Proper 19C: Becoming Unclean for the Gospel
By: The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber
Too often we work diligently to gather sinners and tax collectors in church to listen for the voice of God, and we are left with a group of religious leaders and experts who grumble. We study the life-style trends of the “nones” and “dones,” we research the latest findings on millennials, and we try to adapt worship to meet the research we’ve done. Each time, we are left with only ourselves: the grumbling religious leaders. In an attempt at fairness, I rarely hear that the church is too open to sinners. I often hear that the people not in church need to get their act together and just attend our church. And it is no wonder that people outside the church community are uninterested in joining these churches. We are so self obsessed. Our concern is rarely focused on the needs of the community; rather, we concern ourselves with our need for more people. It’s ironic really. We want people to come, yet we focus on our research rather than on our search. We observe census data and surveys with academic rigor without ever actually going out to search for a new friendship with the very people described in them.
As preachers and teachers attempting to discover insight in these words this week, I wonder how much of our sermon might be a confession? For my part, when I read gospel descriptions of grumbling religious leaders I find more empathy than distaste for them. My denomination is one that believes in a balance of personal piety and social holiness. The balance between the personal and the social is always difficult to navigate. If my practice included an element of ritual cleanliness like the first century Pharisees and religious leaders, then I too may have struggled with the implications of losing my ritualized cleanliness. I wonder if the religious leaders and Pharisees were trying to be close enough to hear Jesus’ words too, but grumbled when they discovered that they could not get close without becoming unclean.
The scandal of this passage is that the Pharisees are close to Jesus, and therefore close to the “sinners and tax collectors” that cause them to grumble. In my first reading of this text today I think I understand the plight of the religious leader. They had an apparent draw toward Jesus, otherwise they could have easily written him off and walked away. Lots of people eat with sinners and tax collectors. I doubt that the religious leaders offered commentary on it. They were preoccupied with ritual and cleanliness. They were preoccupied with personal piety. But, for some reason, Jesus was different. I’m not sure exactly what drew the religious leaders to the sinners’ table, but they showed up. They grumbled. They also listened.
The religious leaders had ordered their life in such a way that they limited any possible opportunity to become unclean got close enough to Jesus—who was surrounded by a sea of followers—for Jesus to overhear their complaint. That’s very close! In crowds I struggle to hear the person at my side. I wonder if the religious leaders were trying to understand. I wonder if they really wanted to hear this message from a man called Jesus who proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is near. I wonder if they grumbled from a sense of indignation that there were unclean people or if they grumbled because it meant that their world had been too small for their whole lives. I know I grumble when I start to recognize that I’ve limited God’s grace. It would be so nice to have it all figured out! But I rarely do, so I grumble.
Which is why I think Jesus’ stories are such beautiful pastoral responses for all of us. We get ahead of ourselves, trying to map out comprehensive visions for our churches. We develop programs and systems to carry the church’s ministry forward. We study and research population trends and demographic charts to establish a means of outreach. The problem is that we struggle to put our sandals on and walk out the door in search of the lost sheep. We struggle to get ourselves dirty by walking through our towns and getting to know the people who live in them. As religious leaders, it would be so much easier to surround ourselves with good, clean church people and have them go do the work of the Gospel. We could stay clean. Jesus does not call us to that. Jesus reminds us through these words of scripture, to step out of our piety. He reminds us that the shepherd is intimately connected to her flock in such a way that she would know immediately if one of the sheep were missing. She would know the sheep so well that she would know exactly where to look.
Most importantly for me, the shepherd loves the sheep, not other shepherds. In the same way, the religious leaders cannot only be connected to other religious leaders or church folk. This text reminds me, even though it would be so easy to build my friendships with other clergy and religious leaders, that my relationships must be formed with people in the church and community that I serve. In a connectional institution like The United Methodist Church, it is very easy to become more connected with colleagues in ministry, which is a wonderful gift. But there is always a temptation to let that become the church for me. These stories of grumbling religious leaders and lost coins and sheep help me re-center myself. I see myself reflected in the grumbles, and I see my vocation in the search. May I always live into my vocation.
The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber is the Associate Pastor of Congregational Care and Community Outreach at Decatur First United Methodist Church. He was recently commissioned as an Elder in the United Methodist Church after serving as a Local Pastor. Patrick is a graduate of Candler School of Theology with a focus in religious and non-profit leadership.