Sunday, June 05, 2005

Welcoming the Outcasts

Matthew 9:9-13
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, June 5, 2005)

Lawrence of Arabia was a real person whose larger-than-life story was turned into a classic movie. In her book, Jesus: CEO, Laurie Beth Jones, one of my favorite authors, tells about an incident from Sir Lawrence’s life.

It happened as he and his army struggled through the desert to an oasis. They finally arrived, nearly dead from dehydration. There, they discovered that they were missing a camel boy. Lawrence immediately said, "We have to go back and find him!" But his native soldiers refused, saying, "Master, it is the will of Allah that the boy not return with us. His fate was written by God. We must not interfere."

Lawrence angrily remounted his camel and rode off into the desert. His soldiers stood there, shaking their heads and saying, "Now we have lost him too." Later, they looked up and saw Lawrence with the camel boy. The soldiers shouted as they ran to Lawrence and the boy. Lawrence, having given the exhausted and dehydrated boy over for care, turned to his troops and said, "Remember this: Nothing is written unless you write it."

Before Jesus Christ entered our lives, the stories of our lives were written and none of them had happy endings. “The wages of sin is death,” Paul writes in the New Testament book of Romans, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Maybe the greatest thing to come to those who turn from sin and death and turn to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and new life is that He gives us the freedom to rewrite the scripts for our lives.

Our Bible lesson for today shows Jesus giving some unlikely people that same freedom. It begins with Jesus calling a man named Matthew to follow Him. It happens at Matthew’s tax office. Jesus says, "Follow Me" and without hesitation, Matthew leaves his office behind and follows.

We know very little about Matthew. He’s only mentioned by name in a couple of places in the whole New Testament. We’re not even sure that he wrote the book that is attributed to him.
But we do know that his life was forever changed when Jesus came into his life.

As you know, tax collectors in those days were unsavory characters, extortionists who overcharged the people from whom they received tax payments. They were granted the tax-collection franchise for a region who had the blessings of the Romans to collect as much they wanted to, so long as the Romans got their specified amount.

The people of first-century Judea where Jesus lived hated the tax collectors. They did so not just because of the money the collectors took from them, but also because people like Matthew worked with the occupying Roman Army to keep the Judeans under the Roman thumb. If you just imagine how the average Frenchman felt when, during World War Two, they saw French people collaborating with the Nazi army, you get a feel for how first-century Judeans viewed the tax collectors.

The Judeans also would have regarded the tax collectors also as ritually impure, religiously tainted because they had contact with Gentiles.

You can imagine too then, that the only people likely to want to hang out with guys like Matthew were prostitutes and other notorious crooks, thugs, and sinners.

But after Jesus had called him to follow, Matthew had a party at his house. All his sinner friends were in attendance. So were Jesus and His disciples. Archaeological digs of houses like the one Matthew probably owned tell us that he could have fitted about thirty to forty people in his home and that it would have been airy and open, the shutters only closed at night. It would be easy for others in town to observe the party at Matthew's place.

That explains what happens in our Bible lesson. Picture it. Here are Matthew and maybe twenty-five to thirty of his unsavory peeps. Jesus shows up and Matthew, excited to see Him, welcomes Jesus to the head table. But the disciples with Jesus, good Jewish folk and not accustomed to fraternizing with people like Matthew’s friends, may have held back, taking places on the fringes of the party, close to the unshuttered windows.

From outside, beyond the open windows, they might have been questioned by their fellow Jews, the hyper-religious Pharisees. “Pssst,” they may have said. “Simon, what’s up with Jesus? Why is He hanging out with notorious sinners?”

But Jesus hears them and says: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means [Jesus quotes the Old Testament here], ‘I [that is, God]...I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Rough translation:
“Being religious gets you nowhere. I’m really proud that you’ve memorized the books of the Bible, the Apostles’ Creed, Luther’s Catechism. I’m happy that you’ve got the worship liturgy so emblazoned in your brain that you know when to stand and when to sit and how to look appropriately pious even when you’re not listening. But, I, Jesus, God-in-Skin, don’t care about any of that! I want people to be merciful, not religious!” And then, Jesus says, “I’m not here for the good little churchgoers who think that they’re too good for anybody else. I’m here to help the sinners and the riffraff get the new life I offer to all who follow Me.”
Jesus wants to empower everybody--riffraff and the holier-than-thou alike--the chance to rewrite the scripts of their lives with His grace, goodness, and love. Jesus welcomes outcasts...even outcasts like you and me. And He calls us to welcome other outcasts into His Kingdom, His Church, and our lives.

Barbara Johnson is a Christian writer I know nothing about. But I read this past week about something that happened at a conference at which she was a speaker. At the end of her presentation, she distributed buttons that had this imprinted on it: SOMEONE JESUS LOVES HAS AIDS.

Shortly after her talk, Johnson was grabbed by an event organizer. A prostitute, running away from her pimp, was upstairs in the convention center, threatening suicide. The police were on their way. But the woman insisted on speaking with Johnson, probably because of the buttons Johnson had distributed. You see, this woman had full-blown AIDS.

Johnson writes, “She was about 35 years old, dirty, and smelly from sleeping in a dumpster. Her pimp was trying to kill her because she wanted to stop turning tricks. The jagged scar on her face and the bullet hole in her leg were evidence.”

Johnson first handed the woman a button and they talked. Within a short while, this woman had improbably accepted Christ as her Savior.

At that, Johnson and the five women she had taken with her, sprang into action. They helped clean her up and gave her new clothes. When Johnson saw a fresh wound in the woman’s chest, she suggested that they take her to a hospital. The woman said no; she needed to get out of town. So, Johnson and the others scraped some money together to buy the woman a bus ticket. They gathered around the prostitute and prayed for her before she left.

Just as she started for the door, she turned around and said, “Wait! The button.” After the woman had climbed into a taxi that would take her to the bus terminal, Johnson told her, "If you get to heaven before I do, look for me. I'll meet you there!"

Because Johnson and a group of women had been open to an outcast, the way Jesus always was--and is--that woman’s life was changed. And that was true whether the man who wanted to kill her caught up with her, or if she died of AIDS soon thereafter, or if the wound in her chest killed her. She had a new life with Jesus Christ because a few women refused to accept that the script for a prostitute’s life was written in stone.

Surrender to Jesus Christ is not fatalism; it's faith that God will stand by us always and open up an eternal future with God to all who trust Christ!

You and I can be the agents by which God changes people's lives. In the power of Jesus, we can embrace the outcasts so that, like us, they know our life-changing Savior.

It may sometimes entail risk.

It may involve consorting with unsavory characters, something which, from my middle-class American vantage point, I don’t find very appealing.

But Christ has welcomed us and we can welcome others in His Name.

The displays from our Mission and Ministry Fair are still up. Each one represents an opportunity for you and me to extend Christ’s welcome to others. I urge you to sign on to one ministry, a service you render within the congregation, and one mission, a service you render to others in the community, before you leave here this morning. By changing the scripts of our lives in this way, we may also change the scripts of others who don’t know Christ yet. That’s exactly what Jesus has called us to do!

[The story about Lawrence of Arabia is one I've read many times in Jones' book. But the sermon of a pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church of Burnsville, Minnesota reminded me of it. I'm grateful.]

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