Hebrew Bible: Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
Epistle: Romans 5:1-8
New Testament: Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)
Preacher: Melissa Browning
June 15, 2008
Sometimes there is no better way to begin a sermon than with a somewhat embarrassing narrative from one’s own life. When I was ten, maybe eleven years old my parents sent me to spend a week with my 70-year old grandfather and his new wife in Mansfield, Ohio. Now it just so happens that when a grandfather gets re-married at 70, you end up gaining a lot of new relatives. That week in Ohio, my new step-grandmother thought it would be a wonderful idea for me to spend the week with her less-than-religiously-devout grandchildren. Now let me pause for the backstory… I grew up in the Bible belt where the only non-Christians I knew were soon-to-be-converted characters in my Christian romance novels. I was not at all prepared to meet my 9-year old step-cousin who did not believe God existed. We had been playing all day when the subject of church came up and he let me know that he didn’t go to church because he was an atheist. I didn’t know 9-year-olds were allowed to be atheists.
Either way, I had been waiting my entire life for a moment such as this so I pulled out my red-letter New Testament, with each verse of the Roman Road carefully tabbed and highlighted, and jumped immediately to matters of ultimate concern. But he wouldn’t budge, and then he had to go home before I was able to explain what the beads on my salvation bracelet meant. Left in a state of spiritual rejection, I wasn’t sure what to do so I begin to thumb through my little Bible and I ran across this verse in Matthew, the same verse that appears in today’s gospel text… “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…”
So I went outside, took off my sneakers and banged them against the side of the house until I was sure most of the dust had been shaken off, then I went back inside for a popsicle, confident I had done the right thing.
The plentiful harvest, the sheep with out a shepherd, the dust on our feet, and the good news of God all mean something a different to me now that I’m all grown up. In today’s gospel text we find Matthew’s account of the commissioning of the twelve disciples. This passage follows story after story of miracles where Jesus healed individuals who were marginalized by society: a hemorrhaging woman, a man with leprosy, a little girl who died too young, and two men who were blind, just to name a few. The text we read today begins by telling us that Jesus was “curing every disease and sickness…” What good news for a hurting world! And when we see Jesus in this text, we find him in the midst of these crowds, crowds that symbolize how far God’s good news will go, and Jesus looks at the people with compassion.
In retelling this story, Matthew mixes two metaphors that would resonate with his audience – sheep without a shepherd and a plentiful harvest. In listening to these words, his hearers would have remembered the image in the Hebrew Scriptures of the neglectful shepherds who the prophets criticized for not caring for Israel (Hare, 108-109). In the same way, the image of the plentiful harvest was used in Jewish teaching to convey a sense of urgency (Keener, 309). In combining these metaphors, Matthew conveys both urgency and need. The sheep are lost and scattered, pushed to the fringes of society, without a shepherd to bring them home. And the time for them to be gathered is now. The fields are ripe for harvest, there is no time to spare – the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven is bursting forth on the scene.
Up until this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus was the only one who was teaching and healing (Hare, 109). But all good Jewish teachers recognized that they could only do so much (Keener, 309). Here, Jesus sends the “12 disciples” out to do God’s work, to follow his example. And as Matthew retells this story his hearers would have recognized a model of training miracle workers that reflected the ancient Israelite model of training disciples within prophetic guilds (Keener, 310).
Some commentators have noted that the Greek word that Matthew uses, which translates as “sent” conveys the sense of sending an ambassador out on official business for a kingdom (Keener, 313). Perhaps Matthew chooses this word intentionally to tell us something about the nature of the kingdom of Heaven. But as Jesus sends the disciples out, he’s not just giving them a letter to deliver; he’s asking them to do the impossible – to cast out unclean spirits, to cure every disease and heal every sickness. He tells them to proclaim the “kingdom of heaven” and to back it up by curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, and casting out demons. And on top of that, Jesus tells them to leave their shoes, their staff and their traveling bag behind… Oh, and that they’re likely to be flogged, beaten, and dragged into court. Realistically speaking… its not exactly a free trip to Disney land. In fact, it sounds a bit impossible.
There was a theologian Reinhold Niebuhr with whom I’ve always had a love-hate relationship. Neibuhr was a theologian who lived and worked at a time when World War II and the atrocities of the Holocaust were still painfully fresh in everyone’s memories. Neibuhr took sin seriously, which is one of the reasons I love his work, but his articulation of Christian Realism has always clashed with my hope of our achieving justice here on earth. Drawing on the prophetic ethic of Jesus and the ultimate love of God, Niebuhr believed humanity must reach toward the law of love but believed that in this life, the ideals of the kingdom of God could never be fully realized. Neibuhr believed the law of love was embodied in the person of Christ, but called the realization of this law of love an “impossible possibility” (See Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics).
