‘Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’ Matthew 9:35-38
The selection of a theme for a significant event in the life of a diocese, such as the meeting of synod, is not as simplistic or straight-forward a process as we might be inclined to believe.
It is not about coming up with a catchy slogan or a memorable phrase or something that would grab people’s attention only for the moment.
Rather, much thought has to go into the process of selection in an attempt to capture, in a rather succinct way, how we see ourselves as a diocese at this point in time.
It is about how we view the challenges and opportunities we face; and, subsequently, how we must respond to such a reality.
It is about what we need to do in our efforts to fulfill the Great Commission of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, to ‘go into all the world and preach the good news of God’s salvation in Christ’.
It is about laying out a priority for mission and ministry in the diocese as determined by the very context within which both must be exercised.
The Theme for our Synod this year is:
“Equipped for Ministry – Empowered for Service” [repeat]
The obvious emphasis here is on the need to ensure that we are always ready and fit for the task at hand; that is, to play our part in the mission and ministry of the Church. We recognize that we can only impart to others what we ourselves possess.
And so this year’s theme speaks to a process that begins with our own self-examination – both individually and collectively as a diocese. It is a kind of soul-searching and introspection that we hope will ultimately lead to our renewal and re-commitment to God, to His Church and to each other. It therefore must be an honest appraisal of where we are and where we say we want to be in the future – an appraisal that takes on board the spiritual, physical, mental, psychological, emotional and other aspects of our being. In other words, it must be an honest and comprehensive look at ourselves, our ideals, and our understanding of the context in which we are called to minister.
The truth is we are co-workers in mission with the goal of fulfilling what we believe God has called us to be, and to do, for the establishment of His Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven, for so prayed our Lord Jesus.
We know it is a kingdom where God’s will is perfectly done, and hence it is something we must constantly strive to achieve in our daily lives. The giving of our whole self (body, mind and spirit), our participation in the life of the Church, and the good we do for the wider community on a whole, are critically important, especially given the times in which we live.
Undoubtedly, the mission and ministry of the Church find their source in the Great Commission given by Jesus; but they still have to be exercised (lived out and demonstrated, if you will) in the context in which the Church finds itself at any point in time.
Our context inevitably shapes and defines the mission and ministry we are called to do.
So what is this context of Belize in 2012 that continues to determine the nature of our mission and ministry in the Church here?
What are the things we must seek to understand if we are to be as effective as possible with our preaching and living of the Gospel in this jewel of ours?
Recent developments, such as the ‘Ignite the Peace’ rally held out west today, certainly point to a growing concern among a widening cross-section of our society regarding the impact of crime. I suspect there will be more such gatherings in the future.
Yet, I do not, on this occasion of the opening service of synod, intend to list the ever-expanding litany of woes to which we can readily point our fingers and focus our attention. Such an approach will amount to perhaps nothing more than stating the obvious; saying what we already know. Moreover, we already have an adequate supply of sources in this regard – every morning, every evening, every day, in the media. Speak of information overload; but unfortunately of the negative kind.
Instead, I desire to frame the assessment of our current reality with a series of questions; questions for which we cannot afford to tire in our efforts at finding answers if we are to ever find a solution.
What enters the mind of an individual to think that they can simply take what belongs to someone else with no regard for the hard work and sacrifice that person might have had to make in order to get what they have?
What squalid mind would think it ever okay for a grown man to sexually molest and rape especially a child, or anyone for that matter?
What thwarted mind, what unenlightened attitude, would find pleasure in acts of violence and crime in order to settle a score, and yet be convinced that such actions lend to a demonstration of respect or belonging to a group?
What estimation of the value of human life would make it possible for someone to gun down another for mere pennies; or seek an abortion simply because of an inconvenient pregnancy; or allow a medical procedure to go sadly wrong without anyone being held accountable?
What sense of justice or assumed moral high-ground would allow anyone to be excluded from the rest of society or the community because they were different, or perceived to be different, and did not hold to the same set of beliefs as others do?
What sort of society would we have become when we look lightly upon or turn a blind eye to injustice (in all its undesirable forms), the neglect of the poor, the elderly and vulnerable, the abuse of power, blatant corruption, and the need to hold all in leadership positions (both civil and religious) to be accountable for the authority they have been given to make decisions or pronouncements on our behalf?
What kind of church would we be if these and other similar issues did not generate in us a passion to get up and do something about the situation in an attempt to make a difference?
One may ask, Why frame the assessment of our context with questions of this nature?
On the one hand, it is to illustrate that the challenges we face as a nation must not be looked at solely in quantitative terms, but also by means of a qualitative analysis that takes into account the possible driving forces behind these contemptible acts, and how they affect the lives of our people.
Crime statistics, poverty estimates, economic numbers, employment figures, and the like, tell only one side of the story. There is the deeper issue of why things are the way they are. We need to be reminded that, at the end of the day, in all these things, we are talking about human lives – human beings created in the image and likeness of God and deserving of all which constitutes a life worth living.
As a Church, as believers in the Gospel of Christ, we cannot be a party to any ideology or belief system that seeks to dehumanize the other or, in any way, rob them of their God-given human dignity.
On the other hand, a diligent and honest search for the answers to these and other such questions can be refreshingly revealing in that what formally might have looked like a challenge can now be seen as an opportunity for something good and positive to emerge. We may yet discover that the real issue is a matter of the human heart that can be touched by the love of God as revealed in Christ, and in us who know Him to be a God of love, not of hatred; a God who invites and does not dismiss: a God who values every human life.
The gospel reading we heard this evening spoke of Jesus as he carried out his mission and ministry (not unlike that of the Church today) among the people. We heard of Jesus moving among the people, in touch with their realities and understanding the context in which he was operating.
