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–The Rev. Steve Pankey

Go, have no fear, take risks, and share the Good News – a sermon

You can hear this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it here.


It was pointed out to me after last Sunday that thanks to a couple of baptisms and Vacation Bible School, I had escaped a pretty difficult Gospel passage for another three years.  Without thinking, I laughingly agreed, and gave the old “phew” sign.  Monday morning, I realized that I had breathed a sigh of relief just a little too soon.  Unfortunately for me, the Lectionary has split Jesus’ warning into three sections, the toughest of which we hear this morning.  If you’ll recall from last week, Jesus’ ministry has become increasingly successful.  He toured many of the cities and villages of Israel, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near, and the crowds continued to grow.  As Jesus looked at the throngs of hurting and helpless people who were following him, his heart was broken.  They were like sheep without a shepherd, and Jesus knew that for every one that had heard his message, there were hundreds of others who had yet to hear the Good News.

So, Jesus called together the twelve and commissioned them to go: cast out demons, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and proclaim that the Kingdom of heaven has come near.  Before they departed on their evangelistic expedition, Jesus offered a word of caution.  Well, actually, it’s more like eight hundred words of caution.  The task will not be easy.  There are plenty of people who do not want the Jesus Movement to take off, and many of them are in positions of power.  “You will be brought before councils, flogged in the synagogue, and dragged before governors and kings,” Jesus told them in last week’s Gospel, “but don’t worry, the Spirit will give you the words you need.”  “You will be hated by friends and family alike,” Jesus goes on to warn them, “but with God’s help, you will endure.”  His rhetoric heats up in this week’s passage.  Jesus reminds the disciples that “out there” they are calling him Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that is, Satan himself.  “What do you think it will be like for you,” Jesus asks, “as you take my message and help it to spread.”

Consistently throughout these dire warnings about the struggle that is to come, Jesus pauses to offer the word that God always offers in moments of anxiety and struggle, “Have no fear.”  The work will not be easy.  There will be pain.  There will be broken relationships.  There will be rumors and innuendo.  There might even be a call to die, but despite all that, Jesus says, “have no fear, for even if they kill your body, they cannot touch your soul… Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

When Jesus talked about giving up one’s life and that “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household,” he was dead serious.  To give up one’s faith in the Jewish tradition and follow Jesus was akin to walking away from one’s family.  The same was true of Pagan Gentiles who converted.  In a world where men followed in the family business and sons took care of their aging parents, this was a significant issue.  To disrupt the religious, political, and economic status quo was the threaten the stability of the whole region, and governments are not fond of instability.  It was not safe to be a disciple of Jesus.  In fact, for the first three hundred or so years of Christianity, there was an almost constant, real threat of death, and so these words of comfort were of crucial importance.

Hearing a similar chunk of Matthew 10, this Thursday, the Church remembered Saint Alban, the first British Christian for whom we have a name.  Alban lived just outside of modern day London during the third century.  He was a pagan when he met a priest who was fleeing the most recent wave of Roman persecution.  For reasons that will forever be unknown, Alban decided to hide the priest in his home.  For several days, they had nothing to do but talk with each other.  Over time, Alban was so impressed by the faith of the priest, that he became a Christian.  When soldiers got word that the priest was hiding at Alban’s home, they came to arrest him, but Alban quickly donned the priest’s cloak and gave himself up instead.  Alban was tortured in hopes that he would renounce his faith, but when he withstood the flogging with patience and joy, the judge ordered him beheaded.

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As Alban and his executioners made their way to the hill where he was to be killed, they came upon a fast-flowing river.  The bridge was so clogged with onlookers that the execution party couldn’t cross the river, but the excited new convert was so ready to lose his life for the sake of the Gospel that he “raised his eyes to heaven and the river dried up.”  The first executioner, amazed by the miracle, put down his sword and offered to be killed in Alban’s place.  Ultimately, both men were beheaded atop a hill that now bears his name.  Legend has it that as he made the fatal blow, the second executioner’s eyes popped out and dropped to the ground along with Alban’s head, which then rolled down the hill and a spring of fresh water burst forth from the ground at its final resting place.  Martyrdom stories tend to get embellished over time, but even if all the details aren’t exactly true, the reality is that for Alban and thousands of others like him, following Jesus in those early days of Christianity was a life-threatening endeavor that they willingly took on buoyed by the assurance of Jesus in passages like this one.

