Sermon on Matthew 9:35-10:8 (with frequent reference to Ezekiel 34), for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost 2020 (A), "Christ's Compassion"



Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. God sure loves sheep. All over the Bible He calls His people “sheep”, from “the Lord is my Shepherd” to the Good Shepherd searching and finding His lost sheep—God loves sheep. And Matthew 9:36 observes that when Jesus taught the crowds, He had compassion on them because they were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Clearly the sheep were in danger. There is a lot going on in those words. Harassed and helpless means that the sheep are being abused, exploited, or otherwise harmed, and are unable to defend themselves or rescue themselves out of the situation. “Like sheep without a shepherd” indicates they are leaderless or that their leaders have failed them. These words echo back to God’s care for His people the sheep, described in Ezekiel 34.
Ezekiel 34 describes another group of harassed and helpless sheep. God rails against the “shepherds of Israel”, which means the political and religious leaders of that day. He talks about how “with force and harshness you have ruled them.” God blames them for fleecing the sheep, devouring them, and not caring for the weak and injured. They were “scattered because there was no shepherd” just like Jesus saw crowds who were like “sheep without a shepherd.”
Through both Ezekiel and Jesus, God is saying sheep need shepherds or leaders—both political and spiritual leaders, that care for them properly. God’s concern throughout the Bible is that leaders provide justice, and make sure that the needy and the vulnerable are not exploited or abused or unable to gain justice because they have no voice or no advocate. Political and spiritual leaders have positions of power, influence, and authority, not for their own gain, but to help and serve those under them. A real-life shepherd guards the flock from wolves and thieves and other outside threats and seeks the lost or injured sheep to bring them home to the fold. The fold is supposed to be a place of security for the sheep. God wants that kind of relationship between sheep and shepherd for His people.
The word of the Lord cries out that the sheep were “scattered over all the face of the earth with none to search or seek for them” (Ezekiel 34:6). And God declares He’ll hold the crooked shepherds personally accountable, and God Himself will rescue the sheep and be their Shepherd who searches for them, rescues and cares for them. God says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice” (Ezekiel 34:15-16). Ezekiel’s prophecy, some 600 years Before Christ (B.C.), points right to Jesus, our Good Shepherd. He came down to earth and found His sheep harassed and helpless, scattered and lost, and He had compassion on them—compassion translated into action.
It's not just because of recent events, but for a long time I have reflected on these words of Jesus and how they describe both yesterday and today. Whether at the time of Jesus, or six centuries before, and still today, there are corrupt leaders, abusive authorities, fake healers, and demagogues or manipulators who harm God’s sheep, God’s people, in many ways. Harassed and helpless covers a whole lot of the chaos and confusion. Part of what moved Jesus to compassion was the physical diseases and afflictions of the crowds. Part of what moved Him was their suffering under the failures of leadership. Now for physical sicknesses and afflictions, Jesus had a ready solution. He’s God’s Son, the Healer of body and soul! He healed many people. His compassion was directly translated into action. And He gave His twelve disciples the same power and authority to do healing miracles. If I had the same authority to do healing miracles, I’d be at the hospitals healing patients or healing people with COVID. But I don’t.
So are we helpless to help the diseased and afflicted? Helpless to bring Jesus’ compassion into their lives, if we can’t perform miraculous healings? Not at all! Even in the Bible, even in Jesus’ ministry, miracles were the exception, not the norm. And we should rejoice and praise God at every miracle and answer to prayer. Because God still does miracles. But all the rest of the time, God has given many other ways of helping and bringing compassion. Right now there’s an unprecedented search for a treatment or cure for COVID, involving tons of doctors and researchers. And whether they are successful or not, there are countless doctors, nurses, first responders, who are putting the compassion of Christ into action when they serve the sick and the afflicted in their communities. Whether it’s COVID or cancer or any other health issue or even an injury from an accident—whether an EMT or a physical therapist, a social worker or an accountant or cleaner that keeps a hospital or doctor’s office running smoothly—they all are ways to be Jesus’ hands and feet, loving and serving our injured, our weak, or our stray sheep. So many helping professions—and what a beautiful way to care for God’s sheep.
