Monday, September 22, 2014

Sermon -- Festival of St. Matthew, Apostle (September 21, 2014)

MATTHEW 9:9-13

In the name + of Jesus.

     There are four accounts of the life of Jesus in our Bible, and one of them is written by St. Matthew.  We know he was an apostle and an eye witness of Jesus’ resurrection.  We know that he was commissioned to go and preach the gospel wherever he went.  Beyond that, we don’t know much about him.  Even traditions about St. Matthew are not very helpful.
     Prior to becoming one of Jesus’ disciples, Matthew was a tax collector.  Tax collectors had a reputation of being thieving cheats.  They regularly took more money from the citizens than they were supposed to which they pocketed for themselves.  This was not a secret, but there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.  Rome got their taxes, so they did not care.  The Jews got robbed, and they could not stop it.  As a result, tax collectors were generally rich, but also generally despised.
     After Jesus called Matthew to follow him, Matthew hosted a banquet.  He was quick to invite his associates and friends to this feast with Jesus.  Most of Matthew’s dinner guests had the reputation of sinners.  They were branded as sinners rightly; for, their words and actions had proven it. 
     The Pharisees saw Jesus and his disciples among Matthew’s guests, and they were appalled.  Jesus’ attendance there was no act of charity, either.  Jesus was not merely giving up a few hours to spend with the down-trodden after which he would get back to his real concerns.  These sinners were his real concern.  Jesus actually liked being with them, talking with them, and feasting with them.  Jesus actually liked them!  The Pharisees were embarrassed and incensed by it. 
     The Pharisees also seemed to think that Jesus’ disciples should be embarrassed by their master’s actions, too.  Perhaps that is why the Pharisees challenged the disciples instead of speaking to Jesus directly.  The Pharisees said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11)  Perhaps they thought such a question would drive these disciples away from Jesus—that they would be too embarrassed to associate with him if he is going to act like this.  Is this what we are to expect from a Messiah?  Shouldn’t he be shaking these kinds of people off of himself?  Doesn’t he have standards?  Shouldn’t people start living up to those standards before he would sit down with them?  Is this who he is going to associate himself with?  Is this what the kingdom of God is going to look like?
     Jesus did not wait for his disciples to speak for him.  When he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13)  Among those sinners was Matthew, the tax collector.  Matthew would not only share a table with Jesus, Matthew would be appointed an apostle by Jesus.  Jesus calls sinners into his kingdom.
     But let us consider the questions which went through the minds of the Pharisees, and which still goes through the minds of Christians today.  “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11)  Is this what we are to expect from a Messiah?  Is this what the kingdom of God is going to look like?  And the answer is an unshakable YES!  This Messiah came for sinners, whether their lives have given abundant evidence that they are sinners or not.  Jesus calls sinners into his kingdom.
     The Pharisees took pride in their well-behaved, religious ways.  They wanted a reward for being good men.  They saw Matthew and his friends, and they thought Jesus should be there to unload judgment on them and go away.  Instead, Jesus reclined at their table and spoke kindly to them.  Jesus did not come to rub their faces in their sins, but to deliver them from them.  For it is not judgment that delivers sinners, but mercy.  Jesus called these sinners into his kingdom. 
     Pride is still the problem today.  It can happen one of two ways.  The first way is the pride of the Pharisees.  It is when we hold the attitude that we are better than others, and that is why we have a place in God’s kingdom.  It is a pride that is embarrassed by Jesus’ mercy and suggests to people, “You don’t belong here; not in this kingdom.”  But there is also a perverse pride that is becoming much more common in churches today.  It is usually disguised as being open-minded and tolerant.  It is when we tell people that we will not call anything wicked or sinful because God accepts all people.  This pride encourages the tax collector to remain at his booth and blesses the prostitute at her street corner.  With this pride, we apologize for God’s commandments and celebrate the sinner.  Ironically, with either kind of pride, people are convinced that they are more God’s people than anyone else.  With either kind of pride, people presume to speak and to judge for God.  And with either kind of pride, people end up like the Pharisees, without a seat at the feast and outside the kingdom of God
     Jesus calls sinners into his kingdom.  There is no room for any kind of pride for a sinner.  You cannot be proud of despising or belittling other people.  You cannot be proud of judging other people as not worth God’s attention.  You cannot be proud of dismissing God’s commandments because they are unpopular.  You cannot be proud of thinking that God shares your assessment of other people or that you are equal to God in judging them.  These things are not worthy of pride, but of punishment. 
     Nevertheless, Jesus does not cast you off.  He calls you into his kingdom.  That kingdom is ruled above all by divine mercy.  The Savior who told the Pharisees, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:12), supplied both for you.  First, Jesus offered the sacrifice of a perfectly obedient life.  Jesus did not despise people no matter how wretched they were.  Though he never could or did condone man’s wickedness, he did not isolate himself from the wicked.  How could he if he were to dwell on earth at all?  Rather, Jesus found Matthew at his tax collector’s booth.  He did not despise him, but summoned him: “Follow me.” 
     Jesus does not despise you because of a troubled marriage, because of your bitter jealousies, your malicious gossip, or your self-important pride.  Instead, he summons, “Follow me.”  In following Jesus, you find a Savior who answers for your sins with his perfect obedience.  You have not done what God has commanded, but Jesus has.  Jesus found you in your sinful condition and cleansed you at the baptismal font.  He continues to be merciful, granting you pardon for all your sins and preparing a feast for you.  For, Jesus still eats with sinners. 
     Jesus calls sinners into his kingdom.  He says: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:12)  Jesus supplies both.  He is the sacrifice which atones for all your pride and all your shame.  Jesus delivers you from all your iniquity.  The title “sinner” no longer sticks.  Jesus says that you are a citizen of the heavenly kingdom and a partaker of the heavenly feast. 
     No longer do we call Matthew the tax collector.  We call him “Apostle,” “Evangelist,” and “Saint.”  That is what Jesus made him because he called this sinner into his kingdom.  You have been granted a new name as well.  God calls sinners into his kingdom, but he no longer calls them sinners.  Now God calls you “saint,” “beloved child,” and “heir of heaven.”  And just as God called Matthew to go out and proclaim this mercy to other sinners, so you are called to go and do likewise.  Do not be afraid of the sinners, but go and be merciful to them as Jesus has been merciful to you.  This is how Jesus delivered you, and it is how he continues to call sinners into his kingdom. 

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.