Texts: Exodus 19:2-8; Psalm 100; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-38
Francis of Assisi, who lived in Italy many centuries ago, may be best known today for his love of animals and creation -- and also well known for the beautiful prayer for peace sung superbly by one of our soloists this morning. I want to share with you a story about Francis that provides a telling insight into his pastoral heart as he acts out his deep love for Jesus Christ.
One day Francis visited a monastery, and, when he arrived, the monk in charge told him with much excitement that thieves had just come and run off with armloads of bread. Francis said, "I must go after them."
And he did. But when Francis caught up with them, he did not accuse them or disparage them. He invited them to come back to the monastery, telling them that they could find there plenty more to eat -- all the bread they could desire and even more.
The thieves of course were surprised. But they did return with Francis to the monastery, as the story goes. They learned from Francis what it means to have enough bread; they learned what it means to be at peace with God; that is, they learned about grace. They remained at the monastery, serving God.
The story sends me to the sixth chapter of John, where we hear Jesus say, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty" (John 6:35). Jesus is grace given by God to the world. As Jesus shares his righteousness with those who believe in him, peace is made with God -- peace like no other.
Now let's go back even further, much further than the time of Francis of Assisi who lived in the thirteenth century. Let's go back to the exodus of the people led out of Egypt by Moses (See Exodus 19:2-8).
As the whole congregation of Israel gathers at the base of Mount Sinai, God offers peace and grace to the people through his covenant with them. God calls Moses to come to him for instructions about what to say to the people camped there by the mountain.
God says: Tell the people, "You know how I brought you here. You saw how I destroyed the Egyptians who were pursuing you. I lifted you to safety as if on eagles' wings and brought you to this place myself."
God says to Moses: "Now tell the people that if they keep my covenant and obey what I tell them to do, I will make them my treasured possession, my own people. I will make them a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. Go and tell the people everything I have said."
Moses goes to the people, and indeed tells them everything God had said.
And the people answer as one, united in their resolve, saying, "Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do."
Of course we know the people struggle to keep the covenant with God. They struggle to obey the Lord. And they struggle for generations to be that priestly kingdom and holy nation.
And yet, God loved them still. God, even when infuriated by their behavior, kept calling them back. He forgave them. God from the beginning of Creation wanted and wants the people of the earth to live in shalom -- peace and wholeness, that is, the fullness of life without hunger and thirst, spiritual, physical, or emotional hunger or thirst.
God desires that for us right now, today, desires that we strive to be a holy people who look to Jesus Christ for our grace and as our guide.
Remember with me that God chose Israel so that all the rest of the world might see what it looks like to worship the one true God. God chose them to become a light to the rest of the world so that all people would flock to the mountain of the Lord seeking him and worshiping him.
In the same way, God sends the church today -- a light to the world to show what it means to live for the holy God who is Creator, Redeemer, and Life-Giving Breath of all people of the world.
God provided the people of Israel many laws and guiding creeds by which they were to live in his holy way. And those laws centered on love -- loving God and loving one another.
The story does not end with the stories of the Israelites struggling through generations to keep their covenant with God. The story continues centuries later as God reaches into the world again to speak his message of grace and peace.
This time, in God's perfect time, he sends his Son Jesus Christ into the world. Then the message of love, peace, and grace really has not changed so much but the messenger surely changed. And the resulting relationship between God and the world surely changed the world forever. God desired and desires love, mercy, joy, and peace for the people of the world -- shalom!
But God saw a glaring absence of shalom in the world when Jesus was born to show God's new way. Rome ruled in favor of the rich and powerful. The religious leaders of the Hebrew people had lost their way, making the laws, the rules, and the regulations more important than the compassionate care of the people, many of whom were helpless and sick and hungry and alone.
I am reminded of the story of Jesus and the man who approached him saying, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17-22)
Jesus cited the laws of God to the man, who then answered him that he had kept all those commandments always. Jesus looked into the man's heart and said to him, "There is one more thing you must do. Sell what you own and give the money to the poor -- then come and follow me."
Jesus saw the one thing that prevented the man from belonging to God, from following Jesus truly -- it was the love of his material possessions.
Material possessions are not the only barrier we set up against the plan Jesus has to possess our entire life! The barriers are many and varied. And it is through praying faithfully, studying Scripture with one another, and listening for God's voice that we can find the barriers in our own life and begin to dismantle them -- both in our personal life and in the life of the church.
Jesus came to bring hope to the people among whom he ministered -- and all people in the future of the world. Jesus cured the sick. He put his hands upon the lepers and the blind and healed them. He took children in his arms and blessed them.
Jesus made friends among the people who were always pushed to the ragged edges of the community. He revealed God's plan to build a place where there would be no more hunger and thirst and disease and neglect.
Matthew tells us that Jesus looked at the people gathered to meet him in the cities and villages and on the roadsides and by the sea and on the rural hills -- and he saw people who were harassed and helpless, neglected and lost. Jesus brought all of them good news of the kingdom of God and plans for that kingdom to be established on earth.
As Jesus saw the many people who appeared like sheep without a shepherd, he turned to his disciples and said, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."
In these words, we hear Jesus asking his followers to pray. Today, I ask you in his name -- to pray. Pray that there will be enough workers now to go out into the places he will send his laborers -- to find all the people who have been pushed around and relegated to the back seats and the back doors.
Pray that there will be enough who go out in the name of Jesus Christ to find those who are struggling; to lift them out of the pit and accompany them as God leads the way to peace and wholeness.
Today, in our generation, Jesus still could walk into a crowd and recognize that many are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Indeed, as we consider this world in the time in which we live, all of us are somewhat helpless and harassed -- first, by the coronavirus pandemic; but now, also aroused by the light that is shining on a people who are hurting and reaching for justice and peace.
We in our own community join millions of others who are yearning to make the world a better place, especially a place insisting upon justice and peace for all of those who we know have been harmed by prejudice and injustice that has become systemic within humankind.
It is into this setting and into the real life context of this truly incredible time in which we are living now that I believe Jesus Christ sends us -- this is the harvesting of peace -- and Jesus Christ encourages us as people who want to follow Christ and serve everyone.
To be true to our mission statement at First Presbyterian, "Following Christ -- Serving Everyone," calls us first to acknowledge that there is much work to be done.
It means acknowledging that we belong to God: it means living in the covenant given first to Moses but now made new in Jesus Christ.
It means continuous sweeping of the heart to rid ourselves of impulses that go against the teachings of God in his Son Jesus Christ.
It means gathering as a church that we know is called in the name of Christ -- to be the place and the people, the building and the field, where God's righteousness will shine like a beacon to the rest of the world.
God through our Lord Jesus Christ desires the church and all its members to lead the way as peacemakers, to call upon the Holy Spirit to lead all of us to show the world the way to unity and peace with God and one another.
Francis of Assisi so long ago chased the strangers who had run off with loaves of bread so that he could invite them back to the monastery not just for more bread but to make their home there. And they did.
In the kingdom of God promised and made known through the ministry of Jesus Christ, that loving deed accomplished by Francis would be simply all in a day's work for the Lord.
Let it be so with us now, O God. Let it be so today in the Church that we call your Body, O Christ. Amen.