Getting Dirty


A sermon preached on June 8th, 2008 based upon Matthew 9:9 – 13, 18 – 26, entitled “Getting Dirty.”

To better understand this passage that David just read for us, there are a couple of things to be aware of. Judaism of the day was dominated by something referred to as the “Holiness Code”, a large portion of the book of Leviticus that stated that a Holy God requires a holy people, set apart, giving specific, rigid laws regarding just how God’s people were to live their lives separated from all that was unclean, all that was sinful. As God’s holy people were to be pure. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day followed this code with great determination.

In our story from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus breaks the rules of the holiness code three separate times. First, he eats with tax collectors and sinners — people who had unabashedly failed to keep clear of sin. Far from separating himself from these sinners, by sitting down to share a meal Jesus was loudly declaring them to be “MY people.“

Second, Jesus agrees to go to the home of a child who has died in order that he might touch the child‘s corpse. Dead bodies were considered unclean, and Leviticus declares that in touching a corpse a person is rendered unclean. Interestingly, unlike the Gospel writers Mark and Luke’s versions of this same story, Matthew presents the child as being dead from the very outset, thereby emphasizing Jesus’ determination to ignore the precepts of the holiness code

Third, a woman who has been hemorrhaging blood for 12 years approaches Jesus. In this condition the woman would have been considered unclean. She would have been prohibited from being out in public, let alone touching a Rabbi. In doing so she renders Jesus himself unclean. Jesus doesn’t rebuke the woman; in fact, he commends her faith, “My daughter, your faith has made you well.“ Nor does he drop everything to go and visit priest in order to follow the prescribed procedure for being made once more clean; instead he continues on to the house of the dead girl.

So what we have in this story is Jesus intentionally getting himself dirty.

In doing so, he redefines what it means to be “holy”. Holiness is no longer separating from others; instead, it now means living with compassion towards others. In fact, for Jesus, there is no “other”, there is only “one another.”

The lines blur for Jesus. Who are the sinners, and who are the righteous? Or in the language that Jesus himself introduces in the story, who are the sick, and who are the well? Who are the patients, and who is the physician?

Naomi Remen has a story in one of her books from her days as a young doctor in training working in the ward of New York City hospital that routinely cared for many extremely down and out people. She was required to give needles to patients in order to take blood samples and to establish pick lines. And as generally the case when one is first learning a new skill, she wasn’t very good at it. When someone gives a needle to a patient and doesn’t know what they’re doing, it ends up being a form of torture.

An older, warn-out looking man — a patient in the ward — gently came to her side as she was giving someone a needle to show her how to do it in a way that would minimize the pain. Naomi was grateful for the man’s guidance. For the better part of an hour the man stayed at her side as she went from patient to patient, coaching her how to locate the vein and tenderly insert the needle.

Naomi had assumed that the older man must be a professional nurse; how else would he have such skill? It was only later that she learned that the man was instead a drug addict whose expertise at giving injections had come from years of giving himself his heroin fix.

Later the man would die from an overdose.

Life is messy, and over time, life is humbling.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a great German pastor who, in contrast to a majority of his fellow Church leaders spoke out strongly against Hitler and the Nazis when they rose to power. Bonhoeffer took Jesus very, very seriously, and it was clear to him that where the Nazis were taking his country and what Jesus was about had nothing in common.

Initially, Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, recognizing what many Christians find it easy to overlook, which is that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus made it quite clear that a Christian isn’t to engage in violence, particularly in the evil of taking the sacred life of another human being, and that Jesus himself refrained from violence when the soldiers came for him.

Apparently though, Bonhoeffer reached a point where he concluded it wasn’t possible to remain sinless in such evil times. At some point, he got involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, to take life.

Evidently Bonhoeffer concluded that in the grave times he was facing, the concern for remaining personally clean and sin-free wasn’t faithful; that the time had come to get dirty and involve himself in a murder attempt, throwing himself on the mercy of God as a sinner standing in need of his grace.

The assassination attempt failed, and Bonhoeffer ended up in prison, where just a week before the end of the war, he was executed.

Life is messy. As we heard the Apostle Paul say last week, all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. We are in this thing called life together.

