I want to crack these scripture passages open by sharing some things I’ve gleaned lately about ethics from a rather unlikely pair: a wildly popular content creator on TikTok and an early eighteenth century Quaker. Bear with me!
Alexis Nicole Nelson is a foraging expert and an advocate for growing and eating local food based in Columbus, Ohio. She creates irresistibly funny videos, and her sense of wonder for the earth is contagious. But Nelson, who is a Black woman and a vegan, also offers powerful insights about the complex relationship between our food choices, our privilege or lack of privilege, and the ethical conundrums we all face as consumers in an industrial society. As she points out, the adoption of moral self-righteousness around what we choose to eat or not eat is woefully misguided because when it comes to balancing harm of other humans, harm to animals, and harm to the environment, no food choice is ethically perfect. And yet, Nelson continues to passionately educate others about harm reduction in relation to food-ways, because while perfection is impossible, doing better is attainable. We can continue to improve our own choices and build a lower-impact food culture while remaining humble and empathetic.
Our lection this morning is one of three or four concentrated stories of healing in Matthew’s gospel. Usually, they are considered together in context. But this morning we hear only one of these: two blind men following Jesus and crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” Jesus engages with them and asks, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They reply, “Yes, Lord.” He then touches their eyes and says, “According to your faith let it be done to you.”
For me, this story brings to mind a prayer which we find in the Rite I liturgy of the Eucharist in the Prayer Book. The Prayer of Humble Access[i], while beautifully worded in the archaic poetry of the Rite, evokes different feelings in people depending on their experience. Some find the language self-deprecating. Yet, others find in it inspiration. It begins: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”
Today’s passage from Matthew’s gospel, though brief, just four verses, is significant, because it captures some of the essential qualities and characteristics of God. In this encounter between Jesus and leper, we see again the nature of God, and God’s desire for all humanity.
…a leper … came to [Jesus] and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” [Jesus] stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
What stands out for me this morning, is not only what is said, but also what is done, for Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the leper. While leprosy is contagious, it is not necessarily contracted through touch, as was once believed. That Jesus touched the leper, is significant, and in itself demonstrates something about God. In that one action, we see that nothing is beyond the touch and reach of God.
What is also significant is the dialogue. Lord, if you choose … I do choose….
The essential quality, characteristic, and nature of God is one of healing, wholeness, and life, for the God who in Jesus came that [we] may have life, and have it abundantly, is the same God who reaches out and touches, saying I do choose. Be made clean.
Yet while it is God’s nature to choose to reach out and touch us, our nature runs in the opposite direction, as we choose to hide, to turn our backs, and to reach out for what is forbidden. In our pride and arrogance, we choose to stretch out our hands, not to God, but to the forbidden fruit, thinking that by eating it, we will become like God.
The paradox is that we become like God, not by stretching out our hands in pride, but by choosing to stretch them out in humility and loving service, just as did Jesus.
The fruit that makes us like God, is when we choose to stretch out our hands in loving service, touching the untouchable, and bringing to them the healing, health, wholeness, and life which God chooses and desires for all humanity.
This passage, though brief, is significant, because it reminds us what God is like, and what God desires for humanity: healing, health, wholeness, and life. In choosing to reach out and touch, Jesus invites us to do that same. When we do, we become like God, whose very life and nature is bound up in acts of humble, loving service.
Lectionary Year and Proper: Friday, Year 1, Proper 7
 Matthew 8: 2 – 3
 John 10: 10b
 Genesis 3: 5
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
It seems like we’re so far from where this whole thing started. So far from those days beside the lake tending the nets. So far from that invitation to come and see. But the decisive moments we mark this night go back much further even than that.
In a wonderous and mysterious way this night has been present to God from the very beginning when the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This night and the days of this Holy Triduum usher us into the fullness of God’s time in which these pivotal actions are always wholly present. We return to make this remembrance; to do more than flip the pages of a scrapbook and recall fond memories, but to truly re-member, to re-present Jesus here, to encounter the real and living presence of Christ.
We timebound creatures are forgetful and eternal God holds all time in hand. As our lives continue their meandering way we are given these precious gifts by which to return and to dwell in the love of God.
One question sometimes asked about Jesus, concerns his own self-understanding. How did he understand who he was, and the purpose of his mission? We get a glimpse of his answer today. ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
It was as physician, healer, restorer, forgiver, saviour that Jesus, at least here in Matthew, saw himself. Such an understanding should not surprise us. In the opening chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the angel tells Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’
It is in that context, Jesus as saviour, that the rest of Matthew’s gospel unfolds.
The thing about a saviour is that, just as we don’t need a doctor if we are unaware of our illness, we don’t need a saviour, if we are unaware of our need for salvation. And that for me is the key, to Scripture; to Lent; even to myself.
Lately, I have been listening to a new podcast hosted by the Lutheran minister, Nadia Bolz-Webber called The Confessional. Each episode of The Confessional features a guest who speaks with Nadia and reveals (to her and us) some of the worst things they have ever done. When I first heard about this podcast, before I had heard even a single episode, the traditionalist in me had his doubts. I imagined there might be something a little unseemly about taking the tenderness and intimacy of a one-on-one confession into the arena of public listening. The seal of the confessional is a grace that I cherish. The knowledge that whatever I disclose will be met by only three sets of ears—my confessor’s, mine, and God’s—is irreplaceable. I wondered if something about this kind of sacramental reconciliation would end up lost (even cheapened) over the airwaves and apps.
Yet as I began to listen to each of these brave, faithful people tell stories about their most notorious failures and deepest shames, my own suspicions began to disperse as something else became clear. Yes, these are stories about human failure, human weakness, and human insufficiency. At the same time (and perhaps more significantly), these are stories about God’s boundless generosity, forgiveness, and desire to be reconciled with his creatures.
Luke 6: 39 – 42
There’s a lot going on in this sixth chapter of Luke’s gospel. It begins with two different teachings about the sabbath. It includes the calling, and naming of the twelve apostles. We hear Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, here given as a Sermon on the Plain, rather than Matthew’s more popular Sermon on the Mount. And then it ends with a collection of teachings, or sayings, perhaps gathered from a variety of occasions, and put together by Luke, as a sort of catalogue of teachings.
What we have this morning are three of those teachings lumped together. One about the blind leading the blind; another about a disciple and their teacher; and the third about the speck and the log.
In our lection from Matthew this morning we observe something in Jesus that is rarely expressed in the gospels: we see a display of emotion. Other instances include Jesus feeling compassion: as in the hungry crowds who endlessly follow or seek an audience with him. Or in the case of the rich young ruler who when asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, the gospel of Mark says that Jesus loved him before telling him to go and sell all his goods then follow him. With all the dinner invitations Jesus received, I am sure there had to be some merriment and laughter during his ministry and I wish we had a confirmation that Jesus did in fact share a good chuckle with his friends. We know that in John’s gospel, Jesus wept in grief over the sadness surrounding the death of his friend, Lazarus. Today, we hear that Jesus was amazed. What is it exactly that could amaze the incarnation of God?
In this story we observe two men, from two cultures, sharing the same geography. Both men are powerful; both men have authority; both men have a following. From the outset, it may look as if the only thing different about them are how they look. One man is a Roman centurion, an enforcer of the Roman occupation of Palestine, a Gentile dressed in the finest uniform of the Roman army which displays his elite social status. The other man is an itinerant rabbi, a teacher and reformer, a Jew dressed in the clothes of nomad. The one thing they have in common is humility.
Jesus has displayed his humility in the willingness to reach the most disenfranchised of his people. In the reading just prior to our gospel this morning, we observe Jesus grant the request of a leper who asks to be made clean. Lepers were outcasts of society due to the vileness of their disease which was highly contagious and for which there was no cure. Jesus not only confronts the man who requests to be healed, but actually touches him in the process. This alone would have made Jesus ‘unclean’ in the eyes of the temple leaders and unfit to enter the temple. Yet Jesus heals him and tells him to go show himself to the temple leaders and to give his gift in thanksgiving
Can you see them; the pharisee and the tax collector? Their posture, their prayer? Are they familiar at all? Luke calls this a parable but it seems so true to life. There are no extended metaphors to work out, no women with coins, no lamps and bushel baskets, no sheep and goats, not a lot to decipher.
The temple, the pharisee, the tax collector. It has the ring of truth and experience because these are the actual cast of characters that Jesus spent time with and among whom all the other parables were told. I can imagine the real life conversations between Jesus, the pharisee, and the tax collector; the inner dispositions they reveal.
The pharisee, confident in his religion. Firm in conviction, and diligent in observing the law. “Jesus, can’t you see how hard I work? Can’t you appreciate the discipline this takes? Isn’t this enough for you? Don’t you see my sacrifice? Why bother with the ones who can’t seem to pull it together?”
And the tax collector, forced into a separate sphere life, the perks of wealth and protection that come from his occupation are a small consolation when his heart cries out in desperation. “Jesus, I don’t know what to do. I’m trapped. I just took this job to make some money but everything has gotten so twisted. Now they hate me as much as they hate the Romans, I feel like there’s nothing I can do to get out of this situation. Does it even matter what I do? Why should God bother with me?”
Some years ago I was sharing a conversation with my spiritual director, who was a seasoned Jesuit priest. He had risen in the ranks of leadership over the decades and, to me, was a treasury of wisdom. Reflecting on his own years in the Society of Jesus, he said to me: “Be very kind to people on your way up, because you’re going to meet these same people on your way down.” There is a word for this, a word on which we should be on good speaking terms. That word is “humility.” The English word “humility” comes from the Latin humilis: “lowly,” or “near the ground.” Humility is the opposite of feeling oneself to be high and lofty, above and beyond the minions who otherwise surround us. The English words “humility” and “humus” are cousins, “humus” being the organic component of soil. Humus is what makes soil rich. Humus is formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material in the ground. Humility is composted from leading a well-cultivated life. I’ll come back to that.
Jesus navigated life with humility. The ancient prophecies that had anticipated the coming Messiah predicted the Messiah’s humility: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey….”[i]Jesus himself takes up this theme of humility when he speaks of how we should enter this kingdom of God. He says to enter “as a little child.[ii] And Jesus gives the warning, “Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”[iii]Jesus was critical of those who trumpet and parade their piety, their purity, their generosity, their grandiosity, their accomplishments from the grandstand. Rather Jesus commends us to live out our lives in a very unostentatious, uncalculated way, not even letting our left hand knowing what our right hand is doing. This is the grace of humility.