A sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost June 8, 2008 Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
I was a short, high school student—a VERY short high school student—when Randy Newman’s song “Short People” first came into the public consciousness. His instructive and ironic song aimed to make us think about our prejudices and how ridiculously overblown they could become.
Short People got no reason
Short People got no reason
Short People got no reason
They got little hands
And little eyes
And they walk around
Tellin' great big lies
They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet
Well, I don't want no Short People
Don't want no Short People
Don't want no Short People
Short is a label I have worn all my life. When other kids ribbed me about the song, I laughed, mostly, but it got me thinking about people and labels and the risk of mistaking one for the other.
Our gospel lesson today brings Jesus into contact with several people who would have been readily identifiable by their differences, and it points up the need to consider the context of the gospel. Why did it matter that Matthew worked for the revenue service? Why do we segue from inviting him along to hearing the complaints of the Pharisees? And that woman who touched Jesus, wasn’t she just like lots of other people? We may even be surprised by the status of the young girl who died.
All three of these people needed and received something from Jesus, but all three of them were out of bounds for him to give to, according to the religious and social standards of his time and place.
First, we meet Matthew, the Tax Collector, who gets right up and follows Jesus, leaving his work behind. This leads to dinner with “many tax collectors and sinners,” and a question from the Pharisees to the disciples:
"Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"
But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." (Matthew 9:11b-13, NRSV)
Matthew was far more than the first century equivalent of an IRS employee; Matthew was a collaborator with the occupying Romans, to whom the taxes he collected were paid. Imagine how offended you would be if a church member went to work for an occupying army, coming to your house to collect money to help feed them and house them in your town! People who knew him no doubt felt betrayed, no doubt wondered how that nice Matthew, Levi’s son, could turn out so badly. He went to Hebrew school with our son, someone might say. What would change a person so much?
It didn’t matter. His work, no matter why he undertook it, became his label and his status. And tax collectors? Had no reason to live, not in the eyes of the right-thinking, well-behaved, Temple-attending and Law-abiding citizens.
But Jesus said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
“What could he mean?” they must have wondered, they surely wondered. What could he mean?
We go on to a pair of stories that tell of two females in need. First there is the woman with a hemorrhage, a woman who has suffered for twelve years. Imagine having a medical condition that no one can fix or heal, having to deal with it without any modern conveniences, and being considered unclean just because you have it. Anyone who suffers from a chronic medical condition will know how wrong that sounds, to be cast out from society for something over which you have no control. But a woman with that particular problem was blamed and shunned, and unless she had deep financial resources, she was likely outcast altogether.
Still, she approached Jesus, and received healing, didn’t she?
Meanwhile, the leader of the synagogue in town has come to Jesus, too, seeking help for a child who has already died.
When Jesus came to the leader's house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, "Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him.
But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout that district. (Matthew 9:23-26, NRSV)
And the report of this spread throughout the district! I guess so!!! We respond to the idea that Jesus raised a dead girl, somehow reignited the life force in her, but I want us to consider her story from a couple of different angles. First of all, simply by being dead she was just as unclean as the woman with the hemorrhage. And second, even before she was dead, she was a girl.
Grace Imathiu, a Methodist pastor and storyteller born in Kenya tells the story of preaching the story of the dead girl raised by Jesus to a group of women in her home country. She read the scripture aloud to them, indicating that the Temple leader came to Jesus, asking for help because his daughter had died.
A woman in the congregation rose to her feet to interrupt. “Are you sure you have that right?” she asked, “I think you must be wrong.” Surely, she said, it must have been a son! For who would go to this much trouble for a daughter? Grace assured her that it was indeed a girl, a daughter. “Pastor,” the woman persisted, “are you reading from the King James Version?” Apparently she feared Grace might be using one of those more inclusive versions, but Grace had a better answer for her. In her hands she held the gospel in its original Greek. The child is a daughter; there can be no dispute.
And that daughter's father saw things the way Jesus did. He did not follow the rules and begin the funeral preparations; he delayed and sought help for a child who ought not have mattered from a man he ought not have spoken to at all. This hopeful father didn’t see an unclean dead body or a man tainted by eating with sinners and tax collectors. He saw people. And in response to his mercy, to his faith, he received a miracle: a living child where there had been a dead one.
I just returned from a meeting where all the clergy had a little “Rev” on their nametags, while the other attendees had no extra identification. It makes us seem set-aside, perhaps could even convince a person she was a little special, but I cannot forget a story told by a colleague at last year’s meeting, which also took place in midtown Manhattan.
Cynthia, a pastor in Connecticut, came in on the train, arriving at Penn Station. While the car service whisked me from the curb at Kennedy Airport, straight to the hotel, Cynthia received instructions to cross the street at Penn Station and wait at the Hotel Pennsylvania. Although she was professionally dressed, she found to her dismay that she could get no help from the bellmen. Cynthia, you see, is a middle-aged African-American woman.
I wondered if a clergy collar, which few of us in the UCC wear, might have made a difference. I wondered, do some labels “outweigh” others?
I know they do, but I wish they didn’t.
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” said Jesus. Sacrifice and other religious acts important to the Pharisees did not matter to him. He wanted them to have merciful hearts and minds, to see people instead of categories, to simply see people.
I was raised to be accepting, but part of being accepting was doing the defining! I like to think my kids and their peers don’t look at the world the same way; I like to think they see people rather than religion or race or orientation or health or wealth or gender or family name or even who roots for the Red Sox.
Because Jesus saw people, not
labels. Jesus saw people in need of community, people in need of acceptance, people in need of hope and people in need of new life. Jesus saw people in need of mercy and he reached out and quite literally touched them. Jesus saw people in need of mercy, and he loved them.
Can we do the same in our churches?
It’s one thing to paint words on a sign, but it is another to greet the stranger with an attitude of love. I’ve heard many stories among you of feeling welcomed here, so it know it happens. But sometimes it is even harder to show that love to those we have known for many years. Jesus drew a distinction between mercy and sacrifice. He desired that we be merciful with each other, not that we play by the old rules, whatever they might be. It’s my prayer for this congregation that in the coming months, in our shepherd group discussions and in the other work of the church we will all show each other that mercy, taking a moment to step back from our own sorrows or frustrations, even from our injuries, to hear those of others, recognizing that our concerns are not the only concerns, that there is enough hurt to go around and it does not need to be ranked or scored to count.
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
We will find our hope, our vision and our future not in actions but in love, not in sacrifice or practice or habit, but in mercy felt and shown toward each other. When we reach that landmark on the inner landscape, we will know the actual path to follow. But first, we need to see each other in mercy. First, we need to see people. Amen.