Saints and Sinners

God’s grace and peace be with all of you.
As you can see, we’ve just wrapped up a week of vacation Bible school here at Shepherd of the Valley. Our theme for VBS this year was “Hero Central.” Over the past week, the VBS kids learned about heroes of the Bible and learned how they are God’s heroes, too.
Each day we learned about a different attribute of God’s heroes. God’s heroes have heart, courage, wisdom, hope, and power. Each day, and each attribute, was connected to the story of a different biblical hero.

In our readings today, we get to hear about a few heroes of the Bible: there’ s Jacob, in the reading from Genesis. The letter to the Romans was written by Paul, another biblical hero. In the gospel reading, we hear the calling of Matthew to be a disciple. These are just a few of the many figures recognized as heroes in the Bible.
The thing about heroes in the Bible, though, is that they are all deeply imperfect people. The disciple Matthew was a tax collector. Even nowadays, tax collectors aren’t particularly popular. But in Jesus’ time, being a tax collector was even worse—because tax collectors worked for the Roman Empire. Tax collectors like Matthew took money from ordinary people and sent it off to Rome, to power the same Empire that had conquered and occupied their homeland. This is why the Pharisees are so upset with Jesus for hanging around with tax collectors and sinners.

 

Or take Paul, who wrote Romans and many of the other letters in the New Testament. Before he was Paul, he was Saul, and he made his reputation as a man who persecuted Christians more fiercely than anyone. According to the book of Acts, Saul stood by and watched when Stephen was martyred, and approved of his death.
And then there’s Jacob, from our first reading today. I have to tell you, Jacob might be my favorite character in the Bible. Our reading today gives us only a little bit of Jacob’s story, so let me put it in context.
Jacob, you may remember, is one of two sons of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham. Jacob is the younger twin, his brother Esau is the first-born. Jacob convinces Esau to sell him his birthright for a bowl of lentils. Then Jacob disguises himself as his brother to trick his blind father and get the blessing that was meant for Esau.
As you can imagine, Esau is not happy about this turn of events. In fact, he wants to kill Jacob. So Jacob takes off, ostensibly to go find a wife, but really so that his brother doesn’t murder him. It’s at this point in the story that Jacob has the dream about the ladder reaching to heaven, and God speaks to Jacob. God promises Jacob what God had promised to Abraham, his grandfather: “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth… Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Talk about a divine blessing. God has told Jacob he will inherit the promises God made to Abraham. Jacob will receive the promised land, Jacob will have innumerable descendants, Jacob will have God’s protection and blessing.
So after having this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime encounter with God, Jacob goes and visits his uncle Laban. Laban is a pretty unsavory character himself; the two make a good pair and spend the next decade and a half lying, cheating, and stealing from each other. Eventually Laban gets sick of Jacob and sends him packing, and Jacob has to go home and face his brother Esau.
As Jacob is nearing home, he hears that his brother is coming to meet him with four hundred men. Jacob assumes, not without reason, that Esau is leading a small army to kill him once and for all. So Jacob concocts a plan. He sends generous gifts with flattering messages ahead to butter Esau up. He divides his whole party (including his two wives and all his children) into two groups, so if Esau destroys one group, the other could still survive.
And last of all, almost as an afterthought, Jacob prays. I imagine Jacob thinking to himself, “Oh yeah, God did promise to always be with me. Maybe I should call in that favor.”
What happens next is probably the most famous part of Jacob’s story: there on the bank of the river, on the eve of his reunion with Esau, Jacob wrestles with God. God changes Jacob’s name to Israel—the one who will become the father of the whole tribe of Israel.
Jacob is a hero, a chosen patriarch, a figure of incredible significance in the Hebrew Bible. And he’s also a liar, a cheat, and a thief, selfish and self-serving.
This is what the heroes and heroines in the Bible are like. They are imperfect and, frankly, not always very good role models. Moses was a murderer and tried to say no when God asked him to lead God’s people out of slavery. King David raped Bathsheba and then had her husband killed. Peter denied Jesus and the other disciples ran and hid.
They say you should never meet your heroes, and that’s probably nowhere more true than when it comes to heroes of the Bible. These are a pretty motley bunch. Liars, cheats, murderers, and cowards. Sinners and tax collectors. People who are far from perfect.
The people God chooses are far from perfect. But God does choose these imperfect people. When challenged by the Pharisees, Jesus says, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Jesus calls the imperfect people, the unacceptable people, to be his disciples. God chooses the unlikeliest heroes.

 

This is good news for us, because I’m guessing none of us here today are perfect. We are all imperfect people. We are all unlikely heroes. But we are exactly the kind of people God chooses.
God chooses Jacob, the liar and cheat, to carry on the promises made to Abraham. God chooses Moses, David, all the other imperfect heroes and heroines. Jesus calls fishermen and tax collectors to be his disciples. He hangs around with sinners and undesirables.
When a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years touches the fringe of Jesus’ cloak, hoping for just a hint of his healing power, he turns and says to her, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” Here is a woman, unclean according to the Law, who comes up behind Jesus to touch his cloak without his knowledge or permission. She is imperfect. And still, Jesus says, “Take heart, daughter.”

Each of us is imperfect. Flawed. We take advantage of others and pursue our own interests selfishly. We try to grasp and steal the very gifts God has promised to give us.
And yet we are, all of us, chosen by God. Called by God. We are heroes. We are saints. God has a purpose for us, just as God did for Jacob and Moses and Matthew and Paul. God accepts us and loves us, just as Jesus accepted that woman who touched his cloak.
There’s an important concept in Lutheran theology. In Latin, the phrase is “simul justus et peccator,” or “simultaneously saint and sinner.” It means that each one of us is a both a saint and a sinner. We are imperfect—and we are chosen. We are inadequate—and we are loved. This is what it means to be a hero, or a disciple, or a child of God. We are saints and sinners. God knows us, God loves us, God calls us—flaws and all. Amen.

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