United Presbyterian Church of West Orange



“A Community of Grace”

 June 11th, 2023

 Rev. Rebecca Migliore



        A tax collector, sinners, a dead girl, and a woman with a flow of blood—these are the people who are surrounding Jesus in our gospel reading for today.  I know you might feel like you have whiplash as we catapult back in time, back in the story of Jesus to before the passion, before the resurrection, before the Spirit swooping down on the church, before the church even was—back to the days when Jesus was a preacher, a healer, a rising voice on the stage of Jewish life. 

        In the movies we might get a soft focus to the camera.  In a TV show we might get a timeline where we tick back a few years.  We have changed the channel to listen to an oldies station.  We have stepped into a wormhole that has transported us back, back into the gospel of Matthew, back into a world where there is obviously a fight going on between the Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah, and those who don’t.

        Since the gospel readings for much of the rest of the year will be centered on the gospel of Matthew, I wanted to remind us to read this gospel, to hear this gospel, with open eyes and a mind capable of holding two things at once—the importance of this story to the Christian world, and the devastation that the gospel of Matthew has brought to our Jewish brothers and sisters.  I’ve inserted into your bulletin a wonderful piece by Rabbi Adam Morris which will give you more information, hoping as he says in his final words,

        While the story of the gospel of Matthew is an important one for Christians, there is no denying the sense of rejection, loss, and betrayal that it has characterized for Jews in the historical relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

      And yet, our story need not end like that of Michael and Fredo Corleone (Michael orders a hit on Fredo once Mama Corleone is laid to her final resting place). Perhaps, it is another set of siblings to whom we should turn for a model. Joseph and his brothers knew pain, rejection, and loss. However, they came to offer each other forgiveness and love as they grew and understood how the other grew and evolved.

        So, as we read this story, as we think about the community of grace that Jesus was constructing, let’s remember that almost all of these people were Jewish—the ones who came to Jesus and the ones who were probing Jesus.  And, of course, Jesus himself was Jewish and had no intention of starting a different religion—he wanted his religious community to return to what he saw as the fundamentals of God’s law—a law of love.

        So back to our motley crew.  Jesus is walking down the street and sees Matthew (yes, that Matthew we suppose)—who is sitting at a tax collecting office.  Although this might have been good for Matthew’s purse, it did him no favors with the rest of the community.  Tax collectors were working for the oppressors, the Roman government.  Tax collectors were often known to throw their weight around, and take more than their fair share.  They were not well-liked.  And what does Jesus do?  He calls Matthew to follow him just as he had called Simon and Andrew and James and John and all the others.

        And next we see that Jesus is sitting at table with “many” tax collectors and sinners.  And the religious leaders grumble to the disciples—“What’s going on here?”  Jesus hears of it and tells them to go learn some mercy.  Next we have a leader (a Jewish leader) interrupt dinner and beg Jesus to come and lay hands on his daughter who has just died.  This is an extraordinary request—first because she’s dead, and second because she is dead she is now unclean and anyone who touches her becomes unclean and will remain unclean until they go to the ritual baths and cleanse themselves.  But what does Jesus do?  He leaves the dinner table and goes with the leader.

        And to make the point of this whole story absolutely clear, on his way to the leader’s dead daughter, Jesus’ cloak is touched by a woman who has had a flow of blood for twelve years.  Here is another unclean person, unclean because of her blood, outcast from society.  And yet, when Jesus turns, and sees her, he doesn’t get angry, he proclaims that her faith has made her well, and she is healed.

        And when he arrives at the leader’s house, the professional mourners are already there—wailing and lifting up mournful music.  They laugh at his insistence that she is not dead but sleeping, and so he sweeps them from the house, and he takes the girl’s hand, and she indeed rises!

        Of course these are miracle stories.  They are beyond our comprehension.  We couldn’t possibly duplicate such feats.  Yeah, Jesus!  But let’s not move on too quickly.  What is the good news that God is talking about today?  Certainly it is about new life, about healing, but it is also about a community where that new life, that healing can take place.  In other words, we may not be tasked with healing a flow of blood, or bringing the dead back to life, but we are called to embody a place that reaches out to those who are shunned, those who are despairing, those who are seen as worthless in our world.  We are called to be a community of grace.

        Now this comes with a warning label.  When you invite in those who are not well thought of, those who are tarnished in the eyes of the world, those who have been on the outskirts of the community, you run the risk of becoming not well thought of, and tarnished and on the outskirts yourself.  Look at the religious leaders of the day—questioning why Jesus would sit down to eat with such people—tax collectors and sinners!  Not a good look for your Facebook or Instagram account, they whisper to the disciples.  You want to surround yourself with the movers and the shakers, with the rich and the famous, with those who are upstanding.  That’s who you want to eat with.          And I’m pretty sure Jesus would have responded with something like, “Yeah, they are invited too.  Pull up a chair.”

