Sermon: Troubled and Helpless
June 25th, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passages: Matthew 9:35 – 10:8
We are in Year A of the lectionary cycle, which means that it is the year of Matthew’s gospel, primarily. Beginning this week, the gospel readings for each Sunday will follow the story of Jesus as told by Matthew, all the way into the Fall, right up to the start of Advent, in fact. Matthew was one of Jesus’ disciples, he identifies himself in the list of the twelve that is a part of today’s reading as “Matthew the tax collector.” Just a few verses earlier in chapter 9, Matthew has shared the story of his call. Early in his ministry, Jesus was walking from town to town using the connecting roadways. Along these roadways Jesus would pass by tax booths. A little like toll booths today along a highway. People entering or leaving a town would be taxed, craftsmen taking their goods to market, farmers going to sell their produce or get supplies, even travelers – it was how sales tax or income tax or gas tax were collected. One day, Jesus saw a man named Levi behind the counter of the tax booth and approached him, saying, “Follow me”. Levi got up, and left everything behind to follow Jesus. Such a tremendous transformation took place in Levi that he was given a new name, the name Matthew, which means “Gift of the LORD.”
Our reading today begins with a summary of what Jesus has been up to so far. He has been keeping crowds spell-bound with his teaching. He has been traveling around healing a bunch of people. He has freed others from the control of evil spirits. He has returned life to a young girl who had died. Jesus has calmed a storm on Lake Galilee. Each of these miracles was a sign of God’s Kingdom, God’s rule, beginning to break into the world through Jesus.
Matthew likes to use the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” We’re going to run into that often in the coming weeks as we follow Matthew’s narrative – in fact he uses the phrase 32 times! Matthew uses it in the place where the other gospel writers use “kingdom of God”. For many Jews, the name of God, the name Yahweh, was so holy that to speak it from human lips was to profane that holy name. So the Jews had a practice of substituting other words for God’s name. In this case, Matthew substitutes the word heaven for the name of God. So we must clear out of our minds that when Matthew talks about the Kingdom of Heaven, that he is talking about a place. He is particularly NOT intending to talk about the place that we have come to think of as heaven – a place where people go after they die. Kingdom of heaven talk in Matthew, and kingdom of God talk in the other gospels , is about God returning to the world as King, as ruler, as the one in charge. And that was Good News!
When I initially began looking at this passage and thinking about what it had to say to us today, my first thought was about the sending out of the disciples – which is why the bulletin cover has the verse, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” The disciples have been watching what Jesus has been doing – healing people and liberating them from the powers that keep them trapped – signs that God is in charge. Now Jesus sends them out to do exactly what he has been doing. In 10:7-8 Jesus instructs them, “As you go, preach this message: the kingdom of heaven is near. Heal the sick, bring the dead back to life, cleanse those with discriminating disabilities, drive out demons. Be generous.” The disciples have been listening and learning, now they are sent out to start putting that into practice. As Matthew lists the names of the twelve men being sent out, he calls them Apostles. This is the only place in his whole gospel account that he uses the word ‘apostle’. He uses it here because it is a word that literally means “One that is Sent”. So it seemed logical to draw on this as the focus for this morning; on our also being sent out to do what Jesus did and what the disciples did.
Yet as the events of the last couple weeks unfolded, my attention moved from the sending part of this passage to a verse in the first part of the passage. I just couldn’t get this verse out of my mind: 9:36 “When Jesus saw the crowds he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Harassed and helpless. In the Message, Eugene Peterson uses ‘confused and aimless.’ In other translations I found, ‘troubled and helpless’ or ‘worried and helpless’. I’ve been there in these last couple weeks – and maybe you have, too.
Sitting at Delores’ bedside I certainly felt helpless. That sense was heightened by the fact that as a faith community we have had so much loss over the last several months. Delores Hoppe, Jerry Peters, Rodney August, Paul Weckel, Jim Baker. Many of you have also had losses in your families or among your friends. Someone recently told me that she can no longer keep count of the number of funerals she’s attended since the start of the year. We feel helpless because it is beyond our control.
There are other things that make us feel troubled and helpless – illness and aging. Our prayer list has been long for those who are dealing with things like pneumonia, or cancer, or with body parts that are just not working as they should – backs and hands and hips. We’ve prayed for those having surgery to fix what’s not working. For me, a cough and congestion that I just can’t seem to shake has certainly made me feel troubled and helpless. The majority of the people in this room would probably agree that their bodies are just not able to do what they once could due to injury or aging.
The aging of this building is something that has made us feel troubled and helpless recently. Little holes in old brick walls that create just the right conditions for honey bees to take up residence in our bell tower. Each attempt to remove them just seemed to expose more – more bees and more to be repaired. Maybe you have a home that gives you similar kind of grief – a growing list of maintenance projects, a to-do list that has aged so much that the list itself needs to be repaired.
Maybe there are relationships in your life that need repair and that make you feel troubled and helpless – an argument with a friend, the struggle of a child that you can’t fix, a parent or sibling that just seems to finds fault or instills a sense of guilt. Maybe you have had to invest so much energy into one particular relationship, that other relationships have been neglected. For me this year, the sense of helplessness has come watching my daughter Lisa’s marriage flounder and being unable to fix it. That sense of helpless has also come as I notice the changing dynamics in my parent’s relationship as my mother memories slips, so that the daily tasks of their lifelong partnership fall increasingly on my father.
