Text: Matthew 9:35-10:8 (Jesus calls the twelve)
“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure leprosy, expel demons.” These are the instructions that Jesus gives his first followers in the passage we just heard from Matthew.
But these twelve men are fishers and not doctors. How, then, are they supposed to heal the sick and cure leprosy? Even harder for me to understand is Jesus’ instruction that they expel demons. I don’t know what a demon is let alone know how to expel one. Nor, finally, do I know how to raise the dead. From this passage, it sounds to me as though Jesus wants his students to perform magic.
As I confronted my puzzlement about it this week, I wondered if it was an issue of translation. So, I looked at several different ones, and the most recent translation I found made the meanings of the passage clearer for me.
In 2016, Thomas Moore — who is best known for the bestseller “Care of the Soul” — published a new translation of Matthew. In it, Moore translates the instructions that Jesus gives to his followers as follows: “Care for those who are suffering, wake up those who are unconscious, restore the rejected, and reject the demonic.”
In Moore’s translation, leprosy refers to all people who are rejected by society and whom the followers of Jesus can accept into their community. Healing the sick becomes caring for those who suffer. Expelling demons becomes rejecting the demonic, which brings to my mind standing against ideologies like racism or sexism. Finally, Moore translates “raising the dead” as helping those mired in illusions to wake up to reality.
I don’t know Greek, so I don’t know if Moore’s translation is “the best.” I do know that unlike others, his translation gives me something I can work with.
While not all of us can heal physical illness, we can be there for those who suffer and listen to one another with open hearts. We may never meet a person with leprosy, but we can invite people rejected by mainstream society into the church. We might not believe in demons, but we can stand against ideologies that support violence and war. We may not be able to raise the dead, but we can invite our neighbours to walk with us on a spiritual path that leads to enlightenment.
The last point — of waking the unconscious — is the one I focus on today. In lives filled with worries and troubles, many forces can lull us to sleep. The world is filled with distractions and addictions; and being distracted or addicted can help us avoid unpleasant realities. They can help us not think about our individual mortality and be in denial of social ills like pollution, poverty, and war.
But being asleep also cuts us off from the beauty and joy that is available in any moment. Many people prefer to sleep, which I understand. But in the church, we work to wake ourselves and others from our slumbers so that we can joyously confront life without illusions.
The title of this sermon, “Woke or not woke?” is taken from a Netflix TV series that was released in April. “Dear White People” is a comic soap opera set among a group of Black students in a mostly White college in the United States. “Woke” is a slang term for “being conscious and not asleep,” and “being aware of what is going on in terms of social justice.”
In an episode called “Woke or not woke” one of the activists makes an app that rates the black students as either woke — aware of the devastation caused by racism — or not woke. The episode includes a fight at a house party that starts when someone uses the “N” word. The campus police are called, and the episode ends with a Black student shaking in fear as he stares into the barrel of a police officer’s gun.
It seemed sadly appropriate that Kim and I watched “Woke or not woke” this week when news broke of yet another police officer in the United States being acquitted of manslaughter after having shot and killed a Black man. The officer who killed Philando Castile in Minnesota was found not guilty despite a video that showed his point-blank shooting as seemingly unprovoked and unnecessary.
The endless litany of police killings in the United States — just like the stories of racist attacks in Canada against Indigenous people and Muslims — can discourage us. Perhaps it is better to be asleep to this reality to avoid feeling crushed.
Jesus tells his followers to stay conscious and to wake up their neighbours, even though this means taking up our cross and following him to his fate in Jerusalem. The cost of being awake on the journey is high, but we are confident that the reward of being in touch with grace, truth, and love makes the cost well worth it.
Lately, though, I have felt some new burdens to the work of staying awake to social injustices. I am not just speaking of our ongoing concerns about pollution, disease, and war, but about the rise of immorality as a successful brand.
I don’t often speak about immorality because I fear being moralistic. Morality refers to the values we hold sacred. Moralism is trying to impose a set of beliefs on others.
But this summer, I have decided to talk more about morality because of a shift in world culture. With the election of the 45th President of the United States last November, immorality has found new wings. The U.S. President not only acts in immoral ways — repeatedly lying; insulting people because of their race, religion, nationality, or ability; closing the borders to people fleeing war; cutting support to the poor while giving to the rich; and promoting military force over dialogue and cooperation. He has based his political success on his immoral words and actions.
It used to be that being caught in a lie, admitting to repeated sexual assault, or defaming whole nationalities and religions would end one’s political career. For the 45th President, however, they have been his ticket to success. His lack of shame in the face of his ignorance and immorality seems to be at the core of his appeal to the substantial minority that voted for him and who largely still support him.
I got the idea of immorality being the President’s brand from Naomi Klein’s new book, No is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. Klein knows a lot about branding having written “No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies” in 1999.
The idea of racism and dishonesty as a successful brand disturbs me. How, I wonder, can we continue to grow spirituality, help our children become moral in their words and actions, and promote honesty, kindness, and peace when the most powerful person in the world succeeds with a brand that promotes ignorance, insults, white supremacy, and violence?
As an antidote, this summer I plan to revisit some of the work Kim and I did last year as we prepared for our wedding. Each week, I will reflect on a different church sacrament as a way of tracing the stages of spiritual growth and of how we might promote spiritual growth in a time of public immorality.
On July 9, when I return after a week of vacation, I will look at baptism as an initiation not only into our status as children of God, but as people burdened and blessed by our ancestry. The challenge will be to find a path from fear to faith.
In subsequent weeks, I will look at confirmation as a path from shame to humility; at communion as a path from egotism to charity; at marriage as a path from grief to love; at confession as a path from lies to honesty; at ordination as a path from illusion to reality; and at last rites as a path from greed to union with God.
In the series, I will reflect on stories from the life of King David in the Hebrew Bible and those from the life of Jesus in the Gospels.
I undertake this series not to figure out how we can remove immoral leaders from power. I undertake it to help us to stay awake to God’s hope, joy, and love despite the success of immoral politicians and the ongoing predations of violent ideas and movements.
I pray that it will help us to stay “woke” not just to what we don’t like about the world, but also to the grace, truth and love that is always here for us.
We may not always be able to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cure leprosy, or expel demons.” But with God’s grace, we can often “care for those who are suffering, wake up those who are unconscious, restore the rejected, and reject the demonic.”
On the path with Jesus this summer, may we remain awake to each blessed moment both with its burdens and with its unutterable beauty, awe, and joy.
May it be so. Amen.