3 Pentecost, Proper 6 – June 18, 2023
Matthew 9:35-10:23

         There is a LOT in our gospel reading this morning!

Do you remember the Peanuts cartoons? And Lucy. Lucy, the psychiatrist of Peanuts fame, who sits waiting in her booth. Frieda comes seeking help. “My problem is that I’m afraid of kindergarten. I don’t even know why! I try to reason it out, but I can’t … I’m just afraid … I think about it all the time … I’m really afraid….”

And Lucy responds, as only Lucy does, “You’re no different from anyone else. Five cents, please.” Sensitivity never was her primary quality. But, you know, Lucy nailed the issue. Frieda is you and me. We all have fears, some real, some imaginary, yet real to us; some healthy, some unhealthy; some known to us, others unknown to us. But have them, we do!

Did you know that the physical, bodily symptoms of fear and excitement are identical? That is, you would not be able to tell the difference between fear and excitement by checking breathing, heart rate, release of sugar into the blood, or any of the other activities of the sympathetic nervous system that prepares us for “fight or flight” responses to threat. There simply is no difference.

Yet we experience a profound difference between these two states. When we are nervous, let’s say about the prospect of playing in a soccer match, we would move with less confidence and be more likely to miss-hit passes or shots on goal. But if we were excited, everything seems to come more easily.

And yet, if there is physiologically, no difference between these two states, that means that our interpretation of our condition makes all the difference. Reading our sweaty palms and increased heart rate when meeting someone for the first time — or climbing into the pulpit on Sunday morning! — as signs of excitement or fear dramatically effects how we approach the situation in question.

All of this bears, I believe, on our gospel reading today, as it is a gospel reading that speaks to fear. Think about it. Jesus commissions his twelve disciples to liberate and enliven the “harassed and helpless.”  Seeing the multitudes of “sheep without a shepherd,” Jesus is deeply moved, he has compassion, and so he tells his disciples, “Go.”  Go and proclaim the good news of the kingdom.  Go and cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.  Go and touch.  Go and heal.  Go and resurrect.  Go and make peace.  Go and render believable the compassion of God.

This commissioning is for us as well.  Let me repeat that…this commissioning is for us as well. So are you scared yet?  Because hang on — Jesus has more to say.  After explaining to the disciples what their task is, he offers them some appalling operating instructions: “You received without payment; give without payment.”  “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts.”  “Take no bag, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.”  And “I’m sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves, so be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. You will be dragged before governors. You will be handed over to councils and flogged. You will be hated by all because of my name.”

What is that?  Really, Jesus? Really?

In his book, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, tells the story of a young Jewish woman named Etty Hillesum.  Hillesum was in her twenties when the Germans occupied Holland.  She was not a conventionally religious person, but between the years of 1941 and 1943, as she watched her world descend into nightmare, she became deeply aware of God’s hand on her life.  Imprisoned in the transit camp at Westerbork (before being shipped to the gas chambers of Auschwitz), Etty wrote these words: “There must be someone to live through it all and bear witness to the fact that God lived, even in these times.  And why should I not be that witness?”

Williams describes Hillesum’s commitment this way: She decided to occupy a certain place in the world, a place where others could somehow connect with God through her.  She took responsibility for making God credible in the world.  She took responsibility for God’s believability.

Tomorrow is Juneteenth. Juneteenth National Independence Day, also called Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Black Independence Day and Juneteenth Independence Day. As you know, it commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. The day it ended in all of the states. Thanks be to God for those who took responsibility for making God credible in the world, who fought for the end of slavery, who fought for justice. The day is a celebration of freedom.

Dennis Folds tells the story of a damaged Jesus in London. The city had been devastated by the bombings during World War II. The bombs that dropped on the city struck and destroyed buildings of every kind: office buildings, factories, apartments, homes, museums, government buildings, and churches.

Soon after World War II, a group of German students, through kindness and love and a deep desire to return Christian love to those who had lost so much, volunteered to go to London to help rebuild an English cathedral that had been severely damaged by German bombs.

As work progressed, they became greatly concerned about a large statue of Jesus Christ, whose arms were outstretched and beneath which was the written inscription from Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

The student volunteers had great difficulty trying to restore the hands, which had been completely destroyed. They worked and worked and tried and tried, but nothing seemed to successfully replace Jesus’ outstretched hands.

Finally, after much work and much discussion, they decided to let the hands of Jesus remain missing and they changed the written inscription to read this way: “Christ has no hands but ours.”

Recall that much about how we respond to challenges in life depends upon our interpretation. Are the hardships we face things to fear or opportunities to exercise our faith? Challenges are not sent from God, but instead remind us that if God can use something as awful as the cross to work redemption, then God can and will work through our hardships for the sake of life. So, Jesus says, repeatedly, have no fear, do not fear, do not be afraid. God loves you with an everlasting love. Amen.