From the comfort of our mortgage free building that sits in the heart of the Bible Belt, and is filled with relatively comfortable, middle class, “mainline” American Christians, this message doesn’t have the same impact.  In fact, it can be downright difficult to begin to make sense of it.  When I hear these warnings about persecution, I can’t help but wonder if I can even consider myself a disciple.  Life as a 21st century American Christian just seems too easy.  What are we to do with a text like this?   I think the answer is two-fold.  First, these words from Jesus should call to mind the millions of Christians outside of our safe little American bubble who face the threat of death every day.  These words from Jesus remind us to pray with fervor for the Coptic Christians in Egypt and Iraq, for Anglicans in Sudan, and for Christians around the globe who are under the real threat of violence for their faith in Jesus.

Secondly, I think these words of warning should inspire us to evangelistic action.  In a country where there is no actual threat to our faith, but where the face of Christianity is often closed-minded, abusive, or worse yet, a self-seeking get-rich-quick scheme, to not speak God’s word of love for the world God created is to fail to live up to the expectations Jesus has for us.  Instead of choosing to love father and mother more than Jesus, many Episcopalians have decided to love polite society or our own comfort more than him.  When we choose the easy route, we fail to take up our cross and follow him.  When we ignore the call to proclaim the Kingdom of God in word and deed, we deny Christ before others, and, tough as it might be to hear, Jesus promises that he will deny us in the same way.

If it weren’t for the faithfulness of those early disciples, who withstood persecution and proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord, we wouldn’t be here today.  It is our responsibility, then, as committed, albeit comfortable, disciples of Jesus, to continue to share the Good News that the kingdom of heaven has come near, to share a message of God’s love and grace in a world that hears mostly of God’s anger and vengeance, and to show that following Jesus doesn’t mean condemning those who are different from us, but rather, embracing the reality that God loves everyone, no exceptions.  In a world full of vitriol and strife, the message of hope, grace, and love that we have to offer is too important not to share.  So, go, have no fear, take a risk, and tell out the Good News that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  Amen.

When family tears itself apart

As I’ve already mentioned this week, I am really struggling with this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, but I’m only now beginning to get a grasp on why.  Prior to now, I had thought that my dislike for this passage had to do with its lack of relevance to 21st century white middle class “mainline” American Christians.  We who are the majority, who have held a place of privilege in this country for 241 years, who were so tied in with the Colonial government that in many colonies one’s tithe was a government required tax, who know nothing of what it means to be persecuted, how can we dare to begin to think that Jesus’ warning to the disciples has anything to say to us?

I really thought that was what was bothering me, until I started to read my go-to sermon resources, and realized that what I’m really struggling with this week is not that this lesson doesn’t apply to us, but instead that Christians are living out both sides of this dire warning.  It isn’t that non-Christian family members are kicking Christians out of their wills, but that the Christian family, writ large, is tearing itself apart.  For eight years, the conservative members of our family saw themselves as the persecuted ones.  As social structures changed to bring LGBT Americans into equal protection under the law, and denominational structures similarly began to understand that God’s love and sacraments should be made available to everyone, many conservative Christians saw their ability to live out their faith being challenged.  Now, with the other party in the White House, more liberal Christians are beginning to feel that same fear.  They see the rolling back of equal rights protections, cutting of programs that care for the poor, and a seeming disregard for the disabled as a direct attack on their faith in the God of love.