An “impossible possibility” – is that really even possible? I’ll admit that I’m not the only one who has a love-hate relationship with Neibuhr, and in fact, I’m in good company. Liberation theologians have been quick to remind us that salvation, that the kingdom of God, must be here and now, that it must not neglect history. It must cure the sick, raise the dead, bring good news to the poor and dismantle injustice. If the gospel is to be God’s good news, it must not remain in the realm of the impossible, but become a possibility – even if it seems to be an impossible one.
Perhaps if we put Neibhur and liberation theologians in dialogue, we might find a space for a Kingdom of Heaven that is both “already present” and but has “not yet” fully arrived. And perhaps if we commit to live in this “impossible possibility” we can find a space of struggle and hope that can help us envision salvation as justice, here and now.
In a world where 33 million people are living with HIV and AIDS, where 11 million children die each year of preventable diseases, we need a gospel that promises to heal the sick and resurrect the dying. In a country where 50 million Americans have no health insurance and another 25 million are underinsured, life is risky and too many of our sisters and brothers are marginalized and without – scattered like a sheep without a shepherd.
But the field is ripe for harvest! There are even simple solutions we can offer: nutrition, mosquito nets, HIV/AIDS drugs which literally resurrect the dying – though the task feels impossible, though the numbers are overwhelming – justice is not out of reach. The field is ripe for harvest. With a little creativity and imagination, with the commitment to live in the struggle, we can get there.
But if today’s text tells us anything it reminds us that the good news of the gospel does not travel well on its own. It needs feet, it needs a voice, it needs a little proof to back it up. The story of Jesus commissioning the disciples reminds us that we are called to continue the good work of God here on earth. The gospel needs our feet, our words, our actions to live and grow – to bring justice here and now.
And this must be the case, because if you read between the lines, you might just notice that Matthew’s message is not a simple retelling, but it is a message for the church as well. Historically, there is no evidence that Jesus’ disciples encountered any hostility during Jesus’ lifetime. They were not dragged into court as the text promises; they were not flogged or beaten. No, these were the experiences of the early church (Hare, 113-114). This message, this encouragement in the text is not a simple retelling, it is a message of hope for the church. It is a message for those of us who know the risen Christ but live in a pessimistic and impossible world.
This detail – this hidden message for the early church in Matthew’s narration of this story – can put things in perspective. Within this passage, Matthew balances Jesus’ instructions to his disciples – to confine their work to the “lost sheep of Israel” – with the post-Easter good news of a Christ risen for all the world.
Just as the disciples were sent out as ambassadors of God’s good news, we too are sent into the world each day, carrying only the impossible possibilities of justice, hope, healing, and peace. But with a little hard work, these will be enough, because these are the banners of God’s good news. Shoes, a staff, and a bag, won’t help us much on this journey anyway. We are called to “travel light” (Hare, 112).
Like the disciples, we may do well to start here at home – in the places we know, confronting the injustices we find in our own back yards. In reading this passage, its always bothered me that Jesus sent the disciples out only to the “lost sheep of Israel.” But maybe he had a good reason. Maybe he recognized the power of a good grassroots movement. Maybe, when he told them to stay only with those who welcomed them, he knew the importance of solidarity. Maybe he wanted them to live in the possibility a little longer before they realized how impossible this possibility might be.
And maybe we should do the same. Yes, we’re called to live in the impossible possibility – but we’re not called to live there alone. Like Sarah, finding out she would bear a child in her old age, we can laugh and rejoice in God’s impossible possible news. We too are called to give birth to justice in an unjust world. We’re called to heal the sick, care for the poor, to shout and sing God’s grace, and then back it up with our actions.
Looking back on my 11-year old self, perhaps I should go easy on the girl who could not believe that anyone would reject God’s good news. But now I’m all grown up and along the way I’ve learned that salvation rarely comes through words alone. It needs feet to take it places. It needs feet that aren’t afraid to walk impossible possible paths.
This is the work to which we’ve all been called. But for each of us, the impossible possibility will take a different shape. It will find us, and call us to different places, to different work. It may ask us to stay close to home or call us to cross borders or boundaries. There is an impossible possibility for each of us – our task is to follow God’s lead and when people tell us our work is impossible, we just shake the dust off of our feet and keep walking. We are people of impossible possibilities – this is the good news of the gospel.
So what is your impossible possibility? To what kingdom work have you been called?
Gundry, Robert H. Matthew, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1994.
Hare, Douglas R.A. Interpretation: Matthew. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993.
Keener, Craig S. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.
Niebuhr, Reinhold An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1963.
Senior, Donald. The Gospel of Matthew (Interpreting Biblical Texts). Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997.