Co-Workers With God

Message for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (6/18/2023)

Matthew 9:35—10:23


I always shake my head a little at the story in our Gospel from Matthew today. Who in their right mind, I wonder, would accept such a challenge as Jesus issues to the twelve apostles? It’s one thing to be a disciple, that is, to follow and learn from him a new way to live and love, costly as it may be. But, it’s something else to be an apostle, one who is sent out to speak and act in Jesus’ name and by his authority. How can the apostles possibly expect to live up to his standard, to exercise anything resembling Jesus’ power to heal and give life and make peace? And, even if they were to achieve some semblance of success, consider the stakes:

See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you… and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles…. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.

It must have taken a special kind of courage, or a special kind of crazy, or both, to say yes to that commissioning for service.

Or, maybe it’s the mysterious appeal of Jesus himself, the one who gathers them together in the first place, that inspires the apostles to accept the call. We could say the same of every saint down through the ages– courageous, yes, and maybe a little crazy– who dared to believe that Jesus had equipped and sent them to serve God’s purposes in the world, too. “It is Christ,” writes one interpreter, “who enables us to do what we could not do on our own. This passage [from Matthew] leaves as a mystery why Christ includes us in his mission and how exactly we meet success through him, but the faithful do achieve miraculous things.”[1]

To be called and sent by Jesus is a challenge, to be sure, but it is also a gift. To be granted a life of purpose in cooperation with him, to partake in the healing and life-giving work of God in ways both large and small, is a profound privilege. That, I suspect, is why the twelve apostles accepted the challenge, and, despite the risks, that is why so many saints have followed in their footsteps.

From his cell in Birmingham City Jail, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. acknowledged the importance of apostleship at a moment of particular urgency in American society. He knew that bearing witness to truth and life in Jesus’ name would engender resistance, nevertheless he didn’t shy away from it: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis,” he wrote in his famous letter, “and establish such a creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue…. There is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth.”[2]

And, King was convinced that the time for timidity had passed. “We must come to see,” he continued, “that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of [people] willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard word time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”[3]

Wherever we find ourselves in human history, and whatever our individual gifts, the good news of God’s kingdom come on Earth as in heaven is that we get to be part of it. If we are gathered as members of the body of Christ, it is in order that we be sent. That is to say, every disciple is also an apostle; every student of Jesus is also called and sent to serve the world in his name. That is the Christian vocation. And so, we pray for the “courage, patience, and vision” to follow through with it, and we trust God to “look with favor” on our efforts.[4]

As we commemorate the Emanuel Nine today, we recall that each martyr was not only a beloved child of God, but also an apostle, a servant of Christ equipped and sent in unique ways to love the world God so loves. In recognition of their vocations, hear the following liturgy crafted especially for this occasion, and let the memory of their witness refresh your own sense of purpose as an apostle of Christ:

The “Emanuel Nine,” of blessed and eternal memory, were nine gifted, loving, and faithful people who spent their lives striving for excellence, connection, and the presence of God, and spent their last moments in study of the word. They leave a legacy of grace, resistance, family, and faith.

Gracious God, in remembering their lives and witness, we are called to a wider understanding of the Spirit’s work in the world.

They were preachers: Open us to receive the good news of Jesus Christ.

They were students: Kindle in us a desire to learn and grow in your ways.

They were teachers: Instill in us a passion to share the wisdom of Christ.

They were coaches: Accompany us as we strive to run the race set before us.

They were mentors: Inspire us through the wise counsel offered by others.

They were leaders: Embolden us to seek out the best in others.

They were musicians: Attune us to the sounds of your creation.

They were poets: Reveal your truth in language we have yet to discover.

They were barbers: Shape us as attentive caregivers to those around us.

They were custodians: Protect those whose work ensures our safety.

They were bus drivers: Carry us as companions in life’s unexpected journeys.

They were veterans: Remember those who risk harm for the sake of others.

They were librarians: Write on our hearts and minds the wisdom of the generations.

They were advocates: Call us to speak and act on behalf of those who are silenced.

They were public servants: Show us how to love our neighbors as ourselves.

They were legislators: Inscribe your laws of love and justice on our hearts.

In lives of faithful dedication, your servants Clementa, Cynthia, Daniel, DePayne, Ethel, Myra, Sharonda, Susie, and Tywanza lived by your promises, sharing their gifts with those in their families and communities. May we not forget their lives, taken too soon. In the years to come, let us share their names and their witness, so that the world comes to know of your spirit at work in and through them.

We ask this in the name of Jesus.


[1] Alexander Wimberly, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, 144.

[2] A Testament of Hope, 291.

[3] Ibid. 296.

[4] “Affirmation of Christian Vocation,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Assembly Edition, 84.

[5] “The Witness of the Emanuel Nine: A Litany of Remembrance for Their Vocations,” from “Prayers, Litanies, and Laments for the Commemoration of the Emanuel Nine,”

Liturgy © 2023 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.

Liturgy © True Vine Music ( All rights reserved. Used by permission under CCLI license #11177466.

“As We Gather At Your Table”; Text © 1989 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

“All Are Welcome”; text and music: Marty Haugen, b. 1950; © 1994 GIA Publications. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.

“God of the Fertile Fields”; Text © 1955, ren. 1983 The Hymn Society, admin. Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved.