Sunday, July 07, 2019

Update of 8 June 2008

Matthew 9
9As 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. 10And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

One of my crew mates described the first half of last month as “Junuary.” Then, as if mother nature remembered the very large thermostat on the wall, we entered summer. By mid-month the news was reporting the great national imbalance: too dry in the west and too wet in the east. If only we could get it together.

And on the theme of getting it together, much of the news these days is framed as a debate: 'going too far' versus 'not far enough.' The same newscast that described the ‘great national imbalance’ also reported on those who welcome pipelines, and those that don’t (another sort of national divide) and a federal government that seems intent of trying to please both.

It sort of defines a no-win situation, made worse by headlines such as this one: “Canada fourth-worst climate sinner, study finds.” Comparing emissions, emission reductions and public policy, the study put us in the bottom five along with Saudi Arabia, the United States, Australia and Luxembourg. Yes, I said Luxembourg. What they lack in size, they make up in climate inaction.

Funny headline, using the word ‘sinner.’ At one time it played a starring role in our fellowship, though not so much in the last couple of generations. There was a time, however, when church folk would gather and sing hymns like Wesley’s “Come, ye weary sinners, come” and never think twice. Here are a few others:

Jesus, Friend of sinner, hear
Would Jesus have the sinner die?
Come, sinners, to the gospel feast
How can we sinners know?

I think you get the picture. And just to illustrate how far we’ve come, I give you Voices United #266: Amazing Grace. Amazing Grace made a comeback of sorts, excluded from the 1971 hymnbook, but still very much in the canon of well-loved hymns. So the editors of Voiced United brought it back, but with a minor suggestion. There, in the words, you will see a tiny asterisk, suggesting “and strengthened” as a substitute for the original.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved and strengthened me.

Doesn’t really work, does it? I can imagine the committee meeting into the wee hours debating whether to footnote the original “wretch” or leave it in. They left it in. Perhaps they knew they were already in trouble for omitting a certain hymn that begins with the word “Onward.” Whatever the reasoning, the asterisk indicates discomfort, a discomfort felt in some quarters around sin, sinfulness, wretchedness, and all the other ways we describe the human condition.

The ironic thing here is the original is not the original. When John Newton, clergyman and former-slave trader, penned the original, he used the word “worm,” as in “saved a worm like me,” fully befitting the man who wrote the most famous Christian hymn long before he denounced the slave trade. He wrote “worm” because it was the most apt description—he felt like a worm. Later generations couldn’t face this, so first he become a wretch, then later, the self-judgement was gone altogether.

Another example: In the funeral liturgy I use, there is a very famous commendation near the end, the part of the service that sums up what we have done and prepares the congregation for the final words. It goes like this:

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we humbly pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

Someone I know, and I won’t reveal that it’s my wife said, “Oh no, we don’t say that anymore, we say ‘sister or brother’ of your own redeeming.” My best friend Jimmy, he says, “No way, man (we talk like we’re still in the 70’s) no way, man, we say ‘friend’ of your own redeeming.”

So let me get this straight: we don’t say sinner anymore, but the CBC can say ‘sinner’ when reporting on climate change. We become redeemed “brothers” or “friends” but it’s okay to call the people of Luxembourg a bunch of lousy sinners. Something is going on, and I aim to find out.

As Jesus sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”

The little commentary I turn to pointed out that the location for all of this eating and drinking was Jesus’ house. I did a bit of a double-take. I was acquainted with the idea that Jesus lived in Capernaum before he began his itinerant ministry, but somehow I missed the detail that his house was party central. It adds another layer to the story, doesn’t it? What did the neighbours think? A young guy, continually hosting parties with the least desirable people, the recycling bin filled with heaven-knows what, the loud flute sounds at midnight, neighbourhood cats in the garbage.

And who did he invite? (Sinners!)

Back in the olden days, preachers loved allegory. They would open their bibles and try to piece together the meaning of the stories inside, and often they did it by assigning characters:

The storm represents God’s anger, the whale is Jonah’s conversion, a book of Hebrew love poetry is really about God’s love for the church.

Google “bible” and “allegory” and you will discover that some people still look for allegorical meaning, but they now tend to be the people looking for the devil in their SIN number or some such thing. Preaching biblical allegory fell out of fashion, or so it would seem.

Instead of allegory, preachers began a process of translation. Instead of supplying a list of characters to represent the story, preachers translate one variety of people into another. It works like this:

Someone preaching the same passage might tell the congregation that “tax collectors and sinners” represent “outsiders,” people who were unwelcome in homes and synagogues. The same preacher will tell the congregation to spend the week looking for the modern version of the tax collector and sinner, and welcome them in. There may be some well-meaning suggestions, like the homeless, or people on welfare, and the congregation will retreat to coffee after affirming the “nice message.”

This morning I want you to become momentary biblical literalists. Forget the allegory, forget the translation, and imagine our Lord hosting a party for genuine, grade “A” sinners. Imagine Jesus’ house filled with actual first-century, near-eastern sinners. Who did he invite? (sinners!) Fun to say, isn’t it? These were sinners who roughed people up to collect the tax, these are people who were cast out by family for any variety sins, who committed crimes or disrespected religion.

So rather than translate, I suggest you update, and imagine the sins that you find personally repulsive, the sinners you would avoid or condemn, or the people intentionally out-of-step with the times. Maybe the sinners are those who adore the candidate who puts kids in cages, or who call climate change a hoax, or someone trying to steal your identity online.

When we translate the passage and make it safe, we have robbed the passage of its power to convert. It would be too easy to name these “sinners” as “outsiders” and feel good about all the work we are already doing in the community. But that’s not preaching, not really, when the purpose of preaching is to reveal our sin and remind us that God forgives.

Reveal and remind. I may be overstating this a wee bit, but the established purpose of preaching is to remind people that the world needs saving and assure them that God saves. It’s not to explain the Bible and make it safe, it’s not to reassure people that they are already doing enough, and it’s not to denounce remote or far-off sin—when we know most sin is local.

It all begins at Jesus’ house, a house where everyone is welcome, where sinners are given the best seats, where the very presence of the living God is felt, in the warmth, and the comfort of Jesus the Christ. Amen.


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