A sermon preached this morning at First Congregational Church of Kittery Point UCC, based on Matthew 9
When he arrives in “his own town,” Jesus has just finished running away from a mob. He had gone to a town and cast demons out of a man, and the town got together to make it known that he wasn’t wanted there anymore. So while we may not know what he was intending to do when arriving in his “own town” after that harrowing experience….we could guess that he’s not necessarily looking to work. After all, after something unexpected, intense, traumatic…many of us have trouble getting back to “business as usual.” What were Jesus’ plans for that day? Maybe he was just hoping for some rest? Maybe looking for a safe space to ease his anxiety? Jesus often retreats from crowds to pray and sleep, perhaps he just needed to return home to do that. But that’s not what happens. As it turns out, Jesus can’t just go about business as usual. When he gets into town, he immediately begins to hear the cries of people who have lived there a long time, he immediately sees them and, unlike anybody else in town, he is not willing to just go about his normal business. He hears the cries of the people, and he goes to them.
I’ve been unable to walk for a long time. The religious leaders here tell me that it’s because I have sinned against God. They say that if I allow them to take me to synagogue and make sacrifices to God then God might forgive me and I’ll be healed.
Jesus looks at him and says, “Take heart, son, you are forgiven already.” The man gets up and walks. No need to rely on the never-ending system of guilt and sacrifice that keeps him under the control of the religious elite. Jesus hands him forgiveness directly, and he rises on his own two feet.
The Tax Collector
Everybody hates me. They see me as the enemy, even though I’ve lived here my whole life. I collect taxes for the Roman Empire, so what? Everybody needs a job, right? Everybody accuses me of taking more money than I’m supposed to, stealing from my neighbors. They have no proof! I’m sick of it!
Jesus sees this man despised by his neighbors, who is most likely cheating them out of their money, and he says, “Follow me.” Jesus welcomes him to leave his old life of being a hated public official, and to follow him. Where do they go first? They go directly to the last place this Tax Collector, by the name of Matthew, would like to be. Right to a breaking of the fast with the religious elite, The Pharisees.
We are trying to make sure our community is living in ways pleasing to God. We are keeping the Sabbath, we fast, and we need to make sure that everyone in town goes where God wants them to go. Tax Collectors have no business at our table. Women have no place at our table. The sick and the sinners need to remain in their homes, where they belong, or else…who knows what might become of us?
Jesus does not allow the powerful to focus merely on themselves. When they wonder why a tax collector, and sinners of all kinds are invited to eat with Jesus, he tells them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor. Sinners need far more welcome and care than you holy people.” He speaks truth to power, he insists that they share what they have with those they see as undeserving. His extravagant welcome to Matthew has a direct changing affect on the power structure of the town. Jesus shows us time and again that when God is doing miraculous things for an individual, it has an effect on the entire community.
My daughter has died. I don’t know what to do. Please, someone, help, help me!
And even among these systemic illnesses and problems, there is still the all-too-normal personal tragedy. And Jesus responds to this TOO! Jesus follows the man out the door, possibly not even sure if there is anything he can do for the man’s daughter, but willing and able to walk with him every step of the way, whatever comes.
The Hemmhoraging Woman
I have lived for 12 years with an illness that causes me to bleed. Women who bleed are locked away in their own place, not allowed to go into town or see anyone. I have lived alone and isolated for 12 years. I want it to stop. If only I could prove that I am not contagious. If only i could prove that I am not a danger to society. If I could touch one person…I really think that might change things for me.
And she does reach out! She reaches out and touches Jesus, and what is Jesus’ response? Does he call her foul and unclean and demand that she be punished and thrown away? No. He says, “By your faith, you are made well, sister.” N.T. Wright says that the word Matthew uses for “made well” in Matthew 9: 21, 22 means “save, rescue.” Is it possible that there was nothing medically wrong with her at all? Is it possible that she was not in need of being made “well,” but “rescued” from a society that finds any reason it can to shunt a woman into isolation? Is it possible that Jesus’ biggest act of healing here is simply allowing himself to be touched, and, in turn, bless her…invalidating the town’s entire purity system that has kept this woman “sick” for so long?
Jesus could have just gone about his day. The world had already given up on making any of this stuff better. They were willing to go about their daily lives and just ignore the cries of these people. But Jesus is filled with love and compassion….and it messes up his whole day. But he doesn’t seem to mind. Because he knows this is how God works. God empowered him to give forgiveness to those weighed down by guilt, to welcome the outsider, the enemy of the community. He stood up to the people in power, teaching them a better way, pointing out their blind spots and forcing them to meet people who are different from themselves. He will follow the mourners, those who cry for help…he doesn’t even know if there is anything he can do to help, but he follows…he lets you know with his own body that you do not walk through this confusing and grieving world alone. He allows himself to be touched by illness, and he then declares to the world, I am well, she is well, all are well because God does not turn anyone away and neither do I. And as he does each of these acts, he is not just answering the cries of particular people, he is challenging everyone’s sense of “normal.”
