There’s a lot to consider in this long passage we get from our Gospel text today. First, there’s the time of year we receive it, what the church has decided to name Ordinary Time again. Ordinary in the sense that it goes through the numbers of weeks after Pentecost, not ordinary in the sense of your ordinary dishes. The color of this season is green, which may have come about to signify growth—growth in discipleship, growth in faith. So, we receive this text from Matthew which comes in the first half of the book, just as the disciples are learning how to be disciples to Jesus. They are following a man who does the impossible, a man burning with a fire they’ve never seen or felt. This is a passage that both tells the story of Jesus and his disciples, but also speaks to the situation of church in Matthew’s time: a world full of evil and pain, a community under threat of expulsion and arrest. It’s a little hint that even though the world changed with the Resurrection, the world didn’t change at all. Even though Jesus was raised, the harvest still waits, and the laborers still are few.
And these aren’t sheep, these are people. Jesus is teaching, proclaiming good news, healing, feeding. This means the people are ignorant, hopeless, diseased, hungry. These are not sturdy peasant stock of legend, people who wander around gentle sloping countrysides puffing on pipes and wearing waistcoats, but actual peasants, people who lived for two and a half, maybe three and a half decades. And they couldn’t read, write, and were constantly under attack from one empire or another. They lived, they bred, they died. They were people who didn’t even live much longer than sheep.
So when Jesus saw the crowds, he didn’t see a host of clean extras in peasant costumes, but filthy people, afraid and hungry. He saw the crowds and he had compassion on them. Their names have been forgotten, save some of these names mentioned like Peter, James, Andrew, and so on. And perhaps, most remarkably, when these people look at Jesus, they see one of their own, equally undignified, equally poor, equally doomed to die unknown and unremembered. They are sheep, and in him they see a lamb, just as they are. And his closest followers are sheep-people, too. None of them number among the great.
Jesus sees the sheep harassed and helpless, and so he sends sheep to seek out sheep. “Go to the lost sheep of Israel,” he says. The sheep will recognize their own. Seek them out. It’s a dangerous thing for him to ask. Safety is with the flock. The sheep who leave don’t come back. The wolves are prowling at the edge of the flock, ready to devour. But the sheep, lost and alone, will recognize another sheep. The disciples are on a rescue mission. No wonder so many Christians have talked about saving and being saved. But Jesus sends sheep to save sheep.
But Jesus also sends sheeple to save wolves. “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…” This whole passage marks a turn in the story of the world. For all of history, the wolves have eaten the sheep, but now the sheep have come into the midst of the wolves. They have not armed themselves with tougher hides or sharper hooves or longer teeth: but instead they come with the same work as their shepherd: teaching, good news, healing, and hope. They have come not kill, but to witness and to change lives.
They will witness in the villages and in the prisons. Jesus really means for the sheeple to walk into the midst of their oppressors: “…they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.” Straight into the lion’s den, in other words, and for some of Matthew’s early audience that was literally true. Imagine this message—having a been a sheep all your life, and now a shepherd says to you, “I am sending you.” You might say, “That’s your job!” But Jesus does not say the sheep will not be in danger, or that they will not suffer, or that they will not die. Instead he assumes they will of necessity come right into the danger: and then the Spirit of their Father in heaven will testify for them of God’s purpose and God’s work.
We tend to think of ourselves as enlightened people. We tend to believe that we have made moral progress since the first century. And that is true, in some ways. In America, women can vote, can win the most votes in a presidential election, and can earn up to 75 cents for every dollar a man earns. We have freedom of speech and religion and assembly. We have hospitals and movie theaters and atom smashers and all sorts of wonders.
But we are still wolves. If you go by the Congressional Research Service, you’ll find that our nation has had a mass shooting every month this year. That measurement does not include the shooting of the Republicans or the UPS shooting of this past week because less than four people died. If adjust the numbers to show shootings in which at least four people were injured or killed, including the shooter himself, we had 154 mass shootings by June 14th, or 6.7 per week. That’s almost a mass shooting in our country every day. And this doesn’t even begin to reflect the normal level of violence that we tolerate. Just ask the family of Philando Castile. And now, with Facebook Live, we can all salivate at the chance to witness the reality of our violence and turn it into entertainment.
Violence has always been the answer in America. The King has made taxes too high? Rebel. Need cheap labor? Enslave. Want more land? Invade. Don’t like the new freedom given to former slaves? Lynch. And so on—straight to the atom bomb and drones. Violence against women, violence against the earth. We are both sheep and wolf, and the world still runs on force. Hannah Arendt once wrote that the rule of law needs a guarantee: and that guarantee is force.
I don’t know if things are getting better or worse on the violence front. I have seen reports of research that say people are becoming divided. I believe the relentless quest to monetize every last bit of our lives has something to do with it. Using social media has made us stars of our own lives and enemies out of other people. It certainly feels, at least to me, that there are plenty of harried and helpless sheep. It seems to me that we still live in a time of confusion, in which the truth is under assault and profits and power are the only things that matter.
In fact, yesterday was the anniversary of the mass shooting in South Carolina, done by the Lutheran Dylan Roof. Unfortunately, if the statistics are right, today is also an anniversary of a mass shooting. They have just been so common that we only remember the really gruesome ones, as if the others were less gruesome. No other nation in the world stands for this. Why do we? Why does God?
So what does God do? God sends sheep to stand and speak in the midst of wolves. God’s church is the heart of the world—here, we are in the chambers, and it pumps us out. So God sends you out, too. Bear witness to the world that wolves can change, sheep can be strong, and that goodness and righteousness will and can prevail. The heart of God in this world, Christ’s own body, I believe, struggles like the prophets Jonah and Jeremiah. There are things we must say, but we don’t want to say them: but our bones will burn within us if we don’t speak and say, “Turn from violence. Turn from exploitation and ravaging. Come to the table of God.” Speak: the Holy Spirit will give you the words to say. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack