Sunday, June 08, 2008
“ . . . . and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” (Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26)
IV Pentecost A (Proper V) – June 8, 2008 – The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor.
There’s something inside of me that wants to scream at Matthew at the top of my voice: “Hang on, Matt! Don’t just get up and follow Jesus. Think about this for a minute, man. Do you have any idea what you are getting yourself into?”
Apparently not. I suppose if any of us did, we’d never have gotten into the business of Christianity in the first place. Not that I have any regrets, mind you. It’s just that, when I started this journey, I had no idea where it would lead me. I suppose if I had, I might not have begun. I wouldn’t have believed a word of it. Poor Matthew, reportedly a tax collector, doesn’t have a clue either.
Consider, for a moment, the tax collector of ancient Israel. The notes I have on the inside pages of my seminary study bible indicate that there were five different taxes levied on the Jews by the Romans: income, property, special assessment, poll and indirect tax (Why I noted that is beyond me.) These taxes were heavy – some as high as 20%, dependent upon yield of crop and herds – and the severity with which they were exacted made them an intolerable grievance.
Matthew is considered by many scholars to mostly likely have been an actual tax collector since he is the only one of the four evangelists who uses the technical term “didrachma.” So, not only is he is a Jew charged by the Romans with collecting taxes from fellow Jews – an odious enough profession – but he consorts with Romans who are Gentile. This makes him lower than low. Indeed, not only is his work abhorrent, he is breaking Jewish purity codes. He is an anathema to his people.
Then again, perhaps this is precisely why Matthew doesn’t think twice when Jesus says, “Follow me.” This Jesus eats with ‘tax collectors and other sinners,’ which made him an abomination in the sight of the Pharisees. The acceptance of Jesus probably restored in Matthew a sense of worth and belonging. Hmm, I think I’m beginning to understand. Even so, the question is yet to be answered: Just how inclusive is the inclusivity of Jesus? Well, in this morning’s gospel passage, we find out. There are two stories – one of a little girl and one of a woman – who need healing.
The little girl, the daughter of one of the leaders of the synagogue, is reported to have died. Jesus got up and immediately followed the man, no doubt one of the very ones who had previously chided Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners. Never mind. Jesus follows him anyway. As he was on his way, a woman came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak.
Now, not only was a Jewish woman not to touch a man, but this particular woman had a hemorrhage that had lasted for twelve long years. There were very strict purity codes about this in ancient Israel – in fact, this is still true among the Hassidim. I’m certain that this is the reason that the woman, desperate for a cure, thought to herself, “If only I touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her, said, “ . . .your faith has made you well,” and she was instantly cured. He went on from there to move past the ridicule from the crowd and cure the daughter of the religious leader.
At this point, Matthew must be scratching his head and asking himself, “Okay, he accepted me, but this is just a bit much. Where does it end? How inclusive is the inclusivity of Jesus?” Indeed, there are many Christians, many of whom are Anglicans, who are asking that same question. In your bulletin is an insert about an online fundraising drive I’m helping to coordinate in order to raise funds to make sure that Bishop Gene Robinson is safe while at Lambeth.
Let me make one thing very clear: ALL bishops are invited to Lambeth. Gene Robinson was intentionally DIS-invited to Lambeth. It is thought that his presence will present a problem for his brother bishops – you know, the Princes of the Church, the very Body of Christ, which is supposed to embody and model the inclusive love of God in Christ.
Gene is going anyway, to follow Jesus and sit at the gate and witness to the inclusive love which he knows in Christ Jesus. That has angered some people – enough that some are beginning to make very real death threats, serious enough that experts have determined that this presents a legitimate security risk.
Be very careful when you answer the call of Jesus to follow him. His inclusive love for absolutely everyone will either make you angry enough to threaten the life of others whom you don’t feel are worthy of God’s love, or, if you take a stand with Jesus, it may make others so angry they’ll want to kill you.
Which begs the question: Why? How can this be so for Christians? Why are we not able to follow the all-inclusive love of Jesus? Why are there limits on our ability to follow the new commandment he gave us to “Love one another as I have loved you”? I have a theory, which came to me as I watched one of my all-time favorite movies, “The Mission.”
The story takes place in South America during the Spanish and Portuguese conquests of that continent. Robert De Niro plays a hot-blooded slave trader named Mendoza, who kills his brother in a sword duel for a woman. In remorse, he decides to follow Jesus, and joins the Jesuit priesthood as his penance. You may chuckle, but I know more than a few priests who are working off their penance in this way. Trust me – you wouldn’t like them any more than they like themselves – or others.
Which gets to my point. Mendoza, the murderer, now the repentant atoning, priest, follows the Jesuits back to South America, where he once kidnapped men and sold them into the slave trade. He straps a one hundred pound bundle of junk on his back as his self-imposed penance for his crime. As he travels the steep mountainside, it seems clear that Mendoza will tumble to his death if he does not let go of his burden. One of the Jesuits hacks the cords that bind him to his burden, but Mendoza cannot accept his release and ventures down the cliff to retrieve it.
It is only once he reaches the top, amongst the very people he once hunted and enslaved, that one of them cuts the cord that ties him to his guilt. The scene of that bundle, filled with self-imposed guilt and self-hatred and remorse careening down the side of the cliff is one which makes me weep every time I see it. That it is one of the very ones he enslaved who sets him free makes that scene all the more powerful.
The guilt and remorse which Mendoza carried around was understandable. It was also self-imposed. If he were following Jesus he would know that God wants mercy not sacrifice. Mendoza did not understand that God had already forgiven him his sins. It was he who could not forgive himself. Certainly, the ones he had enslaved forgave him. That is was they who cut him free from his burdens is one of the images of Christ I hold dear in my heart.
I think we all walk around with invisible, hundred pound sacks of junk on our backs. Further, I think it is this self-imposed burden which prevents us from accepting the unlimited, boundless, unconditional, inclusive love of God in Christ for ourselves as well as for others whom we deem to be even more unworthy than ourselves.
When you profess to follow Jesus, be very careful. You will not have to write on the blackboard a hundred times, “I am unworthy.” Jesus told us that our names are written in the palm of God’s hand. You will not have to walk a hundred miles on your knees to repent of your sins. Jesus already did that when he walked the path toward Calvary. Neither will you have to be a slave to your past. Jesus broke the bonds of death and hell in his death and resurrection for us.
When you profess to follow Jesus, be very careful. He will lead you to places you never thought you’d go. He will lead you to deep places in the inner recesses of your soul to find the self-love and forgiveness you thought unimaginable. He will also lead you to places of love and forgiveness for others and into the unconditional love of God which is life-giving. You only need touch but the hem of his garment to be healed. You only need to reach out your hand and put your hand in his to find the place of new life.
And that, dear friends, is the place of the peace of God which passes all human understanding. Amen.