Texts: Exodus 19:2-8; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:23
I would venture to guess that he is not alone in feeling this way as he looks out at these crowds of fed-up, forsaken people. Many of us are troubled at the effects of racism in our society, but we feel powerless to do anything about it. Let’s face it: for most of us, racism is something that other people deal with. Most of us have not ever been made to feel inferior or ignored because of our ethnicity. However, that does not mean that we are guiltless. Even if we ourselves are not racist, we benefit from the machinations of racism in our society, enjoying power and privilege due to our Whiteness that others do not.
Our complicity in a sinful system harms us. It not only denies the dignity of the oppressed, it also diminishes the humanity of the oppressor by marring the image of God within all of us, separating us from our sisters and brothers with a wall of suspicion, fear and even hate. No one gets to be neutral; there are only those who are oppressed, and those who benefit. Systemic sin like this keeps us all from living as God intends, and so it does violence to all of us.
We need to be saved from this sinful reality of racism, even those of us who don’t consider ourselves racist. The problem is not just racist people. It’s not that Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot Philando Castile, is a racist. It’s not that the 12 jurors who tried his case are racists. The problem is a racist system that teaches us (among other things) to presuppose that Black men are dangerous—so dangerous that even when they are doing everything they are “supposed” to do, even when they are complying with the authorities, officers like Yanez are afraid for their lives. So dangerous, in fact, that 9 people gathered for bible study in a church are a problem that must be eliminated by any and all means. The system that radicalized Dylann Roof is the same system that terrified and then acquitted Jeronimo Yanez. If you have ever been pulled over by a police officer without being worried for your safety, you have benefitted from the sin of racism.
It isn’t your fault, you didn’t do anything to make it that way, but it is the world in which we live, the original sin we inherit from those who came before us. Until we can name that and recognize our need for God to step in and release us from our slavery to this violent cycle of death and destruction, nothing can change. We are in bondage to sin, and cannot free ourselves; and so with Jesus we pray for more laborers to do the work of God’s kingdom in exorcising this demon in our midst.
The good news we hear today is that even in the pit of despair, God hears our prayers and answers them. Just as God heard the cries of the Israelites and delivered them from Egypt, God hears our cries and delivers us. We cry out for laborers for justice, and God responds: look around you! When Jesus tells his disciples to pray, the prayers are scarcely out of their mouths before he drafts them into the work for which they have just prayed. The disciples become the answers to their own prayers! Matthew tells us this story because he wants us to see ourselves in the disciples. Their work is our work. As Jesus looks out in compassion on these crowds of disaffected, dejected people, he invites us to be the agents of God’s salvation for all people.
Today we hear about the Israelites leaving a place called Rephidim. Before they left Rephidim, the Israelites saw and learned to trust in the goodness of God. God got them across the Red Sea to escape Pharaoh’s army, God provided manna and water in the wilderness, God even saved them from an attack by the Amalekites. Like Israel, we too have seen God’s goodness at work: each and every one of us is here because we have in some way experienced the grace of God in our own lives. We are here because while we were still sinners—undeserving and unrepentant—Christ died for us; and having been joined to him in death, he now lives for us, sharing abundant, vibrant life with us.
We know that we have been given all that we need to continue the work of Christ as his Church because he has already given us so much more than we could ever earn, deserve, imagine or comprehend. We know that we have been given all we need because those who came before us—ordinary men and women—had all been gifted with the same Holy Spirit in the baptism we share with them to help them achieve what they did.
Even though the world is still broken, it is better than it was thanks to the people that Christ has called through the ages to work for God’s just and peaceable kingdom. The people of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit have already worked to end slavery, to secure the right to vote, to demand civil rights. The work is not finished, but thanks to God and the people whom God has called into service, we are headed in the right direction and, with God’s help, the goal is within sight.
The cries of the oppressed should unsettle us, because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Each and every one of us ought to be mad as hell that a Black man can be murdered on camera and the person who pulled the trigger can still get acquitted. But more importantly, each and every one of us ought to be praying to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest, laborers to work for justice and for lasting peace; and when we pray we ought to be fully aware that we may very well be the ones that Jesus calls to go out and stop traffic or call congresspersons or run for office or do whatever it takes to cast these demons out, because that is precisely why we were baptized.
Baptized into Christ’s death and sharing in his resurrection, we trust that God will continue to bring new life for all. We are utterly free to sit on the sidelines and wait for God to do this without us. We are free to make excuses about how our gifts lie in different areas. We are free to rest in the comfort of God’s promise for a better tomorrow while others cry for help today, but if we do I have to wonder: are we really free? Or are we simply enslaved to a sinful system, kept complacent and complicit by a few table scraps while our humanity is slowly drained away?
Martin Luther once said, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.” Christ looks out on the crowds, harassed and helpless, bewildered and dejected, and has compassion on them. He looks out on these crowds now as they rage and protest, as they shout to be heard and silently weep, and he says to us, “Pray for more laborers.” Like the disciples, we will find that we, the baptized, are the answers to our prayers by the help of God; and like the disciples, we will find that if we step out in faith to serve those to whom Jesus calls us, we will experience God’s salvation in our own lives, because there is so much more waiting for us than a few table scraps.
When we gather around this table, we share a foretaste of the feast to come: a feast at which everyone—not just those with power or privilege—has a seat. We gather at this table to whet our appetite for that great feast which has no end, and to be strengthened to bring that reality to light. At this table, we are filled with the hope of God’s abundant life for all creation, and that hope does not disappoint.