The Church with Open Doors
Grace United Methodist Church
June 6, 2010
Matthew 9: 9-13
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.
10 And as he sat at dinner* in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting* with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ 12But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
What would our church look like if Jesus were the pastor? Would it be exactly like it is here today? Would we even be here at all, or would we be gathering in a different place? How would we spend our time and our resources as part of the church? How might Grace be different if it was Jesus standing in the pulpit every Sunday and answering the phones and sending out emails during the week? Now, as your pastor, I serve Christ and I strive to lead the church in becoming what Jesus would have it be. But I am only human, and to a great extent the church is a human institution. So if Jesus were in charge here would things be different? Who would be sitting here this morning? Would a person like Matthew the tax collector be welcome in our church?
Now, in my view, it is ultimately Christ who is the pastor not only of this church, but of every church. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t stand before us in the pulpit on Sunday mornings or make hospital calls and run meetings during the week. Whether we speak of Jesus’ ministry on the earth 2000 years ago or the ministry of his church today should make little difference. They should be the same because the church is called to nothing less than continuing Christ’s vocation in the world. So how are we doing? Do we reflect the ministry of Christ through our own ministries?
As we consider this question, our gospel reading from this morning provides a good measure. This is the story of the calling of Matthew, the tax collector. Now, tax collectors were not highly regarded in Jesus’ day, particularly by the Jews. Of course, even now it’s hard to find a person that likes to pay taxes, but it was particularly painful for the Jews in Jesus’ time. Taxes were used to pay for the Roman conquests and occupations. It’s no wonder the Jewish people didn’t like paying taxes that supported the harsh force occupying their lands. Then, on top of that aggravation, there was also the fact that tax collectors could collect monies in excess of what was taxed by Rome; and they often did so extravagantly, lining their own pockets greedily. Quite simply, tax collectors were social outcasts. They were regarded as thieves and robbers, equal with prostitutes and adulterers. Such was Matthew; an apparently greedy social outcast who surely kept company with the likes of thieves or robbers. These people would be Matthew’s friends because they were the social outcasts. But Jesus chose Matthew to be his disciple anyway. What does that tell you about the heart of Christ? What does it mean that Christ has called even us to be disciples?
The name Matthew means “gift from God.” That’s what Jesus saw. It didn’t matter that Matthew was a tax collector or that he hung out with sinners. Jesus wants Matthew to be one of his disciples. And when Jesus calls Matthew, he doesn’t say to him, “Matthew, tell me about your witness, theology, and fruit of the Spirit, and then maybe I’ll let you be a disciple.” Rather, Jesus just looks at Matthew the tax collector and says, “Come and follow me.”
Are there any Johnny Cash fans out there? For those of you who are familiar with Cash and his work, you probably know of his album, American Recordings. Late in his life, Cash shared that of all his albums, the cover for American Recordings was his favorite (show album photo cover). The cover photo was shot in Australia (ironically), and as Johnny Cash tells the story, at the last minute, these two dogs trotted up and stood on either side of him. Now, the reason that Cash so loved this album cover was because of those two dogs. You’ll notice that one of the dogs is mostly white with some black spots, while the other one is mostly black with a white streak on his front. Cash says that those two dogs remind him of humans; we’re all either mostly sinner, or we’re mostly saint with a black streak running through our lives. We are all in need of redemption. And still Jesus calls us; still Jesus wants to be in relationship with us! No matter who we hang out with or what our history, God came to pardon sin; to remove those black marks on us and to wash us white as snow. Jesus came to save us from ourselves and our sin, and that is the greatest pardon of all.
The gospel is for sick people. And we are all sick people. Even if we’re not like that black dog on Johnny Cash’s right, we’re like the dog on the other side, with some black covering our white undercoat. We are all sinners, and we are all in need of a savior. There’s not one of us that has any room for judging someone else because we’re all in need of the same medicine from God. We gather here today because Christ showed compassion on us just as he showed to Matthew the tax collector. And as Christ’s body in the world today, we are called to show that same compassion to every person. As a church we are called to love the people in our community and to share our lives with them. Christ tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God with all we’ve got and to share God’s love with the people around us; showing compassion on people, having pity on them, offering help to meet their needs. Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors. He ate with people who were social outcasts, and then he called them to follow him and be a part of his kingdom. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been; it doesn’t matter if you’re the white dog with the black spots or the black dog with a tiny streak of white. We’ve all been there, we know the saving love of God in Christ Jesus, and we are called to share that love with the world. It doesn’t matter if you are completely pious like the Pharisees; if you have not love, you are but a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. God desires mercy, not sacrifice, and what matters most is the compassion that we have for people.
In his book, And the Angels Were Silent, Max Lucado shares the story of an unlikely relationship:
“John Blanchard was a soldier, who while overseas fighting in World War II formed a tight bond with a young woman through letters. John’s interest in the woman had begun just before he got shipped off. He was in a Florida library, and found a book on the shelf which intrigued him, not because of the words of the book, but because of the notes penciled in the margin. In the front of the book, John discovered the note-taker’s name, Miss Hollis Maynell. With time and effort he located her address. She lived in New York City. John wrote her a letter introducing himself and inviting her to correspond. During the 13 months that John was overseas fighting, the two grew to know each other through the mail. A romance was budding. Blanchard requested a photograph, but Miss Maynell refused. She felt that if he really cared, it wouldn’t matter what she looked like.
When the day finally came for him to return from Europe, they scheduled their first meeting-7:00 p.m. at the Grand Central Station in New York. “You’ll recognize me,” she wrote, “by the red rose I’ll be wearing on my lapel.”
Mr. Blanchard recalls the meeting in Grand Central Station. He says:
‘A young woman in a green suit was coming toward me, beautiful in every way imaginable. I started toward her, entirely forgetting to notice that she was not wearing a rose on her lapel. As I moved, a small, provocative smile curved her lips. “Going my way, soldier?” she murmured.
Intuitively, I stepped toward her, but then I saw Hollis Maynell. She was standing almost directly behind the girl. A woman well past 40, she was hardly the picture of beauty compared to the young lady standing in front of her, but that girl was walking quickly away. I felt as though I was split in two, so keen was my desire to follow the young beauty, and yet so deep was my longing for the woman who had been my deepest companion in the last year. And there she stood. I did not hesitate. My finger gripped the small worn blue leather copy of the book that was to identify me to her. This would not be love, but it would be a precious and wonderful friendship, for which I would always be grateful. I squared my shoulders and saluted and held out the book to the woman, even though while I spoke I felt choked by the bitterness of my disappointment. “I’m Lieutenant John Blanchard, and you must be Miss Maynell. I am so glad you could meet me; may I take you to dinner?”
The woman’s face broadened into a tolerant smile. “I don’t know what this is all about, son, “ she answered, “but the young lady in the green suit who just went by, she begged me to wear this rose on my coat. And she said if you were to ask me out to dinner, I should go and tell you that she is waiting for you in a big restaurant across the street. She said it was some kind of a test!”
It’s not difficult to understand and admire Miss Maynell’s wisdom. The true nature of a heart is seen in its response to the unattractive. “Tell me whom you love,” a French novelist writes, “And I will tell you who you are.’”
That young soldier looked first to the deep inner beauty he knew to be true of Miss Maynell. Her outward appearance was only secondary. Whether we sleep on Egyptian cotton or on cardboard, whether we eat rice or steak, whether we are in prisons or hospitals, whether we worship on Sunday mornings or not at all, we are all created in God’s image. And somewhere within all of us, however deep it may be buried, we bear the beautiful mark of our creator. Jesus looks beyond all the stereotypes and outward appearances to the image of God within every person. Jesus doesn’t judge us on our past mistakes. He simply sees the beauty that is yet to be released in all people. Jesus thinks only of what we might be. He doesn’t fixate or focus on what we have been or even what we are; nor should we. When we are out in the world, our job is to find the people that are the social outcasts and not to heap on judgment, but demonstrate to them the love of the One who called a tax collector to be his disciple. Let’s be that kind of church; the church with open doors.
Before we scatter our separate ways this morning, we have an opportunity to live together the idea of a church with open doors. We are about to share in Communion. In the United Methodist Church, we practice “Open Communion,” which means that anyone who wishes to know Jesus more fully is invited to share. All are welcome at the Lord’s Table. And this is the Spirit we try to exemplify as a church because this is the Spirit that Jesus showed. Let us remember that as we eat and drink together this morning.