“In Sickness and in Health”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
June 14, 2014
University Baptist Church
Yesterday, I performed a wedding. The former director of PML, Sarah Shelton married her sweetheart from Leon. His parents flew up and we did a bilingual service. It’s always such an honor to be a part of a wedding. Each time I do one, my mind goes back to other weddings, my own included. It’s such a time of joy and promise. And I encourage the couple to remember and cherish the moment and hearken back to it when the going gets tough, which it inevitably does.
I’ve seen my share of couples deal with the sickness and health part of the vows. Sometimes after a long life and sometimes way too soon. Each time, the couple hearkens back, I’m sure to that part of the vow where we will stay with each other in sickness and in health. That means staying by the side when a part of you wants to hightail it out of there. That’s love. That’s commitment.
So, when I read today’s scripture, the portion that leapt out to me is the phrase, “Those that are well have no need for a physician, but those who are sick.” The context, of course is the criticism of the Pharisees who were critical of Jesus for eating with tax collectors and other sinners. The Pharisees thought that a good man of God must not defile himself with dirty, unclean people. If he did, then he would not be able to participate in the rituals of the community, primarily the sacrifices to make you righteous and restore you to the community. That’s when Jesus uttered his other word: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
Something in this system of sacrifice and cleanliness made the community sick. It excluded people. It wrote people off as undesirable, unredeemable.
What’s the nature of our sickness as a people?
Is it our hopelessness?
Is it our environmental degradation?
Is it our own special sins that each of us holds, some in the deepest recesses of our hearts?
Is it our dependence on fossil fuels?
Is it our dependence on things and mobile devices?
We have gotten so used to computers and electricity that we don’t know what to do if one or the other fails.
Is it our dependence on fallible systems?
Is it our judgment of people based upon their income status, their education, their gender, race, gender identity, their age, the way they speak?
The Pharisees and scribes represented those systems that made people sick, or at least kept them sick.
Are you righteous or a sinner? Maybe we’re a little bit of both. The scripture tells us that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. I know I have. Many times. No, I’m not going to list them all.
The problem is that we don’t like to talk about our mistakes. We like to think of ourselves as righteous. And we try to be so. We really do.
This week, Evangelical author and speaker Tony Campolo finally came out as supporting LGBT rights. He has kept to a more traditional view while his wife Peggy was on the AWAB board and was a leader in Soulforce. They made the speaking circuit talking about how they could have different views and still be married. Well Tony, retired and at eighty years old has finally come out as Welcoming and Affirming. Some are saying thanks so much! It’s about time. Others are saying, too little, too late. In a time when it’s easier to be LGBT-friendly, it hardly seems like an act of courage. It seems to be a reflection of what people are already believing.
And some in their righteousness are not willing to accept a former sinner.
Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The prevailing idea of American exceptionalism seems to imply that our relative wealth is a sign that God looks upon us with favor. If you have a good job, you have been blessed by God. But what if you don’t have a good job, no matter how hard you try. What if your relationships are a mess? Has God cursed you?
Jesus said that righteousness does not save you. In fact, your self-righteousness is what condemns you.
Perhaps in response to Tony Campolo’s coming out as more LGBT friendly, Franklin Graham called for a boycott of Wells Fargo. Now I can think of a lot of reasons to boycott a big bank, like their high interest rates and their being part of a system that makes money off of poor people. But his reason for boycotting Wells Fargo was because it ran an add featuring a lesbian couple. The fact that they were learning sign language to welcome their deaf adopted daughter into their family had no bearing. He pulled the money for his ministry out of Wells Fargo and put it into Winston-Salem- based BB&T bank. Turns out that BB&T holds an 83% favorable rating from the Human Rights Campaign’s Equality Index. They even sponsored the Miami Pride parade. Wouldn’t it be great if you called for a boycott, using all of your self righteous purity and found that no institution conforms to your values 100% of the time?
“I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” says Jesus. The recognition of ourselves as sinners is one of the first steps in our journey toward salvation. I’ll take Tony Campolo redemption over Franklin Graham’s exclusivity any day.
Let’s look a little closer at today’s scripture.
