Hoping Against Hope
Mount Calvary Monastery, Santa Barbara, CA
Brother James Michael Dowd, n/OHC
RCL - Proper 5 A - Sunday 08 June 2008
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
In the name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I have spent the better part of my adult life wondering about how the Church could be “relevant to today’s society” and, how I, in my own little way, might help the Church to be “relevant to today’s society.” In fact, there are seminars on this very topic, and courses on this very topic, and endless sermons on this very topic. Clerical and Religious types sit around debating how we might make the Church “relevant to today’s society.” Many suggest that the Church will die if we do not become “relevant to today’s society.”
But at some point along the way, I came to believe that the Church is not “relevant to today’s society.” And that it had no hope of becoming “relevant to today’s society.” And that the last thing we Clerical and Religious types should be doing is attempting to make the Church “relevant to today’s society.”
For, there is nothing about being Church – that is, the People of God, followers of Jesus - that is “relevant to today’s society.” In fact, the call that we have received, by virtue of our baptism, is to abandon all cares of this world and to follow the Lord immediately, unequivocally and irrevocably. In order to do this, we must, like Abram and Matthew before us, place all of our trust in the saving power of our God. But what does it mean to follow the Lord immediately, unequivocally and irrevocably? Well, to me our faith in Jesus, the Christ, demands that we adhere to a belief in hope; that we cling, against all odds, to hopefulness; that we put all our trust in the hope promised to us by the Lord of All. Today’s readings are filled with examples of people who, as St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, are “hoping against hope.” And hope, quite frankly, isn’t relevant to today’s society. But before I get into that, let’s look at why hope was not relevant in society at the time of Jesus, either. Let me begin with Matthew.
Now most folks are a little suspect of any tax collector. But Matthew is a special case. He was a Jew, collecting incredibly oppressive taxes from his fellow Jews for the pagan Emperor of Rome – a man who claimed to be a god. And Matthew would have made his own money by adding his own “take” onto the top of what Rome demanded. So other, more faithful Jews, looked upon him as a man who was corrupt, traitorous, and a pagan idolater. He was, to put it plainly, the worst kind of outcast. Despised by his own people and condescended to by the Romans. Let’s face it no one likes a traitor.
I’ve often wondered what Matthew thought of himself. He obviously liked money – perhaps he was particularly greedy. We don’t know for sure, but it takes a strong impulse to act against your own people. Perhaps it was greed, perhaps it was that he had no other options in life. But my guess is that whatever it was, he probably felt pretty much alone in the world. He had written his life into a corner by his sin and had separated himself from the Chosen People. Being so separated from his own people, and never being accepted by the Romans, he very likely was without hope. Faithful Jews and Romans alike were only too pleased for him to remain mired in his own hopelessness.
And how does Jesus respond to that? Rather than shunning him, Jesus asks Matthew to “follow him” and invites him and a bunch of his fellow sinners out to dinner.
When Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees about dining with sinners, he responds that it is exactly these folks – the sinners – who need him. That it is for the sick that a physician comes.
Next we have the woman who was hemorrhaging for twelve years. She was not allowed to touch Jesus, or anyone else, because she was unclean. If she did touch them, she would make them unclean as well. No one would have been allowed to touch her, neither would she be allowed to touch anyone else. This was not because she had a disease that could be contracted. No, the Levitical code that all Jews lived by stated that a bleeding woman was unclean. In cases where a normal menstruation occurred, the woman separated herself from her husband, family and village for a few days, until she was once again “clean.” This was standard practice and while we would never think of doing that today, it was not considered odd or difficult for a woman to have to adhere to this practice.
But this particular woman never stopped bleeding. In fact, she bled in some form or another for twelve years, meaning that for twelve long years she could never lie with her husband, she could never hold her children, she would not be able to hug her friends upon greeting them, she could not go to the marketplace, she would not be welcome in the synagogue. Talk about hopeless.
And how does Jesus respond to this sick woman? He does not recoil from her touch. He loves her by simply affirming that her faith has healed her.
And then, we have the leader of the synagogue who is desperate because his daughter has died. He comes to Jesus and asks him to lay his hand on her. No need for explanation. What could be more hopeless that losing a child?
And how does Jesus respond to the leader of the synagogue? He goes to his home, not to mourn, but to restore life. He brings life back into the world by waking her, as if from a sleep.
It seems to me that Matthew, the hemorrhaging woman, and the leader of the synagogue, all have one thing in common. They each see, in Jesus, hope for their desperate situation. Their lives have been destroyed, respectively, by sin, disease and death, and there is only one cure and only one physician that can heal them. That cure is hope, and that physician is Jesus.
Matthew was ostracized because of his sin, and Jesus sat down to dinner with him. The sick woman was marginalized because of her disease, and Jesus welcomed her touch. The leader of the synagogue was laughed at for hoping his daughter could live again, and Jesus gave her new life. In each case, Jesus acts in a way that is opposite of what society thinks is appropriate. And in doing this, Jesus helps each of these folks to believe that in Jesus there is hope to overcome their own sin, their own disease, their own mourning.
So, what made you give up a weekend to spend time at a monastery? What made my brothers and I give up a great deal to become monks? Why do we put so much time into worshiping our God in community and praying to him in the privacy of our cells? Why does each of you give so much of your time, money, and energy to care for the sick, the poor, the marginalized? We do it, I believe, because of that wonderful gift of hope.
And that’s what I mean when I say that the Church is really not about being relevant to society. A man who gives up his career, the possibility of an intimate relationship, and all the usual trappings of success, in order to seek God with his whole being, is not relevant to society. People who give up a weekend to spend it at a monastery are not relevant to today’s society. At least not to a society that is filled with a level of noise that makes the pursuit of God almost impossible; at least not to a society whose government promotes an unjust war and record numbers of executions to save us from alleged bad guys; at least not to a culture that promotes violence against women in our popular music and films as a way to “freely express” ourselves; at least not to a society that encourages the use of abortion as just another form of birth control; at least not to a marketplace that cajoles us to shop until we drop; at least not to a society that finds it acceptable to have large numbers of homeless people wandering our streets.
When we live in the hope of the Incarnation, we are incapable of believing that violence will solve our problems. For violence is a violation of the Body of Christ. When we live in the hope of the Passion, we are incapable of believing that greed will buy us happiness. For greed consumes a soul and burns it alive. When we live in the hope of the Resurrection, we are incapable of believing that permissiveness will fulfill us. For a life of permissiveness is to deny the glory of the Resurrected Christ. Hope is the antithesis of the values of our current society. To hope means to believe that Jesus can and will forgive us, or heal us, or raise us to new life.
My guess is, that each of you holds a hope – in the deepest part of your souls. That hope, I believe, is for wholeness, for holiness. A hope that calls to you in the dark corners of the night, or while you’re driving on the frantic freeway, or while toiling at your desk, or praying here in church. A hope that calls you to turn away from the sin, disease or death that binds your hands, hinders your heart, and destroys your soul. A hope that calls you to follow Jesus. To follow him immediately, unequivocally, and irrevocably. Believe with your whole being that just as Jesus called his followers to stand with him and to reject the personal and societal sins of his day, he calls each and every one of us to stand with him today, Sunday, and to reject the personal and societal sins of our day. Go ahead and dare to be irrelevant. Go ahead and hope against hope. Go ahead and follow Jesus.