Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Character of Christ: Room for Outsiders (Matthew 9:9-13)

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As Jesus continued on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. He said to him, “Follow me,” and he got up and followed him. 10 As Jesus sat down to eat in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners joined Jesus and his disciples at the table.
11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 When Jesus heard it, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. 13 Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.”

Jesus was sitting in an airport, reading a newspaper waiting for his flight.   From across the terminal, a man had been staring at him for about half an hour, and finally got up and walked over to him, and said, “Excuse me, but you really look like someone famous.”  Jesus, used to getting this question, just smiled, and said, “Who do you think I look like?”  “Well, I’d swear you’re a dead ringer for Jesus Christ.”

Jesus laughed and said, “And what if I told you that I AM Jesus?”  The man was clearly excited, began jumping up and down like a teenage girl at a Justin Beiber concert – before he kept getting arrested – and said, “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe it’s you!  I admire you so much, and your teachings have been such an inspiration to me!”

Jesus said, “Really – which ones?”  The man stared at him blankly for several seconds, and finally said, “Well, you know, ALL of them!  How could I possibly choose a favorite, I mean, they’re ALL GOOD!”

Jesus picked his newspaper back up and said, “Hey, look – it was really nice meeting you.  But I’ve already got more than enough fans; I’m more interested in followers.”

We are in a series of messages on “The Character of Christ.”  We’re taking a good look at who Jesus is and what he is about, studying his character and then living out aspects of his character ourselves, so that we do not simply admire Jesus, but are able to follow him.  May we pray.

There is a line as old as humanity itself.  It is a line of separation, a boundary line, a line that marks the difference between in and out, good and bad, acceptable and non-acceptable.  I’m not sure what it is about human nature that compels us to separate people into categories of greater than and less than, yet we do.  We see the evidence of this line throughout society – the right side of the tracks and the wrong side of the tracks, the right side of town and the wrong side.  The line is a divider, separating communities and splitting families, ultimately placing people on one side or the other – either “in” or “out.”

An interesting phenomenon that I’ve noticed is that the line-drawers of history always draw the line in such a way that they are on the right side of it.  No one ever sets the boundary in such a way that they find themselves on the outside.  Interesting, isn’t it?

Now, somewhere, along comes religion – our systems of belief and of God and how we relate to God – religion should be the great equalizer, the thing that levels the playing field, right?  And yet, religion only seemed to make the problem worse, because not only were people drawing that separating line, but now they felt like they had God on their side!  Who can argue with that?

By the time Jesus came along, the dividing lines were so clearly drawn that they had practically calcified into permanent place.  There was a religious elite, a ruling class of priests and scholars and Pharisees, who drew sharp lines that placed a select few within God’s favor, but pretty much everyone else was left out.

One of these left out people was Matthew, the tax collector, who we’ve read about today.  Tax collectors were some of the most hated people in society then, and I think they still are, today.  We have a rule that, when we’re on vacation, we don’t tell people what we do for a living because it really changes the way they treat us.  One year, we met a nice British couple at our hotel and they asked, “So what do you do for a living, and we gave them our standard response: “We’re sorry, but we don’t talk about our work on vacation,” and they said, “Oh I see – are you a tax man?”  Even now, who wants to hang out with a tax collector?

From an early age, we were told to choose our friends wisely, and warned about falling in with the wrong crowd.  One is known by the company one keeps.  Like it or not, our friendships are a reflection on us, and an indicator of our character. 

Like Jesus.  When it came to selecting his friends, Jesus Christ, the perfect Son of God, fully human, fully divine, the embodiment of God’s love and holiness come to earth – Jesus Christ surrounded himself with perfect, upstanding, respectable, decent, moral people, right?  The upper crust of society, those on the inside track, the movers and shakers of his day – those are the people chose as his friends, right?

No?  Then, who did Jesus hang out with?  According to today’s Scripture from the 9th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus Christ – the perfect, unblemished Son of God – chose to hang out with tax collectors and sinners.  Can you believe it?  A nice boy like Jesus, among the outcast rabble of his day.  The sharp tongues of the religious folks couldn’t wait to spread this juicy piece of gossip –
“Jesus is a friend to sinners.”

That word – “sinner” – can you feel the judgmental sting in that word?  I can’t think of an instance where that word is used and intended as a compliment.  Too often, it’s a word used by religious folks to label those on the wrong side of the line.

The Pharisees fancied themselves the consummate religious insiders.  The Pharisees were the ones with the impressive religious resumes and the ones who should, by all rights, have been on the inside track with God.  Yet Jesus brushes right past all of them and walks up to the tax collector’s booth, and he says to Matthew, the outsider, “How about you – yes, you – come, and follow me.”

