A sermon given by Rev. Eleanor B. McCormick on Sunday, June 18, 2017
After two chapters of miraculous healings, Matthew begins to wrap up his Gospel with a summary of the substance of Christian Ministry. Teaching the faithful, proclaiming the good news and showing compassion, this scripture serves as Matthew’s definition of discipleship and what it means to be an apostle.
Up to this point, Jesus has worked more or less alone but in chapters nine through 10 he makes an explicit call to his disciples to be partners in the work. No longer are the disciples observers of Jesus, they are now, in Reverend Trace Haythorn’s words, “Co-healers, literally, the sent ones.”
Jesus’ ministry is now their ministry. In this transaction, their ministry becomes the ministry of the early church. Jesus impels toward action us with his claim that the harvest is upon us. Now is the time that laborers are needed for the harvest is ripe and everyone should go into the fields and cities and towns and get to work. For Jesus, this is not the time to sit around and shake our heads at the problems of the world. It is time for action with plenty of work to go around.
What an amazing Gospel reading! It brought my week with our youth into focus. In La Plant, South Dakota, the youth of Plymouth Church partnered with an organization called Simply Smiles. Each afternoon before Camp programming would begin, and each afternoon just before it would end, a member of the Simply Smiles’ staff would call out, “Who’s ready to jump on the bus!” Who’s ready to jump on Simply Smiles’ iconic big red school bus!
The staff’s question was similar to the question that Jesus asks in Matthew’s Gospel. “Who’s ready to become one of God’s harvesters?” With enthusiasm, engagement, and joy from under the picnic pavilion at the community center came a chorus of youth from Lawrence, Kansas saying, “I will! I am! Hold on, I’m coming. Dibs on the back row.”
At 1:15 and 4:30 every day sat our team of 30 ready to pick up 30 or 40 more kids. The big red school bus on the reservation is a vehicle for mobilizing ministry, furthering relationship, offering extravagant hospitality, and this big bus stands as a symbol of hope and human possibility. In the words of Simply Smiles founder and CEO, Bryan Nurnberger, who joined us yet again this last week, “Simply Smiles has spent the last eight years embedded on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota living and working side-by-side with the Lakota people who are the survivors of an intended effort by the United States of America and our colonizing predecessors on this land to kill each and every one of them.”
When that effort failed to kill their bodies, new efforts were put in place to kill their spirit and their culture. But this is key, hope is key, and hope is growing out of a set of questions that defines Simply Smiles’ mission, vision, and approach on the reservation. Where Bryan asked, “If your sister, your best friend, someone you loved needed help how would you help them? Would you drop a used coat off at their doorstep and walk away? Would you just loan them a small amount of money? Would you keep them at a distance?” to which Simply Smiles answers, “Of course not. You would sit down, look them in the eyes and listen. You would learn and understand their situation, their pain, empathy would well up inside of you and their struggle would become yours. You would commit yourself to helping them in every way necessary. You would fulfill their immediate needs and ease their suffering, but then side-by-side you would work together to put in place a long-term solution to solve the problem. All of this in a manner that would build your loved one’s dignity at the beginning, throughout, and in the end you would make them smile.”
The smiles were contagious. As the bus rolled down these dusty gravel roads of the community, and music was piped out much like an ice cream truck announcing its travels, the children of La Plant greeted this bus as if it was indeed chock-full of ice cream. What they found, without exaggeration, was that it was full of something even better. This big red bus was chock full of teenagers from Lawrence, Kansas, there to greet them, teach them, smile with them. There to love them, and walk with them as if they were a big sister, a big brother, a best friend.
On this bus sat apostles that Matthew would recognize; apostles that listened to his command to leave behind excess baggage when ministering, to travel light, which they did. It was a week without running water, without air conditioning, without cell phones – oh my. On this bus sat apostles that Matthew would recognize, on this bus sat many workers needed for the harvest, apostles like Jaiden. On his first service trip to La Plant, he sat on a vinyl seat next to a young teenager named Delaney, and he continued to sit next to her well into each and every afternoon as he patiently taught her how to play his ukulele. In the 104° heat Delaney sat with the long sleeves of her sweatshirt down and the hoodie pulled over her head. She talked very little but there were simple smiles and music, yes, music. And on departure day, without prompting, Jaiden left his personal ukulele behind, knowing that Delaney would continue to play, and that he would be back to listen.
There were apostles on this bus like Ruby, on her second service trip to La Plant. Ruby sat next to a six year old named Elizabeth almost every day and every meal. By the end of the week they sat so close together on the bus that two more could squeeze in next to them. Ruby helped Elizabeth to laugh, to run, to swing, to believe that anything was possible. Ruby helped Elizabeth to be a child when she is too often consumed with what it means to be an adult on the reservation. And as Elizabeth was exiting the bus on Friday she made it all the way to the very last step before turning around and running back up the aisle, grabbing Ruby by the neck and embracing her in a wide hug, you heard a peal of laughter, and Ruby’s tears came quickly after.
Apostles like Calvin, on his third service trip to La Plant, who saw the pain of a young woman named Autumn after she lost a friend in Eagle Butte, South Dakota to suicide. Calvin knew to be a gentle presence. He knew how through the offer of a cold cup of lemonade, with the offer of a listening ear, to communicate the living Gospel through visible acts of compassion.
On this bus sat apostles that Matthew would recognize. And at the end of our week in La Plant we took to the bus with a handful of sharpie markers to leave our mark, because the big red bus and everyone it carried left a mark on us, our lives and our hearts. It’s a long tradition for volunteer groups like ours to leave notes and signatures, pictures and quotes for the children of La Plant to read and remember.
Reading a few off the ceiling:
“Can’t wait to see you next year!”
“Stay cool and stay in school. See you next June.”
“Friends are like stars, even when you can’t see them you know they’re always there.”
And while it’s hard to say good bye, this wasn’t the time to say good bye. It was the time, with a honk of the big red school bus, to say, “See you later.” On our first evening back in Lawrence, I got an email from Riley Roberts, who wrote, “I just put on my tennis shoes to step outside and there were still rocks in them from the playground at Simply Smiles. And now I’m sad. Sad because I know I’ll wake up tomorrow and not be able to see and play with the kids.”
To which I responded, “Remember that you are one of many, many workers. Even though you are gone, the bus continues to be there and so do the teachings, the Gospel, and the compassion you were a part of planting. This trip, those pebbles in your shoes, the shared tears in our eyes, are reminders of the gift and the responsibility to serve. The gift and the responsibility that God continually called out of each and every one of us. I am proud to pastor a church that takes the gift and responsibility so seriously, and I look forward not only to August with adults from our congregation, but next June with you.”
“What a huge harvest,” Jesus said to his disciples, “how few workers. On your knees and pray for harvest hands.” But the prayer was no sooner prayed than it was answered. Jesus called 30 of his followers and sent them into ripe fields, saying “how many workers.” He gave them power to kick out evil spirits, and to tenderly care for bruised and hurt lives.
This is the list of 30 he sent:
Susan Anderson, John Collar, Mindy Downs, Doug Eason, Peter Luckey, Margaret Morris, Kara Phillips, Stefan Schuetz, Lourdes Aguirre, Andrew Anderson, Siona Baker, Olivia Collar, Calvin Dewitt, Mikayla Downs, Grace Eason, Maleena Hatfield, Helena Lord, Rollin Love, Liam McKinney, Ruby Morris, Olive Olson, Gabe Owens, Ava Reedy, Riley Roberts, Jacob Schepp, Alex Stark, Thomas White, Rose Winfrey, Jaiden Younger.
How many workers! Alleluia. Amen.