The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Reference: Matthew 9: 32-38
But they went away and spread the news about him throughout that district. After they had gone away, a demoniac who was mute was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been mute spoke; and the crowds were amazed and said, “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.”
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
We quote movies in our house. They are a kind of shorthand of repartee. Casablanca quotes are stock fare; there is a line from the movie the Big Chill we use a lot. As it should be the most quoted movie in our house is the cinematic classic, Zorro the Gay Blade. Yet, the top contender of quotation for me is a tie between the Cohen Brothers and Wes Anderson. These movie makers and the memorable lines they offer are never out of reach; it is as if we are watching their films each day.
I am sure I could sit down and do a top ten list of great lines, not of all time, but my favorites. Kind of a mix tape of cinematic moments. What a gloriously wasted day that would be! Without a doubt, in the top ten, maybe the top three, is one of the last lines from the movie Fargo, a Cohen Brothers film. Frances McDermont, playing the role of Margie the cop, says to the killer she just arrested, “and for what, a little bit of money.” And for what a little bit of money.
In her confusion and disgust is an expanse of the universe, a glimpse of what is always true, a kind of suspension of the everyday where you know, “oh my, there is truth standing right in front of me.” For what a little bit of money, you throw your life away, you take life away, you ruin and destroy and break and create all kinds of evil, for what? A little bit of money.
I have to say I didn’t really get greed and lust and control and desire until I ventured down the path of the Buddha. Our culture, infused and defined by Christianity, has a mixed message where greed is concerned. In Buddhism, the message is much clearer: greed is disaster; possession is a ruin; and desire is one of the three ways we suffer in life.
Long before the Buddha came to call, there were moments where I got a sense of unease, a misgiving about possessions. One of those moment was when I preached at Outville Presbyterian Church.
Have you ever been in a place, been in a room or with someone, and things were not quite right, just a vibe even? Outville, god bless the folks who endured a town named with so little imagination, Outville was a train stop until the train stopped stopping. This place is farm field after farm field cut by county route and intersected by another county route. In the middle of all of this was a small Presbyterian church with a couple dozen members who sang and prayed as best as they could until a local farmer died.
The farmer, who was not a member and not known to be religious, left his fortune to them. Now, all of sudden, the small country church who struggled became the little church with the big endowment. Little did they know though, the real struggle was just beginning.
I got to know the pastor of the church at Outville – Bob. I am not sure why, but this seasoned pastor would call me, a novice straight from the seminary, he would call me to complain. All they do is complain; all they do is fight he would moan into the phone. And it was true. After the bequest no one gave any money to the church; no one saw the church as the place where the kingdom of god could happen. The church was a fight over the money and who got to spend it.
At some point Bob got lost in this too. It doesn’t take a lot of money, power, or fame to ruin us. We know this. Just a little bit of power creates the tyrant; just a little bit of money creates the snob; just a little bit of fame creates the star of a singular universe.
Bob called me on the phone, and he was hot. The sexton would not mow the lawn the way Bob wanted the lawn to be mowed. He laid out his case to me, obviously convincing me of his justification, his righteous anger at the wayward sexton. And building his story to a crescendo he bellowed in the phone, “I told him, ‘I’m the head of staff and you will do what I say.’”
Not wanting to be a jerk, being only someone seeking clarification, I said, “Bob, the staff is the guy who mows the lawns and the guy who plays the organ and you, right?” “Yes. What’s your point?” he bellowed. I am not sure what I said after that, but I am sure about what I felt. I felt bad for Bob. He needed to feel important, needed to feel like a man with power and it just wasn’t there. It certainly wasn’t to be found by pushing around the guy who mows the lawn.
None of you may have been a small church pastor in a farming community in the Midwest who was struggling with the ruin of too much money with nowhere to go, but we have all struggled like Bob at some point. We need to feel important, remembered, considered. We need to be the one who talks, and people listen. We need to be right and be seen as such.
In these moments, be it a lawn mown, or a decision accepted, or a plan followed, in these moments there is a surge of importance; we are important; other people are less important. And then, the fall: the falling apart and suffering that happens to us because none of this is important.
