The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, chaplain to the House of Bishops, preached Sept. 22 at the House of Bishops meeting in Taipei, Taiwan.
“Rolling with Jesus”
Matthew 9: 9-13: As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘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.’
Some Thursday night, when you’re feeling brave and have half an hour to kill, I hope you check out this new TV show: “Black Jesus.” The language is for mature audiences only, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. But if you keep listening, I promise you it’s worth the effort. These brothers are saying something important about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
For starters: Instead of Capernaum, this modern-day Jesus lives in Compton. From Episode 1, he’s rolling with his homies (translation: he’s moving about, doing life – that’s “rolling” – with the young men and women who follow him – his “homies”). Are you with me? Amen.
You can find him in Compton at their apartment building, smokin’, drinkin’ and chillin’. He walks about the hood, prays and talks with his Father, teaches and preaches in the people’s language, urges his neighbors to trust God, share and forgive one another. He even rallies them to plant a community garden in the projects, just so they can grow their own cucumbers, tomatoes and “herbal remedies.”
The show just launched about a month ago, and already you know there are Christian groups are crying foul. “Jesus isn’t a young black man. Jesus doesn’t hang out drinking in the hood. Jesus does not cuss. That show is blasphemy!”
With all due respect, I hope the show survives. Because it may be crass and it may be crude, but it’s a remarkable vehicle for sharing gospel truth. What’s blasphemous about Jesus gathering this young posse, entering their homes, being humble, being truthful, welcoming them into union and transformed life with God their Father? That’s not blasphemy. It’s a scandal: the scandalous, incarnational way that Jesus rolls. And if we follow him, I think it’s how we’re supposed to roll, too.
It’s certainly the Jesus that we see in today’s gospel. He’s moving through town and calls on Matthew, the tax collector. Yes, that Matthew, the one who sells out his fellow Jews by gathering their money on behalf of Rome, and skims the cream off the top for himself. That Matthew, the one who can’t even go into the temple because he’s been deemed that unclean.
This is the one Jesus seeks. And not just to say, “I heal you. Now go on your way.” No, his call is, “Mathew – yes you. Follow me.” As soon Matthew says yes, Jesus flips and turns and follows him, enters his house, drinks and chills with his crew of tax collectors and unsavory characters, listening to their stories of life on the margins, painting a new picture of life in union with God.
But again the Pharisees were having none of it. “What kind of Messiah does this? Why doesn’t he gather his followers at the temple, school them in the sacrifices and rites required of the faithful, teach them the right direction to swing the censer and light the candles? Why isn’t he seeking good, upstanding Jews to form his starting team?”
Jesus had to break it down for them: “That’s not how I roll. Learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” What does that mean? Well, when I sacrifice, whether in ritual or in personal life, I make an offering. I take something from in here and I put it out there. It costs me, but ultimately, it’s external. And when it’s done, the scales are even.
Mercy takes you in a whole other direction. Mercy takes something – or someone – out there, and it lets them in here. Mercy draws near, even though every rule says no. And with mercy, the scales will never be even. Mercy knows that the point isn’t just getting it right, it’s getting together.
This is how Jesus rolls, and his greatest desire is that we would follow him in the way of love and mercy. Go to Capernaum or Compton or the mall or the dog park or wherever your edge may be. Hang with the people. Let them host you. Let them teach you. Share the good news of God’s love and mercy with each other. And then create some kingdom life together.
It may not be intuitive or comfortable for a lot of us in the pews and pulpits of The Episcopal Church. But I think that a lot of you know what I’m talking about – I’ve heard your stories and I’ve seen you in action.
Ask +Scott Benhase about the new CPE program in Georgia. Instead of only sending seminarians into hospitals, he’s sending them into neighborhoods. They go out there, receive hospitality, share faith, listen deep. Then they come back for disciplined reflection on what they saw and what they felt, and plan to do it again. Because that’s how Jesus rolls, and they’ve got to follow.
Ask +Dorsey McConnell why he’s walking around the hotel lobby toting a video camera and tripod through the hotel lobby. He’s traveling the world – Taipei to the Philippines, Uganda to Pittsburgh – sitting with groups and inviting them to talk about a Bible passage. In each place, he dwells close, listens deep. The finished video will gather all these voices so we can sit and learn and discover Christ at each others’ feet. That’s how Jesus rolls, and we can follow.
Are any of you hosting Mission Enterprise Zones or New Church Starts? I hope that you will give them cover, give them love, because they’re on a risky mission. Entering communities, walking around, listening and loving, learning and teaching. Then they call people together to discern what God wants to do here, in his place, right now. They stir the juicy pot of venerable Anglican traditions together with local wisdom and dreams that have never been dreamt before, and birth a fresh expression of Christian community. That’s how Jesus rolls, and God bless them, they are following.
Some of you sponsor global missionaries and many of you are ministering in non-US contexts. I know you know how to follow Jesus! If the main mark of global mission in the past was domination and erasure, today it is companionship and mutual transformation. You’ve had to get humble and receive from the other. You’ve had to share traditions and experiences of God in both directions. You’ve had to imagine and reimagine what kingdom life looks like at your place. I wish we could carry that flexible, faithful missionary/missional practice back to the United States. It’s how Jesus rolls, and we need to roll that way, too.
And finally, just look around this room, at each other, at yourselves, here in Taipei. Have there ever been this many Episcopal leaders gathered in Asia, with this many colors, languages and genders? Here you are, not sitting on high, doling out favors, but open, curious, receiving, listening, discovering new shapes for kingdom life here and sharing about new shapes of kingdom life in the many places we all call home.
If anybody asks you why you had to come this far, pay this much, stay this long, you tell them it’s part of how we follow Jesus. We show up at the edges and margins, vulnerable and humble and so far from home that the only option is to receive hospitality. We dwell and hang with others and ask the kingdom breaks in.
You may find yourself drinking and chilling in Compton. Just follow. You may find yourself in a Buddhist temple, surprised by the Holy Spirit. Just follow. The critics may cry blasphemy and demand that you get yourself back in line. Don’t stop following. Just keep following Jesus, because he’s heading to the kingdom. Amen!