Pentecost 2 (Proper 5) | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 11 June 2023 | Hosea 5:15-6:6 | Psalm 50:1-7 | Romans 4:13-25 | Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God of grace, from whom all good proceeds. Amen.

Welcome to Ordinary Time, or The Season After Pentecost. We call this time a green and growing season in the church; we decorate the church and the clergy in green on Sundays, and we take time to put down some roots and grow in our faith.

We can take our time, because this is also the longest season. We’re in this until Advent starts in six months. There’s plenty of time for growing. And so, we listen for how the Holy Spirit might be calling us to come close to God, to deepen our love, to flourish in who we are and who we can be. I really enjoy this spacious season of growing. But there’s also a difficulty with the way we tend to understand growth, and the start of the season is a good time to address it.

We often think about growth as something we need to work hard to do. If I’m talking to my boss about “growing edges,” we’re probably going to talk about things I need to work on to do better. If I want to grow as an artist, what I need to do is put in the hours to practice whatever art I’m trying to get better at.

And it’s normal to want to work at things we care about, and try hard to do well. Wanting to put in the effort and get things right isn’t necessarily a problem in itself. But sometimes that understanding that we grow by working hard doesn’t serve us well in our faith.

Sometimes we can get the idea that our faith is about how hard we try and how much we sacrifice and how good we could make ourselves if we just practice. And sometimes we can lose track of God’s love for us, given for free. Sometimes we can forget that we’re the ones who need God, and not the other way around. Sometimes when we carry so much, we can forget that it’s grace that carries us.

And that’s what our scriptures are about today. In our reading from the prophet Hosea, God longs for God’s people to return to a right relationship with God, and to focus on “steadfast love” and “knowledge of God” rather than on the sacrifices they make at the temple to fulfill the laws.

I want to pause and acknowledge here that there’s something disturbing about the violent way Hosea imagines God speaking to the people in this reading; I’ve preached about that before, and we can talk about it another time if you want to. But for the moment, we’re setting that aside to look at part where God wants people to seek God’s face; God cares more about a loving relationship than about offerings.

And we get that same thought in Psalm 50. We hear God’s voice saying that God doesn’t need any of the things people offer. All the animals and all the birds and all the bounty the earth has already belong to God. So it’s not like God is waiting around to see what we can give God.

What God wants isn’t more offerings, but a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. God wants us to notice what God is doing and get to know who God is and give thanks. God wants us to call on God when we’re in trouble. God wants us to accept help when we need it, and to move through the world knowing that we’re not alone.

It’s so much more about what God wants to give us than about what we could be able to give to God. And some of us who grew up learning a very strong distinction between law (in the Old Testament) and grace (in the New Testament) might be surprised to read Hosea and Psalm 50 this way. But I believe now that God’s movement in the world has been about grace all along. Grace has always been there, and Jesus embodies that grace in a wonderful new way.     

Even in Romans, when St. Paul is talking about grace and faith in very Christian ways, he sees it was already about this for Abraham. It was about Abraham’s relationship with God, and the way Abraham was able accept God’s promises.

Abraham walked with God and argued with God and trusted God to do what God had promised. Even though God called Abraham to do some difficult things, it was always more about what God wanted to give Abraham than what Abraham could give to God.

And so Abraham is the example of faith Paul holds up for the new Christian communities. Even though Jesus has shifted the paradigm for Paul and for us in many ways, this faithful relationship with God is a constant. “It depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace.” Our spiritual growth is about coming close to God and accepting the gift God wants to give us—it’s not about working harder or giving more to God or getting strong enough to do it all. “We are saved by grace through faith.”

When we get to Jesus in our Gospel reading, we see this grace again. Jesus gets flack for hanging out with “tax collectors and sinners” instead of good people who’ve figured out how to get their lives together and do good things.

And Jesus says, “It’s not the healthy people who need a doctor, but the sick people.” And y’all, in case there was any doubt, we are the sick people.