In a time of stark political division, the Church has allowed itself to become a pawn in the political machine.  We are tearing ourselves apart by declaring our sisters and brothers in Christ as anathema, which is precisely what the prince of demons, Beelzebul, would have us do.  The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the Church’s intimate relationship with government, which dates all the way back to the Edict of Milan in 313 (culminating in the Edict of Thessalonica in 380), is antithetical to the Gospel.  By embracing the Church’s incorporation into civil governance, Christianity has come to put the love of social order ahead of the love of Christ.  We have given up our ability to preach the sort of peace that divides good from evil like a sword.  We have abdicated our call to take up our cross for the Kingdom by choosing to live as God-fearing citizens of the State.

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Today, the Episcopal Church remembers Saint Alban, the first Anglican Christians known by name, and, not coincidentally, the first English martyr, I can’t help but be struck by his willingness to stand up and declare that though the State may have the power to take his life, his core identity wasn’t Roman or Celtic or anything else, but his defining characteristic was “I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.”  While his head my have been removed from his body, Alban’s brief allegiance to Christ never wavered, was never corrupted by the idol of power and prestige, which, I’m increasingly convinced, it probably the better place for the Church to exist: the only place from which we can actually speak truth to power.

Cost Benefit Analysis

In yesterday’s post, I used the example of a college student selling Cutco knives to family members to try to explain what I thought was happening in the rather intense prep session that Jesus gave the twelve before they embarked upon their first evangelistic tour in Matthew’s Gospel.  To hear Jesus tell them that ” I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” is difficult to hear, even if it is a rough quotation of the prophet Micah’s lament over his rejection by the people.   As I’ve struggled with what to do with this passage as a preacher, this Cutco image continues to play in my mind.  It seems to me that Jesus is inviting the disciples to think long and hard about the cost of what they are taking on.

Sure, they have spent considerable time following Jesus, but what he is preparing them for is something quite different.  They are about to move from being the students of a less-than-well-pedigreed Rabbi to being the carriers of his message in the world.  As Jesus notes, it is one thing to simply follow one said to be of the house of Beelzebul, it will be quite another to multiply his message in towns and villages all around Judea.  Before, these idiots who followed a fool weren’t worth the effort.  Now, they will be the target of some pretty brutal attacks with collateral damage that will threaten the livelihood of their entire family.  Jesus wants to be sure they have counted the cost before they weigh the benefits.

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Like the Cutco knife salesperson, the key to understanding the cost, is being fully aware of the benefits.  Jesus isn’t promising that proclaiming the Kingdom will be easy, but, he is quick to assure the disciples that “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven…”  If one is willing to take the risk of evangelism, the rewards will be exceedingly great.

So, like I asked yesterday, what does this have to do with us in the 21st century?  Well, I would suspect that a lot of the anxiety polite Episcopalians have about evangelism has to do with our images of it.  The cost of sounding like a Bible thumper who stands on a street corner and tells people they are going to hell seems awfully high.  The fear of ostracizing oneself from relationships because of a deep desire to see the whole world come to know the joy of the Kingdom is a significant cost.  What the Church hasn’t been so great at, and, quite frankly, this passage doesn’t do all that well either, is highlighting the benefits of a life of evangelism.  Without the full picture, one can’t make an informed decision.  In our lesson, Jesus is trying to give his disciples an idea of the cost.  In time, they will come to know the benefits.  This week, the preacher might do well to offer a look at both so that our people can do their best cost benefit analysis and decide for themselves if becoming an Apostle is something their faith life can handle.

Looking for wiggle room

The good news is that soon there will be an Associate Rector here at Christ Church.  The bad news is that she won’t arrive in time to preach this Sunday’s really difficult Gospel lesson.  I should have looked at the Lectionary more closely while negotiating her start date.  Yesterday, I was able to use our Vacation Bible School curriculum to deftly avoid the whole “Go nowhere among the Gentiles” and everybody’s Father’s Day favorite “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.”  It seems that this Sunday, I’m stuck preaching the hard stuff.

