(a sermon for September 17, 2017, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Hosea 5:15-6:6 and Matthew 9:9-13)
I will always remember the reaction of a high school friend of mine when I told him that I was seriously considering answering God’s call to become a minister. He stared at me for a long moment, not at all sure of what he should say; but when finally he did reply, he took a deep breath and asked, “This doesn’t mean you’re going to get all good on us, does it?”
No, I do not think he was commenting on my complete and utter lack of goodness!
Rather, I believe his reaction to my future plans was a reflection of how he viewed the church; both in our little town and as a whole. To him, you see, the church was always that place willed with “Capital-G Good” people. You know the kind: the solid, serious, religious-type people; the variety of folks who wear their good suits and nice dresses as they come to worship each and every Sunday morning and who were always calm, composed and assured of themselves as they sat there in the pews. These were the people who appeared to have a handle on most everything in life; and who always seemed to be, well, a little bit better off than everyone else!
Thinking back on it now, I’m not sure if my friend didn’t really see me as fitting that kind of a mold, or if the fact that I did was somehow threatening to him. But either way, I have to tell you that even back then I understood where he was coming from; because truthfully, I held much the same point of view! For me, the church was that special haven of faith-inspired human goodness, and I deeply wanted to be a part of that kind of community!
And you know what? After just about 35 years now serving as a church pastor in congregations of varied shapes and sizes, I can readily affirm that yes, the church of Jesus Christ is filled to overflowing (!) with wonderfully good people; but I can also tell you that the church also includes as unlikely a cast of characters as you’ll ever meet… anywhere!
What I didn’t know back then but have discovered again and again over the years is that whereas there are a great many joyful folk who populate the pews, there are also a goodly number who are angry; and who have come to worship harboring a great deal of resentment over what life has brought them. Calm and composed in every situation? Yes, I’ve known a great many parishioners who are just like that; then again, in every congregation of which I’ve been a part there have also been those who are depressed, despairing and occasionally delusional. In every set of church pews, you see, there’s to be found the sick, the lame, the grieving and the broken, and plenty of people with problems: some with problems that have absolutely nothing to do with them, and others whose problems are of their own sad, misguided creation.
And yes… hard as it is for me to admit, it is true what you’ve always heard: that there exists a few – just a few, mind you (!) – hypocrites in the church! Moreover, there are those people in our congregations who do think they’re smarter or stronger or better or more spiritual than everybody else; but I need to tell you that there just as many who labor under the false and needless burden that they are of lesser value than anybody else around them! There are lots of people who take the command to “love one another” very seriously, and make that conviction real in their lives; but in all honesty there are also those out there who, knowingly or unknowingly, actually kind of hate other people, but who hate themselves even more.
The worriers, the careless and thoughtless, the ungrateful, the impatient, the greedy, the gossipy, the gloating, the scowling and the self-pitying: they’re all a part of this community of faith we call the church.
And, oh… in case I’ve left anyone off this list …so are you …and so am I.
That’s right; it’s not always pretty, but we are the church, and amazingly, each one of us belongs! Not to further shatter any illusions (!), but ultimately what we’ve got here is this rag-tag and rather motley assortment of ordinary people who fall just a little bit short of “good,” people whose love of the Lord is all too often as we heard described in Hosea this morning: “like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early,” not exactly fitting into that “Capital G Good” church member mold!
And yet, here we are – as we are – nonetheless welcomed into the company of the faithful: named and claimed as children of God, called to be the disciples of Jesus Christ himself. It’s a wonderful thing; but the question is, “Why? Why have we, of all people, been welcomed in?” As we’ve illustrated, it certainly hasn’t come about as a result of our inherent goodness; it cannot be said that we’ve earned our place in this community in any true and meaningful way, as much as we may have tried… so why then… why us? It turns out that the answer to this question, the only answer there can be, is God! What is true is that the God who desires from us “steadfast love and not sacrifice” has in fact been steadfast in his love for us; the same God who seeks our knowledge of him wants to know us as his own! Or, as Jesus said it, “I have come not to call the righteous but sinners.”
Or to put this another way, it’s all about grace.
Grace is what’s at the heart of both our readings for this morning: each one about how God loves sinful, imperfect people and is relentless in wanting them to return to him. First, from the Old Testament book of Hosea, we have this marvelous dialogue between Israel and God: God declaring that he will wait for his people to return and “seek [his] face” and admit their guilt; Israel responding, “Come, let us return to the LORD,” (in some translations adding, “let us press on to acknowledge him”), even as God expresses some doubt as to the level of their sincerity!
