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Sermon and Reflections For Ordinary 10 - Proper 5 - Year A
Hosea 5:15-6:6; Psalm 50:7-15; Roman 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13,18-26
"Keeping Bad Company"
Barry Robinson

From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada).   Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way".   Contact Barry at fernstone@fernstone.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson

Ordinary 10 - Proper 5 - Year A
Hosea 5:15-6:6; Psalm 50:7-15; Roman 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13,18-26
"Keeping Bad Company"

	
    "And as he reclined 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."

Once upon a time, a minister was traveling through a remote part of the 
State of Washington when he came across a flock of sheep crossing the 
road.  He stopped his car to wait and soon the shepherd of the flock came 
by on horseback.  Being a preacher, the man simply couldn't resist 
approaching the shepherd.  "You know," he said. "You're the first real, 
live shepherd I've ever met.  Do you mind me asking what you think of when
you hear the expressions 'The Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd'? The 
answer was more than he ever could have expected.

The old shepherd said, "You know, springtime is a tough time for sheep 
and shepherds. It's lambing time. It's a time of tragedy.  When many ewes 
are giving birth, the shepherd must often deal with problems.  Sometimes 
a lamb dies at birth, sometimes a ewe, giving birth.

And here is the scene: Over here is a mother sheep that has lost her baby. 
Over there is a lamb that has lost its mother. But sheep are difficult 
animals.  A sheep will not take a lamb that is not its own.  And so, we 
have the situation of a mother full of the milk that will not nourish 
her baby because she has no baby to feed.  And we have a lamb, hungry 
for life-giving nourishment and no mother to feed it.  In short order, 
the motherless baby will starve to death.

It is a scene of abundance and scarcity - all at once.

And this is what the good shepherd must do.  Now, this is going to be a 
bit graphic, preacher, but it's the truth.  To reconcile this moment of 
tragedy, the shepherd takes the lamb that has died and slits its throat. 
Then he washes the motherless lamb in the blood of the lamb that has died. 
Only then will the mother accept and feed the motherless lamb as her own.

That is what I know about 'The Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd'," said 
the shepherd.  (With thanks to Harlan Bemis, for sharing the story)

                                    +

Of course, sheep are not the only creatures who can be difficult; and that 
is the point of this week's gospel and old testament lesson.

According to the author of the first gospel of the new testament, one day 
Jesus saw a man sitting at his desk and told him to get up and start 
following him; and the man got up and started following right then and 
there.  The man wasn't just anybody.  His name was Matthew or Levi, if 
you happen to believe Luke, and he was sitting in the local tax office 
because he was the local tax collector in that area.

It was not a salaried position. It was a contract Matthew was carrying out 
on behalf of the occupying legions of Rome.  He was there on behalf of 
Israel's enemies, acting with their authority to tax his own people for 
virtually everything they used or laid their hands on.  As much as people 
like Matthew bled people for all he could get, not all of what he gathered 
went back to Rome.  He had discretionary power to line his own pockets 
- which meant it was a system ripe for corruption.  Not surprisingly, Rome 
hired the most ruthless cutthroats it could find.  Not surprisingly, too, 
people like Matthew were despised more than most.  They were not allowed in 
the synagogue; for they were regarded as the crooks and traitors they were.

This was the man who got up and followed Jesus that day; and neither Matthew 
nor Luke tell us why he did it.  Put down his pen, didn't even finish the 
form he was working on, pushed back his chair, got up and just started 
heading for the door without once looking back over his shoulder.  Just like 
a lot of the decisions we make that end up changing our lives for good or 
bad one way or the other.  He got up and left behind everything he had been 
doing, everything that had given his life meaning up to that point, and 
started following this itinerant rabbi from Nazareth who had suddenly walked 
into his life and said that he wanted him with him.

We preach sermons, tell children's stories, sing hymns about it, unless I 
badly miss my guess, more to emphasize the beauty of the moment, the 
nostalgia of it, the sentimentality,

	Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling -
	Calling for you and for me;
	Patiently Jesus is waiting and watching -
	Watching for you and for me!

and stop right there; because it is easier to see that moment through
rose-coloured glasses than it is to see it the way both Matthew and Luke 
want us to see it.

Because what happens next is what puts this dynamic moment in perspective. 
It is the point of the whole episode.  Jesus didn't just call Matthew 
because he felt sorry for him.  He called him because he liked him and liked 
the crowd Matthew hung around with.  For what Matthew says next is that 
Jesus is sitting, which in those days meant 'reclining', at dinner in a 
house where there were many tax collectors.  He is hangin' out with a bad 
bunch.  Luke sharpens the point (Lk. 5.27-32) by telling us that it wasn't 
just any house.  It was Matthew's.  And Jesus didn't just happen to be 
there.  He was the honoured guest; for Matthew, his new-found disciple and 
former extortioner, had thrown "a great banquet for" Jesus.  He was "The 
Man" as far as this bad bunch is concerned.

This is what sticks in the craw of those Pharisees: not merely that Jesus 
was associating with toll collectors, but that he was enjoying time with 
them and, along with them, other 'known' sinners, in other words, people 
whose life-style and reputation those who did attend synagogue disapproved 
of and had excluded from respectable company.  Jesus simply had bad taste 
or, worse, no taste as far as his religious contemporaries were concerned. 
He hung around with 'the wrong crowd of people' and it was too bad his 
parents hadn't raised him differently!

