There's Work to Be Done

© Photo by Warren Wong (Unsplash)
Published by Josh Hosler on Sun, Jun 14, 2020 12:33 PM
Sermon

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6A-Trk 2), June 14, 2020
Exodus 19:2-8a; Psalm 100; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)

There are moments when Christy and I might find ourselves sitting at the table, just having finished lunch. Or sitting on the couch after a TV show. Or lying in bed trying to imagine what the day will be. Then one of us will finally say, “Well, there’s work to be done and we’re the ones to do it!” In other words, regardless of how we feel, it’s time to spring into action. “There’s work to be done and we’re the ones to do it!” The phrase empowers us because it honors our personal role: some work is simply our work. It doesn’t belong to anyone else.

Today we hear two stories of divine work given to special people. And what makes them so special? Simply the fact that divine work has been given to them. That’s all. They didn’t apply for the job; they were called. They didn’t go to school and get a degree to prepare them; they were told by a divine voice, “Here’s your work. Don’t worry; I’ll help you do it.”

At the time of their call, the Israelites have barely lost the scent of salt water from their nostrils and have just begun to taste manna every morning. There is an incident where they almost mutiny against Moses, their leader—not that this will help them find water. Some are still grumbling about that episode. They’ve also survived an attack by some nearby Amalekites, thanks to the leadership of Moses’ general, Joshua. And Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, has just helped Moses set up a hierarchy of leadership so the work doesn’t all fall on his own shoulders.

This has been phase one of Israel’s freedom: contention and disorientation, but eventually relief and settling into a routine. Now it’s time for phase two, and this is where the real work begins. Moses goes high up on a mountain, and God tells him, “Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” In other words, “There’s work to be done, and you’re the ones to do it!” This should not be news to the chosen people of God, for whom the call came through Abraham centuries before. It’s a fresh version of the same call in a new, unprecedented situation. This is the experience of a people in direct conversation with God, who then allow that experience to change the course of their history. Abraham’s call may have come first, but this is the one that will define God’s chosen people forever.

The people accept the call graciously, answering as one: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”

Have you ever had the guts to say that to God? “Everything you have spoken I will do.” Yikes.

My parents said something like that on my behalf on the day of my baptism. I said something like it myself at my confirmation as an adult, and again at my ordination to the priesthood. But those are the mountaintop moments, the sacramental peaks of my walk with God. There are plenty of other times when I don’t say that. I usually prefer something like, “All right, God, but what will I get out of this?”

It’s not super common for me to react with Psalm 100: “Serve the Lord with gladness and come before God’s presence with a song!” Frankly, a lot of the time, I’d rather sit on the couch a little longer, play a few more games of Boggle on my phone in the morning, go for a long walk in the afternoon, enjoy dinner in my backyard on a warm summer evening. “Hey, God, can you please make me useful while I do that instead?”

“Nope,” says God. “There’s work to be done, and you’re the one to do it!” And then God finds ways to remind me exactly what my work is. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. What is your work?

For the Israelites, the divine work comes in the form of the Law. Moses says to the people, in essence, “When we keep this law, everyone we encounter will know that we are a people in direct relationship with the one true God. This will set us apart from those who believe there are many dangerous gods who need to be appeased in various ways. It’s not wrong to fear God, because God is all-powerful. But God has come down to our level to love us and to urge us to love one another.”

The all-powerful, all-holy creator of all things is not an abusive parent. God sets aside that power and comes to be with us. How will we live in response?

We Christians believe that God came to be with us in a new, definitive way as Jesus of Nazareth. By abdicating most of the features of divinity for a time, God sought to earn our trust and to reestablish a loving relationship with us. And during his time on earth, Jesus had work to do. Not only that, but he taught others to do that work on his behalf.

Jesus looks around and sees human need everywhere. No matter how divine he is, being human as well, he can’t be in more than one place at a time. And time is fleeting. So Jesus says to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest.”

On this occasion, Jesus calls twelve people and commissions them to work on his behalf. He gives them a specific list of duties:

  • Cure the sick.
  • Raise the dead.
  • Cleanse the lepers.
  • Cast out demons.

Now, I’ve never seen any of these duties on a job description. I suppose if you’re a physician, then “cure the sick” is to be expected, sort of, or at least, “Help establish conditions whereby the body can heal itself.” But even as a priest, I’ve never seen a job description for clergy that says “Cast out demons”! Certainly not in so many words. For all of us, this list of duties must seem so strange, so removed from our experience of what life is like.

But I’m here to tell you: This is the job description of every Christian. If you’ve been baptized, this is your work. And maybe you’ve set that work aside and focused on other things, or maybe by being confirmed you’ve taken it up again. But did you know this is your work? Maybe you’ve been doing some of this anyway all along without knowing it. Let’s look at each item a little more closely.

Cure the sick: Maybe you can’t magically make disease go away, but like any good physician, you can help improve the situation: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Include in your life those who are suffering. Treasure them. Give them your presence. Now, this doesn’t mean singlehandedly deciding to inform people exactly how they’re sick and need to be made well. Interventions are never solo work! Just love people in every circumstance, but especially those who are hurting.

Raise the dead: OK, now, the more I think about this one, the more I realize that Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant that everyone in Galilee who died should immediately be brought back to life; they would only have to die again someday. We do have stories of Jesus literally raising the dead, but for us, of course, it needs to be a metaphor. So yes, raise the dead. Include those on whom you had previously given up. Seek reconciliation where possible, insofar as this work does not destroy you. Never give up on anyone, even those who are now out of your life. At least trust that God is at work in them to bring about transformation.

Cleanse the lepers: Remember the thing I said before about not deciding for yourself who is and isn’t sick? Many people in our world have been the victims of such behavior: excluded, cast out, told that they are unwelcome or even an abomination to God. It is better to be cast out ourselves than to allow this situation to continue. We could throw open the doors of the church, shout, “All are welcome here!,” and say our work is done. But the church needs to earn the trust of outcasts. We need to treat them not as broken, but as whole. We need to stand with them against those who oppose them. We need to risk much for this work. And yes, most of it needs to happen outside the doors of the church, where most outcasts are to be found. When the church goes out to befriend outcasts, the church eventually becomes an inclusive place. But not quickly or easily. And that inclusivity always begins by being transformed ourselves—not by insisting on transforming others. This breaks down all notions of “us” and “them.”

Cast out demons: This is related work. Identify the forces that seek to deceive and divide, and then expose them. Don’t settle for an “us versus them.” Don’t live in a narrative bubble; you don’t get to decide what’s true based solely on what feels right. Trust that there is much you don’t know or understand, and then go out and teach yourself; don’t expect others to teach you. Offer to God no sacrifice that costs you nothing. Stretch. Grow. If you are not growing, you are already dead and need to be resurrected. (See above.)

As the church sets out to do this work, we do so with an assurance that our work will not be wasted, even when we fail. Paul lays this out well for the Romans. We may suffer, and we may experience deep discouragement, but at the end of it all lies hope. Why? Because we have been given work that we are not qualified to do.

Like the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai, we haven’t earned the right to be given a divine task. We have just been set free from slavery. Like Jesus’ disciples, we have no resume or references. We only have the call. Through some strange twist of fate or by God’s providence, here we are online together, a small bunch of Christians, plus maybe some other folks who are curious about this Christianity thing. We are a circle that wants to expand, but only we can expand it.

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. And maybe you feel harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd. But has it occurred to you that maybe you have been called to be a shepherd for others? There’s work to be done … and we’re the ones to do it. That includes you. Amen.

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