Today, we conclude our month of talking through the Epiphany
passages of Jesus – his infant refugee flight to Egypt, his baptism and stint in
the wilderness, his calling of the disciples and now the beginning of his public
ministry among the people. Next week, we’ll continue our deep dive through
Matthew as we begin a two month exploration of Jesus’ Sermon on the
Mount, those collections of teachings that best capture Jesus’ life lessons
along the way. But before we get to the blessings (“blessed are the poor, the
meek, the peacemakers”), before we’re called to be salt and light, before
Jesus speaks against anger and adultery, oath-keeping and retaliation, before
the call to love our enemies and pray in secret and relinquish stored treasures
and seek first the kingdom, before it all, we remember the ones to whom
Jesus proclaims: the crowds. “When Jesus saw the crowds,” Matthew 5 tells
us, “he went up the mountain… and taught them.” It is Jesus’ life in context of
those crowds that we’ll talk about today, his life of service and healing, of
teaching and proclaiming, of being among the people he’s called to serve.
It’s Jesus and the crowds we’re talking about today – those who circle
around Jesus in these two brief verses that give shape to his public ministry
in the world. For in brief, we have such a picture of the shape, the focus, and
the heart of Jesus and our place in it.
So what isthe shape of Jesus’ ministry? He is one who teaches and
preaches and heals. He attends to mind, spirit, and body. The Word becoming
flesh, and drawing flesh near to Word. Good news in abundance. Good news
animating the road home by another way. Good news that, shared and
spread, changes the course of people’s lives. And right at the center of this
scope of Jesus’ life is the good news of the kingdom of God, or God’s
audacious dream for this world where the hungry are filled and the shackled
are liberated, where the blind see and the deaf hear, where all flourish in the
abundance of God.
If that’s the scope, we ask then: who is the focus? The people. Those
inside the religious spaces and those on the outside. Those living with disease
and sickness and pain. Those tortured by their own thoughts and bound by
their own bodies. Those exiled from their communities and bereft of
resources to come to their aid. Those the world around them would call
“unclean” or “impure.” They came to him, one streaming right after the other,
in clumps and clans and crowds, from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem,
Judea, and beyond the Jordan.
History tells us that those people right around Jesus were largely poor,
dependent on land and sea for their living, taxed beyond their capacities with
little of the benefit, and spiritually dependent on the rabbis around them to
interpret the religious laws in light of their lives. They had poor living
conditions and short life expectancies, laboring day and night for very little
possibility of advancement. Oh they’d been promised a lot, these people in
the crowds – from the Lord’s covenant with Abraham, to their Roman King, to
the Greek philosophies blurring into their Jewish faith. They surely had
wondered when they’d receive their due, when the tide would finally turn,
when the bootstraps they’d long pulled would payoff into their Galilean
dream. Surely in the crowds there were some who were receptive to a new
savior, ready to listen and lean into his life. Yet surely there were many skeptical and cautious, wondering what made this man any different from the rest.
If the scope of Jesus’ public ministry is the kingdom of God, and his
focus on the people around him, then we ask – where is Jesus? Scandalously
right in their midst. Shockingly biased to those at the bottom. Centering their
flourishing. Imbuing their lived lives with sacred worth. Making their physical,
emotional, and mental health a necessary expression of the coming kingdom
of God. Intertwining the ministries of teaching and proclaiming and healing
and caregiving so fully in his ministry that we who follow behind should never
pull them apart.
I think Jesus’ scope and focus and location give us a picture of not only
what it means to follow Jesus, but also what it means to be sent by Jesus into
the world. You remember last week, Jesus invited the disciples, “follow me
and I will make you fish for people.” And this week we have a picture of what
that following looks like in practice, what Jesus says and does out in the
world, such that when he sends us forward on his behalf, we have an idea of
what it entails.
This image of teaching, preaching, healing, this idea of the crowds and
the people he’s sent to be with… it might be a slightly different picture than
what some people might think that being sent by Jesus into a life of Christian
faith looks like.
Now some of you are seasoned enough to remember the old offering
envelopes from church – you know the ones, with all the boxes that each
person was to check every Sunday, assessing the state of their walk of faith
that week. Read my Sunday school lesson, check! Read my Bible, check!
Brought my offering, check! Gone to Training Union, check! And before we
knew it, this attempt to codify what it means to live the Christian life is
reduced to boxes on an offering envelope, a way of faith that could be
checked off with a mark of a pen, lessons completed but maybe never fully
Some of you too are paying attention to expressions of American
Christianity that you see and hear about online, emerging in a way you’re not
aligned with, where country and faith and patriotism blur together so fully in
a way that makes one’s Christian life and one’s national heritage somehow
one and the same.
Some of you see Christians living in a way that makes it abundantly
clear who they don’t like, not who they do; and what they don’t do and what
other people shouldn’t do, not what they do. This image of what it means to
live as followers of Jesus and be sent by him in the world has such a range of
expression, doesn’t it?
That’s the kind of Christianity and sending forth from Jesus that Fred
Craddock didn’t even realize he was practicing when he first heard Albert
Schweitzer. Schweitzer was an organist and celebrated theologian, who at
the age of 30, saw the call for medical missionaries in Gabon, in Africa. Like
many other young adults whose shifting passions cause consternation among
their parents paying for their education, Schweitzer went back to school to
become a medical doctor to serve out his ministry as a medical missionary.
