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The Times They Are a-Changin'

The west front and spire of Salisbury Cathedral
Posted By : Sarah Mullally Sunday 21st September 2014

A sermon by Canon Treasurer Sarah Mullally DBE

21 September 2014

Matthew 9:9-13 and 2 Corinthians 4:1-6

This week we have seen a momentous decision as 85% of the Scottish population turned out to vote, of which 55% who voted said no to independence.  On Panorama (Scotland’s Decision BBC1 15th September 2104) this week Sir Menzies Campbell said that if in 1974 you had said that in 2014 there would be a referendum which would be so close, people would have recoiled.  However, in the words of the 1964 song by Bob Dylan, ‘The times they are a-changin’. 

Bob Dylan’s song came out of the 60’s when young people were protesting.  Now, before my colleagues start spreading untruths about me, this was before my time.  But I am told that in the 60s students were protesting against Vietnam, students in Paris were protesting about factory conditions and in this country, student activists were the subject of many government files. The students’ actions were the sign of a generation which had grown out of the war and was seeking change – hence the record by Bob Dylan ‘The times they are a-changin’.  And although there was a no vote in Scotland, the fact that 45% of those who voted, voted yes, demonstrates times are a changin there.

In our gospel passage this morning, Jesus demonstrates that times were really changing and he was collecting people around him who the teachers and priests did not expect, and so it is not surprising that Jesus faced criticism.

Today we commemorate “St. Matthew,” Apostle and Evangelist, and tax collector. We know very little about the tax collector in today’s Gospel other than his name, his occupation and the fact that he is later listed as a member of the 12. He may have written the gospel or just given his name to it – Matthew, which means God’s gift.

As a tax collector he would have been granted his post by the Roman authorities as the highest bidder. Tax collectors would have often extorted money above the requested taxes, for personal benefit.  The Jews considered this officially endorsed robbery and personal betrayal, so counted them along with sinners and the socially outcast.  Here Matthew, a tax collector and outcast was asked by Jesus to follow him and as a result many tax collectors and sinners sat down with him and with his disciples.  

Jesus was then asked a range of questions, to which the answer is The Times They Are a-Changin'. Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners? Why do Jesus and his disciples not keep regular fast days? Because Jesus desires mercy not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6).

Why does Jesus eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? Because while the other religious leaders of the day saw their task as being to keep themselves in what Tom Wright calls quarantine, away from possible sources of moral and spiritual infection, Jesus in contrast, chose to identify himself with them and to bring wholeness.

One of the features of Jesus’ ministry is that he fraternized with those who were branded  “sinners and tax collectors”, that is, people who by the Jews were pigeonholed as deviant, those missing the mark and hence to be avoided. Jesus ate with them. As we celebrate St. Matthew, apostle, evangelist and tax collector.  Matthew the tax collector belongs with a whole cast of marginal characters in these middle chapters of Matthew: a leper, a demon possessed man, a paralytic, a hemorrhaging woman, a dying girl, two blind men and crowds full of people who were physically and spiritually ill. Jesus is declaring to them and to the world that they too belong to the people of God.

It’s easy for us to imagine Jesus sitting and eating with “sinners and tax collectors” and to have a rosy view. However in sitting and eating with them, Jesus automatically shares in the social exclusion of those whom society had marginalised.  And let’s not pretend that he would have automatically had a lot in common with them, or found them comfortable company.  But those previously excluded are now in the heart of the kingdom and those who sought to exclude them, find themselves on the margins.  Times they are a-changin and here Jesus is modelling mercy.

In loving mercy Jesus doesn’t only talk about loving people it is a part of who he is – it is seen in his actions.  He doesn’t say love but you don’t have to like them (this is what Bonhoeffer calls ‘Cheap grace’ Cost of Discipleship’ SCM Press LTD 1959).  Costly grace in Kingly rule of Christ. It means he spends time with those who are different to him, who he may find naturally difficult to get on with. 

Costly grace means that he eats and drinks with them and affords them value. Jesus’ love involves a desire to see people and relationships restored.  To have mercy is to be moved to compassion by the pain or suffering and it moves us to action. 

For us costly grace is the treasure hidden in a field: for the sake of it one would gladly go and sell all that he has.  It is the pearl of great price which to buy the merchants will sell all their goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ for which he gave his life.

Costly grace for us calls us to follow Jesus, it is the incarnation of God.    It means for us that we will be required to sit and eat with tax collectors, sinners and outcasts and to be moved by mercy.

For most of us, the everyday situations where we encounter the possibility to be moved by mercy will not be staggering. Welcoming the stranger or taking time to talk to those who may be different to us and to understand their stories, the isolated and lonely. Speak out when inappropriate comments are made about people who are different from us. The question we confront is whether we are able to see the people around that would have moved Jesus by mercy. Who are the tax collectors and sinners of today?  Who are those whom society marginalises, whom God calls us to show mercy?

Next month – October marks World Mental Health Day and Black History Month. A prominent psychiatrist, Dr Bob Johnson talks about how the pattern of exclusion from their community, personal relationships and God, that those with severe personality disorders experience in our society, is strikingly similar to the experience of people with leprosy in Jesus’ day.  Dr Bob Johnson challenges us by suggesting that we treat those with mental illness just as lepers were once treated.

The footballer Sol Campbell (The Guardian online July 13th 2014) as part of Black History month, talks about how, when he moved on from Tottenham’s youth team, every time he touched the ball the crowd called out monkey chants. When he moved to club rivals Arsenal football club in 2001, a decade-long campaign of racial abuse began, including in 2002 when Spurs supporters started chanting merrily about the chances of him having Aids.

The opportunities to show mercy are in front of us in our community if we have eyes to see. To befriend the isolated and to challenge behaviour which isolates others.  God has shown us mercy and we are called to follow Jesus and show his mercy, reflecting the light and life of Christ and in doing so we hold the possibility of bringing about change in the world and bringing in the kingdom of God.

In eating with “sinners and tax collectors” Jesus helps us to imagine a world without labels where sinners and tax collectors, the poor and the rich, are human beings.

And then he gives us homework: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy more than sacrifice’”. What God yearns for, Jesus tells us in the words of Hosea, is a people who are kind and caring and rightly related to God, to one another and indeed to the whole of creation. That is what “righteousness” means.  Let us pray that the times are a-changin.