Sunday, June 8, 2008

A: Proper 5 (6/8/08)

Matthew 9:9-13

Once upon a time, Jesus gave a party. We read about it in the ninth chapter of St Matthew’s gospel. The scholars can’t make up their mind whose house it was at. Some say that it was Jesus’ own home in the village of Capernaum. Others say that Jesus would have been too poor to own a house nice enough to give that kind of party. But in any case, there are indications that Jesus was playing host at this event—it was his party—even if he borrowed somebody else’s house to have it in.

It was a good party, the kind that, when you hear about it being planned, you hope you get an invitation to it. In that culture, dinner parties were semi-public affairs. It was not thought odd for someone to just wander in off the street. They might not actually get a place at the table that way, but it was at least good for an hors d'oeuvre, a trip to the punch bowl, and a good look around. Some of the more socially respectable members of Capernaum society—Pharisees, to be precise—would have liked to have been on the guest list for this party, but the invitation never arrived. So they exercised their option of crashing it for a look-see. They looked, and they saw, and they were aghast at what they saw—or, actually, whom they saw. Now they were glad not to have been invited, because all the wrong people were there. The place was full of notorious sinners and tax collectors. The wine was flowing freely and everyone was having a good time.

The Pharisees were clearly perplexed at why Jesus would associate with such company, and when he got wind of their discomfort, he answered them head on. “Oh, don’t worry! I know you’re good people—upstanding and righteous in every way. I wouldn’t dream of implying that you need any assistance from me as far as your standing before God is concerned. No, I didn’t come for your benefit. You obviously don’t need my help. But these people, they’re in a different situation. Look at them. They’re sinners! They need me. You’re well, you don’t need a doctor. They’re sick, and I’m their physician. They are the ones I came to save.”

Of course, Jesus was saying all this with his tongue in his cheek, because those self-righteous Pharisees stood in at least as much need of Jesus’ assistance in obtaining God’s mercy as did the socially suspect party-goers. It’s my observation that while every human being has a conscience, that faculty is less developed in some than in others. Christian teaching, of course, is that all human beings are sinners, by nature alienated from God and, unless some intervention takes place, on a path to eternal separation from the source of their being. Some people feel the weight of this reality very deeply. Others simply aren’t aware of it. Still others just don’t take it seriously. They figure that, sure, they’re not perfect, but they’re on the whole pretty good people, doing the best they can to live honestly and decently and making a contribution to society. Surely God will give them credit for this, and receive them into fellowship with him when the crucial moment arrives.

That all sounds pretty reasonable to me, and if I were God, it’s probably the way things would work. The only problem is, I’m not God! And there’s not the slightest authoritative evidence that the one who actually is God operates by those rules. The truth may not be pleasant, but that does not make it any less true. There isn’t anybody in this room whose manner of life places God under any sort of moral obligation. There isn’t anybody in the world who can justify himself or herself in God’s sight. Some of us may be more miserable sinners than others, but we are all sinners, all equally under a sentence of condemnation. Even if we identify with the relatively righteous Pharisees, “relatively righteous” doesn’t cut it. We all belong at Jesus’ party, because we are all sick, all among those whom he came to seek and to save.

Some of the party-goers that evening in Capernaum were no doubt enjoying themselves, but thinking, “save me? I’d like to see him try! If he only knew some of the things I’ve done in my life. I’m way beyond his ability to help me.” At the opposite extreme from those who take their sinfulness too casually are those who virtually define themselves by it. Have you ever heard the humorous crack, “I don’t really want to go to heaven; all my friends will be in hell!” It’s intended to be a swaggering and prideful remark, but it’s really a cry of despair. Was it W.C. Fields who quipped that he wouldn't want to belong to a club that would have him as a member?

That’s the way some folks feel about Christ and the church. They don’t realize that, as it has been said, the church is not a hotel for saints but a hospital for sinners. To the precise extent that we cannot evade the truth that we are all sinners, so we cannot evade the truth that there is no sin that is beyond the redemptive reach of God’s love. There is nothing you have ever done or could ever do that God will not forgive if you but repent of it and turn to Christ. The only truly unpardonable sin is the sin of despair, the refusal to believe and trust in God’s limitless love.

