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June 08, 2008

Sunday's Sermon

Well, I'm preacher at the Sung Mass today. Its been a while since I last had this slot and I'm afraid inspiration hasn't been with me much of this week. Spending it tutoring a class on fire and explosions doesn't lend itself much to theology. My effort at assembling my thoughts for this set of readings (Genesis 12: 1-9; Romans 4: 13 - end; Matthew 9: 9-13 and 18-26) are in the extended post.

+ In the name of the Father,
And of the Son,
And of the Holy Spirit.

“It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick.”

A bit of a facer that – especially when aimed at a group who consider themselves the healthiest of the healthy in spiritual terms. Again and again our Lord points to the Pharisees and challenges their belief that their obedience to the “Rules” makes them pure. In essence Jesus is saying that they are just as “sick” as everyone else – perhaps even more so.

Our readings today highlight the role of “faith” in our spiritual journey and in our lives. We are told that Abraham never questioned God’s promise that in his old age and in the face of the evidence of his wife’s barrenness, that they would be blessed with a son. Likewise, his faith was justified by his obedience when told to move from the safety of his home city, with its amenities and availability of every commodity, for the unknown in Canaan. As I was reminded recently while visiting an exhibition of the lives of the early settlers west of the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky. Away from the manufacturers, away from the sources of raw materials, life becomes a very hard struggle indeed. If you cannot grow it, herd it or gather it – you go without it.

I would guess that Abraham at least knew that he would be able to buy some of the commodities they needed in Canaan and along the way, but there would have been some uncertainties – some areas where he and his would have had to place their trust entirely in God’s hands. Our gospel points to this “taking one’s faith and putting it on the line” in the story of the “Ruler of Israel’s” daughter. It will not have been easy for a man, probably a Sadducee, to take such a large, for him, leap of faith. This story is given even more point when one looks to Luke and finds the account of the Centurion, a Roman, not even a Jew, who is so convinced that Christ will answer his request that he says, “Only say the word …..”

The writer to the Romans reminds us sharply that faith, not the law, or adherence to the Law, is what God requires of us. This is what the Pharisees found so hard to understand.

Our gospel reading provides us with both sides of this debate in the story of Matthew’s response to Christ’s call, the healing of the woman and the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Matthew, called Levi in Mark and Luke, obeys immediately Jesus invites him to, no small step for a man charged with gathering the taxes. No doubt Matthew/Levi found being invited to follow such a reputedly holy Rabbi both intriguing and challenging. Small wonder the Pharisees in Jesus following found this upsetting – tax collectors rated among the lowest forms of grasping, self serving and corrupt members of the administration. Nothing much changes there then!

Worse, Jesus, this apparently “model” Jew, then sits down to eat with not just this shunned member of the community – but with all his cronies as well. To the Pharisees complete anathema to eat with any so debased and beyond redemption even if they were to attempt to become model followers of the spirit and letter of the Law. Yet Jesus sits down with this group and – in terms of the Law – makes himself “unclean” by his association with them.

His response to their horror at his behaviour must have set them back severely. Not only does he say

“It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick.”

But he continues

“But go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

There’s another sermon just in that sentence!

There is both a warning and a direction in that statement. First, we are told never to consider ourselves so spiritually “pure” as to presume that we are among the chosen, for in that, we are relying upon our own efforts and our observances of our own sets of rules. Second, in order to receive mercy we need to show mercy. Why do we judge others by standards we barely keep ourselves? The Pharisees could see only the sinners in Jesus’ dinner companions; Jesus could see the frightened, seeking penitent looking for grace.

It is not the observance of the rituals that brings us grace, it is opening our hearts and minds to God and his wishes for us that gives us that gift.

The woman in the crowd is healed by her faith. She does not know Jesus, she is afraid to confront him and ask for the grace she needs. In any case her condition, in the Religious Law of the Pharisees, precludes anyone from having contact with her. To do so would make them “unclean” and require a lengthy ritual of cleansing before they could again join a congregation or make an offering in the temple. She hopes her touching the hem of his robe will go unnoticed – it doesn’t.

“Take heart, daughter. Your faith has healed you.”

Abraham and Sarah had faith, even though they recognised that a child was unlikely at their age. Their faith was rewarded, as the writer to the Roman’s reminds us, not through their own actions, but through faith and the grace of God.
In raising Jairus’ daughter, for whom funeral rites have already begun, Jesus again challenges those who place their hope in ritual or the application of the letter of the law – it is in the faith of Jairus that, in the grace exhibited in Jesus, his daughter will be restored to his family that he is justified.

As our reading from Romans tells us

“Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations.”

Jairus dared, in the face of death, to hope that his daughter could be restored. The woman in the crowd, dared to hope against all hope, even the shunned guests at Matthew/Levi’s dinner dared to hope that, in Christ, they too could at last hope for some spiritual hope – and they, unlike the Pharisees that day, were rewarded.

As we prepare to join our Lord in this act of worship and sharing of his Body and Blood we too dare to hope for the justification of our faith and the strengthening of faith as we face the world. John Donne’s famous sermon reminds us that we should not send to ask “for whom the bell tolls” because we are perhaps the very one it tolls for. We cannot assume that we are spiritually full of health, only the great physician can truly know that. Therefore his statement to the Pharisees applies to us as much as to them.

“It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick.”

We must therefore pray that the good physician will give us the grace to recognise our need for healing and to accept it from his hands.


Posted by The Gray Monk at June 8, 2008 07:00 AM

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Sounds like you had your thoughts together... hope it went well

Posted by: vw bug at June 9, 2008 11:01 AM

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