June 11, 2023

Genesis 12:1-9
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

“Just as we are”

There’s an old hymn that I associate with Billy Graham Crusades and other evangelical church gatherings that culminate in an altar call. If you’ve always been a Presbyterian, you may not even know what an altar call is, as it’s not a part of our church tradition.

But after listening to some biblical preaching and usually some testimonies from people who have come to Jesus and experienced their lives transformed, an evangelical crusade or tent meeting or revival would often include an altar call – an opportunity for seekers to come forward, to pray quietly with a Christian volunteer, and to commit their lives to following the way of Jesus.

The 19th century hymn by Charlotte Elliott, “Just as I am” would often be chosen to sing as people made their way forward to invite Jesus into their hearts, perhaps for the first time. It had a nice steady pace, lots of verses, and words that would remind everyone that if they came to Jesus, just as they were, with all their failings and faults, God would forgive them and give them the gift of everlasting life.

Although my faith journey didn’t start with a single moment like that featuring an emotional response to God’s call in the midst of worship, I can affirm the core message of the altar call and the hymn that proclaims God’s love for each one of us “just as we are.” During his earthly ministry, Jesus invited tax collectors and other sinners into relationship with himself and his band of followers. There were no pre-requisites of purity or respectableness or good deeds done before being welcomed, loved, and forgiven by Jesus.

The first verse of our Gospel reading introduces Matthew, very briefly: “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.”

I must say that I’ve never thought much about Matthew because we don’t hear much of his story. But I recently started watching a Netflix program called “The Chosen” which is a creative telling of the Jesus story, and I was surprised how much it focused on Matthew the tax collector.

That’s pretty much all we know about Matthew – that he was a tax collector and that he became one of Jesus’ disciples. But using what we know about tax collectors in first century Palestine, “The Chosen” imagined what it would have been like when a tax collector joined the group of mostly fishermen disciples. It would have been awkward!

The SALT Lectionary Commentary explains that “Matthew was likely a kind of customs official, charging a “toll” or “tax” on goods being transported to market; for example, such booths were sometimes set up along roadsides near fishing villages. Tax collectors were widely unpopular, not only because the taxes themselves were onerous, and not only because such funds supported the Roman Empire and its collaborators – but also because tax collectors were often suspected of charging more than required, and pocketing the difference.”

“The Chosen” creatively imagines Matthew as a fairly young man who appears to be somewhere on the autism spectrum. He’s super good with numbers and not so good with relationships, so he is very well suited to serving as a tax collector. He works really hard, does his job diligently, and copes with the disdain of his neighbours and rejection by his own family fairly well. But when Matthew witnesses a miracle performed by Jesus, he is amazed and intrigued. When Jesus invites him to follow, he doesn’t hesitate and quickly puts his skills to use for a better purpose.

“The Chosen” imagines the other disciples being quite resistant to Matthew joining the group. He was most definitely a sinner, and they hadn’t heard him repent or apologize. It was probably quite difficult for them to welcome Matthew “just as he was” when his sins and errors had affected their families and communities so directly.

But Matthew joins up “just as he is,” Jesus loves and welcomes him, and in time the others come to accept him also. He’s not a terrible person. He’s not mean or callous or cruel. It’s just that he got caught up in a system of oppression. He participated in an unjust economy that allowed the rich to get richer on the backs of the poor who were powerless to change their circumstances. Jesus’ call to Matthew gives him the opportunity to turn his life in a new direction (that’s literally what “repent” means) and to use his unique gifts and work ethic for good in the world.

The SALT Commentary proposes that Jesus is not only calling a twelfth disciple here, but he’s making a point. And that point is “that no-one is disqualified from becoming part of the movement.” In fact, “Jesus is MOST interested in people who need help, just as a physician is most interested in people who are sick.”

As the passage continues, two others reach out for Jesus’ help and healing. And like he did when he called a tax collector to become a disciple, Jesus demonstrates twice more that no one is disqualified from the love and grace of God.

First there is the woman in the crowd who reaches out to touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak. That doesn’t sound like such a big deal to us, but it was a major thing for this woman who has been bleeding for twelve years. Under the purity laws recorded in Leviticus, menstruating women were considered “unclean” and required to stay apart from other people for a period of time until their bleeding stopped and they were cleansed.

