Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Are You Busy-- or Free?

(The readings referred-to here are Genesis 12:1-9, Romans 4:13-25, and Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26.)

I’m trying to picture that tax booth Matthew sat in. I’m seeing Lucy’s little makeshift booth in “Peanuts”, with her hand-lettered sign, “The Doctor is in”… The tax collector is in.

But “excluded” is what he really was, written off by his neighbors for collaborating with the imperial tax office, the folks who sucked them dry. There he sat, inside his cage, a bird kept by the emperor’s people to keep singing the song, “Pay your taxes on time!” Yet in the wider community around him, this bird did not fly.

Not until this moment we witness, when Jesus walks along and sees the man, Matthew, ands calls to him, “Follow me.”

In the iconography of early times, Matthew is represented by the ox. There he is, in the upper right quadrant of the cluster of four evangelists, painted on our altar. So let’s not call him a bird. He’s a beast of burden, and he has just swapped his burdens. From today he is yoked to the God of mercy whom he has met in Jesus of Nazareth. And he will do his part to help pull the human race out of its ditches and set them onto the road to freedom.

Who else is trapped, boxed-in, and caged in our Gospel today? A woman who has had a flow of blood for twelve years. By the laws in the Book of Leviticus, she was to be shunned by society. She couldn’t be touched, nor could she touch anyone, without spreading ritual uncleanness. That’s where there is magical thinking in her story, not her believing that she could be made well, but society’s fearing her touch.

“If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well,” she says to herself. She wasn’t the only person to believe this. At chapter 14, verse 36 in Matthew’s Gospel we find the sick residents of Gennesaret begging Jesus “that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”

St. Mark tells the story of this same woman. Some of the details are identical (she has suffered for twelve years in both versions), but Mark’s story is fuller. She has spent all that she had seeking a cure, and has endured much at the hands of many physicians, says Mark.

More interesting is how Mark describes Jesus’s experience of her touch. Both evangelists say that she came up behind him. Twelve years of being rebuffed, scolded, and recoiled from have left their mark on her. It’s what happens next that’s different in Mark.

Matthew’s Jesus turns to her, sees her, and says, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.”

Mark says, “Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’ He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well: go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’”

Matthew and Mark agree: this woman has nothing to fear in Jesus. Both remember that his first words to her include calling her “daughter”, for he sees and respects her dignity as a child of God, a fact forgotten and denied by her culture.

But Mark dramatizes this moment of touch. Is it because he has a great crowd surrounding Jesus, while Matthew reports that only his disciples and one or two others witnessed this healing?

Mark’s Jesus seems to speak to the crowd, for the sake of the crowd, and I am in that crowd; perhaps you are, too. As he looks around, asking who has touched him, it isn’t to imply that no one should touch him: it’s to encourage each of us to come out of his or her tight boundaries and stand before him, open to him face on.

I need to hear that. You, too?

When I’m too busy to pray, too busy to renew a friendship, so busy that I talk myself into driving a short distance I could walk and be the better for it; when I’m filling my calendar enough that I am failing to kneel in the garden or dance into a day without appointments, and when work or worries claim my attention so there’s no more attention to share with my nearest and dearest, then I am just as hemmed in as Matthew or this nameless woman.

And when I realize it, my first instinct is to reach for the fringes of my faith and sort of sneak up on Jesus, you know, touch base with him-- and then get busy again. I know I’m not alone in this… am I?

I mean, we come to church for Word and sacrament. We at least brush up against spiritual community, the Spirit herself bearing witness with our spirits that life is for more than work, life is (as we heard one recent Sunday) more than clothing and the price of gasoline. We catch good messages like this. They invite us to acknowledge the heart of faith, that God desires mercy and not sacrifice, that God’s promise rests on grace. We have heard these very words in today’s scriptures.

But from inside my cubicle, I really relate to this woman who sneaks up on Jesus and satisfies herself with the fringe.

And he invites us around to the front, for some face to face time. The way Mark puts it, this woman steps out from the crowd, and certainly out of her comfort zone, falls down before Jesus, and tells him the whole truth.

That is prayer. I cannot even brush up against the fringe of these readings today and not hear him inviting me to pray. Can you?

And my telling him the truth, a good place to start, is not where we’ll end. If I stay open, if I don’t slip back into the crowd too soon, he’ll tell me more of the whole truth than I could hear in any other way than to be still with him.

I’ll be reminded that the promise does rest on grace. That God desires mercy. But also that the God of Abraham and Sarah calls to mission those who are open to hear, which is to say that prayer may be unsettling, which may help explain human resistance to prayer.

But I need unsettling, if that is another name for the freeing that is felt wherever the Gospel of Jesus Christ is heard. Matthew from his booth, the woman from her illness and isolation, Abraham and Sarah from the settled boundaries of their homeland and tribe. You and me from the confines and compulsions of work or worry or whatever may be boxing us in.

And the world could use some unsettling, if that is how all the families of the earth shall be blessed by freedom. What most needs unsettling is suggested by that Genesis reading today. Israel tells the story of Abraham and Sarah as the story of Israel gaining a homeland. But there’s that pesky verse, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.” The children of Israel and the children of those Canaanites have yet to settle boundaries in that part of our world. What most needs unsettling is the human addiction to owning without sharing.

Let’s help that along by welcoming God’s unsettling our human addiction to being busy without praying. Let’s hear the call of God to come out of our little cubicles of busy-ness, our workstations, our calendars, and our tunnel vision—for some face to face time with God. From that we will be blessed, and will be a blessing to the world.