And, apparently, he was just getting warmed up.
The “Dead” Girl—
I was laying on the bed, unable to move, and it looked like everyone thought I was dead. I wanted to scream out, “I’m not dead! I’m alive! I am here!” But I couldn’t move. And then this man came in and told them I had only been asleep, and he took my hand. It was only then that I could sit up.
2 Blind Men—
My friend and I had not been able to see in a long time. Everything seemed dark and cloudy, we could not see what many others saw. When we heard of this man in town healing others, we asked him to have mercy on us. He asked us a strange question, he asked us if we believed he could help us. For reasons we are still unsure of, we said yes. He said, “If you believe it, you will see it.” And we could suddenly see the world as it is, with God surrounding us.
The Mute Man—
Something had ahold of me. I could not speak for myself. Something gripped me tight and terrified me every day…and I could not even whisper for help. Then a man came through and saw me, heard me without my needing to say a word. He protected me from the thing that had captured me. He commanded it to leave me alone. And then I could speak again. I will spend every day of my life speaking about what he was able to do, and the God that gave him the power to do it.
And all of these experiences added up to Jesus looking around the villages of Israel and seeing them so filled with opportunities to spread God’s love, that he declared, “The harvest is so plentiful, and the workers so few.” And that’s how this story ends. It doesn’t end with Jesus lamenting how horrible the world is. It doesn’t end with Jesus praying to God to do something about it. It ends with Jesus calling DISCIPLES, to go out into the world and bring in the harvest.
Friends, if you walked in here with a heavy heart this morning, you need to know this: That is love at work. You aren’t feeling badly because there’s something wrong with the world, even though that seems hard to deny. You aren’t feeling anxious or scared or heartbroken because there is so much bad in the world. It’s because there is so much love. Love is doing exactly what it is supposed to. The way you are feeling does not reflect on the evil of the world, as much as it reflects the good in you. That feeling is Love doing its job, to wake up your heart and turn your ears toward the cries…so they can be heard, rather than ignored. That is love doing what it is supposed to. It will mess up your day…and, in doing so, it will save this world.
The harvest is so great…God’s light and love pervades everything…and we need more people to drop what they were doing, to step away from business as usual and help bring in this harvest.
When we allow cries of injustice and stories of hatred to mess up our regular routines, that happens because we have seen God’s love, we have touched God’s love, we know God’s love is more real than any earthly power that causes such pain and injustice.
Every imperfect crack, as the late Leonard Coen reminded us, is how God’s light shines into the world. When light shines it casts a shadow. This country of ours cracked open on Tuesday. I don’t care who you voted for, our decision making process on Tuesday left us with statistics and numbers that paint us as a country divided…and you can trust that God’s light is shining right through that crack. In the days since, we have heard testimonies from those on the fringes and in the shadows, people who have always been suffering, but we had been able to ignore their cries. Not anymore. The love of God compels us to hear the cries of those who have so long suffered in silence. There have been, at least, 200 reports of hate crimes and hostilities toward minorities across the country in the last few days…and love also makes us alert to these cries in the shadows. The Gospel teaches us that responding to the cries of other people is exactly how you heal the divisions among us.
If you are moved by the stories of people attacked and marginalized, if your heart breaks when you see injustice, if you find yourself feeling unsettled and ill at ease with the conflict and turmoil we face now, and if you find yourself experiencing anxiety about the future….I have good news for you…that is Love at work. It’s only because of the light of love that we know there are people living in darkness. It is the gift of love that gives us the tools we need to spread the light to others: Forgiveness, extravagant welcome, speaking truth to power, following the cries, allowing ourselves to be touched, providing a healing touch for others without fear of breaking social norms, normalizing our belief in love over our experience of hatred, protecting people from evil too dark and powerful to name, and CALLING OUT TO OTHERS, calling for more workers in the field, God’s powerful laborers of love to bring in this plentiful harvest. It’s Love that will just mess up your whole day. It will ruin your plans. It will discourage you from going about business as usual. Love that hopes all things, believes all things, AND ENDURES all things (1 Cor. 13: 7). And as our normal days are interrupted and changed by the influence of love…the world becomes a better place. Thanks be to God.
Remember who you are. You are beloved by God, sent to love others. If these days seem dark, know that it is because anger and hatred have the ability to blind us. It is only with love as our lamp that we can see the world for what it is, the world made by God, blessed by God, kept by God for ALL of God’s Creation. Go forward from this place. See clearly. Love wildly. Cling to one another for support, and invite everyone to help bring in the harvest.