Sunday June 14th 2020
Exodus 19:2-8a; Matthew 9:35-10:8
Pastor Galen Zook
Theology of Fun
For the past few years, at the start of every year, I’ve asked God to give me a theme word for the year. A word or phrase to provide me with some clarity and guidance for what God wants to teach me that year.
Last year, the word God gave me was the word “fun.” Now I know that doesn’t sound very spiritual, but that year God was teaching me that it’s important to have balance in life. It’s not healthy for any of us to work or be serious all of the time. We need times of laughter and lightheartedness in our lives. We need to set aside time to disengage from our work and do something simply because we enjoy it. That year, God taught me a theology of fun.
Jump on the Bandwagon!
This year, at the start of 2020, the phrase that God gave me was “jump on the bandwagon.” That sounds even less spiritual than the word “fun,” doesn’t it? To “jump on the bandwagon” means to go along with the crowd, to do something that’s popular, to join in with what everyone else is doing.
Often the phrase is used in a derogatory way, to criticize people who only root for the football team who happens to be winning at that moment, or the baseball team that everyone else around them is cheering for.
And so it may seem odd that what I felt God telling me to “jump on the bandwagon.” But as I asked God for clarity as to what God wanted to teach me this year, I felt that God was calling me to enter in, to engage with people, to go along with the crowd, even for a little bit, so that I could better understand their longings and desires, their hurts and their disappointments, their joys and their sorrows, and so that I could better minister to those who were in need around me.
And so, rather than picking books out of the bargain bin as I normally do, I’ve been choosing books from the New York Times Bestseller list. Rather than watching the obscure most movies and TV shows that I can find, I’ve been paying attention to what’s most popular on Netflix, and getting recommendations for movies from friends.
And I’ve found that sometimes it’s really fun to root for the team that’s winning! Sure, there’s a lot of drivel out there that’s popular, but there’s a lot of good stuff as well. But most of all, choosing to engage with what’s popular has helped me have a better sense of what the majority of people in our society are wanting, thinking about, and longing for.
Sheep Without a Shepherd
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus was going around to all the cities and villages, teaching and healing people, and proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God (Matt. 9:35).
Now, Jesus was definitely not someone who blindly followed along with the crowds, or who mindlessly did what everyone else was doing. He was an independent thinker.
And yet, Jesus cared about the crowds. He engaged with the crowds. He pressed in and saw their needs, felt their pain, understood what it was that they were going through.
Matthew tells us that “when he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).
Jesus saw the crowd. He looked at them. He looked inside their hearts. He felt the collective pain of the people, the suffering that they experienced. He stood apart from the crowd, and yet he chose to make himself one with them. He paid attention to them, and knew what they were going through.
He knew that they suffered under poor leadership, that both their spiritual and political leaders had let them down. He knew that they struggled for their daily survival, that they were plagued with sickness and disease, and that they had very little to eat. He knew that they were oppressed on every side, that they struggled to find hope and meaning and purpose in life.
Jesus saw — truly saw — the crowds, and he had compassion on them.
The Harvest Is Plentiful
And then Jesus invited his disciples to do the same. He told them to look at the crowds and to see that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matt. 9:37). He asked them to pray for the crowds, to pray that “the Lord of the harvest [would] send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38).
And then he sent them out. He “summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness” (Matt. 10:1). And as they went, he instructed them to “proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matt. 10:7).
Some people seem to think that if they choose to become a follower of Christ, God is going to call them to go out and live in a cave in the desert, far away from everyone else. And for a small minority of Christians that is their calling. But for the majority of us, following Christ often entails going right back into the crowd, to understand their pain and suffering and whatever it is that they are going through, and to minister to their needs.
Sometimes the crowds of people are the very same people we grew up with, the very same people we’ve known all of our lives. Sometimes our calling involves going across the street, or across town. Usually it involves going “across the railroad tracks” to those people nearby who are very different from us, or even to those in our community who don’t speak the same language as us.