Jesus, we know, was in the practice of calling disciples to follow him. And he came upon Peter, Andrew, James and John, probably upright working class folks—fishermen. He said “Follow me” and they dropped their nets and followed him. And almost no one noticed.
It was when he called Matthew the tax collector that Jesus began to get into trouble with the religious authorities.
Tax collectors were often thieves in the clothing of civil authorities. They could easily make you pay much more than you owed, and make your life miserable while they shaved a healthy profit off the top. No one liked a tax collector. In fact they were considered to be the worst sinners around. They were shunned by the church and all of the people. And Jesus, the very Son of God, called Matthew the tax collector who was sitting at his booth and said to him “Follow me.”
The scripture said that he got up and followed him. It would seem to imply that he left behind his tax collector’s booth just like the fishermen left their nets when Jesus called them. But it doesn’t say so. Maybe Jesus had a tax collector—an insider, a person lost in a sick and sinful system. Maybe this was Jesus way of redeeming that system.
The fact that Jesus has tax collectors and women in his following looked to some of his critics as blasphemy and to others as simply pathetic.
But when he actually began eating meals with these people, the Pharisees, the religious authorities, the righteous in their own minds felt it part of their religious duty to condemn Jesus and his followers.
To the Pharisees’ worldview, Jesus in eating with tax collectors and sinners publicly thumbed his nose at their religious customs while and the same time wantonly defiling himself. To come into contact with an unclean person was to become unclean yourself. Cut off from the assembly. Jesus knew that. We also know that he had had enough of scoreboard religion: the counting of who is in and who is out. And the poor and the outcast would never get into their system. It was too expensive to buy the animals needed for the ritual sacrifice that made you clean. Plus, you had to take time off of work or travel great distances to make atonement with a priest at the Temple. It became a very top-down authority based system.
We, in following Jesus must repent of our own tendency to keep doctrinal score, remembering that Jesus calls not the righteous, but sinners.
And what did Jesus mean in that last sentence really? “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.” Jesus was calling the Pharisees and us to look at the real meaning of religion. It is for mercy, not sacrifice.
And the clincher is that Jesus has not come to call those like the Pharisees who think of themselves as righteous, but those who know themselves to be sinners. As individuals, as families, as a nation, we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
To those who recognize their own sinfulness and their need for redemption, Jesus offers forgiveness, fellowship, the chance at reconciliation and an invitation to God’s plan.
Way back in 1854 Frederick Faber wrote the hymn “There’s A Wideness In God’s Mercy”
There are 12 verses in the original. Most hymnals use the most comforting, but leave out the challenging verses imagine if we used the hymn maybe like Faber wanted it. Let’s try these three verses:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea
There’s a kindness in God’s justice
Which is more than liberty
But we make this love too narrow
By false limits of our own
And we magnify its strictness
With a zeal God will not own
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea
Pope Francis called right-wing Christian fundamentalism a sickness.
During a daily Mass last week, Pope Francis called ideological Christianity "an illness" that doesn't serve Jesus Christ. Instead, it "frightens" people and pushes them away from religion.
"In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought" For this reason Jesus said to them: 'You have taken away the key of knowledge.' The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements. The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people. But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh?"
There are sick systems out there that we are a part of.
The system of political favoritism.
The system of usury.
The system of having more food than we need while the rest of the world starves.
The system which consumes fossil fuels at an astonishing rate while the earth gets warmer.
The system that puts us into individual camps and eschews face to face community in favor of virtual community.
The system that keeps score of who is politically correct.
The system that judges first and asks questions hardly ever.
The system that loves our friends and hates our enemies.
The system that builds a military that is larger than the next 26 nations combined.
The system that has us wearing clothing made in sweatshops across the world.
The system that still can’t transform conflicts overseas or even in our own neighborhoods. We are all part of these sick systems.
But here’s the good news. God calls not to those who are healthy, but those who are stuck in these sick systems. “Those who are well have no need for a physician, but those who are sick.” So here we come, Lord Jesus. Heal us. For we have much in common with both the Matthew the tax collector and the unnamed Pharisee who is keeping score, waiting for us to fail. Thank God there’s a wideness in your mercy, and that you are with us in sickness and in health.