• Seeking God's Face in Healing

    Horseshow Bend croppedMessage for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost: The Season of Growth in Discipleship on Matthew 9:9-13,18-26; given on June 11, 2023 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

    When comedian and Actor Groucho Marx resigned from a club in New York he said “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.” I wonder if that’s what Matthew, the toll booth collector thought when Jesus came up to him and asked this sinner to follow him.

    Matthew was not on the list of the town’s favorite people. He sat at a sheltered counting booth placed strategically near the road out of Galilee where fishermen would transport their catch, collecting fees for the Roman empire. The upcharges he exacted were his way of making a profit, no doubt a handsome livelihood, while also economically supporting Rome, Israel’s oppressor.

    But, unlike Marx, Matthew jumped at the chance to follow this itinerant preacher healer—maybe he would have a chance to redeem himself. Matthew celebrated by throwing a party to show off his new best friend, Jesus, to all the other sinners. No one else would let them into their clubs, so they had to stick together. Imagine, a whole house full of tax collectors, prostitutes, people living out of wedlock, widows trying to get by, hustlers and sinners of one kind or another who were having a great time with the new miracle worker in their midst.

    But the religious leaders? They did not want to be part of any club that would let tax collectors and sinners accepted as members. But, they could hear Jesus’ wisdom in his teaching; they could see Jesus’ power in his healing. They wanted to be in the Jesus’ club—could they convince him of stricter membership rules? They could not see God’s face in those who were so different from them.

    Jesus responded to the religious leaders by saying he came to be with those in need of love, healing, and hope. Then he gave them a homework assignment. Study the book of Hosea, particularly chapter 6, verse 6. I desire mercy, not sacrifice. Or as we read in our Confession today, I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

    In other words, in today's language:

    • Your prayers and worship in here, don’t mean anything, if you cannot love people in need, or whom you judge, or who make you uncomfortable, out there.

    • I desire mercy, not empty rituals; I desire steadfast love, not offerings to appease a guilty conscience. You must walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

    Now the stage is set to discover who will join this all-inclusive club. Jesus begins to embody the very thing he asks of the religious leaders and the themes of the passage start reversing as we see people desperately seek God’s face in Jesus.

    First a leader of the synagogue, a member of the group Jesus was essentially scolding for being exclusive, asks Jesus to come and heal his daughter who has died. This is no small ask—it is not a healing, it is a resurrection.

    The leader of the synagogue reverses course from his colleagues—he breaks with peer pressure and skepticism. Out of desperation, as a father who adores his daughter, this synagogue leader begs Jesus to restore her to life. Quite suddenly, he is happy to be part of the Jesus club with all kinds of tax collectors and sinners if it might bring his daughter back to him.

    When we begin to lose the one thing which is most precious to us, our time and energy for judging others, maintaining our status, and identifying our differences suddenly does not matter at all. This father and leader of the synagogue did not give one whit who’s house he had to go to find Jesus, nor who he was hanging out with, if he would just come and lay hands on his daughter who has ceased to breathe.

    This religious leader now sees himself as just as needy as the rest of the outcasts. Maybe he is willing to be part of a club that would have him and the sinners, as members together. He can begin to see God’s face where he did not before.

    What about Jesus? Given that he was just criticized by leaders of the synagogue, it would have been tempting for Jesus to rebuff him. But Jesus does not hold a grudge against the synagogue leader for not welcoming tax collectors and sinners into worship, for upholding the purity laws and rituals, for that was part of their job according to Leviticus.

    No, Jesus responds immediately to this man’s pain. “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” I have come to offer love and healing to those who are hurting and broken regardless of who they are. God desires mercy and steadfast love, and that is what Jesus shows this man of leadership and high standing. Jesus sees God’s face in this man’s pain.

    Jesus gets up from the party at Matthew’s house, and then the second reversal happens: Jesus, who just called Matthew to follow Him, now becomes the follower. Jesus follows the leader of the synagogue to his home to show him mercy and steadfast love, comfort and hope, by bringing his daughter back to life. The Lord of All comes to serve.

    The One who calls us all to follow him, in turn follows each one of us into our darkest valleys, into the shadow of death. Perhaps as the father walked with Jesus behind him, leading him to the bedside of his lifeless daughter, he could hear the words of Psalm 23 echoing in his mind, surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

    The girl grips Jesus’ hand and rises to new life. She see God’s face in the hand that grips hers.

    There is one more reversal in this story. On the way to see the young girl, a woman with a hemorrhage for 12 years follows behind Jesus. She is just as desperate for healing as the man with the deceased daughter. Jesus does not even see the woman. But like the father, she trusts in Jesus’ divine power to heal –so much so that she believes there is a healing fountain in the fringe of his cloak. She does not even need to touch Jesus—she seeks God’s face in the fringe of his clothes! When she touched his garment, she was completely healed.

    But it is against the Temple purity rules for Jesus to have this woman with the flow of blood touch him, or for Jesus to touch the hand of anyone who had died. This would normally make him unclean, but God’s steadfast love and mercy are at work here. So, instead of Jesus becoming unclean through these interactions, the movement is reversed: Jesus’ purity and cleanliness spreads to the woman and the girl, and his healing makes them whole.

    The ritual restrictions disappear for everyone—that is grace! The Temple doors fling wide, the community opens its arms. It is like the Apostle Paul describes in 2nd Corinthians 5:17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

    The community can see God’s face in those who were rejected who are now brought into the fold. That is why all the tax collectors and sinners—everyone is welcome in the club—even if you are not sure you want to come if we’ll have you—there’s no meritocracy, no hierarchy, no us or them, there’s just all of us together, whom God made, and Jesus loves and heals. No one is barred from seeking God’s face, not the arrogant or the unsure, not the sinner or the outcast. Everyone is washed clean by God’s steadfast love and mercy.

    Your invitation today depends on where you are spiritually and this story reveals three responses of faith:

    • The father comes at any cost and becomes part of a new community with those he formerly judged. Jesus invites you to seek God’s face in those who cause you who discomfort. The synagogue leader and father trusts in the Lord, the Good Shepherd who follows him into the valley of the shadow of death and brings healing. Jesus invites you to trust that our Lord not only leads you, but follows you with you goodness and mercy, even when the shadows lead you next to those who cause you discomfort.

    • The girl clings to Jesus’ hand as she rises to new life. Jesus invites you today to cling to his hand when you are in a day of darkest trouble. He will not let you go, and will bring you to renewed life. She did nothing but cling and receive. Maybe today, all you can do is cling and receive. For Jesus that’s enough. Seek God’s face by clinging to Jesus.

    • The woman with the flow of blood trusts in Jesus’ power that only the slightest touch is enough. Jesus invites you to bring one of your deepest needs, perhaps one you have not prayed about before, and seek God’s face for your healing. Trust that even the slightest turning toward to him, the smallest whisper for help will be heard.

    After you receive Communion, you can come up the side steps to the altar or stand by the Baptismal font and ask for an individual prayer as you seek God’s face for whatever healing or wholeness in your own life. This morning we heard our VBS children sing with joy that God is with us when we are up, when we are down and when we turn around--so come before God with that same kind of trust and hope.

    Image: Photo of Horseshoe Bend, Page, AZ by Larry Wecsler, member of St. Luke's Lutheran Church

  • Together in the Boat: Everyone's Included

    Life Groups SunsetMessage for Pentecost 12 on Matthew 15:21-28 and Acts 2:37-42 given on August 20, 2023 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. Because we are starting Life Groups in the fall, I changed the New Testament reading to Acts 2. 

    Our theme right now is “Together in the Boat” (which is funny because there are no boats in our readings today!). It refers to our Gospel last week when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water in the midst of a storm. Peter walks on the water briefly before the wind scares him, but the storm only calms down when Jesus and Peter get back in the boat together with the rest of the disciples. Dealing with life’s storms and challenges is more successful when we are together in the boat with Jesus.

    We have a problem today, however, because our Gospel reading seems to challenge this theme—like Jesus himself is pushing the idea that not everyone is welcome in the boat of faith with him. But that doesn’t really sound like Jesus, so we need to take a closer look. He seems awfully rude to the Canaanite woman, while they are up on the border with what is now Lebanon. But I wonder if his comments are not really intended to teach the disciples a lesson.

    Jesus has just finished instructing the disciples about eating with unclean hands—that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth—it is what one says that defiles, because this comes from the heart.

    In their encounter with the Canaanite woman, it is the disciples who speak of her negatively, that is with defiled hearts. Granted, she is their enemy, and Tyre economically exploited Israel, especially with grain futures, leaving only crumbs for the Israeli farmers. This woman clearly benefited from these economic structures because she is wealthy—her child sleeps on a bed not simply a cot like most of the poorer peasants that they know.

    So the disciples have no patience for this wealthy enemy, and they say so: Send her away Jesus, because she keeps shouting at us. She is a nuisance, a pest and the kingdom is not for her anyway. Send her away – the Greek word is apoluson

    But her daughter is sick, and no amount of money has made her well. She acknowledges who Jesus is, Lord, Son of David. This woman actually has the posture and the words of worship – Lord have mercy on me. She is speaking the traditional language of Israelite prayer and worship. Kyrie eleison.

