Texts: Hosea 5:15-6:6 ; Psalm 50:7-15 ; Romans 4:13-25 ; Matthew 9:9-13,18-26
It’s nice to have Pastor Showers and the young people of Church of the Savior with us this morning along with their parents and sponsors. Seeing this many young adults in worship reminds me of those years in my life. [To the visiting youth] How many of you are working part-time jobs after school or on the weekends? Where are you working? [Listen for answers]
One of my first jobs was with McDonald’s. I started as the guy who mopped the dining room and stocked the counter, and worked my way up to the drive-thru, which was – in my opinion – the best assignment you could have at McDonald’s. You had a little bit of autonomy, a little bit of distance from the supervisor. No one could see you slouching after you’d been on your feet for five hours.
I had some gross jobs during my stint in food service. The worst came on a hot summer day, hotter than today. It was the middle of the day, the sun was high in the sky and beating down on Iowa, and the supervisor called me away from the counter to tell me he had a special job for me. Then he handed me a couple of thick plastic garbage bags and a few cans of aerosol insect poison, RAID or something like that. He told me that some of the drive through customers were complaining of a roach infestation in the parking lot garbage cans and told me to go take care of it.
I won’t get too descriptive of the scene out back. I’ll just give you some hints. Garbage. Stench. Nest. Swarm. Revolted. As I took care of the problem, with clouds of aerosol poison swirling around my mouth and nose, I was cursing my boss, saying things like, “this is not what I signed up for when I took this job,” and “I’d love to see him out here doing this.”
Of course, that’s the benefit of being the supervisor. You don’t have to do those jobs anymore. You can tell other people to do them. You’ve worked your way out of those assignments. That’s the kind of world we live in, where moving up means working your way out of undesirable situations and into more desirable ones. Where honor and respect are earned by action, especially if it’s difficult or distasteful and done well, without complaint. That’s what gets rewarded.
Which is why it’s hard for any of us, really, to fully lean into, to fully trust what Paul is saying in his letter to the Romans when he tells the story of Abraham, the father of faith for Jews and Christians and Muslims.
In the first book of the bible we hear the story of Abraham, who God commands to do something completely distasteful, even dangerous, for a person living in the ancient world. He tells Abraham, “leave your home, wander away from all the familiar people and places, abandon the safety of numbers and take a journey into wild deserts and hostile countries and somewhere out there I will give you everything you’ve ever dreamed of: a house full of descendents to carry your name into the future, a nation of people greater than all the stars in the sky.”
God commands the distasteful, the dangerous, even the impossible from Abraham, who – if you remember the story – then goes on to try and figure out how to accomplish those things on his own. You remember the stories of Abraham and Sara’s attempts to make God’s vision of their future come true. They are old, they have no children, they try adopt their slave, they take on extra wives to increase their chances of conceiving. Nothing works. Then, when they have given up any hope of being able to do what God has commanded, God provides for the couple what God had commanded from them.
There’s something frustrating, even irritating, about this story. Why does God ask the impossible, set us up for failure, if in the end God is going to take care of business for us? Some people have suggested that this is the fatal flaw of faith and religion – that it breeds in us a perpetual state of childhood, where we’re all waiting around for some cosmic parent to come clean up our messes. I suppose that could be true, but if so then it seems equally possible that we are so constitutionally suspicious of God’s free grace that we keep making one mess after another in the world. Even when we are working to set the world right, we are often setting the stage for the next great mess. Like the development of antibiotics, which we thought would be an end to all sorts of disease – only to discover a century later that we’d created resistant super-strains of killer bacteria right around the time that we hit a brick wall in the development of new antibiotics. Or the set aside of land for Jewish survivors of the second world war as a guilt offering for the atrocities committed against their people, without consideration for what it would inevitably mean for the people already living in that land, for Palestinian Jews and Christians and Muslims. Our best efforts seem, time after time, to lead us into our next big mess.
Perhaps we could stop thinking of these as failings, and begin to make some peace with our limits. Maybe it is not the case that religion keeps us constantly acting like irresponsible children, but that it recognizes that we are not each Gods, ruling the world with perfect wisdom and power. It may just be the case that we need to have distasteful, dangerous, even impossible tasks set before us so that we can see where the outer edges of our personal capacities lie. So that we can be reminded of our need for God – which is also to say of our need for each other, for the power that comes from people acting mercifully. People acting as one, something larger than themselves.
