Some people believe if they just had enough faith or could get their personal house in order, then Jesus would have compassion on them, too, like the crowds that followed him. What appears to be a simple story, a straight forward narrative in Matthew’s gospel, has a great message about all the human endeavor. That is, how do we as Christians apply our faith to life? How shall we live? Can we find hope in every moral disaster?
God’s grace has no conditions attached to it. But we live in a world that is characterized by ungraceful attitudes — like, dog-eat-dog, or survival of the fittest, or look out for number one, accepting God’s unconditional love and grace is difficult . Can we keep old sins out of sight. There was a phone service called Apology Sound-Off Line. You could call up and confess any wrong, any sin. People who no longer believed in God or prayer entrusted their sins to an answering machine. All kinds of sins were confessed to this service, — 60-second messages about terrible sins – adultery, rape, child abuse, murder.
A recovering alcoholic said, “I would like to apologize to all the people I hurt in my 18 years as an addict.” Do you suppose the motorists who ran over a man in Hartford, Connecticut, would like to call up and say, “I’m sorry I didn’t stop.” So when Jesus had compassion because they were harassed and dejected, was he talking about people like us? Is it true that most of us have something to feel guilty about?
Many of us grew up reciting every Sunday that “we poor sinners confess unto thee that we are by nature sinful and unclean.” Do we have unrealized prejudices? Do we make unfair judgments against other men and women? Do we think, “If my faith were more sincere, then perhaps God would give me healing, or relief, or the help I need.” After all, we live in the age of cults and movements where dramatic visitations of the spirit are held up as the ideal. Many people have been quite surprised by the love and power of God’s visitation.
Moses fled into the desert because he was a murderer, a fugitive from justice. God spoke to him in the mystery of the burning bush. There is no hint in the biblical record that Moses had done anything to deserve God’s kind attention. Abraham and Sara were getting old, no children in sight, and no hint that God would keep his promise for descendants as numerous as stars in the sky.
One day three visitors came into camp, and over dinner the old promise was mentioned. Sara laughed, but before another summer she gave birth, and the genealogical chart was given new life.
Or John Wesley, one of history’s most famous Christians, reported that he went unwillingly to a meeting of religious people in Aldersgate Street in London where he heard a reading from Luther’s commentary on Romans. He wrote in his journal that as Luther’s words described the changes that God works in the heart through faith in Christ, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” He became the world’s most successful missionary when he came to the colonies. He never said his strange warming was brought on by anything he did or said.
So does God’s grace depend on our spiritual thermometer? One of my favorite authors was Dr. Joe Sittler, a pastor, theologian, a seminary professor. a giant of faith and life. He was asked whether he felt God’s presence in his life. He gave a very long answer which ended by saying “No,” he did not. He said, “I have never known fully that kind of life, with the full warm power of that faith, for whose declaration I was ordained. I have not seen any burning bushes. I have not pounded at the door of God’s grace with the passion of a Martin Luther. And John Wesley’s strangely warmed heart at the Aldersgate meeting, that is not my street.
“I cannot say of the Christian faith what many honest Christians have said about it, but I believe it is my duty of obedience, to declare as a gift of God, even that which I myself do not fully possess.”
I find his answer humble and thrilling at the same time. Plenty of us, whether lay persons or ministers of word and sacrament, are ourselves in that position, obeying some things we don’t know everything about, receiving gifts from God that we do not understand and do not deserve. That’s grace. We are much like the people whom God adopted at Mt. Sinai. He had rescued them from the Egyptians, and had brought them to himself. They didn’t deserve or earn his adoption.
As St. Paul told the Corinthians, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus”:
In Jesus of Nazareth we find the primary answer to the question of how God deals with his people. Matthew telescopes dozens of incidents into a few words. It took Jesus weeks, months, to go through cities and villages. In every place, people brought sick friends and relatives. One by one he talked with them, touched them, prayed over them, healed them.
Word spread that this man was from God. In fact, all he could talk about was bringing in the kingdom and how his Father loved the world. He was talking about grace. Grace happens when God listens to our recital of every sin, our review of every illness, injustice, hearts hurting for lack of love – and in those situations Jesus has compassion for us all.
Even if we don’t know how sheep act without a shepherd, we all know what it is to be harassed and helpless. Harassed parents have looked at their children and asked, “You think the hospital gave us the right one?” Some married couples have thought their loved one has disappeared and somebody else with that person’s appearance is acting quite strangely.
Or outside the home, many of us have worked under difficulties, the least example of which might be a boss who wants right now the work that will take at least 2 weeks to process. That’s called middle management – all that work and no responsibility. Then we get home and the phone rings during dinner. Somebody wants us to switch our long distance service, or offers us another credit card.
Anyone who doesn’t understand harassment, helplessness, or being trampled by circumstance, is out of touch with the world.But God’s grace comes to us in our ordinary everyday living. The experience of God is not something we can measure by the number of goose bumps, or an increased heart rate, or suddenly speaking in tongues – whatever that means.
God’s decision to be present in human situations belongs to God alone, and that is God’s amazing grace. When Jesus saw the feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, the frustrations, guilt, and the desperation of people, that’s when he had compassion.
There’s a certain and well-defined group of men who live together. They celebrate the Lord’s Supper about as we do. A particular Lutheran lay assistant enjoys helping the chaplain with communion, as he has for many years. He gives the bread. “The Body of Christ given for you.” He enjoys that duty because he says, “I, myself, have found forgiveness.” If he chooses, he can serve the Bread the rest of his life. He’s in a North Dakota prison, serving a double life sentence for murder. “I have found forgiveness.”
Have we? That prisoner knows grace. Are we as willing to receive the grace of God for ourselves and put that forgiveness into practice? God was so willing to give himself to us that he got up on the cross with Jesus Christ.
In our baptism we are joined with him, which means that our crosses of daily living are joined with his ultimate cross of rejection and death, but then, his resurrection. More often than not, our chief problem in dealing with life is our failure to believe that the cup of life overflows with the undeserved love of God. That’s grace.
In Matthew’s story, the people who get God’s attention are not the pious, religious, bible-quoters who know God’s will for the rest of us. The only people who get God’s attention are not the people praying the right prayers or having the right degree of spiritual temperature. God gives compassion because it is his choice to have mercy, to love, to bring healing, to give help. Do you know someone who needs God’s compassion? Why not start with a mirror? Then look at the cross to see God’s love for us.
He doesn’t require us to have some particular religious experience. God uses his love to forgive sins, overcoming the disasters we create for ourselves. The Lord of the harvest sends his laborers because the field is his field, his harvest. Where is the kingdom? It is unseen but powerful. The kingdom is in our midst. We don’t see it, feel it, or hear it. It makes no noise, and does not push itself forward. God surrounds us with his love When you feel nearly overcome, weighed down, burdened, take heart. In just such difficulties, God sees an opportunity to make the kingdom of heaven very near.
We live, day by day and night by night, in his kingdom, world without end because we are the children of God.