Rev. John Morrison
Reading Matthew 9:9-13. 2 Samuel 9:1-13. (NRSV)
Over these 3 Sundays leading up to our Church Anniversary, we are looking at the 3 goals in our Church’s Goals Statement. It’s printed on the front of the bulletin, but I’ll also put it up on the screen.
Last Sunday we did “Led by the Spirit, we will explore together what it means to follow Jesus today”.
Today the topic is “Building an inclusive, caring community”.
Next Sunday we’ll do Goal 3: “Share God’s love and justice in words and actions”.
As we consider the 2nd goal, let’s look at inclusion to begin with.
In Mt 9 we have the account of Matthew’s calling as a disciple. It’s also in Mark and Luke, but I’ve chosen Matthew’s Gospel because here is the firsthand account – Matthew telling his own story.
The actual calling of Matthew is presented fairly matter-of-factly in just one verse (v9).
Jesus goes to Matthew at his tax booth, says “Follow me”, and Matthew gets up and follows.
Here we already get an inkling that inclusion is important to Jesus. He has called ordinary fishermen, and now a tax-collector, despised by fellow-Jews for collecting taxed for the Romans.
And as the story continues, that inkling is confirmed. Shortly after, Matthews hosts a dinner at his place which includes some of his fellow tax collectors and others called sinners. These latter were looked down on by the religious people because they didn’t keep the moral and/or ceremonial stipulations of the Law.
When the Pharisees see this party, they are critical of Jesus for eating with the tax collectors and sinners.
Jesus’ answer is basically: “It’s the sick who need a doctor”.
It’s an answer that embodies inclusion.
It’s an answer that rebuts the exclusive approach of the Pharisees.
It’s an answer that calls for an inclusive approach towards the rejected and ostracised.
Here is part of a painting by the famous Italian artist Paolo Veronese. It’s a massive work over 5.5m tall by 13m wide. It was originally called “The Last Supper” and you can see Jesus and his disciples in the centre.
It was painted in 1573 in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation in Europe. The painting led him to him being called before the Roman Catholic Inquisition that same year to answer charges of irreverence, indecorum and heresy. In particular, he was interrogated as to why
“buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such absurdities” were included in the painting.
That’s an interesting question to ponder. Why did he? What was the significance of having all those others there? Just artistic licence or was he making a point? Maybe about inclusion? He gave an answer to the Inquisition but whether that was his real reason or just one to save his skin is uncertain.
He was ordered to make various changes the painting within 3 months, but he never did. He did however change the name to “The Feast at the House of Levi” (another name for Matthew). He got away with that because Scripture makes it clear that there were all sorts of “sinners” at Matthew’s feast. (See following background.)
— 2 —
I’d like to tell you a little story about inclusion now. It’s by Robert Fulghum, an American minister and author.
From his book “All I need to know I learned in Kindergarten”, published in 1986. I’ve shortened it a little, but you’ll still get the point.
“Giants, wizards and dwarfs was the game to play.”
Being left in charge of about eighty children seven to ten years old, while their parents were off doing parenty things, I mustered my troops in the church social hall and explained the game. It’s a large-scale version of Rock, Paper, and Scissors, and involves some intellectual decision making. But the real purpose of the game is to make a lot of noise and run around chasing people until nobody knows which side you are on or who won…
The excitement of the chase had reached a critical mass. I yelled out: “You have to decide now which you are–a GIANT, a WIZARD, or a DWARF!
While the groups huddled in frenzied, whispered consultation, a tug came at my pants leg. A small child stands there looking up, and asks in a small, concerned voice, “Where do the Mermaids stand?”
A long pause. A very long pause. “Where do the Mermaids stand?” says I.
“Yes. You see, I am a Mermaid.”
“There are no such thing as Mermaids.”
“Oh, yes, I am one!”
She did not relate to being a Giant, a Wizard, or a Dwarf. She knew her category. Mermaid. And was not about to leave the game and go over and stand against the wall where a loser would stand. She intended to participate, wherever Mermaids fit into the scheme of things. Without giving up dignity or identity. She took it for granted that there was a place for Mermaids and that I would know just where.
Well, where DO the Mermaids stand? All the “Mermaids”–all those who are different, who do not fit the norm and who do not accept the available boxes and pigeonholes?