I remember a scene from the movie Stranger Than Fiction where Will Ferrell is a tax collector (an IRS agent), and Emma Thompson is a very morbid writer, and Queen Latifah is the writer’s assistant. The writer is stuck and looking for inspiration by wandering around a hospital trying to see dying people, and the assistant is complaining about it and says a museum would be better inspiration. The novelist says, “I don’t need a museum, I need the infirm.” And the assistant says in the shadiest way possible, “You are the infirm.” Friends, it’s us; we are the infirm.

And it can be hard to cope with all of the ways we are deeply unwell—maybe physically, spiritually, financially, socially, emotionally. Especially if we’ve worked hard to get it together, it’s hard to admit where we’re falling apart. But the good news is that Jesus is here for us, the infirm.

Jesus does not come close to us because we finally figured out how to be good—Jesus comes close to us because Jesus loves us and Jesus knows we need help. And yes, when we follow Jesus, we’re going to learn something about being good people. We’re going to grow in loving God and loving our neighbors and loving ourselves; we’re going to grow in putting our own lives into alignment with God’s dream of peace and justice and flourishing for all creation. As our collect says, we pray that God will inspire us to “think those things that are right” and guide us to do them.

And even that is grace. God doesn’t wait for us to get it right before God is willing to help us. When we grow a little better at kindness or generosity or any good thing, that’s not something we have to do to merit God’s attention; it’s part of the gift God wants to give us. And it becomes part of the gift we offer to one another and to the world and to ourselves and to God in turn. It’s all grace, and we get to be part of how God’s grace shows up in the world.

It’s by faith that we come to trust that this grace will carry us. And we can talk about faith in many ways; scripture does. We can say with the author of Hebrews that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We can talk about faith as in faithfulness, holding to our commitments and our love with integrity. We can talk about faith as a trusting and engaged relationship with God. And we can talk about the faith that reaches out for grace—like Abraham’s faith, and like the faith of the woman Jesus heals in the second part of our Gospel reading.

This is faith that’s about being able to accept a gift. This is faith that’s about reaching out to God when we know we can’t heal ourselves. This is coming to Jesus anemic and bloodied, with nothing to offer except our need and our hope. And this is a hard kind of faith for many of us to practice. Accepting a gift is difficult. Most of us have been taught that it’s important to carry our own weight, that it’s dangerous or shameful to owe anything to somebody else.  

It can be hard to let go of being self-sufficient, let go of being productive, enough to take hold of the grace that’s given. And yet, it’s how we grow in faith. We learn to accept what’s given freely, and we learn to give freely in turn. We learn to call on God and on one another in the day of trouble. We learn to move past the checklist of accomplishments and into praise and thanksgiving. We learn to accept the grace that God always, always wants to give us.

We gradually stop trying to impress God with all the shiny treasures we’ve collected, and we rest in the truth that God delights in us for our own sake. Because we are part of God’s beautiful and good creation, just like the wildflowers and the oak trees—even though most of us have a lot more anxiety than the wildflowers and the oak trees. 

The wildflowers can’t ever repay the sun for its light. The oak tree doesn’t measure how much water it takes into its roots so that it can give it all back. They receive what they’re given; that’s how they grow; we’re so glad they do.   

And that is my prayer for us in this green and growing season too: that we will take in whatever grace we might be given, and that it will be everything we need and more. I hope we can learn that we don’t have to hold ourselves up all the time; we don’t have hold ourselves together by sheer strength of will.

Not everyone’s growth will look the same in this season, but here’s something I’m trying. I’m a person who usually thinks the answer is trying harder; this season, I’m inviting myself to consider trying less hard, as an act of faith; to hold lightly. There’s grace. There’s community. It’s not all on me.

So we do what we can. We lift each other up. We are part of God’s grace for each other, and I pray that we can trust others to be part of God’s grace for us. We are all part of this network of grace together. Most likely, we’ll get our turn to help someone else too; that’s how it tends to work when we’re all connected; usually we get a chance to help. But even if we don’t, it will still be worth God’s while, worth our neighbors’ while, to help us, because God made us worthy and beautiful and good and beloved, even before we’ve done anything useful, even after we can’t do any more.

So I pray that this season of growing will be a season of grace. I pray that we will turn toward love mercy and praise and thanksgiving; that we will call upon God and one another in the day of trouble. I pray that our faith will flourish and grow in this season, and that by God’s grace, our faith will make us well.