Just like last week’s gospel passage where my eyes were drawn to the opening “Now there were large crowds following Jesus…” my eyes again were drawn to the bold and opening sentence of this morning’s gospel, “NOW ALL THE TAX COLLECTORS and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.”  Upon reading the passage at Tuesday Eucharist I was lead to ask the question..”What was it about Jesus that made him approachable and even attractive to those who had been so judged and rejected by the religious community?  Another more complicated question is how the institution and tradition that bears his name is often so unapproachable, attractive, or even interesting to the emerging culture that describes itself as “none.”

When the Gospels use the word “sinner” we are not to imagine they are referring to “Gypsies, tramps, and thieves.”  Well maybe Gypsies.  The word sinner in the greek is “Hamartz.”  The unclean.  These were the ones who did not practice the rituals of purification strictly outlined by pharisaic tradition.  They did not practice the Sabbath, the cleaning practices, the assemblies of prayer, the practice of giving a tithe according to Temple requirements.  So sinners were the growing Jewish population along with all Gentiles who did not live in a certain traditional or Orthodox way.  For whatever reason, they could not keep up with the religious requirements to be considered “worthy”, “righteous,” “godly” and therefore, did not feel welcome in the company or places of Jewish in the days of Jesus.   But, according to the Gospels, this was not true when Jesus began his own rabbinic ministry.  In fact, he drew those who had been ostracized and wounded by orthodox and traditional practices.  His life, demeanor, and message, felt more like healing salve and balm instead of another tisk and slap for not measuring up or keeping up with religious expectations and cullture.

I was raised in an Irish Catholic family and parish.  I grew up thinking that I was part of a “special” group.  Catholics were the ones who were right.  To be Catholic was to belong to the true church.  We were the only ones who really knew God and of whom God approved.  Everybody was supposed to be catholic and until then they were inferior or utterly lost.  I never recall these ideas being clearly stated, but somehow, by simply being a part of an exclusive group, I believed a vast difference between “us” and “them.”  Until, of course, my family systematically fell out of the Catholic ideal of attending Mass, Catholic School, and all the other ways one maintained good catholic standing.  My father was the first.  He broke away from the church and ultimately broke away from society.  One by one, my siblings followed, either dropping out of attending church or attending a protestant church.   My early childhood witnessed the devolution of a family of eight piling in to the dodge station wagon to attend 10:30 Mass, to being simply mom and I throughout my high school years.  By the time I, the youngest child, was eighteen years old.  Mom was attending Mass by herself amidst the shadow of a family reputation that included suicide, drugs, divorce, alcoholism, felony drunk driving, domestic violence, and mental illness.  The Lightsey family, once strong and stellar members of the catholic community, had become sinners.  We were the hamartz. 

How does this happen?  Because it does not simply happen to Catholics.  The same story is told from all faith and social traditions both historically and today. People’s lives fall short. The perfect images crack and crumble.  The athlete becomes a junkie, the debutant becomes a divorcee, the scholar becomes a drop out, the family income falters and extra work must be taken on Sunday mornings.  How does it happen that when life gets dark and ugly, the institutions and communities that represent the “love of God” become the least place we feel welcome or at home?  

In my own story I became one of those sinners, one who had become an outsider to the church but one day was compelled to draw near to listen to Jesus.  In the words and spirit of Jesus, I did not feel the fall or shame or failure that I had consciously and unconsciously assumed and internalized as a “bad catholic.”  I felt loved and embraced and welcomed.

I am aware of our own struggles and abilities in being a close but not closed community.  A place where people who have long lost identity with any sacred community feel strangely safe to draw near to us.  People who have long felt judgement from the Christian church for being pagan, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist – for being gay, for being an addict, an alcoholic, from a broken marriage, for being poor, for being crippled, for being old, for being young, for whatever reason people who have felt no longer “right” in the eyes of church and God, it is the eyes of Jesus that breaks down the barriers separating them from the universal and unconditional love of God.

It is important to remember when we felt “outside” of favor, of acceptance, of belonging.  It’s important to remember what it feels like to be judged by a dominant culture for simply being someone other than an image of that culture or norm.  It’s important to remember, no longer how long you have resided inside the safety and stability of the “righteous,” we must remember who Jesus was in his day.  He was a friend of sinners: all the people who could not make the grade of the upright, became the Christ community that followed in the wake of Jesus.  

It is NOT our place to become the bastion of proper, pious, and righteous.  It IS our place to be a community where any and all can hear the words and experience the spirit of Jesus.  It is our place to welcome all who come and seek refuge, grace, and healing; any who seek belonging.  Any who seek a place, a divine community in which they can call “home.”