But meeting the physical needs of the harassed and helpless crowds of sheep was only one part of Jesus’ ministry. He is the Healer of body and soul. Along with healing, He preached the gospel of the kingdom and taught His disciples to pray for workers to be sent into the harvest. I think sometimes God wants us to pray that way so that our hearts will be opened to answer: “Here I am, send me!” But shepherding the sheep is not just about the physical care. We have a soul. Our soul needs food even more than our body—yet we almost always neglect our spiritual hunger, even while we gorge our physical hunger. Remember God said through Ezekiel that the shepherds were failing to feed the sheep. And He said that He would feed His people in justice.
I can’t help thinking of the crowds of people across our country today, as harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Many in our nation are crying out in hurt, pain, anger, and pent up frustration. And much of it began as a cry against another deplorable case of police brutality. Unfortunately, the response has grown very muddled and confused, and many of the original, righteous cries for justice have been co-opted by those who are stirring up violence and destruction. And much of that may seem distant from us here on Maui, where thankfully protesting has been peaceful. But in the middle of the unrest are harassed and helpless sheep, without the proper leadership and care of shepherds. Both our political and religious leaders. Our job is to care for the physical well-being of the sheep. To be voices for justice, for order, for healing, and for advocacy. And spiritual leaders are especially entrusted with the care of souls.
I know from Jesus’ example that His heart is filled with compassion when He sees such hurt, such wrongdoing, and such need. And how would He have us move our hands and feet into action, to be helpers? Some of these problems are far out of our reach in the mainland. But does that mean we are helpless to help? Not at all! We can begin by being voices and people of love and respect right here in our own communities. We are already blessed with a diverse community that does a pretty amazing job of getting along and treating each other with respect. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have problems or bad apples among us. When we ask others, and we are willing to listen, about how they have experienced racism or prejudice in their lives, our eyes might be opened and our compassion can grow. But beyond just being a respectful and loving person, we can be a voice of wisdom, of healing, or a voice for justice. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights hero, said “The darkness cannot drive out the darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that.” Understanding that truth, we should speak against all the violence and destruction. We need to embody the Biblical idea that you can’t overcome evil with evil. The only way to overcome evil is with good. MLK knew that was a hard road, but it was the right one.
I don’t need to spell out for you all the ways that we can extend the compassion of Christ to our community—but to challenge you to think of and explore the ways that you can. But you must know the shape of that compassion. That’s part of my sacred duty as a pastor, a shepherd, is to help you see the shape of Christ’s compassion, and what is not. The divisiveness that is rampant in our country, the attacking each other, and the heaping of guilt on people with no promise or prospect of forgiveness, the destruction of precious human life, racism, the destruction of property—these things are never of Christ. But speaking life into the aching void of loss; speaking calm and restoration into the burning wounds of brokenness; speaking apologies for the things that we have done wrong and speaking forgiveness to those who have wronged us; this is the compassion of Christ. Having hands and feet that find people to help, and eyes and ears to see and hear the bleating of lost or injured sheep. That is of Christ. Being a Good Samaritan, a good neighbor, who helps the downtrodden, or the voiceless, and speaks up for them--that is the compassion of Christ. And I challenge you to think of more ways that you can show the compassion of Christ to harassed and helpless sheep.
This is what Christ did for us. He saw that in our sin we destroy ourselves and others. So often our troubles spiral out of control, and there’s none to rescue. But God did not remain in heaven, aloof and uncaring; He entered into our mess, got down and dirty with hands on ministry to the sick, the suffering, the mislead and the unbelieving. And Christ found us. He brought us up to life out of our weakness and trouble. Our identity is not found in victimhood or powerlessness—but Christ takes us from the place of sin and defeat and speaks new life and hope and breath into our lives. Jesus is the Healer of body and soul, who gives us a new identity as forgiven and redeemed sheep in His fold. In Him, in His church, we find a refuge from the chaos and a place of peace in the midst of the threatening dangers of the world—but He also sends us out into the world, to bring the lost and injured to Him. His mission of compassion continues today through us in Jesus’ Name, Amen.

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