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Sermon for September 16, 2007

Reviver of the Dead
Matthew 12:9-14

This morning, I invite us to hear, with fresh ears, a story about Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew says, “Then Jesus went over to the synagogue, where he noticed a man with a withered hand.”

I went to High School with a girl who suffered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis. She rode a scooter from class to class because she could barely walk. Her body was frail and tortured. I always remember her hands. They were usually bandaged. However, on the rare occasion her gauze wrappings were off, we saw her swollen, blistered, and twisted hands. I’m embarrassed to say, we were not kind to this girl. She was ridiculed and mocked without mercy. She was different. She was an easy target. School must not have been a safe place for her. She was one of our schools outcasts, excluded by those of us who felt that she did not belong among us healthy and robust teenagers.

I imagine life was hard for the man with the withered hand in today’s gospel reading. In Jesus’ day, a person’s deformities were seen as a symbol of that person’s sin, or the sin of the family. He was treated like an outcast. His physical deformity made him unclean, polluted, out of place.

I’ve learned something since High School. We all have withered hands. We all face those moments in life when we are down and out. We all face times when we feel out of place and out of reach. We all face moments when we wonder if others really know us. Sometimes we wonder if we are loved with our faults and not despite them. Devastating event traumatized us. Our hearts shatter because of a loved one's infidelity or a role model's hypocrisy or a friend's dishonesty. We swell with fear when we hear about cancer or other illnesses. For some, this is the beginning of cynicism. Cynics stand back in contemptuous criticism, no longer surrendering their trust to others. But no one is born a cynic—we become cynics, shaped into being by our wounds. Inside the most jaded cynic is a tender idealist who cannot bear this world’s brutality.
Yes, at some point, we all have withered hands, withered hopes, withered relationships, and withered lives. You would think that we might be able to turn to religion to help us out. But sometimes, all religion gives us is withered faith. Listen to what happens when Jesus begins to heal the man with the withered hand.

The Pharisees ask Jesus, “Does the law permit a person to work by healing on the Sabbath?” (They were hoping he would say yes, so they could bring charges against him.)

Every religion has them. They are the people whose dominant concern is to keep the faith pure. When I was ordained to ministry 10 year ago, I made a promise to promote the peace, unity, and purity of the church. What an impossible task! When I promote peace and unity, I open my arms wide in unquestioning acceptance of another. When I promote purity, I need to filter out any who might defile or contaminate our traditions. We can’t have it both ways. One side of the boundary is embrace -- the will to give ourselves to others, to welcome them, to readjust our identities, and to make space for the other. On the other side of the boundary is the struggle against deception, injustice and violence.

People like the Pharisees tried to enforce purity in others. However, enforced purity is really a form of exclusion. It stems from a belief that the source of evil lies outside of a person without taking into account that evil also lives inside a person in an impure heart.

Exclusion is alive and well in religious life. Historically, religions excluded others through elimination. Christians had crusades and inquisitions. Muslims had Jihad. I wish this was still history, but we still see the shameless brutality of religious elimination in places like Darfur and Iraq. The more benign side of exclusion by elimination is exclusion by assimilation. This happens in churches all the time. We say, “You can survive, even thrive among us if you become like us. You can keep your life if you give up your identity.

Religious purists also exclude through domination. They will think of others as inferior and then exploit them. Another form of exclusion is called abandonment or indifference. In the name of purity, we keep a safe distance from those who are beneath us so that they won’t contaminate us.

Exclusion and purity rules expose our withered faith. We exclude because we are uncomfortable with anything that blurs the boundaries or disturbs our identities. We want to remove the dirt and restore a sense of propriety in the world. Is this what we really want -- scrupulously and tenuously clutching a shriveled faith system that gains strength only by making distinctions between us and them, insider and outsider, righteous and sinner?

How would Jesus deal with this – the Pharisees in and among us who want to focus on rules rather than relationships? Well, here is how Matthew continues the story . . .

Jesus answered, “If you had a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you work to pull it out? Of course you would. And how much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Yes, the law permits a person to do good on the Sabbath.”

Jesus knew the answer before he asked it. He knew that unless one’s life was in danger, it was absolutely forbidden to heal on the Sabbath because it was regarded as an act of work. But Jesus was wise. He said there is no time so sacred that it cannot be used for helping someone in pain. In the eyes of Jesus, there are no insiders and outsiders. We are one—one nature, one flesh, one grief, and one hope.

Harold Kushner writes, “Life is not a trap set for us by God, so that He can condemn us for failing. Life is not a spelling bee, where no matter how many words you have gotten right, if you make one mistake you are disqualified. Life is more like baseball season, where even the best team loses one third of its games and even the worst team has its days of brilliance. Our goal is not to go all year without every losing a game. Our goal is to win more than we lose, and if we can do that consistently enough, then when the end comes, we will have won it all . . . But at the end, if we are brave enough to love, if we are strong enough to forgive, if we are generous enough to rejoice in another’s happiness, and if we are wise enough to know that there is enough love to go around for us all, then we can achieve a fulfillment that no other living creature will ever know.”

Jesus was brave enough to love, strong enough to forgive, and wise enough to show God’s love. Listen to what he does next.

Then he said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored, just like the other one!

If you were here last week, I said that Matthew wrote his gospel as a liturgical text. Jewish Christians wanted to hear stories about Jesus during their worship services, so Matthew took stories about Jesus and lined them up with events in the Jewish calendar. The next event on the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement. It starts Friday at sundown. In Matthew’s church, this reading from Matthew 12 would have been read at Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is day that reminds worshippers of their alienation and their need to be right with God and other people. Yom Kippur is the day when God is reconciled with creation. It’s a day for God to be merciful, to pardon, to cleanse and to forgive. It’s the day when God revives the dead.

Early Christians understood Jesus through the lens of Yom Kippur. Jesus enters that which the world deems as impure and restores the victims to wholeness. Jesus walks into the realm of sickness. He cleanses and redeems withered people who need a touch from God.

I just need to ask you – are there any withered-hand people out there today? Outcasts who feel out of place? Any who feel rejected or misunderstood. Any who have been made to feel like dirt? Is there anyone here who is hurting? Are you sick? Are you unsure of the future? Are you tired of being asked to give up who you are in order to become what someone else wants you to be? Are you living a life of withered hands? Withered hopes? Withered relationships. Withered faith?

If so, then I invite you to come. This morning, I offer anointing with oil as a symbol of God’s love, forgiveness, and blessing. As we sing the hymn, you are invited to come forward and receive the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. We use oil as a symbol of the Holy Spirit who us here in this place, bringing us to wholeness and unity. You can receive anointing and a word of blessing, or just one. If you choose to remain in your seats, I ask that you do so prayerfully.

We all need a touch from Jesus – the Reviver of The Dead. Jesus revives dead hands and dead religion. Jesus gives us life. If you would like to receive anointing and prayer as a statement of your desire for healing, wholeness – if you would like to have tangible symbol of God’s love, please come.

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