Wandering, Seeking, Distracted Discovery
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
Based on Matthew 9:9-12
For June 18 2017, Father’s Day
When’s the last time you ate with someone sinful? I don’t mean someone who is rude or doesn’t know their manners. I mean someone whose lifestyle you found deplorable, destructive, lacking any sense of holiness or rightness.
I’ll confess, it has been awhile for me. There was a time when I knew people whom our culture has identified as sinful: a number of prostitutes (male and female), drug dealers, gun smugglers. I’ve also known lawyers indicted for unethical – and in my assessment amoral – actions: CEO’s guilty of embezzlement, insider stock trading, and industrial spying. I’ve known a few international spies, and some rather unsavory military officers who did some inhumane acts in name of national security.
I knew these folks well enough to know what diners to meet them at 3:00 in the morning because they needed to talk; I knew what booth they preferred and why, how they would take their coffee and what kind of pie or Danish they would have with the coffee.
“Why me?” I would sometimes ask. Why did they feel it was OK to call me for coffee at 3 AM? Why did they trust me with their sorrows, their worries, their anxieties? The congregations I served thought it commendable that I would be willing to take mid-morning phone calls to go to the hospital for an emergency or from troubled teenagers who were guilt-stricken or consumed by fear – but these others? Drunken, doped up, despicable characters – why was I willing to give my time to them?
Times have changed. Nowadays I’m not sure I would go out on some of those calls. Nowadays I hesitate before going into those all-night diners. Nowadays I value sleeping through the night. Nowadays I don’t keep the phone next to my bed. My life has become rather cloistered, limited to mostly church folk.
And I admit: my life has lost a certain colorfulness. Yes, it has also lost a certain unpredictability as those people injected drama into my life – drama from their own lives that had nothing to do with my lifestyle. But I sometimes wonder if I have traded respectability for sharing grace with people who might not otherwise ever encounter grace.
Jesus is criticized for sharing dinner with a deplorable, despicable character. Matthew is not a drug dealer or prostitute. He might be more like a lawyer who we know is involved with insider trading, or a government official who brags that his wealth comes breaking the law and not getting caught, and that makes him smarter than the rest of us. But even those examples do not get to the sense of shock that this story originally created.
Jesus has not invited some random guy to dinner. Jesus is having dinner with a Jewish tax collector. I could inject some of the people I used to know into this story, placing their faces onto the character of Matthew. But while those people were cast out from typical church populations, there’s something missing in their identity.
This tax collector is a Jewish man working for the Roman Empire – the government that has been demanding more and more from Judeans: more food and natural resources to be sent to Roman garrisons; more Roman-style celebrations and public events, including making religious offerings to the Emperor; more taxes to be collected.
Tax collectors were appointed by the Romans to collect a certain amount of money, a quota if you will; these tax collectors got rich by collecting more taxes than required and keeping the extra for themselves. So not only are they raising money for the hated Roman Empire, it is known they are taking more money than required and filling their own pockets with it.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a new Moses. As this story of Jesus is told, the Egyptians are replaces with the Romans. For the people of Israel, the Egyptians were brutal slave masters; the Egyptians were the evil rulers from whom God freed the Israelites. But if Rome is the new Egypt, then tax collectors are collecting money for the slave masters.
And by the time Matthew’s gospel was written, this story would have been even more confrontational, because Matthew’s gospel was written after the attempted Jewish revolt, after the Romans attacked Jerusalem and burned portions of the city to the ground, robbing and razed the temple, and then outlawing the Jewish faith.
Matthew was perceived to be a traitor to his people. This tax collector is a traitor who has chosen to work for the enemy.
Maybe a good example is the characters associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Imagine a native American who has become a lawyer – and then willingly accepted to represent the oil companies and the Trump Administration in promoting the pipeline’s route. I don’t know of any person who did that, but just imagine it.
Now imagine a respected Native American tribal leader standing with her people to prevent the construction crews access to the land where the oil pipeline is to be built. Now picture that tribal leader exiting from the protest, walking through the line of armed police to a black Mercedes SUV and asking this lawyer to have lunch with her. They go to a restaurant in one of the Trump hotels. And at the table are the police and national guard who have been breaking up the protest.
10 As Jesus sat down to eat in Matthew’s house,
many tax collectors and sinners joined Jesus and his disciples at the table.