Answer that question and you can build a school, a nation, or a world on it. [And, I would add, a church.]
What was my answer at the moment? Every once in a while I say the right thing. “The Mermaid stands right here by the King of the Sea!” says I
So we stood there hand in hand, reviewing the troops of Wizards and Giants and Dwarfs as they rolled by in wild disarray.
It is not true, by the way, that Mermaids do not exist. I know at least one personally. I have held her hand.”
Our second goal also mentions “caring”. And our Matthew passage doesn’t just portray Jesus as inclusive, but also caring. He cared about those who were marginalised and rejected for not living up to the unrealistic expectations of the Pharisees. He likened himself to a doctor caring for the sick, and in a sense he was the Great Physician.
He was a lesson for his disciples and others about the importance of caring.
Jesus told the Pharisees to go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
Jesus didn’t make those words up. He was quoting from the Jewish Scriptures. They would have known the verse well – Hosea 6:6. God wants loving-kindness towards God and others, not meaningless ritual.
We’ll consider this more next week when we look at our last goal.
We are called to care – care about and care for. There are many NT verses that I could quote as examples — things Jesus did, teaching he gave, exhortations in Paul’s letters etc.
But I want to commend our OT reading to you as a wonderful example of caring. (2 Samuel 9:1-13)
Saul, the first King of Israel, had repeatedly tried to kill David to prevent him from taking over as King. When Saul and his sons were killed in battle against the Philistines, David did become King. Not long after he orders a search for any surviving descendants of Saul and Mephibosheth is found.
He must have feared for his life, because in surrounding nations it was common for a new King to kill descendants of the previous King to remove potential challengers to his throne. But David has a different idea.
V7,8 David said to him, “Do not be afraid, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan; I will restore to you all the land of your grandfather Saul, and you yourself shall eat at my table always.”
He did obeisance and said, “What is your servant, that you should look upon a dead dog such as I?”
V13 Mephibosheth lived in the Jerusalem, for he always ate at the king’s table. Now he was lame in both his feet.”
This story always reminds me of gathering around the Communion table being cared for by Jesus, Great David’s Greater Son. And it reminds me of the Great Wedding Supper of the Lamb when people from all nations will gather in celebration in the presence of the Lord.
I’d like to finish up with a couple of things on community, because that’s an important part of the 3rd goal as well.
Scott Peck is one of the foremost authorities and authors on this topic. You may be familiar with his book “The Road Less Travelled”. He later wrote “The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace ” in which he identified 4 stages to successful community building.
- Pseudo-community: This is a stage where people pretend to have a balanced and open friendship with one another, and cover up their differences, by acting as if the differences do not exist
- Chaos: When pseudo-community fails to work, the members start falling upon each other, giving vent to their mutual disagreements and differences. This is a period of chaos.
- Emptiness: After chaos comes emptiness. At this stage, the people learn to empty themselves of those ego related factors that are preventing their entry into Community.
- True Community: Having worked through emptiness, the people in Community are in complete empathy with one another. There is a great level of tacit understanding
“In genuine community there are no sides. It is not always easy, but by the time they reach community the members have learned how to give up cliques and factions. They have learned how to listen to each other and how not to reject each other. Sometimes consensus in community is reached with miraculous rapidity. But at other times it is arrived at only after lengthy struggle. Just because it is a safe place does not mean community is a place without conflict. It is, however, a place where conflict can be resolved without physical or emotional bloodshed and with wisdom as well as grace.” (P71)
One other quote, which is speaking more specifically about churches. It says similar things about pretending and grace, but rather more pointedly. It’s by Rick Warren in his introduction to a book titled “Dirty God: Jesus in the Trenches” by Jonnie Moore.
The sooner we give up the illusion that the Church must be perfect in order to love it, the sooner we quit pretending and start admitting we’re all imperfect and need grace. This is the beginning of real community. Every church could put out a sign “No perfect people need apply. This is a place only for those who admit they are sinners, need grace, and want to grow.”
We all want real community, don’t we, where there is grace and growth and not false pretending. We certainly don’t want pseudo-community or chaos or emptiness. Real community is possible. It’s what Jesus taught and died to bring about. As we follow him and as we are led by the Spirit, it’s possible here at Canberra Baptist Church. May it be so. Amen.