At the beginning of this school year, they offered the seniors a chance to preach, if we wanted it. At the time, I was in my crabby Elijah-like mode ("God, I'm the only one left!), and I knew that if I took the chance to preach it would be all wrong - it would be about proving a point and having an agenda, and that is SO not the reason to preach. So right away, I decided that I wouldn't do it. But over a couple weeks, my heart kind of softened and I started to pray about it. As in, I had one of those internal nudges that says, "Maybe you should pray about it." So I did. And I basically just said, "Ok, God. If you want me to preach, you need to give me the text, and you need to give me the topic, because if I do it, it's just going to screw it up." And lo and behold, over the course of this year, a text and topic slowly came to me. It sort of evolved and refined itself, impacted by so many different events and experiences this year, until it was all just there. And I kept thinking to myself, "I should go down to the chapel office and offer to preach sometime." But I kept not doing it.
Until a couple months ago. I was having dinner with a friend, and relaying the end of this process. "So, I'm thinking about preaching in chapel....I don't know...I told God he'd have to pick the text and the topic...but I don't know." His response was, "So, do you have a text?" "Yes." "Do you have a topic?" "Yes." "What's keeping you from doing this?" "Um, walking over to the office and signing up."
Ok, fine, God. I'll do it.
So, I did it. I ditched the lectionary, and dove right into Matthew 8:1-17. This was a good sermon, and it felt good to preach. I don't say it was good as "look how awesome I am" kind of comment, but as a "look how awesome God is, because I certainly am not this awesome" kind of comment. And I really never ever mail/email/publish my sermons, because, I don't know, it feels sort of arrogant. But this one felt good, and it felt good to do it, and so I'm going to post the text. It's behind the jump, so if you think it's lacking humility for me to put it out there, don't click on it, and pray that I would be convicted of the sin. I beg your and God's forgiveness. It just seems right, right now.
Good morning! Ok, I’m going to start with a typical “senior moment” here, so just bear with me, alright? But...“when I was on internship…” I preached every week, almost always from the lectionary, and I would start basically every sermon by saying, “So…this is one of my favorite Bible stories because…blah blah blah.” And, I didn’t even realize I was doing it until just a few weeks before I left to come back, when my internship committee finally asked me, “Ok, which one’s really your favorite?” And it was funny, and we all laughed, but even a year later, it’s still got me thinking. Because I would write these sermons and claim that “I just absolutely love this story….” And, at the time, I was entirely sincere in saying so. Even though we know that, say, the parable of the dishonest businessman isn’t anybody’s favorite.
But there’s a truth to it, too, I think, and it comes from realizing that the smaller stories that get read and preached and taught and studied and explained every week – from the pulpit, in the classroom, around a campfire – are all part of a bigger story. And that’s the story that I love, and that I think all of us love, or we wouldn’t be here. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the single best story ever, because it makes it possible for each one of us to live that same story. We know that story, and we love it – we preach it, we teach it, we write books about it, we sing and play and write songs about it. All of us are here because we’ve been called – in our baptisms, yes, but even more specifically than that – to tell that story to others. To proclaim it from the pulpit, to teach it to toddlers and teens and seminarians, put it to music and make it sound beautiful. And most days, we love it.
But there’s a problem. If I can be brutally honest for a minute, one of the things I have learned in seminary – on internship, but maybe even more so from classes on campus – is that it is really super easy to get so caught up in telling this amazing “best story ever” to other people that we entirely forget that this best story ever is for us, too. And this forgetfulness, I sometimes think, may in fact be the devil’s most powerful weapon. Because a lot of times, what we hear, and what we learn – whether it’s explicit or implicitly taught – is that Jesus – the Gospel – is for “those people” – whoever “those people” are. The poor, the marginalized, the oppressed. Women. The fashionably irreligious. Racial and ethnic minorities. The impoverished, the abused, the victims of war, famine, and natural disasters. The homeless, the drug addicts, the 99%. And most of us, I suspect, do not on a daily basis consider ourselves to be among the poor, the marginalized, or the oppressed. Sometimes, it seems, we even take a sort of masochistic delight in condemning ourselves for not being those things. We compare our lives to what we see on the news every night, and so we forget to remember that we, too, are the poor, and the marginalized, and the oppressed.
I mean, most of us, don’t have much trouble identifying our suffering. But then we immediately move to the mindset that says, “But I can handle it. I mean, it’s not like I live in Darfur or something. I’ve got 46 trillion things to do for school and it’s possible that I’ll pass out from lack of sleep before long – but I’ll make it. I’m racking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt to be here, but I’ll find a way. At least I’ll probably have a job when this is all over. My allergies are so bad that I haven’t gotten out of bed in four months – but at least it’s not cancer.” True enough.
But then, Peter’s mother-in-law might have said, “Well, yes, I’ve got a touch of the flu. But it’s that time of year, you know. At least I don’t have leprosy.”
And that is what – here we go – I absolutely love about this story. This story from Matthew is not about the “I’m more oppressed than you” game – or, the game I think we’re more likely to play with ourselves – “They’re more oppressed than me.” No. No. Just, no. Because in the span of 15 short verses, Jesus does his healing among all the groups that we’re so eager to divide ourselves into. St. Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Everybody’s in, nobody’s left out. And hey, would you look at that – in the Matthew text for today, Jesus heals (or answers the prayers of) Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. Everybody’s in. The outcast and the ultimate insider. The powerless and the powerful. The poor and the rich. Those who are ill and those who intercede for them. The quiet housewife and the violent, war-mongering soldier. Everybody is in.
This healing – this death and resurrection – is for all of us. It’s for you, and it’s for me. “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons , and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick.” All. He healed all who were sick. Not “he healed all who were sick and who had first passed the poverty/marginalization/oppression/minority test.” Not even “He took their illnesses and bore their diseases.” No. “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” Ours. Yours, and mine, and everybody else’s. Ours. We are in Christ. We are Abraham’s offspring, and heirs according to the promise. You are part of the “best story ever.” “He took our illnesses, and bore our diseases.”