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By His Spots

Matthew 9:35-10:23

The Rev. Jon Roberts

14 June


Calvary Episcopal Church

Indian Rocks Beach, FL

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 laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him. These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. [Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. “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 in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 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. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”]

By His Spots

Reaping the Harvest by Nathan Greene, 2011

A Leopard cannot change its spots, any more than a Shepherd who cannot lose his sheep.[1]

Speaking of leopards, there has been a lot of attraction to big cats lately, especially with people who go ‘all-out’ to have their pictures with them. It is quite the fad. Perhaps it is the eyes that seem to look right into you, making you feel fear and power at the same time. People, all over, look for an opportunity to post a ‘selfie’ with one of these striped or dotted cats beside them, restrained of course. This feline attraction was brought to popularity with the Netflix documentary called, the “Tiger King.” In this scandalous series of completely dysfunctional personalities, rival zookeepers are brought to moments of sheer insanity and conspiracy plots abound. Viewer warning, there is explicitly vulgar language and immoral behaviors, but that doesn’t stop the mass of people watching it. The level of popularity for those spots & stripes, reached 34 million people viewing the eight episodes in 10 days, just after it aired originally on March 20th, according to the Neilson ratings.

If only it was a documentary about leopard’s spots and tiger’s stripes. Throughout the series one wondered more about the animal physical abuse and their exploitation for profit and fame. In the documentary we also learned what the big cats ate, how much they ate and what they were capable of doing inside captivity. With all of that power and with all of that might, it is safe to say, no matter who you are, when you are a prisoner, it is a matter of time before you give up the fight. True not only for the animal, but also for the master. We wonder, if the Tiger could change anything; if the Leopard could change its spots, what would it do differently? Would they change? Would they return to the wild or would they return to captivity?

As we saw with the human examples, if one was a liar, he only lied more. If one was deceptive, she only deceived more. There is no wonder how a liar and a thief can share the same wages of sin, and furthermore how we can naturally come to that conclusion, that a Leopard truly cannot change its spots. This saying is actually a scriptural proverb, coming from the Book of Jeremiah and popularized in the English language as a cliché as early as the Geneva Bible in 1560.[2] People would use this saying whenever they saw someone behaving badly and asserted that change for them was impossible. This is why prisons were formed, to take away one’s freedom as a means to pay back their wrongdoing to society. We put them in a cage and make them rehabilitate their way of thinking. It is a place that gives them time to think about what they have done to others. They are fully aware of their spots and they need to learn to adapt to a new way of not just living, but surviving. An interesting fact as reported by evolutionary biologists from the University of Bristol, UK, is that leopards spots, known as ‘rosettes’ as they resemble a rose, may appear or disappear in their offspring as a means to improve their camoflage. Rudyard Kipling even noticed that when they moved into more or less dense forrests, the spots changed.[3] Maybe a leopard can change it’s spots, but only by what it passes along to the next generation?

This is what happened two thousand years ago. Twelve offspring of the house of Israel learned to adapt to a new way of thinking. They no longer inherited the spots of their ancestors by a form of rehabilitation from the one who kept them and trained them. This person, however was not a zookeeper, and these younglings were not cats. They may have presumed they would be unleashed on the world with great power and strength to devour and overturn that which was corrupt. They may have thought this because of the power to heal and attract the masses by their leader, but his purpose was to remove their spots. Instead of holding them captive he was a shepherd teaching them and setting them free. This is a popular message. It always has been. People want to live and to be free, but what do we do about those spots? Simple, when the environment changes, we learn to adapt.

The spots represent our pattern of life. They could represent the things that blend the good and the bad. Perfect camoflage when you think about the world we live in when the mixture of what is godly mixes with the immoral. Patterns that cannot change will not be passed along, yet consistent trademarks should remain like the ability to climb, run and discern. What amazingly powerful creatures the leopard is compared to the sheep; an animal that cannot help but be frightened and must follow the voice of its shepherd. The leopard is to be wild and feared, but the sheep is to be tame and sheered. Do you see the relationship as a disciple of Christ? At one point you are likened to a leopard who cannot change its spots, and at another point you are like a sheep who cannot survive without the shepherd.

This paradoxical relationship is seen further in the Gospel today when Jesus is sending forth the disciples as, “sheep into the midst of wolves,” and encourages them, “to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.”[4]

Furthermore, Jesus, the Shepherd puts emphasis on the need to adapt when he says, “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” The reading from Paul places the same emphasis when he says to the roman church, “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance.”[5] Jesus is teaching his disciples how to go out into the world, to adapt to a new calling upon the Gentiles and to blend in with the people of Israel. He teaches them to go after those who are suffering and weak and to bring them into the kingdom of God, this place of caring, loving and healing one another. He teaches them everything he can while they graze at the calm waters and green pastures by his side. Seeing how he fed people mentally, physically and spiritually, they are now released to go and to do the same. This was a big change for them. They had to learn how to change their spots.

Where are you today? Are you more concerned about being discovered by people, or by God? Are you hiding in the treetops away from the danger or are you seeking ways to find danger? Are you somewhere in the sheepfold, protected from harm or are you more interested in running off? The good thing is that as difficult as it is for us to change, Jesus is with you always. He just may not be where you think he should be; but he’s there. He promised never to leave or forsake us in our time of need. When people need God; when they want Him in their lives, spots are changed and sheep are found. There may come a day when people will hate you because you believe in, or even speak, the name of Jesus. Suffer, adapt, endure for one thing is sure…

A Leopard cannot change its spots, anymore than the Shepherd who can lose his sheep.

[1] The Rev. Jon Roberts
[2] Jeremiah 13:23
[4] Matthew 9:35-10:23
[5] Romans 5:1-8

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