Along the way, Schweitzer dug deeply into study of the historical Jesus,
looking to nonbiblical sources who talked about the young carpenter from
Nazareth who lived and died. Well Fred Craddock was twenty when he read
Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus. He was dismayed and found
Schweitzer’s Christology woefully lacking. So he marked in the book, wrote in
the margins, raised questions of all kinds, tore his argument apart.
One day, he read in the paper that Albert Schweitzer was going to be in
Cleveland, Ohio, to play the dedicatory concert for an organ in a big church
up there. According to the article, Schweitzer would remain afterward in the
fellowship hall for conversation and refreshment.
So what’s a young preacher to do, but buy a Greyhound bus ticket and
go to Cleveland to question Albert Schweitzer. All the way up there he
worked on this Quest for the Historical Jesus. He laid out his questions, even
had them on a separate sheet of paper, making reference to the page
numbers: “You said . . .” Because he figured, if there was a conversation in the
fellowship hall, there’d be room for a question or two, and he wanted to be
one of them.
So he went there, heard the concert, rushed into fellowship hall, got a
seat in the front row, and waited with his lap full of questions.
After a while, says Craddock, Schweitzer came in, shaggy hair, big white
mustache, stooped, and seventy-five years old. He had played a marvelous
concert. He was a master organist, medical doctor, philosopher, biblical
scholar, lecturer, writer, everything. He came in with a cup of tea and some
refreshments and stood in front of the group, and there I was, close.
Dr. Schweitzer thanked everybody: “You’ve been very warm, hospitable to
me. I thank you for it, and I wish I could stay longer among you, but I must go
back to Africa. I must go back to Africa because my people are poor and
diseased and hungry a 2nd dying, and I have to go. We have a medical station
in Lambarene. If there’s anyone here in this room who has the love of Jesus,
would you be prompted by that love to go with me and help me?”
Says Craddock, “I looked down at my questions; they were so
absolutely stupid. And I learned, again, what it means to be Christian and had
hopes that I could be that someday.”
Schweitzer demonstrated what Henri Nouwen once said: “the whole
message of the gospel is this: become like Jesus.”To that, author Debie
Thomas adds: “What Jesus bears witness to … is God’s unwavering proximity
to pain, suffering, sorrow, and loss. God is nearest to those who are lowly,
oppressed, unwanted, and broken. God isn’t obsessed with the shiny and the
impressive; God is too busy sticking close to what’s messy, chaotic, unruly,
So what might that mean for you and me today? Given the scope and
the focus and the location of Jesus’s public ministry in the world, and given
the call of Jesus’ followers to go into the world, what does it look like to be
To be sent by Jesus, I think, means to be sent to the crowds.
To be sent by Jesus means to be sent to God’s beloved children – who,
here in our country, are 16.9% living under the poverty rate; girls who, by the
time they’re 6 (!) are worrying about their weight; who are dying most –
most! – because of guns; who are among the 20% of kids worldwide who live
with anxiety. To be sent by Jesus means to be sent to God’s beloved children.
To be sent by Jesus means being sent to God’s beloved teenagers and
young adults – almost all of which are online (97% of teenagers have a smartphone and being formed by the whirlwind they find there); who, in
record numbers, are in a crisis of anxiety and depression and loneliness; who
are feeling pressure from the earliest days of adolescence to pick a career
path that will lead to success. To be sent by Jesus means being sent to God’s
beloved teenagers and young adults.
To be sent by Jesus means being sent to God’s beloved adults – those
who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders; who are sandwiched
between caregiving for children and parents, grandchildren or grandparents;
who are drowning in debt and one health crisis away from bankruptcy; who
are in pain and lonely, who long for friendship and connection and well-being
but just can’t seem to fit it in (where do you fit this in?!) amidst all the other
demands of their lives. To be sent by Jesus means being sent to God’s beloved
To be sent by Jesus means being sent to God’s beloved seniors – who
grieve the losses of independence and identity and relationships that matter;
who learn to live in bodies that are increasingly unfamiliar and hard and
might even feel like are betraying them; who approach this significant season
formed by the aches of all that have come before in the hopes of finding
reconciliation before the sun sets. To be sent by Jesus means being sent to
God’s beloved seniors.
To be sent by Jesus means being sent to God’s beloved everywhere – to
those without a home or a paycheck; to those with more time or power or
resources than they know how to use meaningfully; to those who fear for
their lives at a traffic stop or a hateful law; to those who yearn for the peace
that will allow for a true and abiding rest to finally settle into the marrow of
their being. To be sent by Jesus means being sent to God’s beloved –
To be sent by Jesus into this world means being sent to God’s beloved
The good news is that we don’t have to travel far! We don’t have to
travel far, because we look around at those hopeful faces and longing spirits
and we realize that the crowd is far more “us” than “them.” For to be sent by
Jesus means to come home by another way, right to the heart of ourselves,
where God waits to look us squarely in the eyes with no less than a promise
of our belovedness.
Actually the good news isn’t just that we don’t have to travel far. The
good news is that to be sent by Jesus means to go right to Jesus, because he’s
there — there in the crowds of the suffering and the silenced, there in the
crowds of the heartbroken and the hungry, there in the crowds of the lonely
and the languishing – there he is. Right in the heart of it all. Right where we