Even so, the Lord continues to wait for Israel to return, and to truly know and acknowledge him. And he does this because goal here is for LOVE; or in the original Hebrew, “hesed,” which actually includes the whole realm of steadfast love, righteousness, loyalty, and mercy. Hesed, you see, represents a full and right relationship with God; it encompasses everything that God desires from his people. And what we find in the message of the prophet is that God will do whatever it takes for that kind of relationship to happen; even boldly welcoming into that relationship those whom others would cast out.
That’s made very clear in our gospel reading today, about the calling of Matthew, a simple and beautiful act of grace that provokes immediate controversy! Matthew, you see, is a tax collector, and in those days to be a tax collector was to be a collaborator with the Roman occupation forces in Israel; and by extension a thief and a thug who cheated the people out of pretty much everything they had. So it was no wonder that when the “Capital G Good” religious people of his day saw Jesus hanging out with the likes of Matthew, they were outraged; and then, as if that weren’t bad enough, now Jesus had gone to Matthew’s house for a banquet in his honor! This caused a great deal of commotion; after all, being seen in the presence of one known sinner, that might be considered outreach; having dinner with a houseful, well… that’s collusion! It was a clear violation of sacred tradition as the Pharisees understood it: they believed that you keep yourself pure and you stay away from the wrong kind of people; because if you hang out with sinners, you must be a sinner yourself!
But to this, Jesus simply says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” And then he does a very interesting thing; he pulls out a word from the prophets that so called “religious uprights” would immediately recognize: “Go and learn what this means,” he says. “’I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”
It’s a perfect case of having one’s own words (or at least one’s own tightly held philosophies) turned back at them: Jesus says, if what is needed is an acknowledgement of God and a desire for mercy, isn’t that what we’re seeing in this man Matthew who heard my call and immediately left his collector’s booth? And isn’t that what we’re starting to see with the rest of these so-called “sinners” who have come to celebrate with Matthew at the beginning of his new life? Isn’t the point that this one who was sick be healed; that this one who’s been torn and struck down “return to the Lord” and have his wounds bound up? Shouldn’t his relationship to God be restored, for isn’t that what the Lord has wanted all along?
It was the point missed by the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, and it’s a point we still miss so often in the church today; that while it’s all well and good for us to aspire to be the “good” religious people of this world, but if we’re not careful such behavior can all too easily fly in the face of the one who desires mercy, and not sacrifice; and who seeks out the lost not on the basis of their inherent righteousness but rather on out their deep need to be brought home! Our being the church ends up having very little to do with us, but everything to do with the depth of God’s mercy, his tender compassion and genuine acceptance; and we’re reminded in these texts that how we live as the church must show forth that same kind of depth.
To wit, just we have been welcomed into fellowship of God, as unlikely and as unworthy as we are, we also need to extend welcome to all those who stand in the need of hesed. You and I are called to be givers of that kind of life-changing and ever enveloping relationship we have with God to all those around us who have never known what it is be truly LOVED. You and I are called to a ministry of acceptance and inclusiveness and care; we are meant to be about the business of spiritual nurture and uplift. That’s who we’re meant to be as the church, even here on Mountain Road; but for that to happen first requires us to acknowledge the Lord and to embrace his purposes.
It’s said that the difference between the waters of the Sea of Galilee and those of the Dead Sea, both of which are biblical landmarks in the Middle East, is that the Sea of Galilee is a natural lake that is formed by a depression of land. Water flows freely from the mountains into this sea and keeps right on flowing, and as a result the Sea of Galilee always remains fresh, life-giving and full of fish. The Dead Sea, on the other hand, also has water that flows in from the mountains, but has no outlet; the water basically collects there and eventually evaporates, leaving the salt and creating a body of water in which there is virtually no life, which is why it’s known as the “Dead” Sea.
Well, think of that as a parable, and it goes a long way in helping us understand what God wants us to be as his church. The Sea of Galilee, you see, exists to give. It receives its water, and gives it all away, and thus it remains fresh and full of life, with the ability to nurture and restore the land and life around it. The Dead Sea, on the other hand, exists to receive; it only takes and never gives, it never seeks to nourish anything or anyone – and because of this, it dies.
The fact is, I do believe that we here at East Church are a church family made up of good people; as Garrison Keillor might put it, we’re “pretty good people,” but might I add we’re pretty good people by the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. We are the church, beloved; but in the words of William Willimon, “A church that stops reaching out is not his church. A people who hunker down with their faith, holding on to what they’ve got, timid and uncertain, unwilling to move out are not his people.”
Are we his people, beloved? Are we willing to acknowledge the Lord by our desire – his desire – for mercy, steadfast love and arms opened to all who would come?
That’s something good for us to think about as we do our work together.
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry