Every two weeks I see a coach to help me figure out how to do this job. Last week, during our session, my coach talked about the origin of the word sincere. He heard a talk where it was explained that sincere originally came from two words "sin" and "cere" which meant without wax. Without wax referred to sculptures in Rome. Sculptors would use wax to fill in cracks and holes in the stone – if a sculpture was without wax – it was pure. It was presented in it’s actual state. No cleaning or covering up.
I was intrigued by his comments – the idea that sincere meant authentic, to let your holes, your flaws show. To not hide or cover things up. When I got home, I googled the etymology of sincere. It turns out that his story is a folk etymology, a story that has been passed down about where the word sincere came from – not the historical etymology of the roots of the word.
Nonetheless, I find the folk etymology intriguing. The idea that sincerity is showing up as your vulnerable self without filling our holes.
At the end of our scripture reading this morning Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Those words stuck with me this week. I have come to call not the righteous but the sinners. What could that possibly mean for us?
It made me wonder – what does it mean to be righteous. The definition of righteous is, “acting in accord with divine law, free from guilt or sin.”1
While I think it is possible for people to act in accordance with divine law, I have never experienced someone who was able to do so all of the time. So, to me, no one is “righteous”. But, there are definitely people who believe they are righteous. And hence, their attitude, their belief, acts like the wax. It hides imperfections, perhaps even from themselves. And that hiding makes it impossible to be open to what Jesus has to say. In order to follow Jesus, you have to first accept that you are flawed – Jesus is showing flawed people how to improve not celebrating perfection. Jesus is offering love a confidence that even with flaws we have meaning and purpose.
This weekend, we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. For those of us who move pretty comfortably through this world as white people, this is an annual reminder of some of the ugly history of the U.S. and also the progress that has been made. Unfortunately, it’s easy for us to take this weekend – give MLK a pat on the back and say thanks for being so inspirational, isn’t it great that things have changed and move on. We jump onto a feel good – of course we all want equality bandwagon and as we do so dip ourselves in wax. We fill in our holes and happily ignore them. We say, how could anyone not share MLK’s dream? But we fail to examine and understand how our actions continue to perpetuate and understanding that those who are not like us are less than. Yes, we mean well, but we are flawed. And understanding our flaws, examining our sin is key to our transformation. Jesus came for the sinners, not the righteous.
Jesus reminds us that it’s not only ok to sit and acknowledge our flaws – it is absolutely necessary if we want to change. While the fact that Jesus had dinner with Levi and his sinner friends tells us something about Jesus – it also tells us something about Levi. Jesus is going around telling people to repent. Telling people to take off their wax and acknowledge their flaws. Think about that – how much do you like people telling you what your problems are and that you need to change.
To me, the fact that Levi willingly followed Jesus and then invited his other sinner friends over to have a meal with him suggests that Levi must have a spirit of openness. He must be willing to name and recognize his sins and have a desire to get better. Otherwise wouldn’t he have just ignored Jesus’ invitation.
And not only that, Levi doesn’t just sit and eat with Jesus. Levi accepts Jesus invitation wholly. Levi follows Jesus and is the disciple known as Matthew. Think about that. Matthew, the tax collector, the sinner, goes on to be attributed as the author to one of the Gospels.
In an online article, Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, suggests this about Levi’s willingness to follow Jesus, Only one thing matters, and it matters very deeply -- oh, so deeply -- to Levi. That Jesus has sought him out and selected him on purpose. That Jesus would even engage him in conversation is a marvel. He is despised. He is hated. He has been ostracized from respectable society. And Jesus cares enough about him to stop by when not required by law to do so. Jesus accepts him. Jesus loves him -- the most unloved man in Capernaum. And Jesus calls him personally: "Follow me." Since he was a boy he hadn't imagined himself a righteous man. Now he is being called to accompany a holy man on his itinerant travels. How bizarre! How wonderful!2
Throughout the Gospels, we are reminded of the power of relationship. The power of accepting one another sincerely, as we are, acknowledging our flaws, but also acknowledging that we can all do better.
This year, as we remember the efforts of MLK, I encourage you to think about who you avoid calling to your table and why. Be brave enough to take off your wax and acknowledge the ways in which we break relationship with one another. Embrace sincerity. Learn more about your flawed self and how we intentionally and unintentionally live lives that reinforce that some of God’s people are less than. We, white people, have work to do. If we don’t understand how our race affects our lives, we need to educate ourselves.
Here’s a brief sample from an article written by Peggy McIntosh entitled, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” where McIntosh provides a list of some of the privileges she enjoys simply because her skin is white:
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be
neutral or pleasant to me.
5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
7. When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
The list and others like it, go on and on. It can feel overwhelming to start to understand what is happening – to be sincere about our interest in making this world a better place. But make no mistake, understanding this is not about guilt, it’s about love. When we read the story in Levi – notice that it’s not focused on all the ways Levi is falling short. Instead, it’s focused on relationship. Jesus and Levi eating with one another, spending time together. A connection that apparently is so strong that Levi decides to follow. Instead of feeling guilty about all of the ways he has fallen short and done wrong, Levi follows and embraces a new way of being. That’s what happens when we encounter Jesus. That’s the power of the love of God. And that’s the journey that we’re called to take as we continue to build God’s kingdom here on earth. May God bless us on the journey. Amen.