Bold new empire

Proper 6A (RCL); Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:23.

     One of the differences between Morning Prayer and eucharist (besides the obvious) is that in the service for eucharist, the Collect of the Day comes right at the beginning of the service.  In Morning Prayer, it comes after the sermon, after the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  This morning, that’s too bad, because the Collect for today really sets up well what the Scriptures are about.  So, I’m going to read it here in the sermon.

     Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion:  for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever.

     I could almost preach a sermon on the collect.  We pray, that through God’s grace, we might proclaim God’s truth with boldness, and minister God’s justice with compassion.  Watching what has been unfolding on our streets over the last two weeks, I think this is a prayer for our time.  We need boldness to proclaim God’s truth, and compassion to minister God’s justice.

     This prayer sets up these scriptures perfectly.  In Matthew’s Gospel, we hear the story of Jesus commissioning the twelve apostles, and giving them authority over unclean spirits, and power to heal disease and sickness.  Matthew introduces this commissioning with a statement about Jesus having compassion on the crowds, because there were like sheep without a shepherd.

     Matthew is saying more than it might look like on the surface.  He is quoting the book of Numbers.  Moses is worried that when he dies, the congregation of Israel will be like sheep without a shepherd, so he asks God to appoint someone to take his place.  God tells Moses to lay his hands on Joshua and give him his authority.  There is a great pun here that we miss in English.  In Greek, the name Joshua is Jesus.  In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, Moses appoints Jesus as his successor.

     That pun is not lost on Matthew.  And now, Jesus, knowing he is going to die, appoints the twelve as his successors, and gives them his authority.  Jesus sends them out to announce a new empire.  As they traveled they were to heal the sick, raise the dead, and announce that the empire of God had come near.  It is not as clear in this passage as it is in other passages that the disciples were to eat a meal with those they healed.

     In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus sends out the disciples, he instructs them to call a sort of stone-soup meal in each town they enter:  eat what is set before you, heal the sick, raise the dead, and proclaim the kingdom.  When Jesus raises Jairus’ twelve-year-old daughter, he instructs those standing by to give her something to eat.  The meal was part of the cure.

     The ancient world didn’t have the medical understanding we have now about how diseases work.  But they had a much clearer understanding of the social aspect of the disease process.  Some disease, like leprosy, cut people completely off from society, and so being brought back to the table would have been a powerful cure.

     One of the really tragic things about COVID-19, is that people who are really ill are nearly completely isolated.  We’ve seen images of hospital staff standing and cheering as someone is released from the ICU, overjoyed that the person is now back among loved ones.  Think of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s:  the social aspect of the disease was as bad as the disease process itself.  How many gay men died completely alone?

     I’ve been glued to my television these last few weeks, watching what is happening on the streets of our nation, and even around the world.  As nervous as I am about the possibility of these protests spreading the Corona virus, I am astonished at the outpouring of support for a movement against racism in our institutions.

     It would not be too much of a stretch to see racism as a social disease, and institutional disease, causing huge rifts in our social fabric.  I have been struck by the variety of people protesting.  In Ferguson, after Michael Brown’s death, white people joining the protests was newsworthy.  White people could get themselves on the front page of the newspaper by showing up at a protest.  In these most recent protests, it’s almost normal.  That’s a huge shift.

     Jesus sends out the disciples to cure the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead, and then proclaim that a new empire, the empire of God has come near.  Those early Christians were dangerous.  The Roman empire understood that their message called Rome’s authority into question.  If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.  Those first Christians were not made martyrs for being nice people.  They were a threat to the powers that be.

     I think we’re seeing something like this on our streets.  Certainly there is some bad stuff happening.  There has been looting and destruction, but a lot less of that than during Ferguson.  People are proclaiming a new order of things:  Black Lives Matter.  They are seeking to heal a very deep and very old wound in our nation.  They are proclaiming a new empire, one of hope, justice, and love.  They are seeking to bring those who have been excluded back to the table, or maybe to the table for the first time.  I think Jesus would recognize some of what is happening.

     And that’s where today’s collect comes in.  Moses passed his authority on to Joshua/Jesus, and Jesus has passed his authority on to us, the authority to cast out demons, heal the sick, raise the dead, and announce a new empire.  He also tells us that we can expect opposition.  We will be called on to testify before powers and authorities, who might not like what we have to say.

     So, we pray for God’s grace to proclaim that truth with boldness, and to minister that justice with compassion.  We are going to need that grace to see the truth, in ourselves and in our society.  And we are going to need grace to proclaim what we see with boldness.  We are going to need grace to be compassionate with ourselves as we face an uncomfortable truth, and we are going to need grace to hear the anguish of those who suffer from this ill.  We are going to need grace to see justice done with compassion, welcoming those excluded to the table, rather than excluding them with force and violence.  We are the agents of a new empire.  God give us the grace to proclaim it with joy.