In one sense, it sounds like a great rule to me. If I could have a few days off to rest every month, or at least to work from home, that would be great! But, of course, it would be inconvenient too, as someone would need to pick up my various responsibilities, sometimes at the last moment, and you might start to wish you had a man for a minister!

But just imagine this woman’s situation. A medical condition has caused her to keep on bleeding, perhaps continuously, for twelve years. It just won’t stop, and she is isolated, considered “unclean” all the time, and undoubtedly weak and sickly from all the blood loss.

The fact that she’s out in public, part of the crowd, and reaching out to touch the cloak of the Healer is remarkable and definitely a breach of religious conventions. Not only was the bleeding woman considered unclean, but anyone she might touch would also become unclean. Nonetheless, she approaches Jesus with a fierce form of hope, saying to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” The Greek word translated here as “made well” is sózó, which means saved, preserved, or rescued. And that’s exactly what happens – she is saved, preserved, rescued, and made well by the power of her faith and by the love of Jesus whose first priority was those who were sick in body or in spirit.

Besides menstruating women, the purity laws required that people avoid touching the bodies of people who were dead. That’s why the local synagogue leader’s request of Jesus was also pretty bold. By faith, he believes that Jesus has the power to help his daughter, even though she has already died. When Jesus arrives at the house, he disperses the mourners, takes the girl’s corpse by the hand – and she gets up. She lives. Once again, the barriers between “clean” and “unclean” are ignored, and Jesus demonstrates that no one is shut out from the circle of God’s love and grace.

We don’t know what happens with the formerly-bleeding woman, the local synagogue leader or his daughter after their “come to Jesus” moments, the mercy and welcome they receive, and their restoration to life and wellness. They likely didn’t join the band of Jesus’ followers, but I expect that their lives were still turned in new directions.

Affirmed in their boldness to reach out across boundaries, I imagine that they wouldn’t feel too confined by religious rules and conventions after that. And having received the mercy of God “just as they were” I hope that they learned to respond to the needs and circumstances of others in their communities with the same kind of mercy and care.

I wonder which of these Bible people’s stories connect with your story. Have you struggled with grief or frustration like the synagogue leader, feeling helpless to assist your own family members or to find new life and hope after suffering and loss? Do you live with a personal challenge like the bleeding woman that impedes your capacity to live and serve in the world in the ways you want to do so? And if so, is your difficulty a real barrier or one imposed by the assumptions of others?

Or perhaps you are more like Matthew. I think perhaps that we are all a bit like Matthew – caught up in a culture and a system that privileges rich, white, English-speaking, educated, straight people over so many diverse others. And we wonder what it will take for us to leave behind the comfort and familiarity of our privileged positions and to walk with our neighbours who have suffered the negative impacts of those systems.

Whatever our particular circumstances and challenges, these Gospel people can be models of faith for us – people who boldly reached out, people who didn’t hesitate to respond to Jesus’ call “just as they were,” trusting, I suppose, that Jesus would love them, and heal them, and help them to turn their lives in a direction of new life, meaning, and purpose.

Of course, I should mention Abram and Sarai from our first reading too. They didn’t get to “come to Jesus” but they went out boldly where God directed them to find a new land of promise where God would bless them and make them a blessing to all the families of the earth.

In their case, the thing that might have held them back was the fact that they were already super old. It didn’t make sense for them to go out on a journey. It didn’t make sense for them take on all the risks and challenges associated with this mission. And it certainly didn’t make sense for them to become the ancestors of a whole People when they were already old and childless.

I can’t help but think that it sounds a little like the Christian Church today, like the Presbyterian Church in Canada in particular, and like many of the other mainline denominations. I mean, we’re not ALL super old. Our congregations do include people of a variety of ages and stages of life, and we’re blessed by the presence of children, and teens, and young adults in our congregation, even if they are in lower numbers than the seniors among us.

But in spite of their age, God still called Abram and Sarai to lead the mission to bless the world through relationship with the Creator and the One God of the Universe who loves us all. And by God’s grace and mercy, and with God’s guidance, they were successful.

Rather than being stopped in their tracks by all the logical reasons why they should just stay where they were and accept their present circumstances, Abram and Sarai, and Matthew, the bleeding woman, and the synagogue leader each chose courageously to go, to follow God, to reach out to Jesus, and the results were amazing!

It would be many centuries yet before the hymn would be written, yet still I can almost hear their voices humming along as they each began their journeys, responding to God’s call “just as they were.” May God grant us the faith to do the same.