Something larger than themselves is exactly what the three people in Matthew’s story run into in the gospel reading this morning. The story begins, “as Jesus was walking along…” and we are reminded that Jesus, like Abraham, has been sent out into the world on a journey. Like Abraham, Jesus’ mission is to wander into far-flung and dangerous places. He is also working in the confidence that God is making a home for God’s people wherever they are, that God is making a family out of all humanity that is larger and wider and more numerous than all the stars in the sky. The family that God imagines is so much larger, in fact, than even Abraham could ever conceive. It includes the distasteful and the diseased. It includes even the dead.
Jesus meets Matthew, a tax collector. He is an outcast to his society, not just because he collects taxes – which is understandably not something that earns you friends – but because of what that means. The Jewish people were an occupied people. Their own land was occupied by soldiers from another nation. Can you imagine what that would feel like? Imagine leaving your home to buy groceries and seeing armed soldiers from some other country patrolling your streets and laying claim to your land, your wealth. Wouldn’t you hate them? That’s who Matthew worked for, the enemy. As a tax collector his job was to go through your belongings and decide what a fair cut for the Romans should be, and then to take that. He was a sell-out, a collaborator. He was the most distasteful company you could keep, and Jesus loved him and asked him to be part of the family.
Or the hemorrhaging woman, the one my friends in the South call “the woman with the issue of blood.” The issue of her blood was that it was ritually impure. We don’t spend a lot of time reading the book of Leviticus anymore, with all its laws about shellfish and cloven footed animals and mixed fibers, but our Hebrew ancestors did, and many still do, and it was ritual law that a woman who was menstruating was ritually unclean, that anyone who touched her was unclean, and that anything she sat or slept in was unclean. So a woman who’d been bleeding for twelve years was all the more unclean. So unclean for so long, and no end in sight. The kind of condition that leads to shame and separation from the community. But Jesus is not turned aside by the distas
tefulness of her situation, the disease that had claimed her, or the dangers of breaking the law when law-breaking was what was needed in order to heal someone, to relieve them of their isolation and restore them to community.
In case we’d missed the point, Jesus goes from the distasteful tax-collector to the diseased woman to the dead child. From the distasteful to the dangerous to the impossible. This story from Matthew ends with Jesus visiting the home of a leader from the synagogue whose daughter had died. He says to Jesus, “come and lay your hand on her, and she will live,” and on the faith of that father Jesus goes to heal his beloved child. He once again breaks the law, which says that you should not touch a dead body, and he takes her by the hand and raises her to new life.
Jesus picks Matthew – an economically marginalized person who was exploited by the Roman authorities by being employed in a dishonorable position – and by picking him, he heals his shame. Jesus heals a woman who had been ritually unclean for twelve years, the better part of her adult life, a woman who had no reason to expect healing, and he restores her to community. Jesus raises a girl left for dead to new life. Jesus heals the unexpected, the unlikely, the impossible.
So what is it in your life that you think is too shameful, too disgusting, too impossible for God to set right? Jesus’ healing power is enough to heal you.
These words are so powerful that I get scared just saying them. Telling you that God’s intention for healing is powerful enough to meet you where you’re at and to bring you closer into the circle of community and the wellspring of life means making a promise. This is one of those promises of God we’re referring to when we say, “claimed in promise.” But this is the heart of the gospel, this is the good news that Paul is trying to pound into the Romans’ heads. That, in the end, God provides what we need. That grace is a gift, not earned. That the family is for all us. That no one of us, that no part of us, that no memory or experience is too distasteful or disastrous to drive God away. God wants to be close to us not in our perfection, but in our despair.
It is when Abraham and Sarah finally give up on trying to force God’s promises into their timeline that they are given the child they’d been waiting their whole lives for. It is when they surrender their lives in faith to the God who had sent them into the wilderness that they find themselves finally home, with a family. It is the family that God has in store for Matthew and you and I, even when we feel despised by everyone around us. It is the family of faith that the hemorrhaging woman had been missing for twelve years, and Jesus says, “your faith has made you well.” It is the assurance that nothing, even death, will separate us from the love of God.
In the love of God we discover that what truly matters, what is truly valuable, isn’t the honor or respect that come from a job well done – though that is certainly nice, but won’t be much good when we fall flat on our faces. We discover that what we need – the circle of community, the assurance of love, the life that is larger than our own – is a given, it is given to us. Set free by that promise, we can take on any task, no matter how distasteful, or dangerous, or deadly knowing that we are not laboring out in the burning heat of the parking lot with plastic bag and aerosol can in hand alone. We have a companion, a co-worker, who joins us in the trenches, who does not set tasks before us that she is not willing to do herself. Isn’t that good news!?