Friday, March 28, 2008

Matthew 8:1-17 - Restoring Community

KNU International English Church

March 30, 2008

Josh Broward

I am a reject. I am an outcast. I am an exile.

When I was growing up, I was never one of the popular kids. I was always a little awkward socially, and I was overweight.

I remember one time in the 5th grade when our school was having a carnival. Some of the kids in my class got into a water fight near the dunking booth. I had a crush on a girl in my class, so I did what most boys do in 5th grade who like a girl – I attacked. I poured a big bucket of water on her head. She shrieked and laughed and turned to run after me – which is, of course, exactly what I wanted. I got the impression that she actually liked getting soaked in water and might actually like me.

In true 5th grader style, I took the great courageous step of asking a friend to ask a friend to ask the girl if she liked me. I sent off my messenger. I watched him have a short meeting with the female messenger. Then, a group of giggling girls - armed with female intuition - smelled the drama in the air, and a flock of geese laughed and whispered their way into the girls’ bathroom.

After a minute or two, there was an explosion of girls going every which way, and one was making a B-line for us. She got a few meters away from me and said with snorts of laughter, “She said, ‘I wouldn’t go out with that fat slob!’” I was left to skulk away on my own, knowing that this story would be retold countless times around the school.

When my family moved to Texas, I had a new experience. I was now also the minority. I was usually the only white kid on my school bus. This wouldn’t have bothered me if it hadn’t bothered the other kids so much. They seemed to feel like I was their opportunity to express all of their frustrations for the times when they were the minorities. I experienced a general sense of isolation along with some staring and name calling.

Once, the community tough guy started a fight with me – simply because I was white. When we were fighting, I was surprised to find that other people on the bus were also hitting me – taking their cheap shots while I wasn’t looking.

Often, when I got off the bus at my bus stop, the kids would look out the window and shout racial slurs at me. Sometimes they would spit at me as the bus pulled away. I learned to walk quickly to get out of spitting range.

Most of my childhood and early adolescence was a longer replay of these basic scripts, usually with much less drama. All of this caused me some problems with my identity as I was growing up. It might have sent me into a depression – as I have seen happen many times. I might have become a racist – as several of my classmates in the “Deep South” were.

But something saved me. As a young teenager, I became a Christian. God’s love for me began to override my peers’ rejection of me. But just as importantly, I experienced love and acceptance and community through the Church. Through my church and other churches in our area, I developed beautiful relationships with people with every color of skin. In a very real way, God saved me and healed me – through the church.

For the past two months, we’ve been studying Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This is Jesus’ most famous teaching. He is explaining the way of the Kingdom, and he calls his followers to live in radically different ways in the world: loving our enemies, showing mercy, speaking with humility, keeping our promises, trusting God, and not worrying about money. Jesus summarizes all of this in one simple sentence: “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

In chapters 8 and 9, Jesus begins to live out this Kingdom way of life. He meets three people who are rejects and outcasts, people on the margins of society. Jesus gives healing to these people, and, in the process, he gives healing to their communities as well.

Let’s read these three stories in Matthew 8:1-17.

Let’s take a look at these three stories. Who were these people? Why were they outcasts or marginalized[1]?

The first person was a leper. Leprosy was the most-feared disease of ancient times. If you got leprosy, your body would literally rot away piece by piece until you were all gone. There was no cure, and the only known way to prevent it was total isolation. Leviticus explains the life of a leper: “Those who suffer from a serious skin disease must tear their clothing and leave their hair uncombed. They must cover their mouth and call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” As long as the serious disease lasts, they will be ceremonially unclean. They must live in isolation in their place outside the camp” (13:45-46). Jesus broke the rules simply by touching this man.

The second contact was actually with a pair of people, a Roman officer and his slave. These were gentiles. This word is similar to the Korean word weigookin, but it is much stronger. They were ethnic outsiders – not Israelites, and they were religious outsiders – not Jewish. Even worse, this man was a leader in the Roman army which was occupying and oppressing Israel. Israelites hated Romans like Koreans hated Japanese soldiers 70 years ago. Jesus would have offended many people by giving any help at all.

The third story is about a woman – Peter’s mother-in-law. Women were considered second-class citizens, maybe half a step up from slaves. They were not considered a valuable part of society, and a good Jewish man didn’t talk to women. Jesus broke the rules again just by touching her.

Imagine with me for a few minutes what kind of community this would have been. A righteous Jewish man of Jesus time probably prayed this prayer every morning:

Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who did not make me a woman.
Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who did not make me a Gentile.
Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who did not make me a slave.

Give me some audience participation. How would you describe this community? What adjectives describe the life of this community? … arrogant, isolated, fragmented, fearful, hostile, shaming, lonely, unloving, broken?

What we see here is a basic rule of life. When people are broken and rejected, the community is broken. When people live in unhealed brokenness, the relationships and systems of the community are fundamentally broken. Broken and rejected people are evidence of a problem in the community.

When the community rejected those lepers, they were making brokenness and separation a permanent part of their communal life. When the community rejected and condemned gentiles, they were cutting off contact with the outside world, limiting themselves to their own perspectives, and limiting God’s love to themselves. When the community pushed down their women, they were cutting their society in half, institutionalizing hostility and oppression and injustice.

When Jesus brought healing to all of these people, he was breaking through his society’s walls of hostility and rejection. He was restoring those rejected people to the community, and he was restoring the community to include the rejected people. By bringing healing to individuals, he was also bringing healing to the community.

But what about us? Do you know anyone with leprosy? None of us are practicing Jews, so we don’t have a problem with gentiles. And most of us are pretty comfortable with women playing an equal role in society. What do these stories have to say to us today?

Maybe we can get inside these three stories. Maybe we can begin to see these three people as living breathing people in our lives.

Maybe Peter’s mother-in-law could represent people in our families or in our churches who are marginalized or suffering or sick. Who is pushed to the edges around here? Who might feel unwelcome or lonely here? Who might be feeling unloved in your own home? Mother Theresa said, “The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”

I got an email this week from someone, who is a conservative Christian, and she is wrestling with how to be a good friend to her friend, who is gay. This is her first time to have a gay friend, and she isn’t quite sure what to do. She wrote,

Do I tell her she’s wrong if she asks? Do I engage her in philosophical/theological debate? Do I just let her be and be a friend if she needs one? Or do I go the opposite extreme and tell her that everything she’s doing is A-OK and natural (as some of her close friends do)? Or a mixture of all of the above? Or nothing?

I’m not sure exactly how to answer my friend’s questions, but I’m impressed with her commitment to be a faithful friend and to keep the relationship going. In the process of trying to figure out how to be a good friend, she has become an active learner. She has read a book about homosexuality and watched a reality TV show about a conservative Christian guy who lived with a gay roommate in San Francisco for 30 days. She is trying. She is working at it.

Even when community is hard, Jesus calls us to do that hard work of friendship and to learn to genuinely love each other. Who is your “mother-in-law”?

If we really get inside this story, maybe the man with leprosy can represent for us the people pushed to the edges of our society. Who is our leper? Who are the people we feel uncomfortable just being around? Are they orphans? Are they the migrant workers? Are they the homeless? Are they the hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-joking, hard-partying crowd?

I’m excited that some people in our church are reaching out to all of these groups of people. On Monday mornings, Stephanie and some other folks go to an orphanage here in Cheonan, just to play with the kids. Every other Saturday, Chris, Isabel, and the other folks from Compassionate Hearts Ministry go to Cheonan Station to give out kimbap to homeless men. Many of you have donated your old clothes, and this week several people from the Cheonan Migrant Workers Center came to my office to pick up a van load of clothes. Chris and I are talking about how we can have more fellowship with this center. YoungMin, Byron, Lindsey, and a few others play pool downtown with a group of hakwon teachers who tend to feel pushed away by church.

If we are followers of Jesus, we need to go with Jesus to the margins. We always need to be looking for the people our society or our church has pushed aside. We need to find those people and restore community by restoring the bonds of love to them.

If we really get inside this story, then maybe the Roman officer and his slave can represent someone in our lives too. Who is our “gentile”? Jesus healed this gentile’s slave without even going to his home? Who needs long-distance healing through us?

A 40 year old woman sat by the door of her hut in Swaziland (a small country inside South Africa). Her body was twisted into strange shapes as she tried to find a comfortable position. Cancer was attacking her breast, her stomach, and her back, so the slighted touch caused great pain. She leaned sideways against the chair and watched her children playing outside. Her mind moved into the future, and despair filled her face.

This pain of the future was her greatest pain of all. It was the pain of a mother infected with HIV, facing her last days. She knew that in a few months her children would be orphans.

This courageous woman turned to the team from the Nazarene Compassionate Ministries AIDS taskforce who was visiting her home. She spoke very softly, trying not to cough: “Who is going to take care of my children?”

More than 12 million children in Africa are orphaned because of AIDS. Like the Roman officer coming to Jesus, these African mothers and fathers cry out to us, “Who will take care of my children?”[2]

Some of you have already taken up this challenge by sponsoring a child. For only 25,000 won a month, you can make sure at least one child has enough food and a good education. Talk to Amanda to sponsor a child (or go to

Our church has also taken up this challenge. We are going to Tanzania this summer to help build a training center for Christian leaders in Africa. These leaders are actively engaging their communities in taking care of the children. We’re doing a small part to help them do that.

What will you do to answer the cry from far away? Will you just turn up the sound in your MP3 player? Will you toss a little money their way so you’ll feel better? Or will you get involved? Will you give your time, your energy, your heart to bring healing and to restore community?

Who is your suffering family member? Who is your leper – rejected by people in your social group? Who is your “gentile” far away asking for your help?

Here’s the key part. If we really get inside this story … if we see these three people as people in our lives, then who are we in this story? If we really get inside this story, and if this story really gets inside us, then we will be the Jesus who reaches out and loves and helps the people whom everyone else rejects or ignores. We become the people who break social barriers for the sake of love and healing. We become the people who restore people and develop a restoring, healing community.

Are you ready for this? Are you ready to live like Jesus?

[1] The “margins” of this paper are the blank spaces on each side where there are no words. Marginalized means: pushed to the edges of society, not allowed to participate as an equal citizen.

[2] Trino Jara, “Where Is Our Heart?” NCM Magazine, First Issue 2008.

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