Here in Matthew, Jesus told his disciples to go to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6). Those were their people! But after Jesus’s death and resurrection and after Pentecost when they were filled with the Holy Spirit, they were sent out to go not only to Jerusalem and Judea but also to “Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). As followers of Christ, we go wherever Jesus sends us.
Following Jesus involves seeing the crowds. Praying for them. And ministering to their needs.
Seeing the Crowds During a Pandemic
Of course, right now we’re living in the midst of a pandemic, when it’s not wise for us to gather together in a crowd of people! Especially if you are in the demographic of people most at-risk, it’s still best to stay at home.
And yet there are ways for us to “see” the crowds — to see and to experience what it is that the majority of people around us are going through and experiencing. To lift them up in prayer, and perhaps even to share a word of hope and encouragement with them.
One way we can see the crowds is through the news, newspapers, and social media. So often after viewing these sources we come away feeling angry or discouraged. But what if we viewed media and social media not simply as a distraction or as a source of information, but as fuel for our prayers?
It’s often been said that preachers should “preach with the newspaper in one hand, and the Bible in the other.” And I think the same should be true when we pray. (Imagine what facebook and instagram would be like if every believer prayed before posting or responding!)
Data and Statistics
Another way we can “see” the crowds is through observing data and statistics. We’ve been watching many numbers carefully during this pandemic such as the number of COVID cases and COVID-related deaths, the unemployment numbers, stock prices, and the numbers of businesses that have closed down. And in the past few weeks we’ve seen and heard the numbers of people engaging in protests and the numbers of people — particularly people of color — killed by police in our society.
But we can also use data and statistics to gage spiritual hunger and need during this time. One way we can do this is through seeing what people are searching for on-line. “Google Trends” is a website that allows you to see what people are searching for on Google. When the Coronavirus first hit the U.S., Google searches for “prayer,” “God,” and “church online” spiked. (This is one of the reasons why we’ve been so concerned with livestreaming our services — we want to provide a way for people who are spiritually hungry to learn about and experience God!)
In the past few weeks there has been a drastic increase in searches related to racism and police brutality. And the New York Times bestseller list from this past week makes it clear that many people are engaging in deep learning and research related to topics of race and justice.
And lastly, we can see the physical crowds of people. Some of us have seen them from our windows, or through our TVs or computer screens. Others have ventured out to see the crowds for ourselves. A month ago, crowds of people were gathering together to protest the lockdowns. While some refused to wear masks and held signs saying “I need a haircut,” others who seemed to take COVID much more seriously still broke with the stay-at-home order to advocate for their right to work and earn a living, although they were deemed “non-essential.”
During the past few weeks, thousands upon thousands of people all around the world have taken to the streets to protest police brutality in the wake of Geoge Floyd’s death, to advocate for change, and to make it clear that Black Lives should indeed Matter in our society.
Seeing and Ministering to The Crowds
My question for us here at Hampden United Methodist Church and for all those who are joining in with us this morning, is “Can We See The Crowds?” Can we see — truly see then? Can we look beneath the surface, below what we are being told by the media or social media to believe about them? Can we see their needs, can we hear the cries of their hearts? Can we ask God to help us see what it is that they are longing for, hoping for? Can we see the ways in which they and all of us have been harassed and helpless, and would be without hope if it weren’t for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Can we see that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few? Can we pray to the Lord of the Harvest, and ask that God would send out laborers into the fields?
Can we, and would we, allow Jesus to send us as laborers into the fields, to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God through word and through deed. Would we go wherever he may send us — into highways and byways of social media, into the waves of protesters on screen or on the streets, into the halls of academia, across town, across the railroad tracks, or across the street to our neighbor who is sick and dying?
Let us offer ourselves up as laborers for the harvest. Let us proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. And let us point people to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the only One who can truly heal, the only One who can truly redeem, and the only One who can truly restore our souls, and our world.