john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Matthew 9: On Crowds

    Good Shepherd - Sunday Eucharist 15/06/2008

    Exodus 19.2-8a, Matthew 9.35-10.8

    Anyone walking along Lorenzo Drive last Monday had to go round a large crowd of people outside Sayers. It was a crowd of people who had all worked at that factory and had just been made redundant.

    As I'm sure you know, staff at the Sayers factory turned up to work on Monday morning when they were told to leave the site, because their jobs had gone. They had worked their usual month but were then locked out and told that the firm would not be paying their salary. They've now got to wait up to six weeks to receive any redundancy pay from the government. [1]

    So the crowd outside Sayers was a shocked crowd, a stunned crowd, and as time went on an angry crowd too. John Higgins, a bakery workers union organiser told the Echo: "There was no warning whatsoever. We have an awful lot of angry people. People have been going into work and been sent home."

    The crowd didn't get into any trouble that day - they didn't let their anger turn to violence - but everyone walking past them soon knew what had happened to them and clearly felt their pain and anger.

    Our theme today is crowds - what do you think of when I mention crowds?
    Threatening crowds - football, gangs on street, shopping (eg sales when people fight for the same bargains);
    Friendly crowds - family gatherings, big church occasions, football (when it's your team), shopping (when it's enjoyable).
    (NB, interesting how a crowd can seem either friendly or threatening depending on whether you are a member of it or not ... )
    "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."
    ... in what way(s) do crowds seem 'harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd'?
    - Sayers staff in shock and angry, feeling betrayed, wondering where to turn and when they will be paid;
    - family gatherings after loss of a loved one, where they are still reeling and wondering what life will be like without that person;
    - shoppers / sports supporters - what are they doing, where are their lives going, really?
    - even big church occasions - the congregation can get so anxious about what they're doing, getting it all right etc, that they feel harassed and God must feel a bit squeezed out (something for us to consider as we prepare for another occasion in the life of our church)

    "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."
    What do the crowds need, according to Jesus? They need tending, caring for. He saw that their health, their physical health, their spiritual health, was not being tended to. They had been left to their own devices, they had no models to follow, no vision to seek.

    How did Jesus decide to go about tending the needs of the crowds?

    He sent his friends and followers into the towns and villages, and said to them,
    The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.
    His friends and followers became the ones who would work for him, tending the needs of the crowds. He gave them authority to heal diseases both physical and spiritual. He told them to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near. And he said that they'd be doing it for nothing:
    Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
    Jesus had formed another crowd. He'd gathered together a group of people who were to stick together and follow the mission of Jesus - to tend the needs of the other crowds, to bring healing to them. Whatever the Jesus Crowd did would help the other crowds to see and feel and know the goodness of God at work among them. The Jesus Crowd was a good crowd, one which people would appreciate having around.

    We all take part in crowds. We all belong to groups, like families or church or social groups, from time to time we all take part in crowds who flock to town to shop or be entertained. And all crowds are driven to seek better. Like sheep without a shepherd we are all looking for safety, security and comfort. We all want stability and sunny days, good health and food on the table. We go with the flow, we don't rock the boat. We are the crowds.

    That is all normal, human behaviour. Trouble is, most crowds don't really know how to find that sort of peace and stability. Most crowds actually don't have that sort of power. Most crowds usually get frustrated, start to feel harrassed and helpless. And when crowds get frustrated and angry they usually turn on someone - an individual or another crowd - and take out their frustrations on them. Fighting football fans for instance, or families who argue and split down the middle.

    The Jesus Crowd is different. God has given the Jesus Crowd the power to change things, to bring healing and hope to the rest of the crowds. The Jesus Crowd might not always feel that way about itself - in our small church we might not always feel very powerful, or that anything we do can change anything. But actually what God has done is true for us as it was true for those first followers of Jesus, we just need to grasp it.

    Like you I'm sure, I was shocked and angered by the story of what happened to all those Sayers staff on Monday. And their situations now will take a lot of working out. I've noticed, though, that the church is making one small contribution which should bring some help to at least some of those workers: St Christopher's, which is right next door to the shut Sayers factory, has made rooms available for those who have been made redundant to go in and meet advice workers over the next few days and weeks, so that they can get financial and legal help.

    It's only a small gesture, but it's meaningful, and this is a bit of a crass way of putting it, but there is truth in this statement: that the Jesus Crowd is helping to bring some healing and hope to the Sayers crowd. And that's really what the good news is about, and perfectly illustrates the sort of thing that Jesus was asking his disciples to do.

    So today and every day let's keep the crowds in our prayers; and as members of the Jesus Crowd let's keep our eyes and ears and hearts open to others, with the same compassion that Jesus had for the crowds of people he saw.


    [1] Sayers closure as reported by local people and in the Liverpool Echo, 10 June 2008
    [2] Some help for this talk came from notes in this week's Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary