1. Your legacy will involve much more than your money.

For my sixth grade school project, I had made a cardboard representation of the Great Pyramid of Gaza. In place of the huge stones that had been quarried, hoisted and mortared into position I had scotch-taped brown strips of construction paper. My teacher, Mrs. Robinson, gave me a good grade on the project. She regarded it as my “legacy”—something that I would leave behind for future sixth graders to admire and to emulate. But during the waning minutes of the afternoon, as I preened and balanced the pyramid on my hand, my friend Bruce and I got into an argument with a new kid in our class. Kenny was an African American young man, and I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but in a fit of childish rage I threw my pyramid at him. I threw it with such force that the pointy tip of my legacy struck Kenny near his left eye. Bruce and I laughed and re-enacted what we had done. Kenny sulked and when Mrs. Robinson learned of the episode I had a new legacy to my credit. A scar. My legacy had left a scar.
“’Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’”

You see, when it comes to the phrase, “eternal life,” there are a multitude of directions for us to explore. Eternal life can be the outright gift of God, which is, I think, is the most faithful definition. Or Eternal life can be our project, in which case the result of pursuing it may look good, but leave an indelible scar. Consider, for example, the original Pyramid of Gaza, the first wonder of the world. I imagine that when Pharoah sets out to build one of these monuments his goal is to be remembered. But his legacy also includes the four-hundred year enslavement of the Hebrews. And consider today the prominent member of the Moose Lodge or the Masons. He’s a pillar of the community, a philanthropist, an entrepreneur, the grand pubaw; and in order to impress God, he’s also been a life-long member of the Presbyterian Church.
“’Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’”

Well, first of all, be careful. That very question betrays a vast chasm in the character of the person who asks it—a chasm that no amount of good deeds will be able to fill. Which prompts Jesus, in Matthew 19, to respond like so:
“Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good…”

“Jesus Christ!” In her book, Mommie Dearest, Christina Crawford says that name a lot. She says it when she and her adopted brother are sitting with the estate lawyer and realize that their mother, Joan Crawford, is not leaving them a thing. She says it earlier in life when the famous actress goes on a tirade about the wire hangers in her daughter’s closet. And after the second or third reference to “Jesus Christ,” it’s not at all clear to me that Christina Crawford is attempting to use profanity. To me it appears as if she’s crying out for a better inheritance:
You were very, very bad to wake Mommie up like that. VERY naughty. I told you, Mommie has to be beautiful today. This afternoon, she has to see MISTER MAYER. Today is so important. You are thoughtless and selfish. You must learn to think about other people. You are bad, bad spoiled children.

As a little girl, this is what Christina recalls saying to the baby dolls that she’s kept hidden in her bedroom. And, if she’s not careful, this is what the daughter of Mommie Dearest will pass on to the next generation.
2. If you’ve done everything right, you’re missing something.

You see, for the sake of appearances, for the sake of achieving eternal life on our own, we leave behind wrecked lives. And it’s not an un-Christian thing to admit it and to admit it publicly. And if there were ever any doubt about this wreckage, listen to the way Jesus restricts the usage of a single adjective. He says, “There is only one who is good.” In other words, all the goodness in the world belongs solely to God, and if anyone should make a claim to goodness, apart from God, let those who hear that claim be on guard. Be suspicious of anyone who comes into your sphere of influence, boasting about a perfect track record. Our deeds are always, always, always tainted. Our legacies always, always, always leave scars.
Schindler’s List is a classic film that tells the tale of a German businessman, named Oscar Schindler. Oscar Schindler wanted to make money, and he needed a cheap labor force; and so who is cheaper during World War Two than Jewish men and women who would otherwise be exterminated. As he starts out, of course, Schindler makes a profit. The factory manufactures shell casings for which there is a high demand. But then, eventually, as the profit margin closes, Schindler realizes that he can’t let anybody go. If he fires a single soul, that man or that woman would be executed on the spot or sent to a gas chamber. And that’s when he comes up with a list, a list of people that he absolutely cannot do without—essential workers. The people are therefore preserved, but in the closing scenes there are two moments that I’d like to highlight: first is when Schindler’s administrator, played by Ben Kingsley, types up the names and declares, this list is an absolute good. And second is the moment that Oscar Schindler looks at the ring on his finger and realizes that if he had sold it, he could have saved one more person. He then takes the ring off his finger and then collapses in shame.