I suppose you can’t blame me, though, for looking for some wiggle room in Jesus’ continued difficult teaching to the disciples turned Apostles who are preparing for their first missionary journey.  To be fair, Jesus is doing exactly what any good leader should be doing.  He is preparing his disciples for the hardship they are going to experience.  Certainly, they have seen the mixed reaction to Jesus during their time with him.  Only a fool would think that taking his message out would mean being welcomed with open arms and joyful acceptance.  Still, rather than sending them out with false hope, Jesus offers a clear warning that the message of the Kingdom of God is going to be unpopular with some; and that difficultly might start in one’s own family.

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You too can put all your family in debt in order to buy an ill-fitting suit

Like a college student selling Cutco knives, the disciples would logically begin their evangelistic tour with family members.  It would make sense that one’s family, those who have seen what a difference Jesus made in their life, would be open to the Good News of God’s saving love in Christ.  However, like the Cutco knife example, there are likely just as many hard feelings and a begrudging sense of obligation.  These disciples had dropped everything to follow Jesus.  Imagine being Peter’s wife’s family.  Sure, Jesus had healed their matriarch, but what about the wife (and children?) left behind that they had to take care of.  Or, what about the other son’s of Zebedee?  Losing two members of the family fishing crew couldn’t have been an easy thing to overcome.  Even Matthew, the “author” of this Gospel, must have worried about how he might go home to a family that was no longer able to live comfortably off his tax collections.

It is no wonder that Jesus spent so much of this time dealing with family dynamics.  Surely, he knew how difficult it would be for the twelve to share with family the story of God’s Kingdom when it seemed like it had left them all behind.  Now, how does this preach in 21st century America when the more likely version of this story is the children of devout church members who will never darken the door of a church again?  I’m still working that out.  Like I said, I’m looking for some wiggle room this week.  Unfortunately, I’ve not found it yet.

God’s Good Gifts – a sermon

This sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or you can read it here.


I don’t know about you, but there are some weeks when it feels like hope is really hard to come by.  Weeks when the money runs out before the month does.  Weeks when the treatment doesn’t seem worth the side effects.  Weeks when it feels like you’ve been pecked to death by ducks.  Thankfully, for me, this is not one of those weeks.  Sure, it has been a loooooong week.  Vacation Bible School weeks are always loooooooooooong weeks, but they are also always weeks that are filled with hope.  Close to seventy volunteers and sixty children spent four evenings this week singing praises to God, having fun, making crafts, meeting exotic animals, and learning about the good gifts that God gives us.   It is impossible to be hopeless when you see a community come together to welcome children into the Kingdom of God.

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Today, we have another opportunity to gather as a community of disciples and welcome children into the Kingdom.  This morning, we once again celebrate baptism at our 10am service.  Sophia and Dominic have been a part of this community for a while now, but today, we welcome them fully as members of the Body of Christ, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, anointing them with oil as a symbol of the Spirit’s presence in their lives, and giving thanks to God for the gifts of inquiry, discernment, courage, perseverance, joy, and wonder.  In Baptism, we find the sort of hope that doesn’t disappoint that we heard about in our lesson from Romans this morning.

There is no promise in baptism that life will forever be easy.  What is true, is that no matter what comes our way, no matter what might try to zap our hope, no matter what challenges might cause us to suffer, being sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever means that our hope will never disappoint us.  With the Spirit’s help, the Father’s love, and the grace that comes through the Son, the promise of hope will always endure, even in the most challenging situations.  In Baptismal sermons past, I’ve talked about some of the gifts that God gives us through the Holy Spirit, but since some of y’all weren’t here for VBS, I thought I might share with you the four gifts we learned about this week.  These gifts are available to each and every one of us who are baptized into the Body of Christ.

The first gift we learned about this week is that God gives us comfort. We studied Psalm 23 through the eyes of its author, King David, who before he was a mighty king, was just a lowly shepherd.  We talked about all the different things that the Lord our Shepherd does to offer us comfort: like leading us along the right pathways to green pastures and still waters, offering a feast right in the presence of those who make life difficult for us, and overflowing our cup with blessings.  We talked about how sheep don’t always listen to their shepherds, and sometimes they end up lost and afraid, but that the Good Shepherd is always with us, helping us to make good choices.  We got anointed with oil, just like Sophia and Dominic will in a little bit, to remind us that God loves us, no exceptions.  In baptism, we receive the gift of God’s comfort.