But notice where the criticism is directed.  It is not against Jesus but 
against his disciples - a code word in most of the gospels for 'the church'. 
What both Matthew and Luke were concerned about were the attacks made 
against the early church for its inclusive table fellowship where all were 
treated equally.  The church was a place where full acceptance of the 
other was practiced because Jesus had practiced the same in his own life 
and ministry.  Both caused problems.  Both created hostility; for there 
were some people who would simply not accept some people as their own.

Jesus' response to this criticism, both in his own ministry and, no doubt, 
in the life of the early church, is striking in its clarity and inescapable 
in its demand.  Jesus refers his critics to a passage at the very heart of 
their tradition.

	Go and learn what this text means, 'I desire steadfast mercy, 
    not sacrifice.' - Hosea 6.6

This passage from Hosea was a favourite verse for Israel, particularly 
during their time of exile; for it was a reminder of that steadfast love 
and loyalty of God.  Jesus was merely practicing what his own people 
preached.  He lets the fact that his critics did not embody the generous 
love of God to members of their own community become a form of 
self-indictment.

There are no insiders and no outsiders in God's domain.  All are included 
because it is the very nature of God's love to do so.

                                    +

I'm not sure what it is that makes people like you and me remarkably like 
that ewe that has lost its own lamb in this week's opening story.  I simply 
know that it happens.  In our deep grief, hurt, loss and maybe just plain 
fear of really being all that we can be for each other, we begin to grow 
blind - pure and simple.  Blind to the reality of human need around us.  
Blind to those who need us as much as we have ever needed those whom we have 
loved and lost.  Blind to the fact that that person over there "with his or 
her problems" is not really seperate from us at all.  As if we can go on 
with our own little lives as if they did not matter.  Not enough to become 
concerned about.  Not enough to do anything about.  And so we go on 
withholding all that we have it in us to give and that others need from us, 
as much as rain was meant to fall from clouds that can barely contain it 
and as much as the parched earth below would be grateful for a single drop. 
We stubbornly refuse to open our eyes to the reality of it - even when it 
stands there bleating before us.

And what does it take to get us to open our eyes and recognize the ones who 
need us?  More than likely, one who is prepared to risk our scorn and 
whatever else we choose to punish him with for reminding us of something at 
the very heart of things, something that we seem bent on forgetting - that 
unless we live for and in and through each other, we cannot really live 
humanly at all: that love means keeping bad company simply because it is 
the only way we get to see and enjoy those who are, in truth, if not to 
our liking, our very own.

                               --------- 

Hosea 5:15-6:6 - 'Hesed' is the word the Old Testament most often 
uses to describe God, God's relationship with Israel and what is expected 
of Israel in return.  It is an extraordinarily rich and significant term 
meaning steadfast love, righteousness, loyalty, mercy.  Hosea 6.6 became 
a favourite verse for Israel in exile and away from the sacrificial system 
of the temple.  It continued to be important for the synagogue and its 
leaders, the Pharisees, especially after the fall of Jerusalem.

   1.	Have you ever experienced 'exile' or abandonment, desolation? 
   Describe the experience or that of someone who has?
   2.	What is the greatest temptation during such an experience?
   3.	What is 'the good news' for exiles in this week's text?  When 
   and how have you experienced this good news in the midst of your own 
   experience of exile?


Romans 4:13-25 - Of all the Old Testament figures who informed 
Paul's understanding of faith, Abraham was the most formative and 
influential.  Abraham's faith antedated the giving of the law at Sinai 
and, therefore, was not dependent on circumcision or obedience to the 
Law.  Abraham's faith took the form of an implicit trust in the God who 
promised to make the dead come alive and to create something new out of 
nothing.

   1.	Why would Abraham be so important for Paul's position on 
   acceptance of the Gentiles?
   2.	In what sense is Abraham's and a Christian's faith 'foolish'?
   3.	When have you had to trust God implicitly?


Matthew 9:9-13,18-26 - We refer you to July 2, 2000 (Year B) for 
a treatment of the story of verses 18-26, as Mark records it and have 
instead focused on verses 9-13, since it comes only once in the Lectionary 
cycle.  What is important to notice is not just 'the call of Matthew', but 
the effect that that call has both on Matthew, Jesus and the disciples in 
terms of the reaction of those who disapprove.  What does the character of 
God require of us in response to those whom we regard as 'tainted'?

   1.	Why do you think Matthew followed Jesus and threw a great feast 
   for him?
   2.	What would be the reaction in your church if a notorious 
   reprobate or crook suddenly 'got religion'?  Why?
   3.	What is it about 'tainted' people that makes some people 
   distance themselves from them?
   4.	What is it about some people that makes them blind to those who 
   need them?
   5.	When has the drama of this week's gospel 'happened' within 
   your community?
   6.	If it hasn't happened, why hasn't it?


A PRAYER FOR INSIDERS - Lord, save us from the arrogance that thinks, "There 
but for the grace of God go I" and from the blindness that simply fails to 
see the common humanity that unites and was meant to nourish us all. Amen.


HYMN  567  Will You Come and Follow Me  (Voices United)
Keeping the Faith in Babylon:
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
A publication of FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
All rights reserved. Please do not copy.
FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
R.R. 4, Lion's Head, Ontario Canada N0H 1W0
Phone/Fax: (519) 592-4551
E-mail: fernstone@fernstone.org

copyright - Barry Robinson 2002, 2005
            page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild - Spirit Networks, 2002 - 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.


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