You see, even when we think we’ve done everything right, we’ve missed something. “If you wish to enter life,” says Jesus, “keep the commandments.” To which the rich young ruler in Matthew 19 says, “Which ones?” Jesus then rattles off what is known as the second tablet of commandments; these are the commandments that connect us with our neighbors. They provide the horizontal parameters for our life with others. But notice how quickly the young man replies with, “I’ve been there and done that.” He’s missing something, isn’t he? He’s missing the fact that his initial question betrays a huge hole in his character. This well-to-do gentleman of Hebrew society does not love his neighbor as he loves himself. He loves himself more, and the problem with that is that he doesn’t see it. The problem is that he doesn’t shrink back in shame, like Oscar Schindler. He gloats. “I have kept all these,” he announces in verse 20. “What’s next? Whatever it is, I can do it.”
3. Arrange your life around the impossible possibility.
Now there comes a point in every conversation with Jesus when we realize that we can’t just check him off the list. And this is one of them. Having confidence in yourself and in your own God-given abilities is one thing. But if we are under the delusion that we can follow Jesus without breaking a sweat there’s a lot of hurt headed in our direction. And we should brace ourselves.
“’If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.’”

You see, this is like telling Michael Phelps to drain the pool. It’s unnatural. It’s a waste of talent. If you happen to be a rich, young ruler—if, all of your life you’ve been trained in Proverbs 22:4, where it says, “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life,” why would you ever want to renounce the gold medal? Why would you ever want to come down off the pedestal? And why would you ever want to follow Jesus if he seems to contradict everything you’ve ever been conditioned to do?

“I’ve made other arrangements.”
“Excuse me.”
“I’m sorry. But I’ve made other arrangements.”
This is what a businessman, named Henry, said to his colleague outside the boardroom. He had just turned down a job—a high paying, high perk position, for which, it seemed, he had been groomed his entire life. But now Henry had made other arrangements. And what were they? Well, on a recent vacation, Henry had barely escaped the devastating effects of a tsunami. He had seen first-hand how a place of comfort and luxury could be transformed in an instant by a thirty foot wave of water. And in the tragic flood that inundated the Indonesian coastline, Henry had a glimpse of something impossible. He saw a Jesuit priest clinging to the arm of a poor fisherman’s child—a little boy who would have otherwise been dragged out to sea. He saw that and wanted to help save as many as he possibly could, or as many as he could impossibly.
You see, “for God all things are possible,” says Jesus in verse 26. And what he intends is that his disciples will make other arrangements. He intends that we might have a different reason to bequeath, and that reason involves the restoration of every scar we have ever inflicted—either knowingly or unknowingly. No, neither you, nor I, can go back. We can’t undo what we’ve done over a lifetime. Yet, for God all things are possible…

On a trip to Lake Tahoe, Anne Lamott stayed at a condominium by the water. She stayed there with her two year old son. Each room in this posh place came equipped with special curtains and shades so that if a person wanted to gamble all night she could do it while then planning to sleep in all the next day. Anne Lamott didn’t plan on any gambling, but she did want to get some work done; and that meant that her son would have to go into the play pen in the next room. So, hoping that he would close his eyes and sleep, she arranged his blanket and his toys, pulled the shades and left the door ajar. Moments later, however, Anne Lamott heard the sound of knocking from inside the pitch black room. Somehow her son had climbed out of his playpen, closed the door and locked it. “Jiggle the door knob, darling,” said the mother, who worried more about the emotional damage being inflicted as she spoke those calming words. The boy then began to sob. Frantically she called the rental agency. No answer. She left a message. And then she did the one thing for which she will be remembered forever and ever. Bending down, she slid her fingers beneath the locked door and told her terrified son to find them in the darkness. “Find my fingers, baby. Find my fingers.” He did. He did and the rest is an impossible legacy. A legacy that’s worthy of Latah Valley and everyone in this room this morning.

