Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It has become almost cliched to point out that social media has made our discourse as a society less likely to be civil or to take account of complexity. I was amused and rightly lampooned a couple months ago. A clergyperson, thank God from a different church (though that’s not to say it might not have just as easily been an Episcopal priest) posted, in meme form, a remarkably bad take on the nature of Christ’s sacrifice and our justification. I responded by writing the following:

Christian theology attempted through memes is generally a bad idea. Trying to dispute two millennia of careful meditation on the nature of the doctrine of the atonement with a political slogan is a supremely bad idea.

Of course, somebody then took my quote and turned it into a meme. I thought that was pretty funny, but more importantly it was a good reminder for me. Don’t feed the trolls.

We might lament meme-ification and the scoring of points through soundbites, though it is nothing new. It certainly predates social media. I have been fascinated by church signs which feature slogans and inspirational quotes for a long time. Sometimes they’re fine, or even funny. Other times they are a bit, as the youngsters would say, “cringe.” Most of the time, I feel like they just need a bit more context, which I understand is impossible through the medium of church signs.

One message that one sees frequently on these signs is something along the lines of “the church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.” The point is well taken, but it doesn’t make it clear that we’re all both saints and sinners simultaneously. Nor does it advertise the fact that the “course of treatment” in this hospital for sinners is not primarily about making us morally better by its ministrations(as much as we might hope that this is sometimes possible), but about reminding us that we are wholly dependent on God’s Grace and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. I know… just try fitting all that onto a church sign.

The quote in question has been attributed to all sorts of people over the years, such that it’s probably impossible to determine who might have first said it. There is something, though, written by John Chrysostom, but its slightly different and I think more apposite:

The Church is a hospital, and not a courtroom, for souls. She does not condemn on behalf of sins, but grants remission of sins.

I like this better, particularly since few of us these days think of the church as a museum for saints (though this might be different if we were a medieval cathedral in Europe rather than a local parish church in the American Midwest). Plenty, however, have gotten the idea that the church is a court of law established to condemn the sinful, and this is likely due to the moralism that has been preached from many pulpits instead of the Good News of God’s Grace.

Chrysostom’s sentiments here are also closer to what I think Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel. I’ve mentioned in a sermon before, in relation to Zacchaeus, that tax collectors were reckoned an unrighteous lot by the Jews of Jesus’ day. They weren’t just performing a basic, necessary function for the smooth-functioning of the Roman Empire. They were, rather, rewarded for defrauding the people, bullying them into paying more than was owed. So in this morning’s Gospel, the pharisees were quite right to note that in sitting at table with Matthew and the other “tax collectors and sinners”, he was fraternizing with a bad group. Their problem, then, was not in recognizing sin, but in how they believed it should be addressed. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’”

The other mistake they make is in what I said a minute ago could be taken from the church sign version of the quote–namely that there is a neat distinction between people who are saints and people who are sinners. Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” One wishes he went on to make explicit here what I take to be implicit and obvious, at least from a Christian viewpoint, by saying “and you, Pharisees, are sinners, too. You, too, are sick and in need of the Great Physician. Come and join me along with the tax collectors.”

Recognizing one’s own need for mercy and grace is a tricky business. The apparent irony of the Gospel is that flagrant sinners are often more able to accept that grace because they’re not shielded by an air of conventional piety. This, I think, is why hypocritical pharisees, teachers of the law and seen by the world and by themselves as being a cut above the rest, are the most regular recipients of Jesus’ rebukes.

This is not, however, to say that those given over to outward and even hypocritical displays of piety are beyond the pale of Christ’s salvific will if they are brought low enough by life’s circumstances to see that they are in need of grace. Consider the ruler whose daughter has died from the second half of today’s Gospel. You might not have caught the strangest element of this story. “When Jesus came to the ruler’s house, [he] saw the flute players, and the crowd making a tumult.” What’s that about? These are professional mourners, no doubt hired by the ruler himself, to lend a veneer of propriety to the proceedings. This is the literal definition of hypocrisy–“play-acting”, expressing the “appropriate, ‘done’ thing”–regardless of the real feelings one has on the matter. They are clearly not even good professional mourners, as they break character and start laughing at Jesus rather than keeping up the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

But for all that, the ruler’s pain in losing his daughter is keen enough to get him to throw aside the artifice for long enough to go to Jesus and ask for help. He’s been brought low enough, if only for as long as it took him to seek out the Lord, to realize that he was at the end of his string, and he was miraculously rewarded for it.

I was asked recently if I had any idea why some people in our own culture have turned not just to secular “self-help” ideology, but even to pagan ideas of old, or at least the contemporary invention of supposedly pre-Christian beliefs pitched directly (let’s not beat around the bush) at comfortable, mostly white, radically individualistic Westerners. My theory, which is not at all politique but for which I can’t come up with a convincing alternative explanation, is that most of these folks just haven’t experienced enough loss or pain or some other reminder of how profoundly fallen our sin-sick world is, to realize yet that one needs a savior. It is my suspicion that the likelihood is that when one does experience for oneself his or her own inadequacy in fixing it, that person will set aside the crystals and smudge sticks and tarot cards and will either become a Christian or a nihilist. We pray it’s the former, and we, as the church, have no greater responsibility than to make the former more attractive than the latter, because it objectively is.

In the end, that’s really pretty simple even if we worry and wring our hands about it from time to time. Why? Because we too have been in need of the Great Physician to heal our souls, to apply the balm of his love and to give us the medicine which is the Sacrament. Thank God for that, and let’s be a little more ready to recommend the course of treatment we find here to others.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.