Written for Third Presbyterian Church July 3, 2022
Matthew 4:23-25 NRSV: 23 Jesus went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, people possessed by demons or having epilepsy or afflicted with paralysis, and he cured them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
Senior pastor is still out sick so here is what I had from our preaching schedule to work with.
The Many: As Matthew records Jesus’ teaching ministry to the disciples there is always mention of another group of people who observe Jesus and listen to Jesus’ teachings from a distance. Not only does Jesus minister to his disciples, but Jesus also ministers to the crowd by inviting them to take a step closer and dare to become a follower. How can we dare to take a step closer to Jesus and follow him more closely?
Hymns: #396 O for a Closer Walk with God #390 O Savior, in This Quiet Place #394 There Is A Balm in Gilead
Welcome to the third and final week of the sermon series, “The One, The Few, and The Many”. It sounds like a series on how covid spreads, but it is actually about Jesus’ ministry and how we participate in it as individuals, as a community built on spiritual friendships, and as those who are serving others.
Two weeks ago, I talked about my personal pursuit of holiness. Sometimes, when I narrowly define what will make me holy, I fail, and beat myself up, only to discover that holiness can be found in forgiving myself and accepting God’s unconditional love. I have had to learn to identify when I’m beating myself up, find new ways to talk to myself, and learn how to love me like God loves me. It was a lot about me, but sharing someone else’s story would have been weird.
Last week, I talked about living in an intentional community with other women discerning what God has called us to do and to be. Living together even for a short time allowed the group I went on an Italian pilgrimage with to know each other deeply. We had the opportunity to share with and listen to each other and uncover a little more of what God is up to in our lives. This community was only together for a short time and in unique circumstances, but I think it’s possible for congregations to be close communities where people can be loved and accepted exactly as they are and can be supported by the group as each of us discerns God’s call in our personal life and in our communal life. The communities that St. Francis and St. Clare established had a rule that they lived by. It wasn’t one rule, but a set of community expectations, guides for how to live and how to treat one another. The rule included the communities’ shared beliefs and the expectation that spiritual practices and worship would be maintained.
At Third Church, we have the PCUSA Book of Order and our own bylaws as well as community expectations that we use to guide how we live together. We are working on a few of those community expectations currently. We hope to be a community where everyone is welcomed to participate in worship, especially young children. So, we welcome their expressions of worship. At Third Church, we think it is wonderful that the children are seen and heard. And some weeks we do a better job at that than others.
And we hope to be a church where everyone is welcome, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community. So, we address people by their name and pronouns. And we don’t dead name or mis-pronoun people here. And some weeks we do a better job than others.
And we are a congregation that has committed to being anti-racists working to eradicate racism in ourselves and the systems we live in. We listen to and believe BIPOC about their lived experiences and work towards the anti-racist goals they have set. Those of us in privileged positions will take the position of learners and supporters. And some weeks we will do a better job than others.
These community expectations are important and worth putting effort into so that our congregation shows love and respect for each other. We must adhere to the community expectations we have set up to form spiritual friendships.
This week’s text gives us a glimpse of what Jesus does in public ministry. He teaches in multiple synagogues. The Jewish Annotated Bible has an essay on synagogues that helped me understand how they have a different function than the Temple (pp. 519-521). The synagogue was the most prominent public space in the Jewish community, often in the center of the town or village.
Leadership roles were not restricted to a specific group (unlike in the Temple where only priests could officiate) and everyone was present throughout the entire service (unlike the Temple where most people were in the outer courts). Sacrifices were made at the Temple, but the synagogue provided for other forms of worship and religious activities, including scriptural readings, communal prayers, hymns, sermons, and religious poetry. We might describe the synagogue as an assembly or a congregation or a house of meeting. If that sounds like church, it’s because Christianity and Islam have been shaped by the synagogue which was a unique and innovative institution of religious life. What we take for granted as part of worship, the reading and studying of sacred texts by the community of believers was at one time unique to the synagogue.
After reading the synagogue essay, I thought about what Jesus was doing in our text today. To me, it seems that he is going to the places where people are gathering around sacred scripture hoping to learn what God is calling them to do and to be. He is engaging with their sacred texts. He is talking with entire community. He is preaching good news and he is healing the sick.
The congregation isn’t keeping what he is saying a secret. Word has reached the crowd.
According to Davies’ and Allison’s shorter commentary on Matthew, the crowd serves a few functions. Their presence shows that Jesus is a charismatic leader who can attract a crowd. They seem open to Jesus’ teaching and seem willing to listen. The crowd is used to contrast others who are in the text. The crowd is not Jesus, the crowd is not the disciples, the crowd is not the people in the synagogue, the crowd is not religious leaders, the crowd is not those who oppose Jesus. The crowd falls in between the believers and the opposition. The crowd is fickle, they follow Jesus sometimes and sometimes they follow other religious leaders. The crowd is not good or evil but is simply following the leader. If they stray from God like lost sheep, Matthew blames their leaders, who are Matthew’s intellectual counterparts. “…the appropriate attitude towards [the crowd] is compassion, which is what Jesus displays.” (p.62) Jesus’ compassion in this text involves healing the sick and relieving pain.
As people who seek to model the ministry of Jesus, we need to do our personal work in therapy and in spiritual practices. We are people who cultivate close friendships with others whom we can pray for and ask for prayer and pray with. We are a few gathered as a congregation who lovingly accept all of those who worship in this space. And we must show compassion on the crowd.
After worship we will gather in the social hall for treats. I’m going to give you some questions to think about now that we can have conversations about in the social hall. Can you remember a time when a stranger showed you compassion? Or maybe when you showed a stranger compassion?
Maybe you want a deeper question this week, especially if you have been here the last couple of weeks. How can you take a step out of the crowd and move closer to Jesus? Maybe you are ready to talk about how you are taking a step in our spiritual journey in our personal life. Maybe you are ready to ask a friend to pray for and with you. Maybe you are ready to talk about how we can be compassionate to those outside of our sanctuary.
Sometime later this week I encourage you to remember our Vision Statement on the front of our bulletin, “Third Church will be a congregation where all are experiencing God’s presence in their daily life, growing in spiritual friendship with each other, and serving our city and world.” And check in with yourself about how you are living into that mission statement and how we are living into it as a community.
Benediction: This blessing which is attributed to St. Clare: Always be lovers of God and your souls and the souls of your [people], and always be eager to observe what you have promised the Lord. Go in peace.