Amen.

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1. Because the kingdom of heaven is valuable, we respond by valuing different things.

A child builds a spaceship out of Lego’s and wants to show his Dad. A teenage girl reads Vogue magazine and wants to buy a new pair of designer jeans. A businessman ease-drops on the next cubicle and starts to re-circulate his resume. A doctor ascertains her patient’s symptoms and calls for a CAT scan. The Dow Jones hits 10,000 points and the broker on Wall Street raises his eye brows. A grandmother runs into an old high school sweat heart and blushes. Everything we do—everything that’s good and everything that’s bad—we do—in response. We are responders. And it’s been this way for quite some time. When the glaciers advanced in the last Ice Age, we responded. Now that they are receding, we are responding again. Responding is the reason we behave.

But consider this story. A tenant farmer, plowing another man’s field, hits something hard that’s been buried beneath the dirt; he grumbles and he gets down on his hands and knees and digs away the clumps of mud. And when his fingernails have been caked with black soil, and when the air is thick with dust, he discovers the outlines of a large, ornate, wooden box. The hinge of that box glimmers as he pries it open. And once discovering its contents this poor tenant farmer closes the box and covers it again with earth. He loosens the yoke on the beast that pulls his plow. And at night he returns to his ram-shackled house. He then gathers everything that he’s ever owned or saved. And as the sun rises over the Sea of Galilee he’s making an offer on the entire field.

Everything that we do we do as response. But here’s difference between those who are disciplined by the stories of Jesus and those who are not. We know about “treasure.” We know that it’s buried not very far from this spot. And we know that if we play our cards just right, we can have it.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

When Jesus rattles off that remark in Matthew 13:44 it’s not initially clear what he means. His followers have been with him now for at least ten healings, over twenty action-packed object lessons and up to four pithy stories, otherwise referred to as parables. Parabolein. To throw down alongside. In Matthew’s Gospel this is the fifth story that Jesus has thrown down alongside, but it’s the first one in which the primary image of the story is something valuable. Prior to verse 44 he’s mentioned seeds, weeds, wheat and yeast—all of which are pretty run-of-the-mill kinds of merchandise. But “a treasure hidden in a field” has value that no one can deny. “A pearl of great value” is by definition worth a lot more than a mustard seed. And, you see, it’s because of the way we respond that I think these parables are focused on our behavior. The kingdom of heaven is so valuable, we respond “in joy,” and that joy gives us the reason to behave differently than others.

2. Good behavior is like…
At the end of World War Two, at least two men did what they had been told. One, by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ and criticized the administration of the Third Reich; the Nazi Party had claimed to have superseded the unique revelation of God’s grace in Christ, whereby they systematically annihilated the Jews and anyone else who raised questions. In his dealings with people, Bonhoeffer prayerfully raised questions. His books studied the themes of fellowship, discipleship and ethics—belonging, believing and behaving. But then, upon his arrest, Dietrich Bonhoeffer met Arthur Forbeck. Forbeck was the judge who sentenced him to death by hanging. And one day, in 1945, as it looked like the war would be coming to an end, Arthur Forbeck took a train toward the town of Flossenburg, where Bonhoeffer was being held. He set out on his journey out of loyalty to his good friend, Adolf Hitler. Moreover, when the train taking Forbeck stopped approximately 20 kilometers from the killing camp, the judge tracked down a bicycle and peddled the rest of the way.
Now these are clearly two different ways to behave. And at the time you might say that Forbeck simply did his God-given duty. Many would even call it good behavior. But what if I told you this morning that good behavior isn’t so much about doing one’s duty, fulfilling one’s responsibilities? What if good behavior is like discovering the treasure and then responding in joy? What if it’s like finding that one pearl of great value and then rearranging your finances to have it?