The second gift we talked about is that God gives us patience.  That night we heard the story of Simeon and Anna who, like the rest of the Jewish people, had been waiting for the Messiah for what seemed like forever.  God had promised Simeon that he wouldn’t die before he met the Messiah, and so every day, he went to the Temple to watch and wait.  He had watched hundreds, if not thousands of babies pass through the Temple to be blessed by the priests when one day Mary and Joseph arrived with their baby named Jesus.  Simeon took the baby into his arms and immediately knew that this child was the one God had sent to save the world.  As Simeon took the child, Anna, an elderly widow who lived in the Temple caught a glimpse of the baby, and immediately she knew that the Messiah had finally come into the world.  We learned something of what it is like to have the patience of Simeon and Anna as we waited patiently for Smarties, which got everybody nice and sugared up to head off to the recreation station.  We learned that life doesn’t always happen on our timeline, but that in baptism, we receive the gift of patience that allows us to maintain hope.

The third gift we looked at this week was that God gives us peace.  We joined Jesus on a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee, which we learned is two-and-a-half times the size of Barren River Lake.  It was late and Jesus had taught a large crowd all day.  Jesus fell asleep, as preachers often do after a long day of preaching, and slept through a pretty raucous storm.  There was wind and lightning and thunder and even a chilly rain that made us scream really loudly in a mixture of joy and fear.  While it seemed like Jesus wasn’t with us in the storm, we learned that even when it feels like God is far away, he is always nearby.  In baptism, we receive the promise that when storms come up in our lives, God is not far away and will always be ready to give us peace.

Finally, on our final night together, we learned that the best gift of all is that God gives us love.  We heard the story of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Day and learned that even though Jesus could have stopped the terrible things that were happening to him, he chose to walk to the Cross and take all of our bad stuff with him.  From one of our first and second grade group members, we discovered that sin means “not being loving,” which might be the best definition of sin I’ve ever heard.  We thought about the times in our lives when we weren’t as loving as maybe God wanted us to be.  Then, we heard how God’s love is bigger than anything we can do wrong, and that because Jesus came back to life, we can experience the gift of God’s love every day.  In baptism, we are washed clean from all our sin and receive the gift of God’s love.

Scripture tells us that in baptism, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we receive all kinds of gifts, and this week, I became convinced that chief among them are the gifts of comfort, patience, peace, and love.  Like any story of gift giving, however, it can’t end there.  Instead, through our baptism and with a good-sized helping of the Holy Spirit, we are called to share those gifts with the world around us.  Sophia will make these promises on her own, and Dominc’s sponsors will do the same for him, but in every baptism that we celebrate here at Christ Church, all of us are invited to renew our promises to live hope-filled lives as disciples of Jesus.  To develop as disciples by continuing in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.  To rely on God’s never-failing love in persevering in resisting ever, but when we do fall into sin, repenting and returning to the Lord.  To take our place as evangelists for the Kingdom by proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.  To become models of God’s love by seeking and serving Christ in all persons and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  And to work to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven by striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being.

There are weeks when all of this seems really hard.  These are the weeks when suffering tries to take the place of hope, but in baptism, we are assured that through the Father’s love, poured into our hearts in his Son’s life, death, and resurrection, and sustained by the Holy Spirit’s gifts, hope will never disappoint us.  As fellow members of the Body of Christ, I pray that you will experience God’s gifts of comfort, patience, peace, and most especially love, today and every day.  Amen.

Hope does not disappoint?

Borrowing from the Unitarian reformer (yes, such a thing exists) Theodore Parker, in several of his famous speeches, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. offered this reflection on the hope of the Civil Rights Movement.

