9 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[a] in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting[b] with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”12 But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
In 1988, my wife, Victoria, and I hiked more than 2,100-miles from Georgia to Maine, completing the entire Appalachian Trail in a single hike. For six months, our only concerns were the very basics of survival—food, shelter, and water. Water, however, that most basic of necessities, proved to be the most difficult to manage. If you want to find out how vital water is to your very being, try hiking 15 to 20 miles a day without any water.
By the time we had hiked from Georgia to New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, the rains stopped completely. Springs dried up, streams slowed to a trickle and many of the water sources we were relying on were gone. Hiking 15 to 20 miles a day, our bodies were burning through water faster than we could find it along the Trail. In Massachusetts, we hit a point where we simply could not go any further. It was a blazing hot day. Our canteens had only a tiny bit of warm water held in reserve and our throats were dry. Our bodies were craving water and there was no water to be found.
Finally, in desperation, we got off the Trail on a western Massachusetts back road looking for water. There were no houses in sight, but after going around a bend in the road, we saw a house with a water spigot by the garage door. That water spigot was the thing that really caught our eyes. Water! Lots of water. We quickened our pace anxious to get water from the hose.
A sense of decorum kicked in as we were dashing toward the house. Politely, we went to the door and knocked, almost hoping no one was home so that we could quickly get to the hose and drink our fill. A woman answered, looking a little puzzled to find sweaty, smelly backpackers on her doorstep. Her husband joined her at the door as Victoria and I explained our parched predicament. Almost instantly, they escorted us into their kitchen where they plied us with cold lemonade from the refrigerator and warm cookies right out of the oven. They topped off our canteens with fresh water and added ice cubes to keep the water cold. Victoria and I felt that we were in the most luxurious oasis in the midst of a dry and barren land. The fluids our bodies craved were here in abundance, together with the delightful surprise of fresh-baked cookies and gracious hospitality.
This story from my own life sums up everything I want to say this morning about sharing the Good News of Jesus on this 161st Anniversary of St. Matthew’s Church. I will return to look at that story from another angle in a moment. But first, I note that the theme for this celebration is Winning Souls for Christ. In our Gospel reading, Jesus asked the Tax Collector Matthew to follow him. Matthew immediately gave a dinner party so his friends could meet Jesus. As a Jewish Rabbi, Jesus’ disciples are then is questioned about how he could eat with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus said it is the sick who need a physician and concludes saying “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Well the good news in this passage is that we discover that Jesus came for absolutely everybody for all of us are sick and all of us are sinners. Some of us are doing better than others, but none of us has our act together as we want others to think.
The truth is that everywhere you go, you are surrounded by people who are just holding it together, fighting a battle you know nothing about. Whenever someone else falls, remember that you don’t know what they were facing, how hard they fought it, or what you would have done under the same circumstances. Each of us is surrounded every day by people anesthetizing themselves. The anesthetic has many names—binge drinking, overeating, excessive exercise, illegal drug use, prescription drug abuse, hoarding, unhealthy relationships, workaholism, compulsive spending, gambling, the list goes on, but the dynamic is the same. It doesn’t matter if the crutch is good scotch or bad coffee, self medication can only mask the pain. Behind the façade, the deep hurt remains.
Perhaps the greatest human fear is that we will get what we deserve. Everyone else is okay, but I know that I do the right things for the wrong reasons. I know the secret sins, the hidden shame, the parts no one can ever see, the reason for the false front that masks the need for self medication.
Most people sometime between the age of 5 and 25 pick up emotional wounds that will remain festering and seeping poison into their psyches unless they can find healing. Whether the source was absent parents, physical abuse, rape, bullying, or just never matching the image in the magazines, never earning the favor of those who mattered most to you, betrayal by friends, a learning disability that caused you to always fear you couldn’t measure up. The sources are legion and layered. Without bringing true healing to the deep hurts, much pain will follow and will spread out to those we love.
True healing takes forgiveness and when possible reconciliation and my friends, while there are many sources of the shame and emotional pain that plague us, there is only one Balm in Gilead, one source of healing. We have all manner of ways of being destructive, but peace, health, wholeness, the abiding Shalom of God, only comes from Jesus.
For when our rebellion took us far from the God who made us and loves us, God did not stand back as a righteous judge, a big meanie hell bent on our destruction. God entered creation. In Jesus of Nazareth, the second person of the Holy Trinity came and dwelt among us. The Incarnation means that God knows, truly knows, and understands being human. Jesus came into this world with all of our mess, all of our pain, all the ways we let one another down, hurt each other and disappoint ourselves.
God entered into that complicated and conflicted creation to bring Agape love, love more concerned about the other person than oneself. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).
We know Jesus and so we know the source of healing, the means of forgiveness, the possibility of being truly known and truly loved. We know how to repent and turn to the Lord. We know not just the distant hope of a better life after this one, but the way to find true redemption now, wholeness now, love now. I’m less interested in evangelism that gets people into heaven as I am evangelism that gets people out of the hell their in right now. And when we understand how people we work with, know, love, might be hiding their shame behind a mask and seeking healing for their hurts in self medication that can never be the cure, we can find the courage to share our faith.
Think back to the story with which I began. To Roy and Marilyn Wiley, the couple who extended the hospitality to my wife and I when we were hiking, it was just their plain old everyday kitchen. There was nothing special about what they had to offer. The tap water was always at the ready. The refrigerator almost always had something cold to drink inside and a steady procession of food was cooked in the oven, nothing special really. They didn’t even know the Appalachian Trail passed near their house. The Wileys had no idea that water was in such short supply for hikers.
Here at St. Matthew’s, you have all the grace, mercy, love, forgiveness, healing, and redemption needed so desperately in our City of Savannah. It may feel like nothing special when we read that Jesus came for the sick and the sinner. But this is astoundingly good news to people trapped in abuse and abusing themselves. This church was founded to share that Good News of Jesus, especially with the black community. This task has never been easy. If we look before St. Matthew’s to the two congregations that merged to form this church, you can see what I mean. Father Robert Love who founded St. Augustine’s wrote of years of struggles, hardships and success.” The vestry of St. Stephen’s reported in the early 1900s of the heroic effort it took. So if it seems at times that St. Matthew’s is a generation away from going away, know that has always been true. In fact, all of Christianity depends on one generation converting younger folks into being followers of Jesus. We have always needed to tell the Good News if we expect this Jesus Movement to continue.
Here at St. Matthew’s you have Word and Sacraments in abundance. You have gracious hospitality and wonderful food. Now all you have to do is invite friends, family, and co-workers to the banquet.
So right now, I want to challenge every one of us, me included, to share the Gospel with someone. These are not strangers we are talking about here. I don’t want to turn any of us into a fanatic on a street corner shouting the Gospel. No, you already have conversations with friends, co-workers, children, and grandchildren. These are folks you already know well, and at the right time, God may just use you to share the love of God with them. Chances are you are already willing to tell them about a book, recipe, movie, or restaurant. Be open to telling them how God’s love has helped you. That’s it.
When someone you know if hurting, be sure to let them know how faith in Jesus has helped you. God can use just that little thing to work miracles. Be open. Listen to those around you. When the time is right, don’t hold back. Just remind them that you and I don’t have the answers, but Jesus does. And after you put in a word for our Lord, invite them to join you here for worship. Because to someone thirsting for the Gospel, St. Matthew’s will be as welcome as cold lemonade and warm cookies to a hot and thirsty hiker.