Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Mercy and Sacrifice," Psalm 50:7-15, Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26 (Proper 5/Ordinary 10)
Psalm 50:7-15, Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
Mercy and Sacrifice
A few weeks ago, just before I came to Central New York for the summer, I packed up my apartment in New Jersey and moved from one town to another. Not a huge move - just about 15 minutes away. And not a huge amount of things - I moved in with other PhD students, so other than my bedroom furniture, I didn’t have much I needed to bring. As far as moves go, since I have moved so many times as an itinerant pastor and often moved from one five bedroom parsonage to another, this one was pretty simple. Except… as a PhD student, I have to move “student-style,” finding a truck and getting some friends who are willing to help for the reward of my thanks and some pizza for lunch. And, except - I was moving from a second floor apartment, requiring a lot of up and down stairs. And, except this: both of my knees need replacing. They’ve been deteriorating for years, and now they’re down to bone on bone, and walking is painful enough but stairs are even harder, and stairs while carrying heavy things are near impossible. Thankfully, I have good friends. But on moving day, I had to basically sit and watch while they did all of the work of loading and unloading my things, taking trip after trip up and down the stairs at my old place, on what was of course the hottest day of that week. And while that might sound great - sitting back and watching others do the hard work - I suspect for most of us, actually, being helped, while we can’t contribute anything, is more stressful than not. I spent a lot of the day feeling guilty, frustrated, and helpless, wishing I could help, wishing things were different. My helpers? They weren’t doing anything to make me feel guilty. They were thoughtful, appreciative of the lunch I bought, efficient, and done and moved on, while I was still wrestling with how much I hated having to rely on them to get the job done.
You’ve probably heard the expression: it’s more blessed to give than receive. And I think most of us find that to be the case. We love giving to others. It brings us a lot of joy, doesn’t it, giving? Being able to lift others up through our actions? But being able to receive, graciously, thankfully, when we’re in a place of need and someone else can meet our need that we can’t do ourselves? I think receiving is actually harder than it looks. Maybe it’s fine on Christmas, on birthdays, on occasions where being the recipient of gifts is expected. But outside of that? Where we are receiving not even gifts but “help”? Mostly, I think we really chafe against needing help. I think many of us would do just about anything to avoid appearing helpless, being helpless.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week as I read our gospel lesson. Our gospel lesson from Mathew is really three stories in one. In the first part, Jesus calls Matthew, a tax collector, to follow him. Matthew does, immediately. Jesus is then eating dinner - perhaps at Matthew’s house? - and there are many other “tax-collectors and sinners” joining in the meal. Then the Pharisees - the religious leaders of the community - discover who has been at this gathering, they criticize Jesus to his disciples, that he eats with what they consider unfit company. Jesus overhears and says, “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,”” paraphrasing from the prophet Hosea. He continues, “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Then we skip ahead a bit into what might seem to be two unrelated healing stories, both of which you might be familiar with. First, Jesus gets a message from a leader of the community that his daughter has died, but asking Jesus to come and lay hands on her, trusting that the girl will live. On the way to the leader’s house, Jesus is approached by a woman who has been suffering with hemorrhages for over a decade. And she’s confident that if she can just touch Jesus, even his cloak, she will be healed. Jesus takes notice of her right away, saying to her, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well,” and indeed, she has been made well. Finally, Jesus gets to the leader’s house and finds everyone in the household already in mourning over the daughter who has died. Jesus sends them all away, insisting the girl is only sleeping. Everyone laughs - the girl is clearly dead! But when the crowd of mourners leave, Jesus takes the girl by the hand, and she gets up, alive and well. Our text closes with Matthew reporting that news of these events spread quickly throughout the region.
I desire mercy, not sacrifice, Jesus says. I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners. What does Jesus mean? Righteousness, after all, means something like being in “right relationship” with God and one another. And it seems, throughout the scriptures, that God very much does long for us to be in right relationships, just relationships. Isn’t that what God wants? isn’t our journey of discipleship about just that - learning how to set right our relationships with God and one another? And, what does it mean that God desires mercy? I understand that God is merciful - compassionate and forgiving. But how do mercy, sacrifice, righteousness, and sinfulness relate? I can’t think Jesus means that we have to relish our sinfulness so that God has more opportunity to show us mercy. I don’t think that Jesus wants us to pretend to be in need of help so that God can get the joy of rescuing us. So what does Jesus mean?
I think first - and this is a hard one - first, God’s primary audience is not always us. Sometimes we’re like the lost sheep - but sometimes, especially if we’ve been on the path of discipleship for a long time, seeking to grow deeper and deeper in our faith - we’re just one of the sheep who is safe in the pasture. God’s priority is the sheep who is lost. And we can be jealous that God is tending to the lost sheep, or we can be thankful that we’re already safe and sound.
As for righteousness? Well: like everything else we might come to have, it is a gift of God. If we learn to grow in discipleship, and set right all our relationships, it is through drawing on God’s strength, embracing God’s grace, and imitating God’s love. When we start believing righteousness is something we’ve achieved by our own efforts, that’s self-righteousness, and self-righteousness is pretty far from God’s intent for us. Being in right relationship with God and others isn’t a destination we can reach and just settle at. It’s a practice, a discipline, something that we grow in with God’s help.
And there it is: God’s help. Friends - we need God’s help, always. We stand in need of God’s mercy, always. Rather than this gospel being some strange suggestion that we have make ourselves appear to be in a position of needing mercy in order for us to get God’s attention, we need to recognize that we’re already there. We are in need of God’s help. We need God’s mercy. We do sin. We are broken. We do turn away from God. We do fail to live in right relationships. We can’t do it by ourselves. We need God’s help. Unfortunately, our culture is full of really destructive messages about being in need of mercy, about needing help. Our society implies that if you need help, especially too much help, or for too often, or for too long, you are weak, you’re wrong, you’re less than. Instead, we cultivate this myth of self-made people who’ve pulled themselves up by their own power and strength, no help needed.
When I look at the vignettes in our scripture today, I see stories of people who knew that they needed help/ Matthew, the unnamed sinners and tax collectors, the leader seeking help for his daughter, the woman Jesus healed - they needed help, and they knew it, and they weren’t afraid to accept the help Jesus offered them. Can we be vulnerable enough to know that we need help, and to accept the help that Jesus offers? Can we recognize our own failings, and receive mercy from God who is ever-ready to offer it to us? It’s not that God isn’t interested in righteousness. I think, rather, it’s that our ability to claim the label “righteous” isn’t the standard for entry into God’s reign that we think it is. Rather, God wonders, how receptive are we to receiving God’s grace and mercy? How ready are we to receive all that God wants to give us? I think, friends, that part of our readiness to receive from God includes letting others receive mercy and grace without judgment from us. Those who received healing, welcome, and a calling from Jesus in our text from today: they demonstrate to us the incredible vulnerability of being able accept God’s mercy. God wants to be merciful to us too. God wants to help us, because we need it. May we open our hands and our hearts, ready to receive what we need. Amen.