        From our Protestant, and even worse, Reformed eyes the idea that eating with sinners is a problem is laughable—because we are schooled that we are all sinners, every single one of us.  But in Jesus’ world, in Jesus’ time, it was thought that if you followed the law strictly enough, if you loved God and neighbor enough, if you made sacrifices to atone for mistakes enough, you were elevated out of that sinner category to the redeemed category.  But woe to you, if you ate with unclean people, or were touched by unclean people, or touched a dead body, and didn’t immediately cleanse yourself and stop such reckless behavior!

        So maybe we wouldn’t approach Jesus with the complaint that he was eating with tax collectors and sinners.  But we might be a little uncomfortable with where Jesus hung out, and who he hung out with, and who he invited into his inner circle, and who he invited to his table, and what he expects of us.

        Being a community of grace is a privilege, absolutely.  But being a community of grace asks something from us, demands something from us as well.  First, it asks us to be as open a community as Jesus created.  And I think United has certainly made a good start at that.  We have spent years becoming a blended family, trying to appreciate uniqueness and lift up diversity.  What more could we do?

        Well, I was struck as I read and reread our lesson for today, that many of these people lifted up--Matthew, and the leader, and the woman with the flow of blood, and the little girl—they weren’t in worship, they might not even have belonged to his rabbinical group.  Jesus met Matthew out in the world, while he was walking along.  And he invited him into the community of grace.

        Yes, the leader comes to Jesus, but he knows where to find him, and he knows that he can make an extraordinary request.  He knows he is welcome in this community of grace.  The woman with the flow of blood, even though almost everyone else in her life has given up on her, and probably stopped having her in their lives, she somehow knows that Jesus is different.

     She knows in her bones that if she can just touch him, if she can just touch his garment, she can be well.  And Jesus feels her touch, and invites her into the community of grace—whole.  And when Jesus arrives at the leader’s house, he doesn’t allow the world’s view of the little girl to stop him, he takes her hand, he lifts her up, he brings her into the community of grace.  And the whole district hears the news.

        So how can we cultivate our being a community of grace like that?  I know we at UPC have a substantial hunger ministry—we are at the Food Pantry every Monday night and every Tuesday morning, packing bags, and stocking shelves, and signing in clients, and providing food.  We take our turn at the West Orange Soup Kitchen two times a year (and our next turn is coming up on July 8th).  We are reaching out to the community to support Eco-justice issues.  We are talking about expanding our Micah conversations, where we try to see each other, and hear each other, and respect each other, and find ways to work with each other, to reach out to the the larger West Orange area.  It’s not like we are sitting inside our castle church with the moat pulled up.

        Maybe we have more work to do with getting the word out that we are a community of grace—our Facebook and Instagram and other social media sites don’t have much presence from us.  By the way, if you are willing to help us with one of these sites, don’t be shy letting us know!  Or maybe each of us needs to stand fully in our ambassadorship to the world.  No one says you have to stand on the street corner, if that’s not your thing.  But let’s continue to talk together about how we can continue our walk with Jesus, in the highways and the byways, as well as in cyberspace.

        I know that we are just beginning to step out of Covid restrictions.  I also know that there are those who have had profound isolation because of it—especially those who are older, and our kids (to name two large groups who are still recovering).  Is there some way that we could provide a safe space for interaction, for conversation, for contact?        

        And maybe we do not yet know what the needs of our community are.  How would we find out?  For Jesus creates a community that is open, but also is always on the lookout for how that community can be of help to others.

        Some of you may have watched “Call the Midwife” a British period drama about a group of nurse midwives working in the East End (ie, the poor section) of London in the late 1950s and 1960s.  One of the midwives in training, Nancy, is a single mother, and has placed her daughter in an orphanage, being told that is the best for her and her child.  But she discovers there is abuse, and so she pulls her daughter out and returns to Nonnatus house expecting a reprimand and maybe even expulsion.  Sister Monica Joan intervenes: “A litany of her misdemeanors has been recited often and not with mercy.  Nancy has born a child beyond the bounds of wedlock.  If that consigns her to the margins, the margins are where we dwell and do God’s work.”

        Sister Hilda: “So what do you think we should do?”

        Sister Monica Joan: “Ask her what it is that she desires.”

        Nancy:  “You mean, ask me what I want? I want to qualify as a midwife. I want to make a home for Collette and be free to tell her who she is to me and why I love her. I want to have no secrets, to be trusted, to belong. For us to live a life where there are no bruises… (Call the Midwife, season 10, episode 7, [43:26 – 45:10])

        Isn’t that what Jesus is hoping for our world?  That we could create spaces where we can be ourselves, where we can find purpose and community.  For us to live a life where there are no bruises.  To be a part of a community that is “in the process of becoming” a more perfect community of grace.

        May it be so for UPC and for us, Alleluia, Amen.