    Do you hear the alliteration in their words?—eleison---apoluson. The alliteration in Greek sets up the contrast between the woman and the disciples. The woman--an enemy--has the mind and heart of worship and asks for mercy - eleison. The disciples, have the mind and heart of superiority and exclusion and say– "go away" -- apoluson

    Apoluson – this is the same word in Matthew, Mark and Luke in the feeding of the 5000. The disciples say to Jesus, "send the crowds away, we have nothing to offer them." That was pretty recent, and the disciples have not learned the kingdom way, yet.

    Jesus lays bare what the disciples really sound like, to hear the exclusion and defilement that was coming out of their hearts; how it sounded when they thought that all the good stuff of God was just for them:

    So using sarcasm, Jesus says to the disciples (not the Canaanite woman), Well, yeah, I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel

    The disciples hear how ugly the sound. And it gets worse before it gets better. The Caananite woman then kneels before Jesus, now with the posture of worship to accompany the words. With an urgent cry she says, Lord Help me. Again, acknowledges Jesus as her Lord and Savior.

    Jesus then magnifies the cost of exclusion and control rather than inclusion and embrace: It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. He is voicing the disciples’ frustration over the economic exploitation of Israel at the hands of Tyre, but personalizing it to this woman—it does sound so awful.

    Maybe the disciples are shocked at Jesus words – maybe they feel they are justified—but we do not hear another peep out of them. One hopes they really hear and see the defiling sin that can come out of the human heart.

    The Canaanite woman argues her position –even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table. All people deserve God’s grace and favor, even a crumb. Because God's grace is so fast, even a crumb is sufficient!

    The gospel is preached by a pagan, foreign woman – even she, on the lowest rung of the social, political and religious ladder to the Israelites – is not beyond the reach of God’s mercy. Jesus commends the woman’s faith and worship and wisdom. She’s inside the boat—and so is her daughter. So are the disciples, recipients themselves of Jesus’ mercy and learning.

    The disciples more deeply grasp the truth that no one falls outside of the embrace of God. Then I imagine the disciples start to remember:

    • Jesus healed the Gerosene demoniac – who was also outside of Israel—he’s in the boat
    • Jesus touched and healed lepers, the lame and those wracked by demons – all unclean and outside of the social and religious communities in Israel—they’re together inside the boat
    • Jesus even healed the Roman centurions’ slave – another enemy and oppressor of Israel –and they’re together inside the boat

    Maybe this trip to Tyre and Sidon at the border had to happen for the Pentecost that was to come after Jesus resurrection to make sense at all.

    Because by the time of the Pentecost event in our Acts passage the whole Mediterranean world was visiting Jerusalem for the festival, and the disciples stopped asking who was in the boat and who was out—they just up and baptized 3,000 people! As you recall at the beginning of Acts Chapter 2, there were Parthians, Medes, Cappadocians, people from Phrygia and Pamphylia, (and all the other names you hope you don't have to read as Assistant on Pentecost!). There were wealthy and poor, women and men, single and married, kids and elderly. They were all gathered together in one place.

    The point is—everyone was together in the boat with Jesus. Now, they did not have a mega church building—so they gathered together in small groups and house churches.

    Our Acts text says, They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

    Like the disciples did in the conversation with the Canaanite woman, they experienced transformation in their shared life together through the presence of Jesus’ power in their gatherings! They came to a deeper relationship with Jesus and with each other—they experienced healing, new life, and new relationships, so they invited others to join them! And that’s how the early church grew.

    We hope to grow this way too—spiritually, numerically, relationally, devotionally, missionally—by starting Life Groups in September. This is one way to practice living faith together in the boat with Jesus.

    Some of you have participated in Life Groups at other congregations—or done them here with our Rooted groups a few years ago, some of you have been in a dedicated Bible study group, or women’s group that share many patterns of a Life Groups. For others, this will be a new practice.

    We are hoping that everyone will give it a try for the 6 weeks of our Spiritual Growth Challenge in the fall, we hope groups will continue beyond that. This week I invite you to pray about joining a Life Group yourself. Then begin asking God to show you someone you can invite to join you in a Life Group, especially someone from a different background, like the Canaanite woman in our Gospel reading, so we too can be transformed through new relationships. 

    We are expanding the boat at St. Luke’s and we want to practice our All Are Welcome invitation with intention and love. With Jesus, no one is supposed to be sent away; everyone is welcome to receive the love and goodness of God.

    It’s time to let as many people as possible know that St. Luke’s is a place where they are invited into the boat together with us and Jesus! Amen.