Sunday, June 11, 2023
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
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. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “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.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, “Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout that district.
“‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down where we ought to be, and when we find ourselves in a place just right, ‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.”
In 2008, the New York Times published an article entitled: ‘Chasing Utopia, Family Imagines No Possessions.’ And it opened with these words: “Like many other young couples, Aimee and Jeff Harris spent the first years of their marriage eagerly accumulating stuff: cars, furniture, clothes, appliances and, after a son and a daughter came along, toys, toys, toys. Now they are trying to get rid of it all, down to their fancy wedding bands. Chasing a utopian vision of a self-sustaining life on the land as partisans of a movement some call ‘voluntary simplicity,’ they are donating virtually all their possessions to charity…”
The article goes on to point out that this movement toward voluntary simplicity; this idea that “whatever you own, owns you” has roots that reach all the way back to the Puritans, our own Congregationalist forbearers.
Now the Harris family might seem an extreme example to you. You may feel no compulsion to rid yourself of all you own. But I think that people like the Harris’s have tapped into a universal yearning to be free somehow of all those things that demand so much of our attention and time and care.
This week I ‘googled’ the phrase “simple living” and got 1,220,000,000 hits. And that makes me wonder if this impulse toward a simpler life might be more than a fad. Maybe it’s the work of the Holy Spirit, drawing us back to Eden. And so, we long for simplicity, but not just in our physical lives, but in our spiritual lives as well. But when we go looking for God, what we get is a system and doctrine and complexity.
I remember a conversation I had with someone who had not grown up in church, but was curious about the spiritual life, and so he made an appointment to come and see me. About midway through our conversation, I became keenly aware of what I was saying. I heard myself defending all the layers of theology and polity and history that make up organized religion. And the more I talked, the more uncomfortable I became with what I was saying. This person was seeking something pure; something real; something essential. But I, in my professional capacity, was defending the institution that employed me, with its many complicated layers. And frankly, that is something I simply cannot imagine Jesus ever doing. Instead, Jesus was forever simplifying things. Jesus taught us to love and do good. Jesus showed us that true faith is about action that changes people’s lives.
In the Gospel lesson of the day, we read of four different human encounters with Jesus in a very short amount of time. At first, they seem disparate and unconnected. But upon closer examination, we see each of them tied together, not by the specificity of their details, but by the beautiful cord of simplicity between Jesus and the other.
We start with Matthew, the tax collector. His boss, whoever he was, had been the highest bidder for a contract offered by the Roman government. These high bidders paid the tax for the whole region up front, and then employed underlings to not only collect the tax, but to collect more than what was owed to increase the profit. Because most folks were poor, that extra charge was an extreme hardship. And so, most folks hated the tax man with a passion.
One day, Jesus saw Matthew, and simply said: “Follow me.” And Matthew did. It’s likely he had no idea in that moment how much his life would change. But the simple invitation: “Follow me” was enough to charm him away from his overly complicated and morally questionable life.
Soon after, Jesus sat down to dinner at Matthew’s house. And many other tax collectors and assorted sinners came to join the meal. This incensed the Pharisees, those churchy folks who loved the complications of religion. And they angrily demanded of the disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with sinners?” Jesus overheard what they asked, and reminded them that it is the sick who need a doctor. And then Jesus quoted the Prophet Hosea, who quotes the Almighty as saying: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’
Suddenly dinner was interrupted by a leader of the synagogue who burst into the room to tell Jesus that his daughter had just died. He begged the Lord to come and touch her so that she would live again. And so, they got up from the table and off they went.
While they were on their way, a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years came up behind Jesus and touched the fringe of his coat. She believed that if she could just touch him, she would be healed. But that human touch was a complicated religious matter because her illness made her unclean and so, she was forbidden from touching anyone, lest they become unclean too. But she had one simple wish: to be made well. And so, she touched Jesus anyway. And he turned around, saw her and simply said: “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well." And it did.
Soon after, Jesus arrived at the house of the dead girl. He was greeted by the professional mourners, who, in their elaborate rituals, were raising a ruckus. But Jesus sent them away, saying: “She’s not dead, just asleep.” And they thought he was crazy. But when he was alone with her, he simply took her by the hand, and she opened her eyes and got up.
So there you have it: four human stories, all potentially weighted down with layer upon layer of requirements, expectations, rules, traditions, histories. But in each story, Jesus’s response was simplicity. To Matthew, he said: “Follow me.” To the Pharisees, he said: “Show mercy.” To the sick woman, he said: “Be well.” And to the lifeless little girl, he said: “Get up.”
Jesus, who has had a whole complicated religious structure built on his name, was forever boiling down true religion to its purest forms. But we humans like our rules. And we like our traditions. And so, without ever meaning to, we inadvertently stand in the way of the sinful and the proud and the sick and the dead who are just looking for Jesus.
At my last church, I once told the story of another Congregational Church in another state that had been in deep decline for many, many years. But, in recent years, they had found a way to turn things around. They had started to practice love and acceptance and genuine hospitality without a whole lot of layers. And mostly they did that by flinging the doors of the church open wide, especially when it came to membership. This church received new members almost every week. And this is how they did it. At the end of every the sermon, the pastor would say: “Do you want to follow Jesus? And do you want to do that with us?”
Well, right after my sermon, one of the church leaders came up to me in the receiving line and said: “We’re not doing that. They have not been prepared for membership. And they would have a vote!” Well, she did have a point. And I am not suggesting that we at First Church receive members like that. But to this day I am haunted by the notion that all of our valid objections cannot negate the implied simplicity of Jesus’s invitation: Follow me.
“‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down where we ought to be, and when we find ourselves in a place just right, ‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.” – And that is exactly where I want to be. And that is exactly where I want this church to be. So, lead us, Jesus. And for God’s sake, help us to keep it simple.