Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The feast day of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, Sunday, September 21, 2014
texts: Ephesians 2:4-10; Matthew 9:9-13
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Let’s get one thing clear from the start.
Matthew was, in fact, a tax collector. We can assume, given what such folks did, he probably cheated his neighbors while collecting taxes for the Romans. No one in the Gospel denies who Matthew is, what he’s done.
The rest at dinner were also either tax collectors or, in a simple catch-all, “sinners”. Again, this is not in dispute. We don’t have to think too hard to imagine what kind of sin got a person the public label “sinner”. But once more, let’s be clear. No one has ever claimed that these people with Jesus weren’t who they were, weren’t people who’d done things wrong. In fact, they specifically had done things wrong that attracted public notice, public comment.
What’s troubling is that this encounter doesn’t seem to matter to us.
We’re comfortable criticizing the Pharisees for criticizing Jesus. We’re even happy to talk about following a Savior who hangs out with sinners, not holier-than-thou types. We fail to realize that in such attitudes, we are the Pharisees.
Jesus is addressing us today. “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” He’s quoting Hosea, who says no worship, no temple sacrifice supersedes mercy, literally, “steadfast love,” for others. He’s sending the Pharisees away, telling them they have biblical homework to do. They need to go and learn something, bring it into their lives, their actions, their thoughts. Go and learn what this means, “I desire steadfast love, mercy.”
He is speaking to us. We’re pretty good at the theoretical, the head stuff. We know all sinners can be forgiven; we can list all sorts of sins and admit that yes, God can forgive them. But we act as if our heart’s in a very different place. We have become a people, a culture, who live and breathe the Pharisees’ judgmentalism. Somehow we’ve convinced ourselves it’s not the same for us, though.
Really? Jesus says. Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy.
We don’t make people wear a scarlet letter identifying their sin anymore, as Hawthorne famously related. But we are the same people who did.
When our ancestors wanted to publicly address certain sins, the identified sinners would sometimes be put into stockades in the public square, for taunting and the throwing of abuse both verbal and physical. You needed to know who the real sinners were.
Now we do it on Facebook. We do it at coffee, over lunch, at dinner in our homes. We do it at office water-coolers. We declare someone to be worthy of judgment, worthy of mockery, worthy of shaming, certain we are right to do so. They are food for our conversation and our thought. We “tut tut,” and we “oh my,” and we “did you hear that?”
This week we had one close to home, a beloved local sports figure accused of hurting his child. Having once idolized this person, the public now demonizes him, our favorite game with public figures. People smugly post opinions on Facebook, share photographs, titter or are indignant with family members and friends about the scandal. This isn’t new. There will be another in a month or so; there always is. Because that’s truly the kind of people we are.
Now remember, the question is not about the sin, not for Matthew, not for today. In this case, the state of Texas and the state of Minnesota are doing their duty to sort out if laws were broken and what punishments should apply. They are doing what they should do to protect the child and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
But what kind of people are we to believe we can sit over anyone, as our entertainment, our small talk, our judgment, our every day life?
What does that make us? I don’t just mean this case, I could give you a dozen other recent examples. Is it so we feel better about ourselves? Are we better for it? Whatever good this person may or may not have done in his life, there are many who, from this point on, will think only ill of him, for this one thing. It’s a bad thing, that’s why an indictment was handed down. But when we do this to anyone, label them in our minds and in our hearts as “sinner,” how are we not the Pharisees?
Most examples of this are public figures; sometimes we justify our judgment on those grounds. They should live up to higher standards, we say. Is this the kind of people we want to be, people who feel it is our right to set people up or tear people down?
What of the other people in our lives to whom we do this who are not public figures, where their mistake, their problem, becomes the thing we think of when we think of them, the thing we talk about? When they become the someone we mock, judge, or use to entertain others with our wit? My sisters and brothers, as your pastor in Christ I tell you I have seen this among us, between us, and beyond, against family and co-workers, against brothers and sisters here. Again, I’m not disputing wrongs are done. I’m wondering about our self-righteous smugness.
Go and learn what this means, Jesus said. I desire mercy, steadfast love.
Perhaps true mercy begins with self-examination and honesty.
Is there anyone here who would like to take their worst moment, photograph it, and have it publicized for the world to see? Their worst moment as a parent, a partner, a friend, a human being? Who would like themselves to be identified forever after not as the person they are but as that sinner? Would we want that to be what people thought whenever they looked at us? I can think of enough moments in my life, enough negative characteristics, bad judgments, wrong actions, that I would be crushed if people saw any of them as the defining truth about me.
Could we learn mercy by first recognizing our own need for it? Recognizing that each of us lives moderately good lives but with plenty of moments to regret, be ashamed of, even fear that others might discover? Plenty of things we, and God, call sin?
I came to call not the righteous, but sinners, Jesus said. Could we begin to learn mercy by realizing how good it is to know that about Jesus? How important to our very lives it is that he looks at all people, including us, and sees us, not our sins? That he looked at Matthew and saw a potential disciple, not a cheater?
This is the gift of the Son of God, that he came for all, sinful as all are.
Paul’s beautiful song of grace in Ephesians is also stark and honest. Like Jesus, he doesn’t deny that sin exists in us, he names it. He says it is like death to live with such a weight of sin in our hearts. To live in fear we’ll be judged not by our good but by our wrongdoing. That we’ll forever carry the label “not good enough,” “sinner,” “bad person.”
You have been saved by God’s grace, Paul says. Not by your doing. Not by carefully denying the bad snapshots of your past, or erasing them from existence, or doing enough good to overbalance them. You are loved by God in Christ Jesus, and in his dying and rising from death have been given new life. A new identity, “forgiven child of God”.
But notice Paul’s plurals: “you all have been saved”, he says, not just you individually. God “made us alive together with Christ.” “We are what he has made us.”
I came to call not the righteous but sinners, Jesus said. All of them. All of them. Together.
What does that mean for our lives? Does it change us?
We are made for good works to be our way of life, Paul says. We have been saved by grace so that we are people of grace and mercy, not people of judgment. Does it matter if the person we’re judging smugly is public or private, guilty or innocent? Isn’t the real question, what kind of person did Christ Jesus make us to be? How does he call us to love?
What if mercy became how we lived? If we studiously worked at learning the mercy of Christ, the steadfast love of God, and held ourselves to that standard? That we would try, and we would pray God’s Spirit to help us look at others and see them as who they are, not identifying them by what bad they might or might not have done. That we would seek the Spirit’s grace to close our mouths and open our hearts, so that we’re not passing gossip or judgment or mockery or shame on anyone.
Because God so loved the world he sent his only Son, to save it, not to judge it. Go and learn what that means, Jesus says.
Go and learn how that is your life, your path. You want to talk about the way of the cross? This is it. If we truly desire to be who we are made to be in Christ, that is, to be Christ, we have some learning to do. Our hope and our promise is that the Holy Spirit is ready and willing to be our teacher, strength and guide.
God is showing steadfast love and mercy to all the people of this world, who have been made alive together with us. Let’s go learn, together, what such mercy means.
In the name of Jesus. Amen