Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Sermon for June 5, 2005

What’s Your Calling?[1]
Matthew 9:9-13

A real estate developer had approached a group of people about investing in his real estate ventures. The developer was an incredibly successful businessman. He lived in a huge mansion, drove classy cars, wore expensive suits. He was aggressive in his business and oozed confidence. Well, one day an investor actually followed up on land registration documents and went to inspect the office complex that he invested in. When he arrived, he found an empty lot. This investor was a retired man. He invested his entire life’s savings with the developer. When he approached the developer, he got a major run around. The retired man was offered his money back with interest, he was assured that he had the facts wrong, he’d gone to the wrong place. He was told that it was the building contractor who was at fault and the contractor was currently under police investigation so he, the investor, had to keep a low profile. The investor went to his lawyer, who went to the police. Eventually the developer’s schemes were uncovered.

The money was gone, squandered in high living, luxurious homes and expensive travel. Many suspected that he hid the money in offshore bank accounts, beyond the reach of lawyers and accountants. The developer was sentenced to four years. He was legally bankrupt, but many wondered about the missing funds, and many, many people were left with their lives pillaged.

And so, the story would end, like so many others -- another in a long list of false promises and greed. But it continues. When the developer was released from prison, the local media interviewed him. “How did he feel?” they asked. “Great!” he replied. He was at peace with himself. Jail had been the best experience of his life. Why? Well, because he’d found Jesus! While jailed as the common criminal, he’d discovered the grace of Jesus Christ and the burdens of his life were lifted. Hallelujah!

Everyone loves a story with a happy ending . . . except those whose lives were left broken by his deceit. There was no offer to pay back the money. There was no attempt to account for all the missing money. It’s a circumstance that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Fine, he got religion. But, what about responsibility and being held accountable for one’s actions? What about justice?

Today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel deals with a similar circumstance. Typically, we would read this passage from the perspective of Matthew, the tax collector the one whom Jesus called. Tax Collectors were considered ‘scum of the earth.’ In the first century, taxes weren’t collected by data-entry clerks typing your tax return into a computer. In Imperial Rome, the government contracted local businessmen to collect taxes. The local collectors were required to pay the tax assessment in advance from their own wallets, and then organize collection in their districts in hopes of turning a profit. The tax collectors whom we read about in the gospels were employees of the local chief tax collector. They were often people who are unable to find other work. Their salary was taken from what they collected beyond their quota. Tax collecting was distasteful, shameful work, but somebody’s had to do it. Desperate individuals would find themselves collecting, in much the same way that some people today lower themselves to work in illegal or immoral professions in order to put food on their tables. The tax collector was dead to his world, he was a parasite, a fungus-like creature that existed only by what it can suck out from the living.

Traditionally we read this passage and get the idea that Jesus rescued Matthew from his death, not a physical death, but a moral, ethical, social death. Out of the blue, Jesus strides onto the scene, and offers his hand, pulling a vile scum bag from his social death. This is a story of Amazing Grace, of undeserved forgiveness and restoration, a story of being pulled back into life by Jesus Christ.

The tax collector is absolved of any evildoing he may have committed, not because of any good deeds he’s performed, but because of God’s undeserved and unwarranted love. This is the traditional way of looking at this passage, and passages like it, but there’s a problem. It gets back to the issue of justice and fairness. Why do the wicked seem to get off free? The traditional Christian response is to say: We’re all low down, wretched sinners who deserve to be boiled in oil for our sins. The difference between the Hitlers and Mother Theresas of the world and us is only a matter of degree. In God’s sight, we’re all horrible, evil creatures and God’s grace is fully manifested for everyone in Jesus Christ. John Calvin, the great-granddaddy of our theology, fleshed this out in his doctrine of total depravity, and this doctrine is reflected in most of orthodox Christian thinking to this day.

There is another scriptural perspective we need to think about, though. We are children of God, and what God creates is, by definition, good. But all of us live in a world that sucks us down, that scratches away at who we are, such that we find ourselves taking on the role of tax collector, in order to make ends meet, and as time goes on we become more and more cynical and corrupt. Or we lose sight of our humanity and the humanity of our neighbors, and we sometimes begin thinking about how we can get ahead of another, or get ourselves out of trouble, using any means possible.

If we read these passages with a compassionate eye, we see people who are wrapped up in situations from which they can’t get free. And we see Jesus Christ boldly step into their lives, and restore their status as God’s children. So if we look at the world around us, we recognize people who test the bounds of our graciousness, we see people who prey on others, who absorb the dignity of others, who try and take for themselves what rightly belong to others. The passage this morning cautions us against looking at others from the viewpoint of the Pharisees, seeing others as unclean sinners.

The Pharisees had rules piled on rules about how to please God through ritual sacrifices, dietary codes, and finely argued points of moral behavior. Like small-town gossips, they watched each other for lapses. The Pharisees took pride in their purity. Jesus taught and lived differently. He looked for sinners, invited himself to supper with them, and said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifices.” Mercy is kind and compassionate. Mercy sees beyond rules and penalties. Mercy sees the heart of the sinner and knows that there is a time to draw lines but also a time to blur them.

Jesus invites us to welcome even the most unwanted people as children of God, no matter what events or circumstances or deliberate acts have brought them to where they are. They are children of God, and so are we.

Each of us here today–we have a calling. We are called to be God’s children. Think about the children in your loves. They are the physical reminder of how God sees us, even the one’s who misbehave . . . even the one’s who try our patience . . .even the children who test the limits. Have you ever looked at a child who’s misbehaving and say, “Why don’t the parent’s do something?” Well, someone could say the same thing to the child-turned-tax-collector in each of us. The answer is, God, our heavenly Parent already has. Jesus came to remind us that we are created in God’s image. Even when we throw out our integrity and compromise our morals, we are still God’s children, and we have an opportunity to be restored. We remember our Lord who said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. . .I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

As we come to the communion table today, we remember that Jesus invites everyone to come and share the feast. It’s not only for those who have it all together, or who smell pretty, or who hold titles and prestige. God’s grace is also for the desperate and destitute, the compromised and the criminal. In this place, we remember that we are all God’s children. May we see Jesus Christ boldly step into our lives, and restore us to who and what God created us to be.

[1]sermon ideas taken from http://sermoncentral.com/outsideURL.asp?OutsideURL=http://www.wwjd.net/muirhead/serm103.htm

1 comment:

Don Parker said...

Hi Matt,

Great sermon. I have preached many times on being called to serve the Lord, being called to follow the Lord, being called to proclaim the Gospel, etc. BUT never really thought about being called as children of the living God, imperfect but being restored to what God created us to be. Thanks for the ideas for a future sermon!

Don Parker

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