I was very lucky that Bob called me that day so early in my years in ministry and bellowed into the phone, “I am the head of staff!” I was even luckier that I preached at Outville and felt the unease, the sense of things being off. I would not have the memory, the sound kept in my heart, of greed and possession and desire ruining people.
You’ve heard it said, “success went to his head” or “popularity has got to her.” And this happens; this is not a false claim. All too true sadly. What we may not fully see or be concerned about is when the power, the greed, the desire that has got to our heads, then goes to our hearts. In your heart, that is the very dangerous moment.
One way of reading the gospel of Matthew is as a long reflection on power and desire and the evil that destroys us. This morning we are reading the end of a section, a kind of summation of what has come before. Matthew, like Mark and Luke, likes to place a teaching at the end of a series of lessons as a kind of “if you didn’t get what I was saying before, let me say it again.”
From this point forward until the transfiguration, Matthew is going to be offering the parables, the teachings of Jesus. Today we are reading the moment before this begins, the end of the deeds of power. Jesus has been healing and exorcising; raising people and casting out evil. These are his deeds of power. And they have one connection, a key component, they are all acts of mercy. Jesus offers mercy. He heals people. He has compassion.
Our lesson today is a great moment to make sure we “get it.” And what we need to get is how we use power, how we see desire, what it means for us to possess. We don’t often see ourselves as people of power, or people who use power. And we may not see desire as dangerous or possession as ruin. But that is where we need to grow. Each of us has enormous power before us (this is the good news of the kingdom; we can be free); each of us is the place where darkness can be overcome (we can be the workers called to the harvest); and each of us is capable of desiring only compassion (the heart born anew). We may not remember but our life is redeemed to redeem others.
Matthew claims, “he had compassion; they are like sheep without a shepherd.” Our teaching today is a moment to pause, to stop and remember why a church is a church. It’s about compassion.
Years later, in a different church, I too had a large endowment like Bob at Outville. And I found myself, like him, with a sexton who didn’t want to mow the grass the way it needed to be mowed. I drew from my experiences with Bob and told the sexton, Bill, “if you don’t mow the grass on Friday no one will believe you do anything right.” It wasn’t a threat; it was an attempt at compassion. Bill the sexton was correct when he said, “if we cut it each week in a hot summer then it will burn. Better to leave it long.” But he was wrong in that this was not just a lawn, but the front of a church.
I told Bill he was right but assured him that being right would only make it worse. “You see,” I said, “if the lawn is not mown for Sunday, everyone will believe you are doing everything wrong.” Bill mowed the grass each week and it turned brown late in summer.
If you step inside Outville with me, you might get some good tips for managing wily sextons who care more about grass than what people think. And this was helpful to me. I never needed to shout at Bill or tell him “I am the head of staff.” But there is another lesson, a deeper truth, at play here.
If you are ruined by greed, by possession, by desire, you lose the ability to trust compassion. You know, if you read the story carefully, that the Pharisees didn’t care about the man who was possessed and was healed, who could not speak, but then spoke, who was held in the clutches of destruction and then was set free. They didn’t really care about him. They were focused on Jesus. He trusted compassion and they did not. Jesus treated the man with kindness, and they believed it was some sort of moral failure.
One sermon does not have the room or power to convince you to trust compassion. I don’t believe that. Nor do these anecdotes and reflections create enough room for you to see how we are all ruined by greed, by desire, by the need to control. But one sermon may create the place to ponder, do we trust mercy? Do we start with compassion? Why do we struggle to let go of judgement?
The gospel is simple when we hear it. A little bit of money can ruin us big time. A bit of fame? We are lost. Give us power? Oh, we are corrupted soon and very soon.
But what is ruined? What is lost? What is corrupted? We still go on our way, live our lives. What is really lost? The ability to begin with compassion no matter where you are; the strength to trust mercy, when you can punish someone, push them around; the power to live in the freedom of grace, when it’s easier to condemn. That’s what caused the Pharisees to say terrible things. They believed in their righteousness and didn’t trust mercy. They were the head of staff so to speak. They didn’t trust compassion as the power that saves us.
Churches are lots of things. There are thousands of years of history. But when we are right, when we are true, we live as Jesus did: we have compassion; we trust mercy. May you and I ever live as Jesus did. Amen.
- Amos 5:6 - 10
- Matthew 9:32 - 38