Well, if good behavior is like that joyful discovery, my hope is that at Latah Valley we find what Bonhoeffer found in Flossenburg. He found grace and mercy and truth. He found Christ buried beneath all the debris and dirt of his dying German culture. And I wonder if we won’t find him there too, in our culture.

You’ve heard about the recovering alcoholic who can’t explain why Jesus turned water into wine. He’s no astute theologian. But he does know a thing or two about Jesus turning beer into furniture—which is to say, because of his faith in Jesus, that person no longer spends all his pay check on beer. Instead, because he wants to host an AA meeting at his house once a month, he invests it in a couch, a few end-tables and a love seat. The kingdom of heaven is valuable and it’s because he recognizes this value that he not only belongs and believes; he behaves. And by focusing on the word, behave, I do not mean simply what we should do and what we shouldn’t do. I mean what we must do if we are to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.”

No one here, I hope, is frightened by what Jesus says in verses 47 and 48. But if you are, allow me to set your mind at ease. Churches like Latah Valley are not the baskets where God or God’s people sort out the good from the bad. That happens later. What happens now, at Latah Valley, is that we discern and we are disciplined in what it means to respond to God’s treasure.
3. Something old. Something new. Something you’ve been disciplined to do.

A person, named MJ, once mentioned to me a movie called, Pay It Forward, starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. I saw the movie, which is about a seventh grade boy, named Trevor, who comes up with the idea of doing three random acts of kindness. Apparently, his teacher, Mr. Simonet, had challenged his class to change the world, and Trevor actually takes him seriously. On his way home from school, he rides his bike through a run-down construction site where a bunch of vagrants shoot up drugs. He invites one of these guys to his home and gives him a bowl of cereal. This guy, played by the same actor who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, then promises to fix the family car. He promises to do all kinds of things, but when the craving for narcotics hits him, he realizes that he can’t do what the boy had inspired him to do. He can’t do three things.

I mentioned this scene to MJ, who said that Paying It Forward resembled what we do in church. But I don’t think so, and here’s why. What we do in the name of Jesus Christ we don’t do randomly. We behave in a certain way because the treasure we have discovered contains both something new and something old. There’s continuity in the treasure that we have in Christ, and within that continuity, nothing about our behavior is random. Everything we do, everything we say, every dollar we spend, tells a story—a story that is peculiar to us and God of Jesus Christ whom we serve.

“Is it true that they’ve discovered gold buried on this property?” At a meeting recently, another minister sat in this room and made this joke. He asked this dead-pan rhetorical question when we were talking about the property here at Latah Valley—and how we can’t afford to keep the entire 16 acres. Something has to be done. And as I though about the unlikely possibility of buried gold near this very spot, I remembered a story that Tony Campolo once told.
It was the World Day of Prayer and after a long, red-eye flight home, Campolo had been invited to pray for a missionary in Venezuela. The lady who made the request, described a lonely doctor who had committed his life to serving the poor in the barrios of Caracas. But now, she needed $5,000 to expand a medical dispensary building. So, after this humble request for prayer, Tony Campolo answered No. He said, No, he would not ask God for the money, but what he would do is take all the money that he had in his pocket and put it on the altar. “And,” he said, “I’m going to ask everyone else here to do the same.” Campolo noted it was a good day to pull this off because he was only carrying $2.25 that day. But after placing the cash on the communion table, someone in the congregation smiled and said, I’ve got $110 and slapped it down. Then another person. Another person. When they tallied up the final amount, the total came to over $8,000.

Campolo then looked at the woman who made the prayer request and sighed. “The audacity of asking God for five thousand dollars,” he said, “when God has already provided us with more than eight thousand dollars.”

It’s already here. The treasure is already here. Are you ready to manage it?

Amen.