And then Jesus invited him to his table, to his companionship, to his friendship -- even to his vocation, to come with him as a disciple. Jesus embraced someone seen as untouchable, and in doing that, he showed that oddly enough, the purity of God's people is best protected not by shunning the unclean, but by embracing them. God's perfection is shown most fully in the extravagant embrace of flawed people and the end of all scorekeeping.

You see, the arms of God’s love are open wide because they are attached to a very specific person – Jesus.  The thing I both love and that drives me nuts about Jesus is that his arms are usually open wider than mine, that his embrace includes more people than I want to.  When I am tempted to draw that line between insiders and outsiders, the inclusive reach of Jesus just won’t let me get away with it.  You gotta watch Jesus, he’s tricky like that.

To those who fancied themselves insiders, Jesus reminded them that the well have no need of a doctor, but the sick.  Yet, when it comes to sinners, Jesus doesn’t offer them treatment or therapy, he offers them friendship and companionship.

The religious folks were so busy casting judgment on outsiders, labeling them as “sinners,” that they didn’t have an opportunity to deal with their own sin.  I’ve often thought that church should be more like an AA meeting – “Hello, my name is so-and-so and I’m a sinner.”  Reality is that we are ALL sinners, each and every one of us, and that’s okay, because Jesus doesn’t call perfect people, he calls sinners.

Jesus even eats with sinners.  What’s the big deal about eating together? Well, let me tell you a story.  Perhaps you’ve seen this famous picture: after several days of negotiations, US President Bill Clinton, Israeli premier Yhitzak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, smiled and shook hands for this photo op.  Many Western journalists lauded this as a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations, even the look on President Clinton’s face seems to say, “All right, now this is more like it.”

What wasn’t reported was that after this photo op, President Clinton invited both men to lunch, and both politely refused.  Whereas in Western culture a handshake is a big deal signifying agreement, it doesn’t mean that, everywhere.  In Middle Eastern culture, sharing a meal together, now that’s a big deal, signifying unity and togetherness, friendship and deep-meaningful relationship, and neither was ready for that.

Sharing a meal together is a big deal, and Jesus eats with sinners.

The broken dividing lines of the world are what wants to separate the saints from the sinners, to draw a distinction between the insiders and the outsiders, but not Jesus.  Jesus is more interested in where you’re going than where you’ve been.

When it comes to God’s community of redeemed sinners we happen to call church, anything we can do to break down barriers between insiders and outsiders is a good thing to do, because as far as Jesus is concerned, there is no distinction.  There are no insiders and outsiders, there are only children of God.

I do wish more churches would embrace that philosophy.  As a pastor, I have visited a lot of churches, and every church I’ve ever encountered describes themselves as a “friendly church,” – and many of them are not.  They are friendly in the same way your family dog is friendly: they are affectionate toward members of the family, but they tend to bark at strangers.

But I guarantee you, everyone of them says, “We’re such a friendly church.”  I asked one lady, “Tell me about your church,” and she said, “Oh, we’re a very loving and accepting church,” and then I found out that she was that church’s meanest and most hate-filled member and was personally responsible for having run off a dozen families from that church!  Churches will say, “We’re open to new folks,” but the unspoken part of that sentence is, “so long as they are pretty much  like us – as long as they look like us, act like us, talk like us, think like us – but yeah, we’re open to new people!”

I know of one couple in a church, delightful, Christlike people, the kind of people you want in your church.  They had tremendous gifts and evidence of God’s grace in their lives, but when asked why they weren’t more involved in leadership, they said, “Well, we’re new here.”  “Oh, how long have you been members at this church?”  “20 years.”

To me, that sounds like a church that needs to learn something from Jesus about breaking down the barriers between insiders and outsiders.

I hear stories like that, and I say, “Thank God I am the pastor of THIS church!”  I can’t tell you how proud I am of the beautiful patchwork of God’s children called Morehead Church.  I love that our church includes folks who have been here forever and folks who are relatively new, those who grew up down the road and those who “ain’t from around here,” how you embrace and celebrate the wonderfully diverse gifts of so many different people.  Do you know how rare that is?

It’s a gift that comes from spending a lot of time walking close to Jesus.  Jesus makes no distinction between insiders and outsiders, he only sees children of God.

If you’re here this morning and you’ve spent any length of time feeling like an outsider, let me simply say that you are welcome here.  You are not an outsider, you are a precious and beloved child of God.

Take the next few moments to reflect on that, to pray, to give thanks, to jot down a few names of someone on the outside who simply needs to know that they matter to God, and they matter to you.  Use the next few moments for whatever you and God need to do together.  (Show video: )

There are no strangers.  There are no outcasts.  There are no orphans of God.  There are no insiders or outsiders, only precious and beloved children of God.  No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, and no matter where you’ve been, know this: you are God’s beloved and precious child.  No one can take that away from you.  Jesus has room for you, and we do too.

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