4 Epiphany C
Jesus says there are no disposable people. That’s today’s main thought. And that’s the main thought in Matthew’s gospel for the next twenty chapters. So, hang on to that thought from now to November. Use that thought to understand every gospel reading this year.
Jesus says there are no disposable people.
At this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has started his public ministry. “Repent,” Jesus declares, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Change how you see the world. Seek a different story to make sense of life. Adjust your thinking to make room for God.
That’s what it means to repent.
Jesus announces the change. Jesus then recruits the changers. The changers are the disciples. Remember – Jesus chooses to change the world through us. Then, Jesus gets to work.
Jesus travels the length and breadth of Galilee. Galilee isn’t a power center. Galilee is the backwoods, the hinterland, the territory of the forgotten and abandoned. And this is where Jesus launches his campaign.
Jesus heals every sick person they bring to him. He cures the demon-possessed, the epileptics, the paralyzed. These people are primary examples of the cursed and ignored. They are case studies of the alienated and isolated. They are regarded as disposable people.
This is where Jesus starts.
Jesus says there are no disposable people. People crave this message. In no time at all, Jesus attracts crowds from a fifty-mile radius. Those crowds include Jews and Greeks, rabbis and soldiers, rich and poor. Because everyone feels disposable in one way or another.
Here’s an important point. It comes from John Swinton, a marvelous theologian and writer. “Jesus did not sit with those on the margins of society,” Swinton writes, “Rather, he moved the margins.”
That idea unlocks the mystery of today’s gospel reading. I want you to chew on that idea this morning. Jesus moves the margins.
In Matthew five, Jesus starts the Sermon on the Mount. The first twelve verses are often called “The Beatitudes.” That title comes from the Latin word for “blessed.” These verses begin with that word. That’s where we get the title.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus tells a “counter-story.” A counter-story pushes against the story everybody accepts as true. More than that, a counter-story usually comes from a different perspective. A counter-story usually comes from the edges of society, not the center.
Jesus tells a counter-story. In that story, Jesus moves the margins. But what is the story Jesus is “countering”?
The regular story blames the poor for their poverty. In the end, the poor get nothing.
The regular story tells the grieving to get over it. In the end, we just suck it up and move on.
The regular story says that gentleness is for suckers. Only the strong survive.
The regular story says that only fools think things will get better. Instead, you should just get yours while you have the chance.
The regular story says people are selfish. Life is a war of all against all. God doesn’t care. Get over it. The regular story is how most people see the world. The regular story supports the regular system. In the regular system the few get the goodies and the many get the shaft.
The regular story says that power, privilege, property, and pleasure are the prize. And people are disposable.
Jesus doesn’t buy the regular story. Jesus moves the margin. Jesus says there are no disposable people.
You might think this has nothing to do with you. You’re not poor or grieving or powerless or raging for justice. Too bad for the others. But you’re not one of the disposables.
That’s all right. Just keep telling yourself that.
Or…you can look a little deeper. That regular story lives inside of me. I’ll never really be good enough for anyone. I’ll never really have enough stuff to cure my poverty of spirit. I can’t get over my grief, so I just bury it under busyness. I can’t make the world right. So, I stop trying and just numb the pain.
I’m pretty sure I’m disposable too.
I suspect the regular story works for somebody. I suspect there are normal people somewhere. I’m also sure the story doesn’t work for me. I’m also sure I’m not one of those normal people.
I’m guessing that, whether you admit it or not, you’re with me on this. I’m not normal. I’m not worthwhile. I’m certainly not blessed. Most of the time, I’m pretty disposable.
Jesus says there are no disposable people. The regular story is not God’s story. The regular story is wrong. Jesus calls us to reject the regular story. Jesus calls us to live in God’s story. That’s what it means to repent.
Here’s God’s story. Jesus moves the margins. Jesus claims us disposables for the kingdom of God. Jesus names us blessed and worthy and greatly honored. Jesus comes to heal the sick, not to congratulate the healthy. Jesus comes to call not the righteous bus sinners.
Jesus will go anywhere to claim us disposables. Jesus joins us despised and disposable people on a Roman cross. That’s the final tool and symbol of the regular story. But not even death can dispose of Jesus.
God raises Jesus from the dead. God moves the margins of life. The regular story says death wins in the end. The regular story says we all get disposed of in the dirt. The regular story is wrong.
Jesus says there are no disposable people.
Jesus turns the regular story inside out and upside down. This makes no sense to the regular story people. But we aren’t regular story people. We follow Jesus. We trust that Jesus is, as Paul writes, “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” We are blessed to live in that power and by that wisdom.
Now we can read the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are a poem. The first stanza is verses three through six. In that first stanza, Jesus reverses the regular story. In God’s kingdom, the disposable people are greatly honored. Jesus moves the margins to the center.
The regular story has an expiration date. That expiration date is the first Easter Sunday.
The second stanza is verses seven through ten. The Church says there are no disposable people. We are called to be margin-movers. We do that through gentleness. We do that through peace-building. We do that by challenging the systems designed to dispose of people daily.
The second stanza is a job-description for world-changers. Jesus calls us world-changers disciples.
Maybe this sounds a bit airy-fairy to you. So, let me give an example. I’m honored to visit homebound members of our congregation. I pray with them and bring them communion. We spend time in small talk. Some might think this is a waste of time. But I go because Jesus says there are no disposable people.
Have you ever been stuck at home because of an illness or injury? Think about how quickly you disappeared from other people’s social radar screens. Perhaps you got a taste of that during the COVID lockdowns. It doesn’t take long to wonder if we matter much. It’s no surprise that loneliness and depression were the most common results of the lockdowns.
Jesus says there are no disposable people. In November, we’ll get to Matthew twenty-five – the bookend for today’s gospel. In that chapter, we’ll get a list of people discarded by the regular story. We’ll meet the hungry and thirsty, the unwelcome and unhoused, the ill and imprisoned. This is an inventory of folks who drop off our radar screens. These are some of the disposable people in the regular story.
Jesus moves the margins. Jesus puts the hungry and thirsty, the unwelcome and the unhoused, the ill and the imprisoned in the center of God’s story. Jesus calls us margin-movers to do that daily.
Moving the margins was easier for Matthew’s community. Most of them were on the edge already. They didn’t have inherited power, privilege, and property. Most were illiterate. Many were enslaved people. Matthew’s folks didn’t have to find the disposables. They were the disposables.
It’s harder for us. We have power, privilege, and property. We have education and influence. We can determine our own destinies. Most of us here are not among the social disposables.
Don’t feel bad about that. You and I can leverage our privilege for those who have less. You and I can use our wealth to benefit the impoverished. You and I can use our influence to move the margins. You and I can resist the regular story by living the Jesus story.
When we get that right, we’ll know. Now we come to verses eleven and twelve. When we move the margins, the center reacts. When we embrace the disposables, we join them in their struggles. When we do that, we can rejoice and be glad, Jesus says. We’ll be in very good company.
Jesus says there are no disposable people. Is that how we’ll live this week?