1. Practice Saying These Words To Yourself

Dorothy knows what to say. After a long journey on the yellow brick road, she’s has been instructed in the precise words. “Just click your heels together three times,” Glenda, the Good Witch, explains. “And think to yourself, ‘There’s no place like home… There’s no place like home… There’s no place like home…’” Well, as you probably recall, Judy Garland’s character does as she is told, and then right on cue, she finds herself back in Kansas. The film comes to its conclusion with the star actress being comforted by Auntie Em, and promoted by MGM. Things will never be the same for Francis Ethel Gumm—not even her name. And although Dorothy is now content to remain at home and never to wander too far from her own backyard, Judy Garland will always be searching for the next magical string of words, the next line that she is prompted to say.

I have a suggestion: “If I only touch his cloak…”

Fox Mulder has a strange relationship with Agent Scully. As partners with the Federal Bureau of Investigation—the F.B.I.—she is the one who presses for hard evidence, the one who looks for rational explanations, the one who always rolls her eyes and scoffs at the mystery of life. Fox, on the other hand, wants to believe. He wants to believe in Unidentified Flying Objects. He wants to believe in Big Foot. He wants to believe in a vast array of monstrous creatures and government cover-ups. But mostly, he wants to believe in belief. He wants to believe that he will never know for sure. And since the cancellation of the X-Files television series, the actor, who has plays Fox Mulder, has suffered with addictions to pornography and compulsive behavior. David Duchovny has been in and out of rehab. He wants to believe he can be made well. And maybe he can.

I have a suggestion: “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well…”

You see, there’s something about this simple sentence which moves us beyond the realm of superstition and beyond the hocus pocus of Hollywood story-telling. Belief has a reason. Of the approximately six billion people now living on earth, five billion of them can’t be wrong. Can they? Is belief in God or belief in anything simply a matter of self-delusion or mass manipulation? Or is there a reason—a reason that can’t be denied, a reason that can’t be doubted?

This morning, based upon the passage that we’ve read in Matthew 9:18—26, my contention is that we believe because of human need. Human beings are in fact born into need, and cannot survive without certain needs being met. And yet, at the same time, we are aware of the fact that some of our needs will never be met. Our need for meaning for example. No matter how hard we try, we are not going to know where all the puzzle pieces fit; and yet somehow we remain driven to find out. Why is that? Why is it that our parents or our families may satisfy our need for security, why is it that puréed peas or pepperoni pizza may satisfy our need for nutrition, why is it that sleep may satisfy out need for rest, but when it comes to the need for meaning we can’t quite locate the thing that satisfies it? Is it because that thing doesn’t exist? Some might say so. But others, nearly five billion, practice saying these words again and again:
“If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.”

Violet Clark stopped breathing a few nights before Christmas. After weeks of suffering in the Intensive Care Unit, the doctors sent her home with her husband, where the family set up a hospital bed by the evergreen tree, which had been hastily decorated with garland. Violet couldn’t speak anymore, but her daughter, Linda, told me that for the past fifty years she used to sing in the choir. She used to sing “Silent Night, Holy Night” every December, and this would be the first time that she wouldn’t be singing. And so, with eight to ten children and grandchildren, we muttered out a melody: “sleep in heavenly peace…” And after about a minute, she died, and we believed.
2. Coming Up Behind Jesus Is Not A Bad Strategy

Now if you were to press me about what we believed, I would not say that we believed in the Wizard of Oz, or in U.F.O.’s, but I would declare that the life of Violet Clark has meaning, and the death of Violet Clark has meaning, because of the story of Jesus Christ. Likewise, in Matthew 9:18, “a leader of the synagogue” has heard the story of Jesus Christ, and because he’s heard it and believed it we see him barging into the party of tax collectors and sinners. We see him kneeling. And then we hear him expressing this terrific need:
“My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her and she will live.”

This, you see, is the direct approach. And I want to be quick to point out that “a leader of the synagogue” does not have a shortage of stories from which to draw. A leader of the synagogue, for example, could believe that his daughter’s death is God’s will—and that’s the end of the story. He could believe that it’s punishment for his sins, or that it’s punishment for his daughter’s sins. But out of all these alternatives, he chooses to attach his most personal need to Jesus. And notice how this belief then gathers momentum in that it’s MY daughter who “has just died” as opposed to someone in my synagogue who has just died, or as opposed to…
“Hey Rabbi, suppose I had a daughter. Hypothetically speaking, would you come and lay your hand on her… Theoretically would she live if you touched her?”

