The Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector of St. George’s, gave this sermon on June 11, 2023.
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his 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.” While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. 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.
It was quite the day for Jesus! In this Gospel reading we just heard there is so much going on, and we even skipped some of it, because it just would have been too much to digest. Jesus and his disciples were guests in someone’s home, maybe the home of the former tax collector Matthew. And there were some other tax collectors and some people named as “sinners” for reasons that are not made clear. Then the Pharisees show up patrolling like purity police, interrogating Jesus’ disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And then Jesus heals a woman and raises a girl from the dead. I don’t know if he went back to eating dinner after all that or if just went to bed!
But even with all that is going on, Jesus is unflappable! Amid all the controversy, all the strange things that keep happening around him, Jesus knows just what to say and do. When the Pharisees want to know “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus finds just the right scripture to quote. The Pharisees thought that a respectable religious teacher would not allow himself to be tainted associating with unclean and immoral people. This would not be pleasing in the eyes of God. As calm as can be, Jesus whips out the prophet Hosea, chapter 6, verse 6: “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” That whole verse from Hosea reads “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” Jesus gently instructs the Pharisees that God is more pleased with mercy, with faithful love, than with pure offerings or pure people. And that is Jesus’ core message throughout the Gospels. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
I wish, sometimes, that I could be as unflappable as Jesus. This week, a sort of strange thing happened when from my office I could hear the voice of someone speaking loudly and somewhat aggressively down the hall. He was interrogating the front office staff, and his question and tone was like the Pharisees. “Why are you doing what is not pleasing to God?” Only his actual question was about why St. George’s celebrates people who are LGBTQ+. “Doesn’t the Bible teach against that?” he wanted to know. Actually, I don’t think he wanted to know anything, he just wanted to cast judgment. And I wish that, like Jesus, I could have quoted Hosea 6:6 to him, but in the moment, a verse did not come to mind. I was too concerned with trying to be friendly and moving us away from the office door to the reception area where we talked for a few minutes. I will add that this is someone I have a relationship with, someone who has in the past had a relationship with our parish. So we were not strangers to each other. After a few minutes of him interrogating me and questioning my morals and leadership and me trying to answer his questions honestly and accurately (“No, Jesus never said anything about gay people.” “Yes, I believe it’s okay for people of the same gender to be married.”), I said to him, a little flustered by his aggressiveness, “We’re not going to agree about this,” to which he replied, with surprising gentleness, “I know.” So I invited him outside into the graveyard, and we prayed for and with each other before he went his way and I went back inside. I spent the next little while, as one does, wishing I had said this or done that. I think I did the best I could under the circumstances. I was calm. I was loving. I remembered to pray, which even we priests forget sometimes. And I tell this story, because someone might ask you why our church has a rainbow on the graveyard fence. Why are we celebrating Pride Month? Why does our church say that people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, non-binary (and the other related identities in LGBTQ “Plus”)…why do we say they are wonderfully made in the eyes of God? “Why does our congregation say you can belong here, and you can even be in positions of power and influence when some churches label you as “sinners?” Some of us may have those very questions in our own minds and hearts today. It is not wrong for someone to have those questions, if they are actually questions and not veiled condemnation. I want St. George’s to be a place where we can hang out in these cracks together with curiosity and love and prayer, because Jesus hung out in these kinds of cracked places too, these places of controversy. I share this story and these questions, because they are real, and especially because they point to some really Good News! When Jesus was questioned by the Pharisees who condemned certain people as sinners, he reminded the Pharisees, the so-called experts in religion, of the message that had been preached centuries before, that God desires and delights in mercy more than sacrifice. God delights more in our compassion than in our purity. God delights more in transforming love than in religious perfection.
The text says that Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors, but the text doesn’t give us a lot of clues as to who these “sinners” were. Were they people who had actually done immoral things? Not always. In the religious mindset of Jesus’ time, there were all kinds of people who got labelled as sinners simply because they seemed deficient or impure or strange in some way. Maybe they were sick, like the woman who thought if she could just touch Jesus’ cloak, she might be saved. Or maybe they were disabled like the paralyzed man whom Jesus healed in the verses immediately preceding the ones we heard today. Before he heals that paralyzed man, Jesus actually tells him his sins are forgiven. Jesus challenges the belief that if people have difficult circumstances, they must have done something sinful to deserve them. Jesus says, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” I think Jesus is calling anyone whom religion labels as “sinners,” for whatever reason, rather than those whom the religion labels as “righteous” because of some outward appearances. Jesus is calling all those whom religion has said are undeserving of grace to come and get it. Come and get some of the good stuff! Now let me be clear…we are all sinners. We all fall short and miss the mark. And because God has given us the grace, we can all repent and receive forgiveness. But sometimes, some of us get labeled as being “special sinners” when really it’s because someone has decided that we need to be singled out. When someone says, “It’s because the Bible says so, period.” And Jesus is calling those people who are labeled as special sinners to be his friends and followers. And, by the way, I am happy anytime to talk more about what the Bible says and does not say, because it is an amazing, complicated, set of writings through which God can and does speak. And I believe that it is dishonoring the Word of God to use it to diminish someone’s humanity. The churches and people in the churches have too often sinned, have fallen short and missed the mark, by just saying, “The Bible says so, period.” Right now, there are some churches and people with power who I believe are sinning and missing the mark, missing the transforming love of God in this world by promoting unfounded fears and suspicions, by silencing voices, by doing harm to LGBTQ+ people, especially trans people, and their families just because “The Bible says so.”
I’m preaching this, and we’re putting the rainbow colors on our fence, we’re celebrating Pride, not because we want to be part of a culture war. We’re doing this because we want to be part of the covenant that God made with Noah generations ago never to destroy the earth again, and we want to be part of a world where we do not destroy one other ever! But we still have Good News to share. That’s what that rainbow out there says, that we have good news to share. The Bible also says that Jesus ate meals with and called as disciples the very people who, in his time, were told they were less than fully beloved of God. Jesus quoted the scriptures again and again which emphasized mercy and love over purity and so-called perfection. Jesus wants to know, not whether we are perfect, but whether we have revealed the love of God, the mercy of God, in our lives. Jesus turned and saw the faith of the suffering woman who believed that if she touched his cloak she would be healed and saved. Jesus turns and sees and loves all of us. All of us. Jesus sees that we too have a faith, given by God, which can already heal us, and save us, and deliver us. It does not matter how much we may “feel” that faith today, that faith has brought us here today. It’s why we are sitting here. And we are here to turn and see and help one another to nurture that faith. We are here to turn and to see and to say to one another with Jesus, “take heart, your faith has made you well,” now go…go and act on that faith, go and share that faith in ways that build one another up and which bring God’s reign of love into the cracked places of our world Go and learn, go and teach, go and live what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”