Sunday 11th June 2023, St Anne’s Lewes Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
What is it that makes us friends of Christ? What is it which draws God to us most surely and completely? Is it quality of mind? Is it that which we have achieved? Is it the strength of our morality or the depth of our faith?
It is none of these things, Jesus draws close to us because of the depth of our moral failure. If we take a calm look at our lives, we will be drawn to the conclusion that our lives are remarkable for their levels of confusion and moral weakness. All that embarrassing disorder which we try and hide in a cupboard, all that pain and failure, all of that draws God to us like bees drawn to flowers.
Being with somebody who understands the depth of what we have got wrong and does not hold it against us, like a life sentence, helps us to know ourselves truthfully and without evasion. 'And as Jesus 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?"'
Of course, we are afraid of our own moral weakness, which is why we hide it in that cupboard or under the rug. The idea we are all on some long and incredibly dreary journey of moral self-improvement is one of the abiding myths of many forms of individualistic spirituality. I can pull myself up to enlightenment, or God, by my own muscular efforts. This is one more myth the ego so eagerly manufactures and it frightening when we discover how untrue it is.
But one of the realities of knowing we are essentially failures of one kind or another is that we can let go these self-help mythologies, we know our ability to get it wrong again and again and we long for the love and healing of grace. "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."
Those wounds of guilt and shame and sadness which we all carry within us draw the tender love and healing of Christ the physician of the soul. Bringing to God in prayer the parts of ourselves, and our past, which we are least keen to acknowledge is an opportunity to experience the salve of God's mercy.
What is interesting about today's Gospel is how it deals not only with moral failure but physical challenge as well. As we spend time in our bodies it becomes rapidly clear that our bodies fail us as regularly and dependably as our moral wills. If it hasn't happened to you yet don't worry, the time of physical weakness will come. Our bodies, again like our moral will, are amazingly complex and embarrassing. Our bodies bleed and palpitate and go wrong.
In our modern culture we are still fed on the myth of beautiful bodies and youth (although this is perhaps changing). The woman who has been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years would have been an outcast figure of shame in her society. But in truth we still today cast people who suffer mental or physical suffering into places where they feel overwhelmingly lonely and afraid, hospitals are full of secret fear and shame about the reality of human weakness and suffering.
For Jesus what is considered to be most shameful and embarrassing about this woman becomes the doorway to her deeper relationship with God. Knowing our physical and mental infirmity can be precious to us since we may turn to that which does not give way and does not fail us, God's eternal love for us. "Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well."
Of course, the greatest vulnerability we fear is the ultimate vulnerability of death. Jesus, in this gospel, meets us in our moral and physical frailty and, ultimately, in our mortality, in the figure of the apparently dead child. When I had a bereavement a few years ago I was struck, as I'm sure you have been, by how embarrassed people are about death, its capacity to overturn everything. Nobody knows how to speak into death and how to be with death. We sentimentalise. We evade.
In today's gospel Jesus reaches out into death and takes the girl by the hand. Jesus crosses the boundaries, the boundaries of what is thought to be morally proper, the boundaries between life and death. Christ makes death, our ultimate place of vulnerability and loss, the place of loving encounter.
So yes, we are afraid. We are afraid of our weakness, physical, moral, we are afraid when our plans for improvement and success slowly spin out of control. We are afraid when we find out we are not who we thought we were. We are ashamed about how wrong we have got it and our bodies, as we stride into the bright new future, feel like they are giving way and growing old.
Let God embrace you then. In the depths of your failure, in the depths of your frailty. Let that love grow in you and make that love of God your ground. Christ's beloved are those marked by moral weakness and moral failure. Christ's beloved are those marked by physical challenge and frailty. Christ's beloved are those who have been hidden away out of shame and fear. As you fail, as you fall, may you know the grace and forgiveness and reality of God-with-you.