I once had vicious argument. Are you surprised? It was in my Non-Fiction Writing class in college. I had just made a point about the connection between belief and trust. A young woman, who sat opposite me, raised her eyebrows. “When you put your trust in something,” I said, “that’s your religion. That’s your God.” “Listen,” replied the classmate, “I trust my mother and father, but that doesn’t mean that I worship them.” Her face got red and her hands flailed around like tree limbs during a storm. I looked at my teacher, who shrugged his shoulders and offered some esoteric remark about the different understandings of the word for belief. And then I said something that was truly unfair.
I said, “I don’t doubt that you trust your parents. I trust my parents too. But if you were to die, would you trust them to bring you back to life?” Well, that was the end of class for that day. But, as you might have guessed, the conversation goes on. And on. And, you see, it’s because of our feistiness, it’s because of our ego-driven tendency to argue, that another strategy may be required. What I’m talking about is verse 20 of today’s passage:
“Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind (Jesus)…”

Coming up behind Jesus is not a bad strategy. And by coming up behind Jesus I mean the avoidance of blanket statements, self-deception and commercialized dogma. When Joel Osteen says that we need to stay positive about ourselves and that a grateful attitude will determine our future success—I think he’s making a blanket statement. That blanket statement may be true; it may help some people some of the time. But verse 20 makes the case for the indirect approach, or the fringe approach; and with the indirect approach to Jesus, we don’t want to hop on the band wagon. We don’t want to publicly kneel at the party of tax collectors and sinners. All that matters is that we touch “the fringe of his cloak”—and that we do it without calling too much attention to ourselves.

Slowly but surely I’ve been making my way through the Graham Greene novel, A Burnt-Out Case. It’s the story of this lonesome man, named Querry, who doesn’t care enough to even kill himself. Making his way by boat up the Congo, he lands at a leper colony, where he mostly stands around watching Dr. Colin fuss with the medicine and the bandages. Querry is on the fringe. And without any fanfare one night he tracks a leper who has gone into the forest to die. Querry convinces the diseased man to come back and receive treatment. He prays with him all night, covering him when he’s cold with his own body. And when the report about this extraordinary act reaches the ears of the Monsignor of the church, this is what he says: “I’m wondering, does he play bridge?”

3. The Reports Of Her Death Are Greatly Exaggerated—So Believe Early and Often.

I remember reading that line and laughing out loud. Does he play bridge? You see, the official clergy person in the novel—the one who believes in Jesus directly—is bored. He longs not for the lepers to be healed, but for someone with whom he might play bridge. By contrast, coming up behind Jesus (in effect) is this distraught and depressed man who hasn’t got anything to lose.

There’s a part of Matthew 9 that I think runs parallel to this situation. It’s the part after the fringe-woman in the crowd has been “made well,” and when Jesus eventually arrives at the leader of the synagogue’s house. “When Jesus came,” it says in verse 23, he
“saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion.”
He then says in verse 24,
“‘Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.’” And they laughed at him.”

So, if you’re keeping score at home, one of the first things that we should note is that “the crowd making a commotion” is not your friend. The crowd, even if it’s a religious crowd, can’t be trusted. The crowd, in fact, greatly exaggerates the reports of the little girl’s death because the crowd gets something out of it. The crowd gets to makes cookies and jello-jellatin casserole. The crowd gets to go to the funeral and possibly be seen. But Jesus, by contrast, could care less about the crowd. He puts them outside, takes the girl by the hand and “the girl got up.”

“After a while, as I lay there,” writes Anne Lamott,
“I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there; of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus… This experience spooked me badly but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever…”

Ann Lamott is right. The reason for you to believe may require a little milk. Every once in a while we may need to reach down. Every once in a while we may need to open the door. But what are we afraid of?