‘Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.
And as he moved among the people, the gospel records Jesus did three things:
He taught them; he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom, and he healed their diseases.
He taught them as one with authority, something the Scribes and Pharisees themselves had to admit. We are left to conclude that this meant he taught with confidence, with certainty, with conviction, and with a sense of purpose. This is a feature of Jesus’ teaching ministry we would do well to take note of, for we ourselves live in a world of great uncertainty; a world where an increasing number of persons who are unsure of many things.
Jesus’ style of teaching, the use of parables for instance, reflected the fact that Jesus was aware of the circumstances of people’s lives. He was in touch with what mattered most to them. His illustrations betrayed a kind of intimacy with their reality – the sort of knowledge which comes from shared experiences, shared aspirations and a shared hope.
Jesus is also described as a preacher of the kingdom of God. As a matter of fact, central to his message (and therefore to his sense of mission and ministry) was his concept of God’s kingdom. He saw the kingdom as a state of existence where the will of God was central in people’s lives; and where the things of God acquired the highest priority. So much so that Jesus expected nothing less than full commitment and dedication from those who choose to follow him.
Jesus’ own take on the issue of commitment is perhaps best captured in Luke 9:57-62.
The passage reads:
“57 As they were going along the road, someone said to Jesus, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ 58And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ 59To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 60But Jesus* said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ 61Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ 62Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’”
Certainly, in this passage, Jesus seeks to elevate the notion of commitment to God, and to the things of God, to a whole new level. He makes no apology for the high demand that accompanies our commitment to God, and to His Church. Jesus effectively says that nothing should really take precedence over that commitment.
Ultimately, my sisters and brothers, for Jesus this commitment to God must move beyond mere words and be ushered into corresponding action. The gospels do record that Jesus spent more time healing the sick, comforting the sorrowful and feeding the hungry than he did simply talking about God.
And, given the circumstances of his day, when Jesus healed someone, he literally gave them back their lives and their livelihoods, because to be blind or lame or deaf or diseased in those days, was often to be denied an opportunity to have a life.
It would appear that Jesus could hardly encounter a need that he did not feel compelled to help satisfy. He was moved with compassion by what he saw in the people, and in the original Greek, the word used is the strongest word for pity. It was far deeper than sympathy and more akin to empathy.
At times, Jesus seemed more astonished by the person’s inability or unwillingness to accept the help he freely offered rather than by the nature of the circumstance itself. No small wonder that, as recorded in the gospel, Jesus reached the conclusion that the crowds looked “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” It is a rather sad picture when you think about it.
In offering a summary of the context in which Jesus ministered, the commentator, William Barclay, wrote (and I quote):
“The Jewish leaders, who should have been giving men strength to live, were bewildering them with subtle arguments about the Law, which had no help or comfort in them. When they should have been helping them to stand upright, they were bowing them down under the intolerable weight of the Scribal Law. They were offering them a religion which was a handicap instead of a support.”
He goes on to say, “We must always remember that Christianity exists, not to discourage, but to encourage; not to weigh men down with burdens, but to lift them up with wings.” (end of quote)
My sisters and brothers, the sobering closing remarks of Jesus in this gospel reading are what must now grab our attention. More than that, they are words that should cause us great unease and serve as a motivating factor for us to get up and become involved in the work of the Church.
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’
Having heard these words from our Lord, no more can we be comfortable with the bare minimum, with mediocrity, with a lukewarm response to the invitation to get engaged in the work of the Church. Here and now we must be ready to be counted among those who have joined God in His mission to this world, to make a difference in the lives of all God’s people.
The harvest is plentiful, there is a lot of work to be done, but are we ready to counted among the labourers?
Someone once commented: ‘Ministry exists to make the willing able, and the able willing.’
This is very true, and speaks to our theme for this synod: “Equipped for Ministry – Empowered for Service”.
The Church recognizes that to be able to respond to our Lord’s solemn call; to be able to be effective labourers of the harvest, one does need to be equipped. And, with this equipping of our people will come the empowerment necessary for them to perform to the best of their ability.
Gone are the days when we are comfortable asking members of the church, and others, to do things for the church without, at least, first ascertaining whether or not they are adequately equipped for the task.
And let me hasten to add that ‘equipped’ does not mean we have determined that you are rich enough, smart enough, or even pretty enough, to do the job. Rather, and perhaps even more importantly, it is that you bring with you the right attitude, the right sense of commitment, and the right motivation. It is that together we are responding to the love of God we have experienced in our lives – a love we have come to realize makes all the difference in the world; a love that saw the incarnation of God’s greatest gift to humanity, his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
Over the months and years ahead we will create opportunities for our people to receive the training and experience to be effective in their work in the Church. Through workshops, retreats, study opportunities, and refresher courses, clergy and laity alike will be able to avail themselves of these opportunities.
And finally, if we are to make the willing able by providing them with the opportunity to be equipped, we must also work to make the able willing.
Our theme therefore is also an earnest call to our members, and those in the wider community, who share our vision and who desire to work for a better Belize, to join us in our work in the Church. The invitation is extended for you to bring with you your skills, your experience and knowledge; bring them and utilize them in the service, mission and ministry of the Church.
Are you willing to embrace the possibility that the years of training and study and experience might have been God’s way of preparing you for a good work in the church? And less you think I am talking only to those in the ordained ministry, not so!
With your respective field of expertise, the Church needs you. So come, join us, and together let us work to make a difference for the cause of God’s kingdom on earth.
Let us together, equipped and empowered, be effective labourers for the harvest of God in this part of the vineyard of God.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’