What other things have happened to you that have made you feel troubled and helpless? Job changes? Work demands? Losing your temper when you hadn’t intended to? Perhaps it is other things that are out of your control, like the weather? We have escaped severe storm damaged in this area, but in other parts of the country and the world, there are floods and tornadoes and fires that have left many people troubled and helpless.
Jesus saw the crowds, and they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. The power in that statement is its truthfulness – not just about the people of that time, but of people of all times, including people today. There is a sense in some churches that once you have been saved and accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord, your life should become perfect and you go out into your community as a shining mini-Christ – as an apostle! Any brokenness and trouble in your life is perceived as shame or a lack of faith. Yet the truth of this verse is that trouble and trial and that sense of helplessness is a universal part of the human condition. It is not something to be ashamed of. It is not failure. It is who we are. It is OK.
There is a second, and equally important, truth in this verse. Jesus saw the crowds. Jesus sees us. We are not hidden from Him. Our troubled and helpless condition is not hidden from Him. Matthew tells us that Jesus saw, and had compassion on them. Jesus did not come just to teach and to heal a few people and raise a couple people from the dead. Rather, Jesus came out of the overflowing compassion of God for the world. God’s love and compassion is what led to God’s plan to try to rescue the world from that shepherdless helpnessness, from the brokenness. God’s love and compassion is what led to God being incarnated in the world in Jesus. God’s love and compassion is why He continues to be present in the world through the Holy Spirit. God didn’t want to just tell us about His love and compassion. He wanted to show us, to make it tangible.
These two truths go together – the truth of the trouble and helplessness of humanity, and the truth of God’s love and compassion. It is only as you accept the first truth of your situation and your need, that you can be open to accepting and being transformed by the second truth of God’s loving response. If you feel like you have your act totally together – everything is under control, thank you very much – then there would be no recognition of needing Jesus’ compassion. Indeed, it might even seem offensive.
There is a lot of pressure in the world today to live an outwardly perfect life – to dress for success, to be fully employed or to have a full set of volunteer commitments in retirement, to have a maintenance-free car or home or church. But that is not the truth of life. The truth is that none of us have perfect lives, not even those of us in church. When we can truly accept that and quit pretending, then we are able to receive the second, transformational truth – God loves you! Jesus sees you and wants to respond with compassion and care.
There aren’t too many times that Jesus tells his disciples what to pray for. But in this passage he does. He says, “The harvest is huge, but the workers to gather it in are few. On your knees and pray for harvest hands!”
There was a man named Bill, who loved his garden. Every summer he prepare the garden beds behind his house, planting row upon row of tomatoes and lettuce and peppers and all sorts of other good things. He would spray his fruit trees at just the right times to get the most apples and plums and pears. He loved eating the harvest that came out of his garden, but even more, he loved sharing it with his neighbors and with the local food pantry. Then one summer while he was out watering the tomatoes, Bill tripped over the hose and fell, breaking his hip. During a short stay in the hospital, and then a longer stay in rehab, all Bill could think about was his garden. When he finally got home, the first thing he did was to slowly shuffle out to the back porch and look out on his garden. What he saw brought 2 powerful emotions. First, was an incredible delight. The tomato plants were loaded with big ripe tomatoes. He could see huge peppers, watermelons galore. The branches of fruit trees were sagging under their load. There was more produce than he ever imagined during the many hours he had been away, dreaming about his garden. And then Bill began to cry – not just a little whimper, but loud wails, his chest heaving and his tears flowing down to soak his shirt. His doctor had been very clear – he could not be bending down in his garden any more, he couldn’t be climbing ladders to pick fruit, he couldn’t even get down the rickety steps to get to the garden. The image of all that lovely produce going to waste, of tomatoes rotting on the vine, watermelon never cut open, the thought of it broke Bill’s heart. And while his eyes were still clouded with tears, Bill began to pray.
I’m not going to tell you how that story ends. You will have to wonder and imagine the possibilities. But the answer to his prayer didn’t take long. Which is similar to our scripture story today. Jesus said, “Get on your knees and pray.” And no sooner did the disciples do that, than the answer was at hand. I suppose it’s one of those situations where you have to be careful what you pray for! We’ll be looking at the next part of Matthew chapter 10 in our worship service next week.
But for today, and for this week, I hope you will hold close to yourself the 2 truths Matthew 9:36. It is part of our natural human condition to experience trouble, to feel harassed by events beyond our control, to feel helpless in the face of loss. That is a fact. It is also a fact that God sees you and loves you, and God has broken the barriers between heaven and earth to reach out in compassion to you. Our closing song this morning is one that embraces both of those truths. It is # 840, God Be With You. It recognizes that as we leave this place, things can happen to one or the other of us that will make us all feel troubled and helpless. It also recognizes that we can bring to that helplessness the power of prayer, we can pray for God’s compassionate watch and care over one another. Our God is not helpless! Let us sing about how God is helpful.
Closing Song: “God Be With You” # 840