Sermon for 2 Pentecost, Year A
Based on Matt 9: 9-13
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
"Calling all sinners"
Every week, in the Kyrie of our liturgy, we either sing or speak the words: "Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy." I wonder if most of us are at all cognizant-- when those words so easily flow from our mouths--of the incredible scope, the measureless expanse of God's mercy? Have we become so familiar with these words that we roll them off of our tongues, without giving them much thought as to what they mean for us as a faith community, personally or for the whole world? Today's gospel, I would hazard a guess, shatters and explodes most of our preconceived ideas and understandings of God's mercy.
It all begins when, one day, Jesus pays a visit to tax-collector Matthew, sitting at his booth. Jesus stops and actually speaks to this "riff raff" of a man. His words are extremely brief and to the point. He extends to him a two word invitation, "Follow me." Wonder of wonders, Matthew immediately "got up and followed him!" So begins the story of tax-collector Matthew's call.
The story goes on to tell us that Jesus, probably Matthew, along with a gathering of other tax collectors and sinners became the subject of controversy, when some Pharisees saw what Jesus was doing and questioned his disciples about this. According to some orthodox Jews at the time, there were clear boundaries between what and who was: clean or unclean, righteous or unrighteous, holy and profane, acceptable and unacceptable. If one failed to live within these clear-cut boundaries, then one was regarded as ritually unclean, impure, unrighteous. The problem with this approach to life, which Jesus challenges here, is that it fails to see that one is able to have a good, redeeming influence on the so called "riff raff."
These particular Pharisees, likely believing themselves to be following God's ways--since mercy was understood as being faithful to God's covenant, and being faithful to God's covenant meant that one was a righteous person-- were scandalized by Jesus eating with tax collectors. The tax collectors, in their eyes, were the lowest of the low; since being Jews, they had betrayed their own people by collecting taxes for the oppressive Romans.
Moreover, the tax collectors imposed inflated tax rates on the people, in order to garner a generous profit for themselves. Tax collectors are usually the least likely folk to win a popularity contest at the best of times! The fact that they were Jews representing the oppressive Roman government and that they swindled the Jewish people by filling their own pockets, seemed to many a double betrayal. Why would a righteous Jewish person wish to associate with such riff raff?
Why indeed? Well, according to Jesus, if one is sick, one needs a doctor. Who one is, what one does makes no difference--sickness is universal, it invades us all: rich, poor, famous, outcast, young, old, intelligent, not so intelligent. That's why Jesus associated with these so-called "undesirables." Stretching these leaders even further by seizing the occasion as "a teaching moment," he adds a typical Jewish invitation to them by saying: "Go and learn what this means. 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." In our preoccupation with control, security and categorizing, would we respond any differently than these Jewish leaders did? How willing or open are we to being stretched and learning a radically different new, merciful, redemptive way of dealing with outcasts in our society?
Out of another time and place, William Neil tells the following story: "A friend of mine told me that when he was a boy at Eastbourne there used to be a regular parade along the sea-front on Sunday mornings after church. Everyone carried a prayer book, and this practice had two purposes. One was to show that the owners of the prayer books had been to church, and the other was to show that they were the kind of people who did not need to cook their own dinner. The churchgoing middle-class in late Victorian days, and in the earlier years of this century, was in grave danger of identifying piety with respectability. They regretted that so many in the lower classes were addicted to wife-beating and drunken brawls, but if some of them belonged to the humble poor who aped their betters and wanted 'religion', they were encouraged to find it in the mission halls but not in the churches. By the grace of God William Booth and his Salvation Army lasses took Christ into the streets and into the pubs, and reminded the churches that Jesus' prime concern had not been with the respectable and godly but with the outcasts and rejects of society."
According to Jesus, boundaries between respectable folk and outcasts are not valid. This is true because all are sick, all are sinners. All humans are in need of a doctor, of one who is able to forgive and deliver us from our sin. In the community of faith, all are welcome: race, ethnic group, language, class, gender or sexual orientation, and a host of other boundaries are all overcome by God's mercy in Christ. Indeed, God's mercy is broader, deeper, wider and higher than all of our feeble attempts to define it; make it conditional or place boundaries around it.
One day, some time ago now, I was walking around a very thriving marketplace. There was a particular sausage booth sign that caught my eye, it read: "We sell the best of the wurst." This reminds me a little of what God's mercy is like--Christ, by associating with tax collectors, prostitutes and other outcasts of his day called "the best of the worst." His mercy is able to make the best out of the worst. Rather than avoid such folks in the name of respectability, for the sake of clear-cut boundaries that made one righteous or unrighteous; Christ chose to go beyond the boundaries by offering God's mercy to everyone who was sick and needed a doctor.
Today, now, here, Christ is calling us sinners, like he called Matthew long ago. He invites us to follow him. We likely have our doubts and questions, objections and excuses for not following him. Yet, when he reaches to the depths of our beings, into our very hearts, minds and lives; somehow we are freed to follow him. He gives us tasks to do and places to go that we'd never, in a thousand years, consider on our own. Life may change radically for us, once we respond to his call. Our familiar places, habits, comforts and securities may no longer be as important to us as they were in the past. What's important is the quality of life in the here and now, basking in God's endless mercy.
In the sacrament of Holy Communion, Jesus continues to call all tax collectors and sinners and dine with them. Here we have communion and community; here we are given a new, fresh start with our lives as our sin is forgiven; here we are shaped and molded into God's people to be salt, yeast and light in a very troubled, hurting world; here we are graced with a living faith, hope and love, which is able to transform us, all people and all things.
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