So, okay, Church. Are you ready? It looks like the covid-19 pandemic infection rate is slowing down here in southeastern Pennsylvania. (Well, that is to say it looks like it’s slowing down. We don’t really know what the effect of mass protests in the streets and knuckleheaded behavior at the Jersey shore will do to the infection rate, but we’re still trying to be optimistic!). This means that the City of Philadelphia has moved into the first stage or re-opening, the “yellow phase.” Churches are now allowed to hold in-person worship with some very strict restrictions. In the liturgical calendar, however, we can say we’re now in the “green phase.” In Ordinary Time after Pentecost we bust out the green paraments and vestments and concentrate on growth and renewal. A lot of the Gospel lessons we get in the Revised Common Lectionary focus on the teaching of Jesus.
Now, I’d be willing to bet that after three months of quarantine a lot of folks have already learned some new lessons. Some of you have learned how to work from home while handling your home-schooled, bored, and disappointed kids. You may have taken a master class in online shopping, complete with an economics course in budgeting both your money and your time so that the monotony didn’t drive you to screaming, homicidal madness. Maybe you learned how to set aside more time for prayer. I’m sure we all learned a little more about the people we live with, and, I trust we’ve all learned about patience. Indeed, in these last few weeks, we’ve learned a lot more about racial injustice in America than white folks are comfortable knowing.
Whatever the last few months have taught us, our Lectionary Gospel for Pentecost 2 (Matthew 9:36-10:8) starts off this green phase with a reminder that our learning is to have a purpose. Here we see Jesus proclaiming that laborers are needed to go out into the harvest and get some work done because people are “harassed and helpless.” (v. 9:37) The Gospel refers to the twelve followers of Jesus as “apostles.” The word in Greek (apostolon for you Greek fans) means messengers or the “sent-out ones.” They’re Jesus’ representatives or ambassadors to the world, and their mission is to proclaim the Kingdom of God and heal everybody’s sickness. “Sickness,” of course, doesn’t mean only physical illness. It can mean a whole lot of ways we’re disconnected from God.
So are you up for doing that? Are you ready to participate in the Kingdom and be a healer for the planet?
Maybe you’re not sure. Don’t feel bad. I don’t think anyone ever undertakes a major project feeling fully prepared. That’s where faith comes in, doesn’t it? I’m sure the first ambassadors didn’t feel all that prepared either.[i] Just look at these guys: There are four blue-collar commercial fisherman, a cosmopolitan guy with a fancy Greek name, a sort of “antifa” dude who wants to tear down the system of oppression, a guy who used to work for the system of oppression, and a guy who is really good with money but can’t be trusted. They’re a mixed bag, but Jesus choose them all for his mission and God used them all—even the betrayer. After all, sometimes it’s the people who hurt us who teach us the most important lessons.
The Lectionary marries this story of the mission of the twelve with a story from Exodus (Ex. 19:2-8c). Here the Hebrews have been brought safely out of bondage in Egypt and through the Red Sea. They’re sort of like us. They’ve been rescued form their own form of “quarantine,” and allowed to worship God again. God calls them a “priestly” people (v.6). Priests, of course, are the folks whose job it is to connect others people with God. Like the twelve apostles, these folks are going to have a mission. Unfortunately, they’re not prepared to embark on this mission just yet, so God has them wander around the Sinai Peninsula for another forty years until they get their act together. God is patient like that.
Martin Luther believed that when we were baptized we were, in a sense, ordained as priests. We too have a mission to connect people with God. We might be wandering around in the wilderness at the moment, but Jesus is expecting us to be proclaimers, healers, and reconcilers.
If a congregation is to thrive, it can’t just be about providing comfort and comradery for its members. We are called to take up our priestly and apostolic identity. Here in Northeast Philly—as in every neighborhood—there are unique opportunities to establish solidarity with our neighbors. We might end up spending a little more time in the wilderness, but that’s just so God can get us prepared to go to work in the harvest.
[i] If you read down to 10:9ff, you’ll see that Jesus wasn’t too concerned about their physical preparations for this work. That must’ve scared those guys a lot. It’s hard to be a control freak when you work for Jesus!