Monday, September 23, 2013

The In Crowd

St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist (Transferred)
September 22nd, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
The In Crowd – Matthew 9:9-13

     There’s a new kid in town.  He’s pretty cool, really talented, but hard to figure out.  All the cool and popular kids are checking him out.  No one’s sure yet who this new kid is going to hang out with, but it looks like he’s going to be the new top dog, in whatever group he chooses.  He could be a jock, an athlete, since he seems to have almost miraculous physical abilities.  He can probably walk on water.  He could hang out with the brainiacs, the smart kids, preparing for college.  His wisdom is so amazing, he’ll be at the top of the class.  He could rule 4-H, FFA or any of the shop classes.  After all, animals respond to him like he’s the king of all creation, and his stepdad was a carpenter, who taught him all about building houses.  Somebody’s cousin went to a wedding and this new kid was the life of the party.  Somehow he managed to salvage the reception when the caterer ran out of wine.  It sounds like he’s from out of this world.  Everybody wants him to be their friend, to have him hang out with them.    

     That’s why it’s so weird, what I saw him do the other day.  I saw him go to Matthew’s house.  You know Matthew, that teacher’s pet, that hall monitor, Matthew.  Jesus went over to his place and invited Matthew to go hang out with him.  Later on I saw the new kid and Matthew and a bunch of other kids, at a table together, eating pizza at the The Depot.  I couldn’t believe who I saw, every loser and lowlife you could think of.  All of Matthew’s geeky tattle-tale friends were there.  Even Mary.  You know, crazy Mary Magdalene, the one who everyone says has really gotten around.  She was there, along with a bunch of other girls you want to stay away from.  And all the handicapped kids, in wheelchairs and walkers.  Pimple faced kids with bad skin.  A couple of druggies, and that one skinny kid who gets beat up by his dad.  It seemed like you had to be a loser to get a spot at the table.  And right there in the middle of all of them was the new kid, even though he could hang out with whoever he wants to.  He really seemed to enjoy being with those losers.  I don’t get it.  Why does he want to eat with them?

     Is it too much of a stretch, comparing a bunch of high school cliques with the different groups competing for power in the Israel of Jesus’ day?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Amongst the Jews of Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were heads of cliques, special groups, built and maintained around the talents and personality of their leader, their teacher.  Perhaps, in a religious setting, the various crowds of disciples following around their favorite rabbi are not so unlike the jocks, the cheerleaders, the rednecks, the motorheads and the brainiacs, and all the other little cliques that form in every American High School, or at least in those with more than 50 kids. 

     No matter how distant a memory high school is for you, we all know how, at every age, we love to form little exclusive clubs, where we can all celebrate and rally around something about us we think is just great, something which helps us whitewash over and ignore our less pleasing features.  We also love to form groups so we can point out the less pleasing things we think we see in others, which we think makes us look good by comparison.  Brainiacs vs. the Red Necks.  Stay at home moms vs. working moms.  Small business owners vs. government employees.  Democrats vs. Republicans.  All of these groups, whatever good you can rightly say about each of them, has also the sinful potential to ostracize, label and reject people outside the group, without cause or compassion.  And so, we naturally gravitate toward the best group we think we might qualify to join.  So also, when an impressive new person enters a community, we naturally want them to be like us, to hang out with our group. 

      In this light, it’s interesting to consider Jesus, as He entered the religious scene of 1st century Israel.  He attracted a lot of attention.  He taught with authority, not as the Scribes and Pharisees.  He performed miracles.  He spoke convincingly of the coming of the Kingdom of God.  An exciting new kid on the block, an exciting new teacher on the religious and cultural landscape, who, as we heard in the Gospel, refused to meet anyone’s expectations.  He called into his inner circle the strangest people: a bunch of red-necked fishermen, and even a traitor, a turncoat Jew, a tax collector for the hated Roman occupiers, a man named Matthew.  And then, to press the point, He goes to dinner with a whole bunch of tax collectors and other sinners.  A bunch of losers and lowlifes.  These are the people Jesus chose to hang out with.

     Why?  Why did Jesus choose the low and the sinful?  Well for starters, He didn’t have any other options.  While we are easily fooled by the outward confidence and beauty of the people who make up the “in” crowd, the truth is their outer facade cracks and falls away under pressure.  Beauty queens don’t look so great in the morning.  The smartest people can struggle to make it in the work-a-day world.  Football stars grow fat and slow.  But Jesus isn’t concerned with social acceptability, or economic success.   Regardless of one’s standing in society, Jesus looks at the condition of our hearts before God, and so He knows He has no choice but to choose the low and the sinful.  Because we are all low and sinful. 

