Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Who is the star of your story?

Sermon for St. Matthew's Day, preached on Sunday, September 21, 2014.

    So what do you want on your tombstone?  Or better, what do you want said in your obituary?  Few of us get the privilege of writing about how we shall be remembered.  And what would we write if we did?  Would we whitewash our stories, erasing the bad, the embarrassing, and the shameful, to focus upon the good, the noble, and the shining moments of our triumphs?
    In the Gospel reading for today, St. Matthew had the rare privilege of telling his own story.  But he did not tell the story in order to favor himself.  Matthew made sure the story was the truth – the truth of his sin and of Jesus' grace.  In Matthew's story, the one who looks good is Jesus.
    Matthew (or shall we call him Levi) calls himself a tax collector.  Unlike today where tax collection is a distasteful but essential evil, Levi is speaking of disreputable vocation.  It was inherently dishonest.  Tax collectors were cheats, thieves, and liars who manipulated the system to line their own pockets. They worked on commission and charged not what was fair but what the market could bear, literally taking food from the table.
    Matthew calls himself a sinner.  In other words, he knew better.  He knew the law of God.  He knew the difference between evil and righteousness and he chose evil.  He chose evil for his own selfish gain.  The only time he felt bad about it was others condemned him but even then he had learned to ignore their accusations and complaints.  He was a sinner secure in the grasp of sin and it did not bother him much anymore.
    The name Levi means joined to another and Matthew had joined himself to his sinful occupation, without much remorse or second guessing of the wrongs he had done.  His friends were tax collectors and sinners like himself; nobody else wanted to hang around with him.  But this Levi was about to become Matthew – the name that means gift of God.
    It is the mystery of grace that Jesus ate and drank with sinners.  We still rejoice that He dines and drinks with sinners or we would be simply telling a story instead of hearing good news meant for us.  Grace finds itself where sinners are, the dirty, the shameful, the wicked, and the self-centered.  It happened for Matthew long ago and it happens for us today.
    Those who know their need are those who welcome the gift of grace.  When we stop denying our sins, justifying our evil, and excusing our wickedness, then God is already at work in us and among us.  When we come admitting and confessing who we are, God meets us not with the condemnation we expect but with the gift of grace and the blessing of mercy.
    When we come as those who not only know but lament our sinful condition, God is already at work turning us into gifts of God.  That is what repentance is – the God who opens our eyes to see what we are and who makes this vision hurt enough for us to desire to be something more than we are.
    And there is Jesus.  Right there.  He comes to our hearts shamed by our sins and He comes to our wounded egos bruised by our iniquities.  When we stand like publicans fearful of His gaze, He lifts our eyes to see mercy where condemnation is expected, grace where judgment is feared.
    We are the Matthews of our own day.  If we tell our stories right, we will not sugarcoat the details.  We call a sin a sin and we call grace the best surprise of all.  Jesus eats and drinks with sinners.  Still.   Each of us has betrayed our identity and soiled our righteousness until we wheeze with sickness of death.  We don't need to be coddled and we don't need lies.  We need a real dose of truth, no matter how painful – a truth that has the power to transform.
    Faith makes honest people of us.  Like it did of Matthew.  Faith seeks the Lord not for His approval but for His mercy, not to get what we deserve but the grace none of us dare ask, and not for justice but for the scandal of the cross.  There is where we are born again from above, there is where we discover who we can be, and there is where we become useful to God.  For the story of Matthew does not end with his conversion; it is the prelude to a life of sacrificial service that mirrors our Lord’s pursuit of righteousness and love at the same time.
    Lets be honest here.  You do not go to church to hear something new or experience something unique.  You come here because there is a word that endures forever, a word that has the power to cut through lies with the truth, a word that brings the mercy of God to sinners and a word that speaks life to the dying. 
    I am not here to say something you have never heard before but to speak to you the same old truth to a people who come with the same tired old problems and sins.  I am here to coax you out of the darkness of sin's lies and into the light of Christ's truth.  I am here to lead you to your knees before the Lord so that in the surrender of your sins and self-righteousness, God may do for you what He did for Matthew of old.  I am here to remind you that it is God’s baptismal grace that has made you a gift of God and to call you to live as His gift every day and in every place of your lives.  I am here to remind you that Christ is the star of your story, as He was for Matthew, and to let go of the illusions of life’s treasures to hold onto the true treasure that bestows eternal life – Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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