But of all the guests at Jesus’ party, it is Matthew who most grabs my attention. Matthew, the tax collector, who is going about his business one day when Jesus forever alters his life by calling him into the inner band of disciples. Matthew was neither particularly righteous nor particularly evil. He had, to be sure, made an unfortunate career decision, but it’s not like he was a pimp or a hit man or something like that. He was an independent contractor for the local government, collecting import-export tariffs from commercial traffic across the Sea of Galilee. The worst that can be said about him is that he was like a Frenchman who cooperated with the Vichy government during the years of Nazi occupation. Now, I really doubt that Matthew, as a child, said to himself one day, “When I grow up, I think I’ll become a tax collector and help support the Roman regime and thereby alienate myself from my own people.” I rather suspect it was much more subtle and gradual than that. A series of minor decisions, temporary choices, each one seeming logical and practical at the moment, but all combining to put Matthew behind that tax collector’s table in Capernaum. There he was, not relishing his low social status, and possibly feeling immense guilt, but making a pretty good living and not really knowing how to do anything else.

Matthew was trapped, trapped in quiet desperation, devoid of any realistic hope for change—a fate not unlike that of many “normal” men and women and children who populate our everyday lives, and who even occupy church pews on Sunday mornings. None of us, as young people, ever said, “I think I’ll get so addicted to nicotine that I’ll keep on smoking even though I know it’s killing me.” None of us ever said, “I believe I’ll become an alcoholic, and slowly destroy my life” or “I’m seriously thinking of acquiring a $200 a day drug habit that I’ll have to commit crimes to support.” None of us ever said, “I think I’ll get married and have a family, and then abuse them through neglect because I’m more committed to my career than I am to them.” None of us ever planned on sharing ourselves sexually with so many different people—one by one, each one making sense at the time—that pretty soon we’ve shared so much of ourselves that there’s nothing left of our real selves. None of us ever planned on making so many parenting mistakes that our children end up in long-term psychotherapy when they become adults. Nobody ever planned on having a job where they’re pressured to view human beings who bear the image and likeness of God as profit centers or human resource assets. We don’t ever start out with the idea of being less than completely honest in our daily life and work, less than totally committed to our families. We don’t ever start out with moral and ethical values that are less than the ideal, with anything less than the best of intentions for the stewardship of our bodies, of our minds, of our time and abilities.

But things happen. Life happens. And we wake up one morning and find ourselves trapped, like Matthew. We don't like where we are. We don't like the patterns of our behavior. We don't like the routines of our speaking and our acting. We look back on what we've said and done, and look ahead to what we expect we will say and will do, and in either direction, “the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.” We are Matthew, sitting behind the tax collector's table on the lake shore in Capernaum, wondering how it had all come to that. And along comes Jesus, and says, “Follow me.” And we follow him, and the first place he leads us to is a dinner party, a dinner party where we are accepted and loved, despite those shameful things we've said and done, despite the shameful thing that we have become, a dinner party where our feet are washed and we are invited to plop ourselves down on a soft cushion next to a large table filled with the choicest food and drink.

That dinner party is a sign to us that Jesus came to save us too. Yes, he came to save those who, like the Pharisees, are so self-satisfied that they don't yet realize they are sinners in need of a savior. And he came to save those whose sins are big and bold and right in plain sight for everyone to see, and who otherwise would be tempted to despair and hopelessness. But Jesus also came to save those, like Matthew, whose sins will never make headlines, but who nevertheless feel themselves trapped in patterns of thinking and doing that are ultimately as deadly. The dinner party tells us that there is a way out, there is victory. It's not instant, and it's not always necessarily pleasant. Sometimes it comes in forms we wouldn't expect to find it in. In fact, the way to victory and freedom frequently looks suspiciously like a cross.

But it is the way. Jesus is the way. And there are frequent dinner parties en route. They are held at least every week at about this time, and sometimes more frequently. And you can almost always find them at a convenient location near your home, or just about wherever your traveling takes you. These dinner parties are known as the Holy Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord's Supper, Holy Communion, the Divine Liturgy. On these occasions, Jesus, the one who called Matthew, the one who calls us, is always the host, and he ministers to us with his compassionate love and boundless forgiveness, providing us with the nourishment we need to walk the way he calls us to walk in.

And if we follow Jesus, and come to the party when he invites us, just as gradually and subtly as we found ourselves trapped by our unspectacular sinfulness, we will find ourselves liberated from it. We may not be able to point to a particular time and date, but we will wake up one morning and realize that we're free. We will look in the mirror, and we will see Jesus, for we will have been remade in his image. Even this morning, the table is ready to be set, and the food laid out for us. The invitation is ours. Come to the party. Amen.

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