“And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hung over that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape… I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, ‘I quit.’ I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’”

Amen.

1. As Jesus Walks Along, Going Somewhere Else, He Calls To You.

Before this day is over, the reason for you to belong will become clear. It will become clear the way a rainbow becomes clear as the sun breaks through the mist. It will become clear the way a mule deer peaks its head out of the brush and then hides again in the thicket. The reason for you to belong will become clear when you realize that you’ve wanted to belong for most of your waking and sleeping life, but you’ve just been afraid to ask.

On the very year that I officially joined the church, my sister and her husband took me to Disney World. They did it, and I was glad to go. But the trip which took place at the end of May put me in a bind. Not only would the journey take me out of school for a few days—but during the time that I would be hooping it up at the Hoop-De-Doo Revue, my church had planned for me to answer certain questions. These questions had to do with belief. These questions had to do with the culmination of a nine week program, known as Confirmation. They were to come in a public service of worship where I was expected to stand before a bunch of elderly people and announce that I believed in God, that I believed in Jesus, the Holy Spirit… and… and.. Disney World. Oh, I really believed in Disney World. Disney World didn’t ask any pointed questions. At Disney World, in fact, the hardest question I might have to answer involved root beer or Pepsi. At Disney World, I would only be measured by height. And at Disney World, in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom, the coming reign of God seemed redundant and unnecessary.

****

So, in an effort to resolve the situation, my mother and I had a meeting with the pastor of this church. We told him about Disney World and we then asked if my public interrogation couldn’t be postponed until my return from Orlando. He agreed, and the rest is history. The rest is my history of thinking that God could always wait until I didn’t have anything better to do. That belonging to the church could wait until it seemed more convenient.
Now, I’m relating my Disney World dilemma because of the options that I’ve recently discovered in this morning’s Bible passage. In Matthew 9:9—13 the options that we have aren’t between Confirmation and Disney World. God forbid. No, the options run the gamut between “those who are well” and “those who are sick.” They range from “the righteous,” who Jesus does not call, and “the sinners”, who he does call. And isn’t that interesting?
“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me…’”

Who knew that it could be that easy? Who knew that Jesus could simply be taking a stroll, minding his own business, and then all of a sudden, shout your name and ipso facto, abracadabra, you’re in? Who knew that belonging didn’t necessarily involve believing or providing the right answers to questions you’d never be asked again? Back in the ninth grade, I didn’t know. But let’s take a closer look at the options that Matthew’s facing.

2. The Tax Collectors And Sinners Are None Other Than The Oppressors And The Oppressed, The Winners And The Losers, The Hip And The Hopeless.
“I feel like I’m being corrupted now.” When an employee at the Enron Corporation talks to a colleague over the phone, this is what recorded transcripts reveal. Her name is Shari, and during the rolling black outs that occurred in California at the time, you can hear her voice trembling.
“I feel like I’m being corrupted now.”
“No, this is marketing,” comes the cynical reply. And then later we hear this:
“They’re (expletive) taking all the money back from you guys? All the money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California?”
“Yeah, grandma Millie, man.”
“Yeah, Grandma Millie, man. But she’s the one who couldn’t figure out how to (expletive) vote on the butterfly ballot.”
And, you see, in the background of this conversation, we can hear echoes of Matthew. Matthew comes from a class of people, known as the tax collectors, telones. And from that term (where we also get the word, oppressor, or collaborator) we can speculate about many of Matthew’s so-called friends and associates. Many of Matthew’s friends, I think, were cynical. Many of his associates were downright delusional. And how could they not be? Not only did the tax collectors earn their living by holding onto a portion of whatever fee they gathered from those who fished, farmed or built things, the people in Matthew’s class perpetuated the system in which Rome wins and Israel loses. So imagine how they sleep at night.

