As we launch into green season today, we also launch into an extended presentation of the ministry of Jesus: his preaching, his healing, the ways he interacted with people, the stories he told. But before we really get going together on this new phase of the church year, let’s just note that it’s a quite different kind of season than where we’ve been so far. The Lent-Triduum-Easter cycle, as well as the Advent-Christmas cycle, which have dominated the year for us so far, are powerful and clear seasons that are meant to have powerful and clear results in us. During those seasons, we re-encounter the key landmarks in what Christians see as the central narrative of the universe.
Each year those cycles have work to do in us, which is to make God’s saving acts vividly present. And each year we have work to do with them, which is to let everything we are going through this particular year get brought into conversation with God’s saving acts and opened up to them. When both parts of that equation are in play, Christmas and Easter get some purchase right in the middle of our lives and are able to make specific changes in us. They do that incrementally, year by year, some years far more obviously than others; but that’s what can happen, if you’re willing to make the investment, in those powerful cycles we call Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter.
This green season is a bit different. It doesn’t feature dramatic landmarks like God taking on human flesh, or pouring out his lifeblood on the cross for us. The green season presumes all that has happened already. It presumes we’ve already done the purple and white and red seasons; we’ve met Christ among us at Christmas, we’ve put our whole trust in his death and resurrection at Lent and Easter, and we’ve been filled with his Spirit at Pentecost. The green season presumes we’re now ready to live out what God did for us in this year’s big landmark seasons.
Now, if you missed the benefit of those seasons, or if you’re just not sure you’re ready for that, don’t worry; nobody is going to force you. This is the Episcopal Church: you can come explore God’s activity here as you are, it’s fine. Wherever you’re coming from, there will still be useful things for you however you engage. But with Christianity things get more and more useful as you go deeper; that’s the payoff to being all in.
So unlike the rest of the year, the green season flows along, Sunday to Sunday, tracing the series of things Jesus said and did, rather undramatically. We hear about parables he told, conversations he had, healings he did. In fact, the first line of today’s Gospel could serve as a summary of the whole season: “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.” This week, and for the next couple of weeks, our Gospel readings will actually focus on one particular aspect of the way Jesus deliberately chose to carry out that program: he coached a team of ordinary human beings to do it with him. He didn’t teach or heal or serve alone. He called disciples to apprentice themselves to him and learn how to collaborate with him in what God is doing in the world.
The day we begin this section of the Gospel of Matthew is also a good day, incidentally, to welcome our new curate. Today is the very first morning we have Caleb Roberts with us – he’ll be Deacon Caleb for about a month, and then Fr. Caleb, and we are all so glad that God has called him and Julie and their two kids Charles and Alice to join us at Emmanuel. And like any priest, he will have the same plan Jesus does in this section of the Gospel – helping you apprentice yourselves to Jesus and learn how to collaborate with him in what God is doing in the world. I hope you’ll greet the Roberts family after church and let them get to know you.
So: helping us apprentice ourselves to Jesus and learn how to collaborate with him in what God is doing in the world. I want us to observe four ways that happens in today’s Gospel reading, which tell us something about the way it can happen here at Emmanuel too. As Jesus involves these disciples in collaborating in God’s work, there are four parts to it: He notices, he prays, he calls, he empowers. We’ll take just a minute on each one.
At the very start of the Gospel reading, we saw that Jesus is at work going through “all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” And what happens in the second sentence, while he’s going about this work? It says he “saw the crowds [and] had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless.” He notices. So often we can go about whatever it is we’re doing, either our daily lives or our church activities, on automatic pilot, without really noticing what’s there, who’s there, what’s missing. But Jesus notices.
Emmanuel’s discernment group that is seeking guidance for what God may be calling us to do with the vacant rectory is in a phase just like this. Each member is doing a guided exercise of walking through our neighborhood, and through our church property, to see with fresh eyes what is here, who is here, what’s needed. If any of you want to do that for yourselves, by the way, you’d be more than welcome. There are copies of the instructions in the Great Hall. It’s a fascinating way to break out of your assumptions and really see, which is a first step in ministering to a neighborhood or a person in a way that actually connects.
So Jesus notices. He sees the people in front of him. He sees what’s going on, how stressed they are, how scattered, how they don’t have the capacity to sustain focus on what life’s all about -- and what does he do next? He asks for prayer. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” The plight of human beings in a fallen world is so great, and we are so hobbled by that same plight ourselves, that we can’t even begin to address it without turning to God first, and without asking God to use us -- to use anyone he can persuade to respond -- in all the spiritual work that is crying to be done.
This verse is Matthew 9:38. I was at a conference once where the speaker had put a notification on his phone to go off every day at 9:38 AM so he could pray this prayer. It went off while he was speaking, and we all stopped and asked the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into his harvest. There is an urgent need in our world and in the church – certainly in this particular church -- for people who are motivated enough, and caring enough, and equipped enough, to collaborate in what God is doing. Maybe some of you could set your phones to go off at 9:38 AM, and ask the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into his harvest. Be aware he might send you, though. That’s always the risk.
Jesus notices, he prays, and then what? He calls them. It says he summons them to him. This is not the story of the moment he asked them to follow him -- he’s already done that. But he still gathers his followers, before he sends them out as signs and agents of what God is doing in the world. There is always this aspect of a community coming together around Jesus that precedes any work being done. There’s this rhythm of inward, then outward; inward, then outward. We reconnect with Jesus first; then we move into action. Without that reconnection, we’ll just run off and do what seems good to us, and pretty soon we, who are supposed to be the laborers in his harvest, turn into the sheep without a shepherd that need to be labored over.
It’s why at least once a week we gather at this table to directly encounter Christ in person in the Holy Eucharist. It’s why over and over we invite you to spend time in Christian formation groups, or to gather this summer to discuss the Rowan Williams book we’ll be reading together and processing in members’ homes. We cannot serve Jesus without coming to him. It’s not possible. Let that regular, intentional gathering around Jesus go, and you’ll have wandered off the main highway before you know it.
Jesus notices, he prays, he calls, and then (apart from that list of names), he does what takes up the whole rest of the section we read: he empowers. He empowers his followers with authority, and he empowers them with a message. The authority is his authority, delegated to them; it’s not something they worked their way up to, or deserved because they were special and holy. The authority that Jesus gives us as his followers is a gracious gift that comes with being in Christ. And the message is his message, the good news he himself proclaimed and talked about endlessly. What is it? “The kingdom of God has come near.”
The Gospel of Matthew actually says "the kingdom of heaven," which is a Jewish euphemism to avoid the word God, but it’s the same thing. We see it earlier in the reading, where it says that Jesus preached “the good news of the Kingdom.” He announced that in him, the Kingdom has been launched, is open to all, and is at work in the midst of this old, broken, harassed and helpless world -- plus, you can get in on it. All the actions Jesus does, his healings, his casting out of evil, all those are signs that the Kingdom is breaking into this world. And so are all the actions we do in his Name, too.
Because once we are all in, we too become agents of this Kingdom. We get the chance to show forth the Kingdom now because it has begun coming to us and in us. This is not a metaphor. Everything in these Gospel readings, just like the pattern of the liturgical seasons, is intended to happen in us, to find expression in us, come to life in us. It’s happening today. Jesus today is noticing the harassed and helpless world around us, today he’s praying for you and me to respond as his laborers, today he’s calling us to him to be fed and formed and equipped for God to use us, and he’s ready to empower us and send us out… just as soon as we’re ready to be sent. That doesn’t have to be right this second, but it could be.