11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples,
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Since I have been criticized for dining with certain people, I am sure if Jesus were to come to Chicago and invited me to dinner, there would be people criticizing Jesus for eating with me. I have strong political views that I have been told are unchristian. I have made public statements about what I think is wrong with our nation, our culture: since high school I have refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because I feel it violates my religious values.
“How dare I be so self-righteous to criticize such a central and meaningful cultural practice?! Pastor or no,” I have been told, “there are certain cultural obligations we all must keep up – and if you will not, then you are breaking the foundations of faithfulness in our country.”
I know some people who know me have criticized my closest friends for their sinful lives – because they are gay or lesbian or bisexual, because they had an extra-marital affair, because they are divorced (some multiple times), because they have done time in prison. If Jesus invited me to host him at dinner, these are the friends I would invite – and I am sure Jesus would be criticized for this dinner party.
But then who is worthy of dinner with Jesus? Who among us has been spared criticism, been spared the accusations of doing something disreputable, amoral, sinful? Who among us is spared guilt of having done something hurtful – or having not done something that would have been more righteous, more what God would have wanted, more healthy for ourselves and for others?
I look upon the scene of Jesus eating with Matthew the tax collector and his sinful friends and rather than replicating the Pharisees’ question “How dare he eat with sinners?” I find myself asking “How do I get invited to that meal?” I am sure that dinner conversation was not filled with small talk, not filled with the attest celebrity gossip but rather about living within our human failings because God has made us in God’s image.
We all have less-than-perfect lives. None of us deserve to be loved by Christ. That’s the amazing grace we claim to have received: despite our unworthiness, God has called us through Christ to come together and attempt to be more grace-filled, more accepting, more invested in one another, more human than we could be if we did not have Christ or even one another.
This labyrinth practice invites us to enter in, just as we are, no prerequisites, no moral test, nothing to do but begin the journey, to arrive at the center and stand – symbolically if not actually – in the presence of God, whether or not we are ready. We’re confronted with the mystery, “What does it mean to be in the presence of God?” Your answer, your experience, is as valid as mine, as valid as the prostitute and the embezzling CEO, as valid as the gun runner and the tax collector.
And then we journey outward so that we may share with others the experience of being in God’s presence – not only at the center of the labyrinth but everywhere we walk. We are invited in, accepted, and sent out just as we are.
We say it over and over again: “Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” In the name of Christ, let us live out that challenging mission.
As we pray, you are invited to use the paper labyrinth. Trace the route with your finger, slowly, entering into God’s presence. Let us confess to God the ways we have criticized others and kept them away from being part of the church. Let us confess the ways we have limited God’s realm by withholding gracefulness to others.
We seek you presence here this morning,
most gracious and loving God,
hoping to experience a portion of your acceptance for us.
We want to delight in being made in your image,
and we ask forgiveness for
restricting what that means
through denigrating the lives of others.
We cannot choose the ways they live,
and we confess feeling awkward, restricted, even angry at their choices.
If only they would do what we think is right,
it would be easier for them and for us!
We ask you to guide us to living wisely
and pursuing healthy relationships even when we disagree,
even when we think others are wrong.
We ask you to bless our relationships with greater joy,
and we ask for an even greater spirit of acceptance to permeate Lyonsville
so that others are attracted to your beloved community
as displayed here among these people.
We also ask this morning for healing.
We have listed many ailments
limiting physical health,
diminishing emotional health,
affecting spiritual well-being.
May your healing spirit bring wholeness and peace.
In this week’s news, we have heard of
fires in low-cost housing,
a mistrial in a sexual assault case,
a shooting at a congressional baseball field,
a police officer acquitted in shooting a black man,
a woman’s texts connected to a man’s suicide,
and various political maneuvers that continue to confuse.
May we hear your invitation to justice,
and may we find ways to hold one another accountable.
And then God we ask that today we may honor our fathers.
Sometimes we have had good relationships with them,
and sometimes we have had difficult relationships.
May today be a day for reconciliation extended from both sides
so at our families –
our families of origin,
the families we parent,
and the families whom we choose –
may live in ways that reflect your love for us all.
As we wind our way through this labyrinth of worship,
begin to send us outward in your name and with your grace.