Sermon; 2 Pentecost/Proper 6A; Matthew 9:35 - 10:23
Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday and the gospel passage that day was from the end of Matthew. This is Jesus giving what has come to be known as The Great Commission – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
This is, as Dcn. Sue said in her sermon, the culmination of the gospel – that God works with all of us to be a light to all the nations.
In today's gospel passage, Jesus gives what I call “the small commission.” Today's commission isn't any less significant than the Great Commission, it just has a smaller scope: the disciples are to go only to the house of Israel. And although the scope may be smaller – only going to the people of Israel instead of to all nations – the mission is the same: Proclaim the good news and make disciples. Last week's commission was a little more general – make disciples, baptize, and teach – than today's commission, but the intent is the same – by doing the works of God in Christ, disciples will be made and the world will be changed. I also think that the specifics of today vs. the generalities of the end of Matthew's gospel may have to do with time. In the beginning, when we are just learning something, our instructions tend to be more specific than later on when we are given more leeway. That's why in today's gospel the disciples are given instructions to proclaim the good news, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.
How do we read our gospel passage today? How do we hear it? Whether we are biblical literalists or not, I think we have a tendency to hear this story as frozen in time. It is a story locked into 1st Century Palestine. It's the story of a Jewish rabbi telling his followers to go do these certain specific things. And in our mind's eye, we see men wearing robes and sandals, traveling along desert roads performing these miracles of healing while also preaching the good news of the kingdom.
That's not wrong. But if we claim the bible is the living word of God, if we proclaim that Jesus is active in our lives today and has something to tell us about the good news in today's world in the here and now where we live, we need to be able to move this story out of 1st Century Palestine and into the 21st Century U.S. Why is this good news today? What is Jesus commissioning us to do today?
Jesus said, “Cure the sick.” Who are the sick among us today? Obviously there are sick people everywhere with every type of disease from allergies to the Zika virus. We should be concerned with all diseases, but right now COVID-19 is taking center stage. Our focus needs to be on curing those infected with, and finding a way to stop, this particular pestilence.
This past week COVID-19 infections hit a daily high. As states like Texas, Arizona, Georgia, and others begin to reopen and ease their restrictions, the number of infections are increasing. Among those increases, people of color and low incomes are the hardest hit. One study wrote that this disparity is due to decades of disparities in education, housing, jobs, and stress. How exactly does one shelter in place when one has no place to shelter?
If we are to heal the sick, we need to find a way to correct the social disparities that infect this country.
Jesus said, “Cleanse the lepers.” I won't get into the medical issues of leprosy, but suffice it to say that lepers were the outcasts of society. In the OT they had to remain outside the camp or live in a separate house. In the NT they were effectively quarantined away from the main society within their own separate colony. They were separated from the community at large and barred from everyday life that non-lepers took for granted. Calling for the healing of lepers, Jesus was calling for a reunification of the community. He was calling for an integration of the community so that those who had been separated and shunned would be united with, and welcomed into, the community as equals. For Jesus, all lives mattered; but in this context, at this particular time, leprous lives mattered.
Who are the lepers of our time? Who are those who have been the outcasts of our society? Who are those who have been effectively quarantined in their own special section, separated from the community at large, and barred from everyday life that others take for granted? Is it not people of color who have been red-lined and relegated to ghettos, reservations, and the least desirable parts of town? Is it not those same people who have been barred from certain jobs and positions? My wife has a friend who lives in a certain area of Hagerstown. When looking to sell her house she discovered that the neighborhood covenant explicitly states that no house shall be sold to a black person. Are not people of color the lepers of today?
Jesus is calling for an integration of society so that those who had been separated and shunned would be united with, and welcomed into, the community as equals. For Jesus, all lives matter, but in our context, at this particular time, black lives matter.
Jesus said, “Cast out demons.” We know about demons in Jesus' day. They held people in bondage such that they had seizures and fits, were chained to trees in order to control them, ranted and raved, and threw themselves into fires. When Jesus and his disciples cast out demons people were healed. They were able to be treated without fear.
In our time, and in our context, the demon with which we are contending is the demon of racism. The demon of racism is a multi-headed demon. One head demonizes people of color in an effort to keep them living outside society. It works to keep them chained to a particular place so they can't “harm anyone.” And that demon is okay with seeing people of color tossed into the fire because they are evil or just plain different.
The other demonic head lives inside those who are not only blatantly racist, but it also dwells among those of us who benefit from racist policies and symbols without even knowing or understanding them. Those of us who enjoy the benefits and privileges that systemic racism has provided us must recognize that demon living among us and cast it out.
These are all things that have roots going back 400 years and more, so they won't be erased overnight. I don't know how to erase all of these systems that privileges people who look like me; but I do know that I can start by listening to people who have experienced oppression and fear and worse simply because of the color of their skin. I can start by speaking out against unjust systems and behaviors.
And that's when things get interesting and uncomfortable.
Jesus said he was sending us out into the midst of wolves. He said we would be dragged before councils and governors. There may be nothing more insidious than legal systems designed to keep certain people in power and other people at their mercy. The deep South did it with Jim Crow and “separate but equal” laws. Nazis did it to support their particular vision of a master society. Our country did it when trying to control the vote. Our church did it when it barred women from being delegates to General Convention in 1949. And on June 4, China passed a law making it illegal to mock their national anthem. It seems that in every place and time the law becomes the last refuge of those fighting to prop up unjust systems. So speaking out about these could get us in serious trouble. It got people involved in the Civil Rights Movement beaten and shot. It got people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer arrested and executed. And it will get all people who speak up for justice and equality persecuted.
But Jesus says otherwise. Heal the sick. Cleanse the lepers. Cast out demons. These aren't just commands given to twelve men some 2000 years ago (and remember, doing these very things also got Jesus in trouble with the authorities); but these are things which we are called to do in the here and now. We need to look with open eyes at the illnesses, the discrimination and isolation, and the demons that infect us today. We need to speak out and speak up and begin the process of healing that Jesus is calling us to.
Because if we don't begin living the good news that all are one in Christ, if we don't cure this disease that infects us, if we don't welcome the outcasts, if we don't exorcise these demons, if we are not being the light of Christ to all nations and all people, then it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than it will be for us.
This is our time to heal, cleanse, and cast out. This is our time to not only proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near, but to proclaim that all people are created equal and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights.
This is our time to be the light.