The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand

Matthew 9:35—10:23

The authority of Jesus’ ministry is today transferred to disciples, ancient and modern.

We meet Jesus on the hinges of the first Gospel, as the flow of the Gospel swings from Lord to apostles. In the announcement of this good news is included a measure of empowerment for each one of us. This is the kind of day on which, for once, for the first time, or for once in a long time, we may be seized by a sense of divine nearness. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of heaven has come near to you. When that sentence makes a home in a heart, or in the heart of a community, a different kind of life ensues.

Capture in the mind’s eye for a moment the sweep of the gospel read earlier. First. Jesus has been about, teaching and preaching and healing. His compassion abounds. The endless range of needs about him he unblinkingly faces. Second. Jesus calls and sends the disciples, and empowers them, and by extension he empowers us. The gospel will have been read thus, as it is thus read by us. He instructs and directs them in their work, where to go, what to do, how to be. Learning, virtue, and piety together. Start at home, heal the sick, travel light. Third. Jesus expects and forecasts for them a less than utter victory in their work. They are to know how to shake dust from their feet. Fourth. Jesus warns that there will be a price to pay. The discipline that is the hallmark of the disciple here is named. Shall we not remember Jesus ministry? Shall we ignore the call and power offered here? Shall we forget the directions given? Shall we expect turn a deaf ear to the caution about consequences? We pray not. The main sweep of the gospel today is clear as a bell. Jesus gives power to his disciples. Hold that thought for a moment.

The devil is in the details. The material in our reading sends us into foreign territory. We have other words, whether only modern or both modern and more accurate, to describe unclean spirits. We recognize that the list of apostles or disciples differs from other lists. We are uncomfortably aware that Jesus himself, in other Bible pages, goes both to the Gentiles and to the Samaritans, and infamously so. We do not regularly meet leprosy. We carry no gold in our belts, nor silver, nor even copper. We are not pilgrim peregrinators who arrive in town and camp on a doorstep. We sense that the hard distinctions we make between disciples and apostles were not made by Matthew. We do not readily conjure up the vision of Sodom and Gomorrah. We sense that the time of Matthew and its persecutions under Domitian, 90ce, may have colored all or a part of this passage. Most glaringly, we know that the Son of Man did not arrive on a schedule coordinated with visits across the 50 by 150 mile area of Israel. The devil is in the details.

Nor are we to think that we should by tunics or money belts or sandals or travel through towns in Israel or prefer judgment fall on Gomorrah. This is impossible. Moreover, a confusion here will allow us to avoid the clear call of Christ upon our consciences in the main flow of the gospel. For the main point is crystal clear. To follow Jesus means to take up where he and his earliest companions left off.

Do you love Jesus? Then you must do something for him.

Jesus has taught, preached and healed. This ministry he has bequeathed to his disciples, his apostles. We have been seized by the confession of the Church; we are Christians. Now his ministry, this ministry, is ours. Which part of this ministry draws you?

We have come back from Buffalo this week, where flags are at half-mast to honor Tim Russert. Because his city, family, story and background are not unlike our own, I have listened with keen ear to the eulogies offered. Maybe you have too. ‘Mine is a face made for radio’, he quipped. Mine too. The details of life and illness will take some time to understand, but as with our reading today, the main point is very clear. Tim was a man for others. Tim Russert lived the life of a man for others. He brought baseball hats to kids on chemo. He came to weddings and partied, as, you know, ‘that guy’, the one guy everyone remembers from a party. He found ways to make a difference in the lives of poorer kids. He taught his son. He wrote a book about his dad. We do not know what a day will bring, but only that the hour for doing something with our life is always present.

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. I could argue with you that healing the sick has a medical degree of meaning, that raising the dead is about pastoral ministry in the Northeast where the church awaits resurrection, that cleansing lepers is about including those on the outside of the social fence, that casting out demons is reminding people not to fear, not to fear, after 9/11, not to fear. You could, rightly, challenge the interpretation.

Where does your passion meet the world’s need?

What are you ready to risk doing, to plan for the worst, hope for the best, then do your most, and leave all the rest?

What are you going to give yourself to, to offer your ability, affability, and availability?