     In God’s eyes only one thing differentiates between the tax collectors and sinners, and those very religious and pious Pharisees.  The tax collectors and sinners more readily recognized their desperate situation.  Told each and every day by their society that they were unworthy, despicable people, they knew who they truly were, and so they were looking for a Savior, for forgiveness, for a way out. 

     The Pharisees, who looked like they had it all together, didn’t really believe they needed a Savior.  Jesus later calls the Pharisees whitewashed tombs, outwardly beautiful, but within full of dry bones and all kinds of uncleaness, pretty to look at, but rotten and dead on the inside.   

     Harsh words, especially when you remember Jesus aimed them at people who were truly making every effort to be good and earn God’s favor.  But their best efforts were actually leading the Pharisees away from the Kingdom of God, so Jesus attacks their outward display of righteousness, showing them their sin, in hopes of awaking their need for a Savior. 

     Jesus is always doing this.  That’s why funerals and hospital rooms, jails and emergency rooms, are so often the places the Gospel does its greatest work.  Places of tears and fears, wherever human weakness and sin come out of hiding, are often the site of Christian evangelism, because it is in the midst of tears and fears that people begin to look for a physician, a Savior. 

     Like Jesus’ harsh words to the Pharisees, the crises and disasters of life often break our outer shells, and force us to face the truth about our condition.  Despite all our best laid plans, despite all our best efforts, something is dreadfully wrong in our world.  Nothing ever seems to go completely as we wish or intend.  Sin is in the air, in the water, in the soil, and in us.  Human sin has thoroughly permeated all of creation, so much that the creation itself groans in expectation of deliverance.  Everything we try to do eventually frays and tatters, decays and falls apart.  And oh how we, like beauty queens or Pharisees, struggle and work to reverse this decay, in both in our physical and spiritual lives.  But we can’t hold it all together.  We are weak sinners, and we cannot change ourselves. 
     It is just then, when the harsh truth of the sin and decay stops us short, when we admit that we too are losers, that we don’t have it all together, any better than those we think of as lowlifes, it is just then, thanks be to God, Jesus steps in, the Great Physician, ready to apply His cure.  Jesus comes not to be with the strong and healthy, but rather with sinful losers who know that they can’t do it on their own, that they need a Savior.  Jesus sits down at table with sinners who have repented of saving themselves and who look to Jesus alone for relief.  Indeed, such are the sinners that Jesus invites and serves, at His table. 

     For the self-sufficient, Jesus has crushing words:  “I never knew you.”  “We never really talked,” says Jesus.  “Despite all your religious striving, we never really sat down and ate together, because you refuse to confess the truth about yourself, that you, too, are a sinner, desperately in need of a Savior.”  “You spend all your time worried about how you look on the outside, whether you’re respectable, attractive or popular, all the while ignoring the death and sin that is within you.”  To those who think or pretend they have it all together,  Jesus says, “I never really knew you, because you never stopped trying to fix yourself, you never stopped and really listened to me.” 

     We confess our sins quite often here in Church.  That’s good.  But we still don’t like to hear Jesus’ words to the self-sufficient, because they still accuse us, too. 

     Repent.  Stop trying to save yourself, and look to Jesus.  Live your life with your eyes fixed upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who died for us on the cross.  He calls us to look to Him, so that we can run the race, that is, that we might live the life of faith toward God and love toward neighbor to which Jesus calls us.  Focus on Jesus and His cross, and by His Grace, empowered by His Spirit, you will run the race. 

     Live your life always looking through the lens of Christ crucified.  God has already prepared all the good works you are to do.  God is the one who works in the baptized so that you do good works in your everyday lives, lived in faith and forgiveness, to the glory of Christ.  Most importantly, Jesus Christ has completed the one good work which you need to escape your failures, your sin.   His good work on Calvary covers all your faults and failures. 

     Look to Jesus, walk in the way He has prepared for you.  For He is the head of a special group. And Jesus’ clique is exclusive – only those who confess to be a loser, a sinner, can join.  But to all who know their need, their sin, Jesus offers an open invitation.  Come to Me, says Jesus, confessing your sins, and hear the Good News:  By My Blood, I have washed you clean and made you worthy of My Father’s Kingdom. 

   Day by day, and week by week, Jesus invites you to come and hear and receive again His love for you.  As we prepare to enjoy the German meal, also remember how Jesus invites you to come and eat, to taste and see that the Lord is good.  Come and enjoy the presence of Jesus every chance you get, and rejoice with all his children that He has called you into His special group, the group of sinners declared Holy, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  Amen.

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