Pastor Johnold J. Strey
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church; Citrus Heights, CA
Sermon on Matthew 9:35-38
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)
July 10-11, 2011
METAPHORS FOR THE MINISTRY
- A compassionate shepherd
- A harvest worker
“So, are you new in town? Did your job bring you here? What do you do? You’re a pastor? Where are you a pastor? Oh, St. Marks? Yeah, I know where that is. Well, that’s great!” That’s the other half of a conversation that I have had with many people in the community over the past three weeks or so. What I find interesting about all those conversations is that no one has asked me what the job of pastor involves. Either everyone in Citrus Heights is a good Lutheran who knows what the ministry of the Keys is all about (right!), or everyone has their own preconceived ideas about a minister’s work based on their own church’s experience.
In the installation rite during last Sunday afternoon’s service, you heard what Scripture has to say about the expectations for pastors in Christ’s Church. It is also appropriate for a pastor to speak about the ministry during his first sermon at a new congregation. The readings for today’s service—especially the Gospel—lend themselves well to that discussion. As we see Jesus discuss the need for ministers and as we see him send his disciples out as ministers, we have an opportunity to think about the ministry in this inaugural sermon. And as we look closely at the first few verses in today’s Gospel, we will see two metaphors for the ministry that Jesus gives us. These two metaphors for the ministry won’t exhaust everything that we could say about the work of a pastor, but they do give us an idea of what we should expect from a pastor. Jesus’ two metaphors for the ministry in Matthew chapter nine are a compassionate shepherd, and a harvest worker.
Throughout the summer and fall months, we are going to follow Jesus’ ministry in Matthew’s Gospel. By the time we reach Matthew chapter nine, Jesus has already spent quite a bit of time in Galilee, the region west of the Sea of Galilee. Matthew tells us that Jesus continued his ministry tour, serving as a guest preacher in the local synagogues, teaching people about the grace and mercy of God which he came to bring, and backing up his divine message with divine miracles.
I don’t think we can begin to count the hundreds of people whose lives Jesus touched on this ministry tour. Jesus not only knew how many people he came into contact with; he also knew the spiritual condition of the crowds he dealt with. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus sees the masses, and as true God he can see right into their hearts, and his heart went out to them. There are three words in the original language of the New Testament that all mean “to have compassion,” and Matthew used the strongest of those three words here. The spiritual state of the people gave Jesus a gut-wrenching emotional reaction.
Why? Matthew describes the crowds as “harassed and helpless.” Imagine what it would be like if Schmidt and Waterstradt and now Strey got in the pulpit each week and dictated every aspect of your life to you—your diet, your kitchen cookware, the amount of time you spent doing yard work on the weekends. If you didn’t know any better, you might think to yourself, “Well these are men of God, so they must be right, but these rules are a bother.” The religious leaders of Jesus’ day did just that. They told people how to observe kosher laws, how to not break the Sabbath, and so on and so forth, to the point that the crowds thought that the way to get right with God was to observe all of these customs. No wonder they felt spiritually harassed!
Matthew also tells us that they felt “helpless.” Sometimes my three-year-old daughter will get so frustrated because she can’t do what her big sister or her parents are doing, and in her three-year-old way she will collapse with tears on the floor. That’s the picture contained in the original Greek word for “helpless.” It literally means something or someone that has been thrown down, which is a figurative way to talk about someone who feels dejected and helpless. If your religious representatives constantly told you that the way to get on God’s good side was by following hundreds of their self-made rules and regulations, and if you believed it because there seemed to be no alternative, you’d feel pretty helpless and dejected, too!
No wonder Jesus’ heart went out to these people! Their pastors were supposed to be spiritual shepherds who properly nourished their sheep. That’s what pastor really means—shepherd. But the so-called pastors in Jesus’ day were anything but faithful shepherds, and that meant the sheep under their care were spiritually lost and starving. Thank God that the Good Shepherd, Christ himself, was present to feed these starving sheep with the good news of his compassionate mercy for lost souls.
A number of years ago at my previous congregation, we had a pair of visitors to our service who had never visited us previously. They were a brother and sister, and the woman especially wanted to talk to me after the service. This woman was plagued with a number of physical and mental health issues, which was certainly enough for anyone to feel compassion on her. But then I learned that her pastor had convinced her that her personal woes were the direct result of something bad that she must have done in the past. He took Old Testament Bible verses completely out of context to arrive at that conclusion. She was so convinced that this was the case that nothing I said could convince her otherwise, even though her brother agreed with everything I said. That poor woman was a helpless sheep without a faithful shepherd.
I felt a lot of compassion for that woman as I talked with her. I felt a lot of anger at her useless spiritual shepherd. But I have to confess that this was not my attitude when the conversation started. When she first asked to speak with me, I wondered how long it was going to take. I wanted to go home and eat lunch and watch the game. I didn’t start out that conversation with the attitude of a compassionate shepherd like that of our Savior. God, forgive me for such sinful shortcomings from a minister of the gospel.
In light of that anecdote, let me ask you: How do you feel toward the lost souls of this community, or the seeker who asks serious questions, or the inquirer who is bogged down with guilt and doesn’t know how to solve it? You may not have been called into the public ministry, but you are still a royal priest of God with the responsibility to declare his praises in whatever station in life he has placed you in. Do you view that person with the heart of a compassionate shepherd? Or is that person an inconvenience in your day? Do you mentally write them off because they come from a different social status or background or political viewpoint?
What if that had been our Lord’s approach? What if our Lord hadn’t bothered with the tremendous inconvenience of descending from heaven to earth to rescue sinners like you and me who have ruined the perfect creation he once gave us? What if convenience, rather than compassion, had driven our Savior to look down in disgust and frustration and say, “To hell with them”—literally! You and I would be on the verge of spending a long time in a hot place—and I don’t mean Sacramento in July!
But our Lord Jesus was driven by compassion, not convenience. And so the compassionate Good Shepherd descended into this world and became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus, the compassionate Good Shepherd, laid down his spotless and sinless life to rescue the sheep whose lives are spotted and stained with their own sin. Jesus, the compassionate Good Shepherd, laid down his life only to take it up again in glory on Easter Day as the definitive statement that his lifeblood is the atoning and sufficient sacrifice for our sins and for the sins of the entire world. And Jesus, the compassionate Good Shepherd, has come to you in the waters of baptism, the words of Scripture, and the bread and wine of his Supper to deliver his compassionate forgiveness straight to your soul so that you are a well-nourished member of his eternal flock. This is why Jesus has given us the public ministry—to bring the lost into his flock and to feed the sheep who have been made members of his flock.
Jesus’ heart went out to the crowds he saw on his Galilean tour, but his compassion for the crowds did not leave him speechless. He had something to say in response to the situation, and his words reveal the second metaphor for the ministry that we want to consider today. “He said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’” Jesus’ second metaphor for the ministry is a harvest worker.
“The harvest is plentiful.” Jesus notes that there are many, many souls who need the nourishment of the Good Shepherd. The problem is that, “The workers are few.” There were not enough proper pastors to shepherd all of the lost sheep that Jesus sees before him. So how does he propose to deal with the shepherd shortage? Later in today’s Gospel Jesus sent out his disciples to preach, but Jesus first response to the shepherd shortage was to pray! “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” There is a sense of urgency in the original grammar of Jesus’ words. The harvest workers’ task is urgent, and so the need to pray for more harvest workers is urgent! Ask the Lord, who will without doubt get his people into his eternal harvest, to provide the workers that will gather these souls into God’s eternal harvest.
A harvest implies a clock. You can’t let the crops stay out in the fields forever. At some point they need to be harvested or else you’ll lose the crop. With the same sense of a ticking clock, with the same sense of an urgent deadline, Jesus talks about the ministry in these words.
With that sense of an urgent deadline, let us pray that God send out workers into his harvest field. You know the blessings of that work because in your baptism your soul was harvested into God’s storehouse. Pray that the Lord of the harvest will provide more harvest workers to carry out this important soul-saving, life-giving work.
With the sense of an urgent deadline, let us pray for the workers God has already placed into his harvest field. You understand the importance of the public ministry here at St. Mark’s or else you wouldn’t have made the challenging choice to call three pastors and a large Lutheran school staff to serve you. Pray that the Lord of the harvest keep your pastors and teachers rooted in his Word, firm in faith, and faithful to the calling he has entrusted to us.
With the sense of an urgent deadline, let us encourage our young men and women to consider entering into God’s harvest field. You understand the importance of training future pastors and teachers here at St. Mark’s or else you wouldn’t give a substantial amount of your annual budget to the work of our national church body. Another meaningful way to support that work is to encourage young people in this congregation to make it their life’s work to serve full-time in God’s harvest field.
You have been washed from sin and adopted into God’s family at the font. Your faith and knowledge have grown in worship and your soul has been fed at the altar with Jesus’ own body and blood. Your sins are forgiven by faith in the blood of Jesus, and by faith in his blood you know that heaven is in your future. What rich blessings you have received from the Lord of the harvest! What a great reason to pray that God would provide even more harvesters to bring his grace to even more souls!
Ten years ago this week I preached my first sermon at my former congregation in Belmont, California. The readings for that day provided a natural opportunity to talk about the ministry, so I preached on the appointed Gospel for that particular Sunday. Ten years later, the readings for my first sermon with you also provided an opportunity to talk about the ministry, and so I preached on the appointed Gospel for this particular Sunday. That’s not entirely a coincidence. This post-Pentecost season of the church year is when worship tends to focus on the Church’s growth and the Christian’s growth. Jesus established the ministry so that the church would grow as his ministers go to work with the good news of the gospel. And so Jesus’ words in this reading provide a good opportunity for us to talk about the ministry on our first Sunday together as pastor and people.
Of course, we’ve only scratched the surface about the ministry. In the weeks ahead we will hear more of Jesus’ divine words about the public ministry. But for now, let Jesus’ metaphors for the ministry remain firmly in your minds. Pray for compassionate under-shepherds of the Good Shepherd. Pray for eager harvest workers. And give thanks that through the gospel ministry, Christ has reached out to you to bring you into his eternal harvest! Amen.