As Jesus neared Jerusalem where he would lay down his life, his disciples, the brothers James and John, approached him and asked for Jesus to do whatever they asked. What do you want me to do for you? he asked. We want you to make us your right and left hand men when you come into your power and glory. Jesus tells them they don’t know what they’re asking for, and that it isn’t his to give. The other disciples overhear the conservation and are outraged at James and John for their audacity. Probably, however, part of the reason they were so upset was the brothers were expressing a desire they weren’t honest enough to acknowledge in themselves. They, too, were looking for power and glory in following Jesus. (As CS Lewis said, if you want to know how proud you are, take note of how much it annoys you when others express their pride. Everybody’s pride is in competition.)

The wonderful part of this story for me is the fact that Jesus doesn’t toss James and John out on their ear after making this brash request which so clearly reveals that they just aren’t catching on to what he is all about. Even though their motivations for following him aren’t “pure”, he keeps them in his company. Eventually over time their motivations for following Jesus would become closer to what motivated Jesus himself, but it would require a major breaking of their lives, experienced most acutely when Jesus was arrested and crucified and they all ran for cover, to put them in touch with this deepr motivation.

I am comforted because I know that my motivations in becoming a minister weren’t exactly pure either. There were a lot of things that came into play thirty years ago in my sense of a “calling“, but one thing I only admitted to myself over time was that a significant part of why I wanted to be a minister was my perception that ministers were strong, whole people that weaker, broken people leaned on because of their strength and wholeness, and I desperately wanted to think of myself as strong and whole, because I realized on some level that I was in fact quite insecure, weak and broken. I figured that if I could become an ordained minister, if I could convincingly play the part — well then, that would mean I WAS strong and whole.

I remember when I was still a seminarian, I applied to be a part of a Clinical Pastoral Education program, an intensive training program in a hospital setting where part of the time was spent visiting patients in the role of chaplain, and the rest of the time was spent meeting with supervisors and fellow chaplains to reflect upon and learn from the experience. The program required a great deal of personal soul searching. I was drawn to the program because it played into my hero fantasies, with me playing the part of the brave chaplain coming to the aid of the sick hospital patients.

The application required writing essays that reflected on my emotional and spiritual development, and I figured I was good at that. I wrote about growing up in a home where my parents got divorced, and what I had learned about life from this pain. The application process also required an hour long interview with a seasoned chaplain. I went to this interview relatively confident, figuring I had done a good job with the essays.

To this day I can still remember a moment in that interview that occurred relatively early on. The old chaplain complimented me on the essays I had written. But then he went on to say, “You write, however, in such a way that suggests all the pain, all the struggle of your life is all in the past, as though you pretty much have it together now. But I’m wondering what causes you pain and struggle now, in the present?” And realizing that my pretense had been exposed, I felt this flood of panic come over me as this wise man gently pushed me to acknowledge the messy ongoing truth of my life. The rest of the interview is something of a blur; my main concern was for the hour to come to an end.

Later, as a young pastor in my first church, when my short-lived first marriage began to fall apart, my first thought was, “Well, if this does end up in divorce, I’ll have to leave the ministry. It will be too shameful, too embarrassing. Ministers are supposed to have their life together, and here, I can’t even manage to make my marriage work.“

I did end up getting divorced, and it wasn’t easy, but somewhere in the midst of it all the urge to flee lessoned, and gradually over time I became somewhat more real, and somewhat less concerned with what people thought about me. I stayed in the ministry.

And it’s a good thing, too. It fits me better now. I think I’ve been changed some in this process; that my motivations for being a minister, although not altogether purged of self-centeredness, do arise now out of a deeper, more authentic place than they did back then.

Nowadays I’m more inclined to see myself as one beggar telling other beggars where they can find food. Or one addict, telling other addicts, where they can find some help in practicing sobriety. One sin-sick person, telling other sin-sick people, where they can find the grace to keep on keeping on.

This past Friday evening through all day yesterday I was at the annual retreat our church sponsors for persons living with HIV/AIDS, serving as the spiritual director. Once again, the lines were blurred. On the surface, it might appear that what this was about an ordained minister, healthy and whole, condescending to help these poor, miserable souls plagued by the virus. To see it as such would be to totally misinterpret what happened there.

The folks who attended the retreat are heroes in my book. They know far more than I do about what it means to “walk through the dark valley of the shadow of death,” and they have a far more convincing testimony to the reality of the Good Shepherd who is leading them through. I am humbled by them.

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