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Given the time in which he lived, it would have been easy for Dr. King to give up that hope.  It wasn’t just your run of the mill racists who seemed to be working against the bend toward justice, but governments, and even entire denominations were working hard to keep this nation that was founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” from ever making that foolish claim in the Declaration of Independence a reality.

Some 50 years later, Parker’s original quote seems more apt than even the Dr. King paraphrase, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”  In a nation where angry rhetoric is spilling over into actual violence, it is hard to see much hope beyond the horizon that the arc toward justice creates.  I can honestly say that in my own thoughts, at times, I wonder if there really is any hope in the sort of peace that comes when every human being is afforded the rights and responsibilities of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  I fear that my children will only know a world of bitterness, anger, vitriol, and violence.

Thanks be to God, that at just the right time, I am reminded to never give up hope.  This week’s short lesson from Romans, though used to great damage by religious leaders who send battered wives back to their husbands or keep whole peoples from rising up against oppression because “we should boast in our suffering,” can and should be redeemed by the telos of our collective suffering.  For all who struggle with hope, for all who wonder if justice will ever roll down, for all who lament the violence and the fear mongering, Paul offers these words:

“suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

The reason we continue to hope, despite growing evidence to the contrary, is because God’s love is at work in the world.  This isn’t some ethereal claim of ooey-gooey love without substance, but the reality that God’s love has hands and feet and hearts through the Holy Spirit given to each of us in baptism.  We who claim to be disciples of Jesus are, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the agents of hope in the world.  We are they who should be calling for justice.  We are they who should be working for peace.  We are they who should be offering compassion.  We, who can see only as far as the horizon, with the help of the Holy Spirit, must continue to work to bring the end of the arc into focus.

In times like these, hope can be difficult, but with God’s help, we who continue to hope and work for a just society will not be disappointed.

A cure for hopelessness

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Matthew tells us that Jesus had compassion on the crowds that followed him because they were “harassed and helpless, likes sheep without a shepherd.” (NRSV) A little digging in the Greek and my favorite outdated resource Robertson’s Word Pictures tells us that the plight of the crowd was even worse than that.  Other translations render it thusly:

  • Their problems were so great and they didn’t know where to go for help. – NLT
  • They were faint and cast aside – YLT
  • They fainted and were scattered abroad – KJV

The Greek word translated at “harassed” or “faint” is ekloo’o which means anything from “being set free” to “troubled” to “despondent and faint hearted.”  The crowd was bordering on hopelessness.  This is because, as the second word, rhipto, translated as “helpless” or “cast aside” insinuates that someone or something else was acting upon them.  They were, as we might say today, feeling like the victims of a divide and conquer technique.

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We live in a world of unprecedented connection and unmitigated isolation.  Those things that have been created to “bring us together” have in many ways become the place in which we most often tear ourselves apart.  Facebook’s unfollow feature allows us to feel like we are connected with hundreds, even thousands of “friends” while actually living in a echo chamber of our own ideologies.  Each succeeding social media platform comes into existence so young people can escape being “followed” by their parents and grandparents.  In the end, our plight is worse than the crowd that followed Jesus because, we are not only being divided by outside forces, but often it is we ourselves who work to define ourselves against something or someone.  At some point, I have to wonder, will we wake up one day and realize that we too are like sheep without a shepherd, faint hearted, helpless, and despondent?

Jesus’ reaction to the crowd in search of hope is to commission his disciples to offer hope, but as we learn from the various Gospel narratives, more often than not, the disciples are the same flock of harassed and helpless sheep to which they are sent.  Our calling is no different.  Despite our ongoing need for a Savior to show us the Kingdom of God, we are called to help others find their way to Jesus.  Sometimes, it will be us showing them the Kingdom.  At other times, perhaps they will be the light of hope for us.  Ultimately, the cure for the hopelessness of division and faint heartedness is a community of compassion, faith, and love that can remind us, with regularity, that the Kingdom of God is as near as a relationship in Christ.