitpicking in New Zealand which was part of an advertisement for the much needed labourers for the fruit harvest.
"We were up at 6am in the cool of the day. Dressed in appropriate gear: long sleeve shirt to keep off the sun/insects, long pants (ditto), boots suitable for climbing ladders and wading through mud/decomposed fruit.
Packed a bag with food and water for the day. Picked up our hats, gloves in case necessary (we still didn't know which crop we'd be assigned to) and walked to the shed.
There we were handed tax and 'Conditions of Employment' forms, to be filled in and returned the following day.
Then it was time to collect a picking bag:. And finally to the crop.
Pears and peaches were the order of the week. We were directed to the latter, a new experience for both of us. A lift out to the orchard block on the back of a truck, a ladder each, and off we went. One row of trees per picker or couple picking together.
Picking was slow - the crop was late, and rather than stripping the trees willy-nilly, we were taking only those fruit of a certain size and ripeness. It took 2-3 hours to fill a bin. By the time we knocked off for the day we'd filled two bins and earned the grand sum of $56 between us. Before tax. There were few who'd done better. There wasn't time to pick another full bin before the day's pickings were taken to the cannery in mid-afternoon.
It was not a lucrative first week. Some people left after only a few days - some in disgust at the meagre takings, some simply because it was too hard.
Suffer no romantic illusions - fruit picking is extremely tough and tiring work. Some did indeed end the first week in crumpled sobbing heaps, some backpacking partnerships began to show the strain, the heat was unbearable. On the other hand, new friendships were formed, there was a certain freedom about the work, and slowly the money accumulated.
Experienced fruit pickers know that the start of the season is often slow while fruit matures. In the next couple of weeks it would be time to strip the trees - an opportunity to earn $75-$100 a day. Or more.
Then there is a list of what to take.
What to take: Clothes: long sleeve cotton shirts and long pants, boots or shoes with good grip suitable for climbing ladders, a sunhat/cap, cotton gloves to protect hands if the crop is thorny, and sun block.
• Tax file number
• Patience and stamina
• Good sense of humour
Things to consider when choosing where to go:
• The nature of the crop - do you need to climb ladders/spend all day on your knees etc?
• Hours per day? Days off? Accommodation
• Do you have your own transport? How far is it to shops, etc if you have to walk? Climate
The harvest is still plentiful; we need to know whether the crop needs ladders or knee pads, the labourers are still few, and probably
– if we have any sense – we are wary of God’s call. Who are we to
think we can do anything for anyone else? “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons…” Us? But just like Jesus' first disciples, we need to realise that Jesus doesn’t call us to pretend to have the answers. That won’t help anyone. He calls us to look in the broken, battered places of our own lives, to find God at work where we are, and then, as we take his message to others, we will find that we won’t have to pretend.
Reference Ann Le Bas - sermon on this passage
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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