Exodus 19.2-8a; Romans 5.1-8; Matthew 9.35 - 10.8
The Very Rev'd Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark
The sermon preached by the Dean of Southwark on the Second Sunday of Trinity.
This week we will mark – in, I’m sure, very different ways – the seventh anniversary of the Brexit vote. Inevitably the headlines that we’ve had to get used to since Brexit was done will be repeated, that there aren’t enough people to harvest the crops, that things are rotting in the fields and that there’s no one to do that kind of work.
Seeing crops go unharvested, go to waste, rotting in the fields is scandalous. It was one of the two agricultural metaphors that Jesus uses in the gospel for today. He was a boy, a man from town, he wasn’t someone who’d grown up working in the fields but rather working in the carpenter’s shop alongside Joseph. Then when he began his ministry he’d have learnt more from his friends about fishing or tax collecting than he would about harvesting, But these were small communities, small towns, small villages where the harvest was to be relied upon, where the flocks were precious and where danger to both just lurked around the corner. Jesus had a concern for the harvest and for the sheep – one in danger of going unharvested, one lost, helpless and harassed.
But he wasn’t, of course talking about crops or sheep, he was talking about people. But starting from what they were already aware of – what was happening all around them – Jesus focused the attention of those listening to him on what was most important, the people he came to save, the people he came to love
The gospel writer uses the most beautiful word to express what Jesus was feeling. We’re told that he had ‘compassion for them’, just as in our First Reading we’re told that the people who’d escaped slavery in Egypt and were wandering towards freedom in the Promised Land were ‘my treasured possession.’
This is how God thinks of us, thinks of you. You’re on the heart of God, your names are written on the heart of God, you’re held in the palm of God’s hand. Compassion is one of the deepest feelings that can be attributed to the divine because it’s about God entering into your agony, sharing in your pain, experiencing exactly what it is that you’re going through.
One of the doctrines that we have about the nature of God is that God is impassable, that God cannot feel pain, cannot suffer, that the Godhead can experience nothing of that. That is why ‘the Word was made flesh and lived among us’ as John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel. Jesus struggles into life, shares in all that it means to be human, wept the tears we weep, suffered the anguish we suffer, took on himself our pain and died, simply that we might live as he lives.
As Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, our Second Reading
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
It wasn’t that we deserved it, it was that we needed it. God reached out, out of that deep sense of divine love, the very love from which we were created, reached out to ‘the treasured possession’ and gathered the sheep into a fold, brought the harvest into the barns. God did this for us, for you and me, God did it so that we too could do the same.
It’s almost forty years since I was ordained. In all that time there’s been a phrase knocking about the church that keeps being trotted out every so often but seems really hard to actually do. The phrase is ‘collaborative ministry’.
What it means is that clergy shouldn’t see themselves as lone rangers, solitary farmers, isolated shepherds, but that we should see ourselves ministering as part of the whole people of God – in distinctive ways as a deacon, priest or bishop – but not from the basis of a hero mentality, a hero delusion. It’s collaborative ministry of which Jesus is speaking.
He chooses the twelve whose names we’ve just heard, because he cannot do it alone, the flock needs shepherds, the fields need harvesters, even Jesus cannot do it alone, God is the collaborator in mission to the whole, giving us the strength and the skills that we need, feeding us for the task but needing us to be there sharing in the task.
The truth is that the church cannot do it alone, we need to collaborate with others, people of faith, people of good will, for the harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few, the sheep remain harassed and helpless. We can only do so much; together we can do great things.
This week as we remember what I still consider to be the tragedy that was Brexit, we also commemorate the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush at Tilbury. That comes at the same time as we’ve been hearing of yet another tragedy in the Mediterranean off the coast of Greece, but of a magnitude and scale that we haven’t seen so far. The desperate refugees on the boat were different to the excited and hopeful migrants on the Windrush but both groups have suffered as a result of a lack of compassion, a less than warm welcome. All of this is happening as we’re confronted by turmoil in our politics, a lack of confidence in our leaders and a damaging of the integrity which should be at the heart of all we do in society, government and in the church.
We need that divine compassion, we need to treasure one another as much as God already treasures us, we need to be partners in the work of God, answering the call into that collaborative ministry which will see the sheep shepherded and the harvest safely gathered in.
You know the poem so well, I’ve mentioned it so many times – but this will be the last time, honest, that you hear it from me! It’s ‘The Coming’ by R S Thomas
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, A river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
Harassed and helpless but God comes with compassion and draws us into the divine task – to reach out to the poor and the homeless, to seek and save the lost, to welcome the stranger with open arms, to make peace, to speak truth, to act with integrity, to see our neighbour’s needs before our own, to treasure one another regardless of who we are, or who God created us to be, to recognise the face of Jesus in each other, just as now we recognise Jesus in the broken bread.
‘‘Let me go there’, he said’. Let me go to this community and be their food and be their drink, go there to be their shepherd, their lover, their word, go there to be their truth, their life, their hope and let them follow me. My friends, that is our calling for the sake of the world, for the sake of humanity.