Year AFB; Proper 5; 6.11.2023
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
The tour of my sabbatical in the “Footsteps of John and Paul,” included pilgrims from several evangelical mega churches. There were about 16 of us, half baby-boomers most of them retired, and half millennials. There was one couple from a Dallas Texas mega church both recently retired. The husband seemed a little detached and mostly sat on the marble ruins of each pilgrim site waiting for his inspired wife to come sit with him. Occasionally, he grew grouchy and demanding. When he was hungry, the entire tour group literally stopped so he could get some food.
But I made an effort to get to know this man. After all, we were going to be in close proximity for many days and he was walking in the holy “Footsteps of John and Paul.” One day I asked him about his church in Dallas. He described it as evangelical and that there were many things to do there. I asked him if he was involved in a ministry there. His face lit up and he said, “Yes. I head up the security ministry. We are a group of men who are on a schedule that rotates each Sunday. We take care of security.” I asked him what was that like? He said when he’s scheduled, he takes his pistol to church and walks around keeping the kids in the Sunday school classes safe. I kind of gasped and said, “Where is your church located? It must be really dangerous there.” He said, “We’re out in the suburbs. But you can’t be too secure.”
I experienced him as a man who had all the answers. Maybe I was making too many assumptions. But he seemed to be a man who followed the worldly power of “might makes right” and “what’s mine is mine,” and not too open to God’s promise of faith St. Paul teaches in his Letter to the Romans we heard today.
I wanted so much for him to open up, to enjoy the trip and the absolute grandeur of being able to walk in the footsteps of St. John and St. Paul.
And, I want us all to be open to the free gift of faith in the gospel of story of Jesus we heard today in the reading from the gospel of Matthew.
In the stories of the three people today, we learned about risks they took to follow Jesus. Matthew risked losing his tax-collector wealth. The bleeding woman living at the margins risked breaking the purity law to touch Jesus’ fringe. The synagogue leader risked his reputation to publicly kneel before Jesus. They all took risks to follow Jesus.
Jesus is walking along with his disciples and encounters Matthew the tax collector. He had just delivered the Sermon on the Mount, his most ethical teaching, to a large crowd. He calls to Matthew, “Follow me!” and Matthew risks losing his wealth and follows him. They go to Matthew’s own house where there is a collection of outcasts dining joyfully. Some judgmental religious folks are grumbling that he is associating with outcasts and sinners. Jesus has no problem invoking the “mercy” command with them. He really does want the people living on the margins AND the influential leaders to be open to God’s mercy. So, he says, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” The religious folks, they were Pharisees, knew this was a direct command from the prophet Hosea. They knew Jesus was right about showing mercy.
The next person in the story is the woman with the hemorrhage. She was an outcast. Having bled for 12 years, she was separated from people by her stench and because she was ritually unclean by her bleeding. She was desperate for help. She risked coming near to Jesus. Her belief caused her to risk getting close enough to Jesus to touch the fringe of his cloak so she would be healed. It was worth a try. She made the decision for her own sake to touch not him, but the fringe. He immediately knew her and had compassion for what she had gone through. She was healed. He even called her a most treasured name, “Daughter.” “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”
The third person in the gospel story is an influential leader of the synagogue. He comes to Jesus and begs him to heal his daughter who is dead. What I love about this poignant story is that this prominent man shed all proper social behavior for a man of his stature and actually went on his knees publicly right in front of Jesus begging him for healing. This was a huge risk to his reputation and yet he opened himself to ridicule for the sake of his daughter. He risked his reputation by asking for something everyone knew was impossible – to heal his dead daughter. In fact, the funeral flutes were already playing and the mourners were already moaning. Even worse, didn’t they all laugh at Jesus when he said, “She is not dead but sleeping?” Their laughs mocked him for saying something so stupid to them.
But Jesus took her hand and the girl got up. This is a story of faith and healing. The leader risked his reputation and had faith in Jesus’ power to heal.
Who risks so much? Someone desperate for God’s goodness. Someone desperate enough to shed the protections of weapons, money, power and status to kneel at the feet of Jesus. Someone whose soul is rent open and begs for his mercy, healing and love. One bible scholar wrote this moving truth, “Faith is a restorative agent unto itself, a graceful, unmerited gift from God that precedes the presence of Jesus, providing the rich and fertile soil from which the acts of Jesus may grow, may bloom.”
“…a graceful, unmerited gift from God that precedes the presence of Jesus, providing the rich and fertile soil from which his acts may grow and bloom.”
I am convinced that the hostility, greed, criminality and arrogance of the former president are masking his belief deep down that he is unloved. That his hostility bats away any gift God has to offer him. He lacks kindness, vulnerability and humility. Though his third marriage was in an Episcopal Church, he doesn’t seem to know what Episcopalians know – that there is a loving God waiting for him to kneel and accept the gift of faith. I’m not making a political observation. Well, maybe just a little bit.
I’m really making a pastoral and theological observation of a man of wealth and privilege who has gamed the rules and laws all his life to grab a free pass from society. Still, there is a broken little boy inside who thrashes about and refuses to accept responsibility. If only he would risk being open to the gospel healing power Jesus provides.
We could say that the theme for today is faith. God’s promise of faith. I’m talking about faith as a gift. Not a declaration or something transactional – like, if I have faith, then Jesus will heal me. If I have faith, then I might be rewarded with riches and power. If I have faith, I’m special. The beauty of the gift of faith is that it is a GIFT given freely. God calls us to humble ourselves and risk following the gospel of Jesus.
My friends, Jesus heals and shows mercy to those who are outcast and those who are part of the social establishment. The powerful and the weak. His gifts are free! Jesus gives us healing, mercy and love. The trouble is that we might have to stop clinging to worldly things in order to open up to the gifts Jesus offers us.
Is there anything in our lives that is closed off to these free gifts?
If so, what shall we do to open up and receive them?