This past Friday was Juneteenth, a celebration I had never heard of growing up in Indiana, I think I first learned about it in college. When the civil war ended and slaves were freed, the news of that freedom took a good long time to reach all the enslaved people. The last ones found out on June 19th, two years after they could have been free. I heard from our Conference Lay Leader Micheal Pope in her recorded video about the celebration, that they immediately put on their best clothes, which they were forbidden from doing before, and began to celebrate with gatherings and food. Reading this gospel, the message that was brought to them and their reaction made me think about this passage: the mission of Jesus that would become the mission of the twelve, bringing healing, casting out demons, what we would call maybe removing obstacles to fullness of life, and preaching the good news that God’s kingdom had come near. Those messengers from the North brought good news to remove barriers to fullness of life to those who had been treated as property. No longer a slave! Free! What a difference there would be in their lives.
But yet. Michael Pope also shared that it was a week or less before those former slave owners made up a lie to keep their cheap labor. You may be free, but you are still my property, they said to those Black persons now in a new limbo between freedom and servitude. It doesn’t make any sense, what they said. How could they be free and be property? But people who have any kind of power over others usually will not just give that power away. They will fight tooth and nail to keep what they had-indeed, that was the cause for the long bloody civil war. Now individual slave-holders would Lie, fabricate to maintain their advantage, their way of life, which was built on free labor of other people.
We hear in this Gospel of Luke how Jesus was moved with compassion for the people he encountered as he traveled throughout the region of Galilee (?), for he saw them as sheep without a shepherd. We have a lot of cute ideas about sheep and shepherds and how Jesus is our Good Shepherd, he is, he is. But this reference thrown in here is anything but cute. There is nearly identical wording in Ezekiel 34;5, and that passage is talking about how the political leaders have wronged the people of Israel, God’s flock. They are not caring for the sheep, they are taking care of themselves, endangering and slaughtering the sheep to do so.
A couple of weeks ago I shared a brief version of a testimony, how the Holy Spirit reached into me and showed me ugly parts of myself, racist ideas I had internalized. A part of the story I didn’t include is that just before that, God had kind of pointed me to Ezekiel 34. That’s what I was reading just before that Spirit intervention, about just how evil some of Israel’s leaders had been, how they had taken advantage of, used the people instead of serving them, and how angry that made God.
I will tell the truth. I never quite made the connection consciously between what I had been reading and what God spoke to my heart, except for a vague sense of how when harm is done, when we sin, God calls us to repent. Just this past Friday June 19th I opened a Bible on my husband’s office shelf to read this Matthew passage in Spanish -sometimes I find different words help open things up for me- and lo and behold was a little asterisk with a reference, and it said, this is referring to Ezekiel 34.
They are sheep without a shepherd because those in charge, the leaders, were not caring for the people. In Ezekiel it was a corrupt king and corrupt class of leaders. For Jesus it was the Roman empire and all those who were aligned with them who were devouring the sheep, taking resources and making their poverty worse, and with it illness and death rates – the reason Jesus needed to do so much healing. Jesus is moved in his belly to feel for the people, that’s the root of this word compassion, and knows that it is the evil the leadership is doing that is making people suffer. Like sheep without a shepherd, as Ezekiel says, who are left to be devoured by the predators.
The sheep without a shepherd in the time of the Emancipation Proclamation were those slaves. Their masters did not care about their well-being but only what they could take from the labor of their bodies.
What kind of leadership we have, matters. Who we are following, and how we are leading others, matters.
The trend from what happened on Juneteenth has continued throughout our history, as a nation overall. There is struggle for recognition of equal rights, human dignity, a little progress is made, and then we take another step back. It happens whenever the leaders, those in power, care more about themselves than the people they are supposed to be serving and caring for. It has happened over and over in our nation’s history, especially concerning Black and Brown people. And it was going on in me, on that day about 20 years ago. No I wasn’t a president or mayor or any kind of important leader, but those impulses, considering some people below me, not equal in some ways, inhabited my being, and God wanted that to be known to me so I could work to change it. To become a better disciple, a better follower of Jesus Christ.
And what that means-what it means to be a disciple- is made as clear in this passage as in any other. We hear how what Jesus did was bring healing, pronounce good news about God. When he was moved to compassion he said, they are like sheep without a shepherd. Let there be workers for this great harvest! He told his disciples to pray to God for workers, then he looked around him and said- hey you guys, you are going to be the answer to our prayer! And the exact same things he had been doing, he empowered and commissioned them to do as well: to heal, to cast out demons, to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom coming near. He was the leader, the model, and they copied him.
If we call ourselves disciples of Jesus, this is what we do. There were crazy hard times throughout the Bible, they were living some crazy hard times under the Roman Empire. We are in some crazy hard times now, too. But what we do now, is the same as those first 12 disciples, the same as what Jesus did. Work to bring healing. To remove barriers to fullness of life, to proclaim that God is indeed coming near, indeed already here.
But almost as soon as he finishes instructing them, Jesus begins to warn them. This is a dangerous mission. But why?
The little story starting at verse 32 illustrates this point. Jesus cast out a demon. The crowds, you can think, the poor, preyed upon people, are amazed. But the Pharisees, who were part of Israel but who at least partly were working with the Romans said, he must be in league with the demons, to be able to cast one out. They see Jesus, his ability to heal, as a threat to their power. So they make up a lie about him.
Just like the slaveholders made up a lie to keep the now-free people, under their control.
Jesus knows that his mission of healing and teaching is going to have an effect on people. On the poor ones who are like sheep without a shepherd. And he knows that the effect he has is going to irritate the people who have power, who will have to work harder to keep that power. He says, They are calling me Beelzebul, a demon lord, so they will call you the same thing if you follow me and do what I do. They will cast Jesus and his followers as the evil ones, and themselves as right.
Which brings me back to our Conference Lay Leader, in her reflection she made a comment. She said she has heard a mega church pastor say he doesn’t like to say “white privilege” he wants to call it “white blessing.” If you haven’t heard of white privilege, it refers to how white people like me live an existence where our experience is generally considered “the norm” placed at the center, and we don’t have to worry about someone fearing us or assuming the worst of us merely because of our skin color. That is a privilege people of color do not share. There is more to it but in a nutshell. So for a pastor to say, let’s call it white blessing, is the same old story of all these devouring leaders. Making up a lie to hold onto the power and how things are. God does not want some people to automatically have easier lives than others. That is false. There is no “white blessing” that God has ordained. No.
Because we know God through Jesus. The one who saw the mistreated oppressed crowds, and was moved to compassion for them. Who would spend his ministry among them, doing that work of healing and removing barriers for fullness of life, telling them God was coming and right there with them. Whose ministry would irritate the powerful people to the point they needed to put him to death.
So Jesus warned them. You do this work, and they will come for me and then they will come for you, too. But he will go on to say- don’t be afraid of them. And Jesus was not afraid of them. Yes they even killed him but, God would raise him to life again.
There are leaders who are not good leaders in this world. There are people with power who use it for their own ends and not to care for others. But we have a leader we can trust, the compassionate one, the healing one, who continues to empower us to join in this mission, Jesus. Some of the barriers needing to be removed these days have to do with systems of racism that harm our brothers and sisters. Some of the healing has to do with relationship healing, on top of healing from COVID 19 and all the other ways humanity also needs healing.
One of my mentors once told me to consider daily, how are you leading? Because you are always leading someone. Someone is always watching and might follow your example. We are called to be leaders in the way of Jesus. Disciples who follow in those life-giving, healing ways, leading others even as we follow Jesus. Amen.