Who calls you, who called you, to your own real life, your vocation? We began this spring to gather people here at the University to ask them this. Who gave you your sense of direction, vocation in life? Robert Pinsky revitalized poetry by asking communities to gather and read their favorites. We are trying to revitalize vocation by asking communities to gather and remember their mentors. Tim Russert had Big Russ. What about you? The world opens a bit when a teacher and disciple connect. Here are three examples.

Schweitzer

Maybe we need to remember Albert Schweitzer.

A child organ prodigy, a youthful New Testament scholar, a young principal in his Alsatian theological seminary, a man whose books and articles I used with profit in my own dissertation a few years ago, Schweitzer’s life changed on the reading of a Paris Mission Society Magazine.

As a scholar, he wrote: He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.’ (QHJ, 389).

What he wrote of Jesus became his life. He left organ and desk, studied medicine, and practiced in Africa for 35 years, calling his philosophy, ‘a reverence for life’.

Vocation leads to God. A decision about vocation leads to nearness to the divine.

Addams

Maybe we need to remember the young woman from Rockford Illinois, Jane Addams. She grew up 130 years ago, in a time and place unfriendly, even hostile, to the leadership that women might provide. But somehow she discovered her mission in life. And with determination she traveled to the windy city and set up Hull House, the most far reaching experiment in social reform that American cities had ever seen. Hull House was born out of a social vision, and nurtured through the generosity of one determined woman. Addams believed fervently that we are responsible for what happens in the world. So Hull House, a place of feminine community and exciting spiritual energy, was born. Addams organized female labor unions. She lobbied for a state office to inspect factories for safety. She built public playgrounds and staged concerts and cared for immigrants. She became politically active and gained a national following on the lecture circuit. She is perhaps the most passionate and most effective advocate for the poor that our country has ever seen.

Addams wrote: “The blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation must be made universal if they are to be permanent…The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in midair, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

Yet it was a Rochesterian who, for me, explained once the puzzle of Jane Addams’ fruitful generosity. This was the historian Christopher Lasch. Several times in the 1980’s I thought of driving over here to visit him. But I never took the time, and as you know, he died seven years ago. Lasch said of Addams, “Like so many reformers before her, she had discovered some part of herself which, released, freed the rest.”

Is there a part of your soul ready today to be released, that then will free the rest of you?

Vocation leads to God.

Thurman

Maybe we need to remember Howard Thurman. The first page of his autobiography announces today’s gospel, that Jesus empowers his disciples, whose vocations lead to God:

At the end of my first year at the Rochester Theological Seminary, I became assistant to the minister of the First Baptist Church of Roanoke, Virginia. I was to assume the duties as pastor during the month that the minister and his family were away on vacation. I would be on my own. On my first night alone in the parsonage I was awakened by the telephone. The head nurse of the local Negro hospital asked, ‘May I speak with Dr. James?’. I told her he was away. ‘Dr. James is the hospital chaplain’, she explained. ‘There is a patient here who is dying. He is asking for a minister. Are you a minister?’

In one kaleidoscopic moment I was back again at an old crossroad. A decision of vocation was to be made here, and I felt again the ambivalence of my life and my calling. Finally, I answered. ‘Yes, I am a minister’.

‘Please hurry’, she said, ‘or you’ll be too late’.

In a few minutes I was on my way, but in my excitement and confusion I forgot to take my Bible. At the hospital, the nurse took me immediately into a large ward. The dread curtain was around the bed. She pulled it aside and directed me to stand opposite her. The sick man’s eyes were half closed, his mouth open, his breathing labored. The nurse leaned over and, calling him by name, said, ‘The minister is here’.

Slowly he sought to focus his eyes first on her, and then on me. In a barely audible voice he said, ‘Do you have something to say to a man who is dying? If you have, please say it, and say it in a hurry.’

I bowed my head, closed my eyes. There were no words. I poured out the anguish of my desperation in one vast effort. I felt physically I was straining to reach God. At last, I whispered my Amen.

We opened our eyes simultaneously as he breathed, ‘Thank you. I understand.’ He died with his hand in mine.

Vocation leads to God.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand when your passion meets another’s need. Jesus empowers his disciples. Vocation leads to God.

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