Matthew 9.9-13; 9.18-26
Sunday 11 June 2023
For over a decade before I was ordained in the Anglican Church I had been Lay Chaplain in schools. It was a role I loved as it enabled me to walk alongside young people, families and school staff through the everyday challenges, losses and joys of life. Leading worship and gathering community around rites of passage and moments of welcoming and leave-taking were memorable and made my vocation feel part of the flow of God’s life and grace. My joy in the role was always limited, though, by the fact that in the denomination of that school, women were not able to be ordained. When it came time for communion, my leading of worship had to be conducted under the authority of a male pastor who would step up to preside at the altar when we arrived at that point in the service. It was a sadness that increased as the years went on, prompting me to take the step into the beauty and freedom of the Anglican communion.
It was therefore not surprising that I was more than dismayed some years ago when, at a gathering of our Anglican Diocesan Synod, a representative raised from the floor a need to affirm the doctrine of male headship. Male headship is the name given to the doctrine that asserts that women should always have less power in relationships domestically and in the church. Although sometimes wrapped in language such as “different, but complementary”, the outcome in terms of power relationships is always the same. It is a misuse of scripture which has been found to be culpable in supporting perpetrators of domestic abuse with the assumption of God’s blessing on male control in relationships. The liberating vision of God as a Triune community of love which we reflected on last Sunday is a beautiful alternative vision for relationships as mutually self-giving and non-hierarchical. This was something that I had found in the heart of an Anglican vision of God and the Church, so my distress at such a topic being raised in our own Synod was very great.
We so often need help from the Church to deal with hurts caused by the Church. I had a wonderful Spiritual Director at that time who patiently listened to me and suggested I go back to visualising the scene at Synod that day.
Could I, she suggested, see if Jesus was there too?
There in that quiet space I closed my eyes and imagined the scene. Was Jesus there? Of course…there he was…in amongst the people of God.
Could I describe to her what I was seeing?
Yes, quite clearly, although my sight of Jesus was inhibited by so many bodies in front of me. I described trying to reach out to Jesus, but there were so many in the way, so many legs that I was peering through to get to him.
I stopped. Surprised at myself.
Why was I visualising peering through legs as I tried to reach Jesus?
And then it hit me with shock and wonder. I was in a story I knew so well…I was the bleeding woman, coming up behind Jesus to touch the hem of his cloak.
We sat in that prayerful space and my director helped me to follow through in imagining the story of being seen by Jesus and imagining his words for me. “Take heart, your faith has made you well.”
Since it was my identity as a woman that had meant I had been unable for so long to properly occupy my vocation, this story spoke powerfully. Here Jesus was recognising the particularly feminine nature of the woman’s wounding. He saw her and brought her to healing transformation, restoring her to wholeness and to the life of her community. For me in that spiritual direction session, I felt seen by God in my full humanity and invited into the joyful fullness and mutuality which characterises relationships in the kingdom of God.
It is rare to have Matthew’s version of the story in our Sunday readings. We are far more familiar with Mark and Luke’s version where Jesus asks quickly, “Who touched me?” In Matthew, there is less of the sense of an immediate flow of power from Jesus when the woman touches his cloak and a greater emphasis on the moment when Jesus sees her- a woman who trusts him. In Matthew’s version, Jesus, turning and seeing her, says these words, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.”
What is it about seeing? Why is it so important that others see us?
That God, sees us?
I think part of the answer can be found in the first story within the combination of encounters that we have in today’s Gospel reading.
“Why?” demand the Pharisees of the disciples, “does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?”
It is not an innocent question. We know what is being communicated here is that those tax collectors and sinners enjoying table fellowship with Jesus have already been judged by the religious people and found not acceptable. Or perhaps at a stretch they could be considered acceptable as recipients of charity or corrective teaching…but are not fit to be received into the mutuality of the communion Jesus is enacting.
The thing about the judging mind is that it gets in the way of us seeing one another. While our brains have evolved to categorise and compare in ways that enable us to operate very well in the arenas of organisation, productivity and finance, the judging mind lets us down when it comes to human relationships. Too readily we sort or label others and join the group in avoiding those we believe are different to us. We may need spiritual practices to rewire our neural pathways!
When the disciples criticise Jesus for the company he keeps, he tells them;
‘Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
If we, like the Pharisees, are to go and learn what this means, it appears that we need to apprentice ourselves to Jesus’ way. And not just Jesus’ way of being, but Jesus’ way of seeing. And it appears that when Jesus sees people, he accepts them for who they are, drawing them into relationships of love and safe acceptance…through which they are enabled to see themselves as they are. This is not saying God is okay with everything and that forgiveness is granted no matter what we have done or continue to do. What it is saying is that God accepting us is the first move in our journey to repentance and change. True repentance occurs when we respond to the unconditional love and acceptance we are being offered. Our awakening and turning comes through the sometimes shocking encounter with love and grace.
It was the evident communion at the shared table which triggered the judgement of the religious leaders when they saw Jesus accepting those they had rejected. Nowhere in this story does it say all those whom Jesus was breaking bread with had first shown repentance for the ways they had hurt others, themselves and God. There is every indication from Jesus’ words about calling sinners that the first thing that happened here was not repentance but an invitation to come, sit down, eat, and keep company with Jesus. The same invitation is given us; to sit down, eat, let the God who loves you unconditionally be allowed to see you and keep company with you.
Of course, there is need for us to allow ourselves to be seen, isn’t there? We can hide from one another, God, and even ourselves sometimes. Perhaps that is why Jesus says to the bleeding woman, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” Another translation says, “Be brave, daughter; your trust has cured you.” If we are to entrust ourselves to the God who calls us to follow, then we need to let down our defences and let ourselves be seen, just as we are, including those parts of ourselves we might prefer to hide. It is the journey of wholeness and healing, of self-love and acceptance of one another. In doing this, we find the courage to speak truthfully and resist all forces in our world that would reduce the humanity and diminish the life of others based on their race, gender, sexuality, or any other human characteristic. We apprentice ourselves to the Spirit that we may learn how to see one another with new eyes and an open heart. And, if we are brave, we can allow our lives in all their messiness to be held in the gaze of God who knows us and loves us, calling us to lay down the burden of our judgements and take on the gentle yoke of the one who teaches us day by day, the meaning of mercy. +Amen