In his book on Incarnate Leadership president of Whitworth University, Bill Robinson, alludes to Kenneth Lay, “the late, shamed Enron CEO,” like this:
“To a person… those who knew (him) considered him a fine human being who allowed himself to get insulated high above his people. He ended up with a gap he never would have imagined, but ultimately it did him in” (p. 25).

So maybe that’s how Matthew and his buddies sleep at night. They sleep suspended in the gap. And they sweat. Each night they toss and turn. They don’t know who to trust or how to be trusted. And by day they insulate themselves in tax booths or opulent offices. They numb themselves with alcohol, drugs and addictive behaviors. And gradually, the people of Matthew’s ilk forget where they belong. Until Jesus. Until Jesus.

Until Jesus calls and they follow. The doctors had noticed that Laura had trouble socializing with the other kids on the floor. Laura’s parents had been arrested and their child placed in foster care. But first, the authorities wanted the little girl to undergo some psychiatric evaluation. And, of course, what they found had been no surprise. Laura had withdrawn. Her only playmate was a stuffed animal that her Dad had won her at the carnival.
The other kids, as they are prone to do, made fun of Laura’s bizarre attachment. But then something happened to change the dynamics. A new doctor made it a point to visit Laura and to talk with her stuffed animal. The doctor even imagined conversations with the stuffed animal. He imagined funny jokes and tasty meals, where they ate cup cakes and drank hot cocoa. He did this every day for a week, and on the seventh day, he said something aloud so that all the children could hear. He said, “Laura, would you come with me for a minute?” Then, with some hesitation, Laura dropped the raggedy toy that she had clung too so desperately. She went out into the hallway with the doctor, at a distance where all the children could hear were only whispers. Laura then returned to her place accompanied by a throng of curious and compassionate kids. She belonged.
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

This is the only question the Pharisees want answered following the call of Matthew. They want to know apparently why Jesus might risk contamination. And the response they receive, I think, is extremely gentle. And maybe, just maybe, it’s a little ironic.
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
Now, there are two ways that we might interpret this saying. One is that Jesus in fact regards the Pharisees as spiritually healthy people. They have no need and no dire symptoms of disease. And so, by all appearances, the Pharisees get off rather easily. Jesus has not come for them.

Would you like to come to Jesus’ party?

No thanks. We’re good.

Would you enjoy a slice of pizza with Bernie Madoff?

No thanks. We’re good.

Would you be interested in a game of Pictionary with Phillip Paul?

No thanks. We’re good.

3. How Are You Feeling? You Might Be Worse Off Than You Look!

But, you see, another way for us to respond to the words of Jesus is not to say, categorically and unequivocally, that we’re good. Rather, if we ourselves appear set, if we ourselves appear healthy, wealthy and perfectly capable and competent, it might be time for some invasive spiritual surgery.
How are you feeling? You might be worse off than you look!

Ryan White thinks so. He was the boy, infected with the HIV virus in the mid-1980’s. One day he went to church, the church where he and his family belonged. The minister stood up and announced the passing of the peace. Everyone then went around the sanctuary shaking hands and saying hello. But although Ryan raced from person to person with an outstretched hand, no one would shake it. You see, they were sick. And Jesus has come for them, and they didn’t know it.

How are you feeling? You might be worse off than you look!

William Willimon says that “Church is where we go to be made unhappy with present arrangements.”

How are you feeling? You might be worse off than you look! And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Philip Yancey writes that, “Having spent time around sinners and also around purported saints, I have a hunch why Jesus spent so much time with the former group. I think he preferred their company. Because the sinners were honest about themselves and had no pretense, Jesus could deal with them” (What’s So Amazing About Grace).

How are you feeling? You might be worse off than you look!

And if you are—if I am—then the reason for you to belong ought to be abundantly clear. A poet once wrote about waiting at hospital for the results of his wife’s procedure. One line of the poem says a lot, “Standing at the snack bar with the whole human race…” I read that and imagined Latah Valley a part of that meandering waiting line. We’re the part where someone buys us something to eat and something to drink. And we eat and drink and talk about belonging here, with Jesus, now. Amen.