You may be wondering why I haven’t written for a few weeks, and truthfully there are a number of reasons. I have felt many emotions, I’m sure like many of us, the physical and emotional burdens and restrictions of lockdown have started to take their toll. The realisation that actually life will not be ‘normal’ again for some time, that my role as a deacon and transition to be a Priest has been delayed. All have left me feeling slightly deflated.
However, more than anything else, the last few weeks have been heart wrenching. I have cried, lamented, asked for forgiveness and felt sick at the images and stories unfurling on our television screens. The death of George Floyd, and the ensuing riots and protests have left the world questioning itself.
Racism is a disease, a disease that has killed fare more than coronavirus, a disease that is so contagious, and yet is also all but invisible. It spreads, in the unconscious bias of each and every person on this planet, it spreads through the systems that some of us hold dear. The church itself has been a carrier, and I am ashamed to say continues to be a carrier of racism.
Flipping through the Facebook feed, and everyone has an opinion about this. Black lives matter; All lives matter; some say that we should be leading the way forward, others says we should be leaving it to the BAME communities to sort; some agree with the rioting and protests and others think it’s wrong; some are more concerned about the effect the BLM movement and the protests it has triggered might have on the fight against Covid 19, and others still believe Racism is a bigger threat.
All of these opinions are valid, it’s okay to be worried about the effect’s protests will have on Covid 19, it’s okay to care about all lives, of course all lives matter, no one is denying that all lives matter. However, sometimes, at this time God is doing something in the world. He is asking us to pay particular attention to the lives of those who have been hurt, oppressed, harassed, by systems that through no fault of their own, have found themselves in.
Two weeks ago, I preached on the following passage of scripture from the Gospel according to St Matthew 9:35 – 10:23. And I believe the passage has some things to say to us about this current situation and how we should be involved.
“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.”
10 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.
The Mission of the Twelve
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. 9 Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. 11 Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
16 “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19 When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20 for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
As Jesus made his way around the region of Galillee proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, he came across many people who were hurting or helpless, oppressed, exhausted, and without direction or a leader. Jesus poured out his heart for them, he lamented. They were sheep without a shepherd, a metaphor which describes the relationship between God and his people, but also their need for human leadership under God. A metaphor that is widely used throughout the bible.
Ezekiel 34:1-16 says…. “you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not bought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd”
Jesus’ heart is breaking for the scattered sheep of Israel. Jesus was committed to the cause, but he knew that he could not spread the good news alone. Jesus’ words which act as a prayer “the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.” Or perhaps as a paraphrase.. There are so many who are seeking, there are so many oppressed, there are so many that need to hear the good news, and yet there are not enough to do the deed. I cannot do this on my own. Lord help me, send me workers.
There is something reassuring about Jesus asking for helpers. I have no doubt that God could very well have done this on his own, but he wants us to be part of the story. We too must recognise when we need help and be prepared to ask for it.
As an answer to the prayer Jesus picks out 12 of his followers. Gives them an authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and sickness. A reminder and continuation of what Jesus himself had previously done.
Jesus sends them with very specific instructions, they are to go to the lost sheep of Israel. Not to the gentiles, or to the Samaritans, but to Israel. It is likely that the restriction was more of a geographical one, given that the focus of mission expanded to gentiles etc after Jesus’ death and resurrection. But at this point, Jesus wanted them to focus on the lost sheep of Israel.
Like any good leader, Jesus gives them a pep talk before they head out. Travel light he says, trust in Gods provision, by taking very little with you, just the bare essentials. Money won’t be required, because they should expect appropriate hospitality in return for their labour.
Of course, there will be some who are open to the message that the disciples bring (the worthy) and some who are not (the unworthy). If they are worthy, the blessing of peace will rest upon them, and if they are unworthy, it shall not be heard, and will instead be returned to sender…
Some will actively oppose the disciples, and to those, Jesus tell them to shake the dust from their feet. Walk away, move on, don’t allow the dust to collect. There will be persecution, because of Jesus’ name.
I do not want to be like the shepherds that God was so angry with in Ezekiel. I don’t want to be ignoring the plight of my fellow humans. As followers of Christ, we all need to be prepared to have our hearts broken, to feel the pain of our oppressed brothers and sisters, whatever that oppression looks like. It is part of who we are as followers of Jesus. We should be prepared to pray and ask for help and guidance, to recognise when we cannot do things under our own steam. We need to be prepared to commit to working, to shepherding sheep who are lost, hurting and helpless. And, we need to be prepared to have it all thrown back in our faces, but to be able to stand up, dust ourselves off, move on and try again.
There are then 4 points from these passages I would like to bring to your attention.
1. Jesus has seen the oppression, the harassment and the helplessness of the sheep of Israel. In the same way, we have seen with our own eyes the oppression and harassment that our BAME brothers and sisters are experiencing. Jesus saw, and knew that he had to do something, but that he couldn’t do it on his own. We have seen, we cannot do this on our own, but neither can we sit by and do nothing.
2. And so, he prayed. He prayed to the Father to send people, and so too must we pray to the Father that he will send people to fight these injustices. Jesus knew almost straight away who these people were, and he called 12 specific disciples. We need to be prepared to be the person that God sends. It may be that you are not the person who protests, perhaps you are the praying type. It might be that you are the person who can articulate in words or creatively with pictures the plight that the BAME are suffering from. Perhaps you don’t yet know what you can do. But, be prepared to do something to speak out in some way, shape or form.
3. Jesus recognised the need, and very specifically sent the disciples to the lost sheep of Israel. To all those who have been shouting “all lives matter”, I say again, yes of course they do. But in that time and that place, Jesus particularly recognised the need of the lost sheep of Israel. He said “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans” we know that Jesus cared about these people, he later told the good news himself to the Samaritan woman at the well, and told all his disciples to preach the good news to the Gentiles. It wasn’t that he didn’t care for them, that they didn’t matter, but at that time, the Israelites needed the focus. In this time, and in this place, Jesus is particularly drawing our attention to the oppression of our Black brothers and sisters. We cannot sit on our laurels and claim “all lives matter” at the expense of our BAME communities. “All lives matter,” is a poor excuse for not doing anything. Black Lives Matter.
4. Finally, Jesus warned the disciples to expect persecution. Well, I suspect the persecution that the disciples experienced was no worse than a life of harassment and oppression experienced by the lost sheep of Israel. So too, is the persecution we suffer for standing up to help and stand alongside our BAME brothers and sisters, no worse than the persecution that George Floyd experienced on the side of the road, at the hands of men who should have been protecting him.
Heavenly Father, break our hearts, with the things that break yours. Give us compassion and guidance. Show us how to take steps forward, to work alongside our BAME brothers and sisters, to find equality. We pray Lord that your Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. Amen