The Church of Open Doors
This morning we are in the midst of a sermon series called “Building…a Church for Life.” As we move closer to our vote on our renovation and expansion project I thought it would be important for us to take a look at the church. What is the church? Why does it exist? Why does it matter? What does it mean for us to build a church for life – not so much with bricks and mortar – but what does it mean for us to build a faith community that is faithful to what Jesus calls us to be? We need to make sure that if someone new comes into these walls that what they experience is what we are saying. And as we approach this important decision in the history of our congregation I want to try to help us rethink who we are as a congregation. To remember why this church exists and to make sure we are still living up to God’s purpose for us. So my title today is The Church of Open Doors. Now sometimes churches give mixed messages to unchurched people – whether they’re really welcome or not. I found this photograph online and I want you to take a look at it. And you its humorous and I’m sure there’s a good reason for them having a chain that goes across the entry way and a sign that says, “No trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted.” But my thought was, if you’re a nonreligious person and you saw this sign and every day you past this church with this sign on it, “No trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted,” and a chain across it even though the marquee says, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” I’m not sure I’m ever going. And I don’t mean to pick on that church, but this is sort of the mixed signals that churches often give to people outside the church is your welcome if you dress like us. You’re welcome if you look like us. Your welcome if you get your act together first. You’re welcome if you behave yourself just the right way. But otherwise sometimes the feeling they get is, “I’m not sure they really want me there.” Now I’m not suggesting that that’s Sterling Church. In fact I praying and hoping that it’s not. But I want us just as we are thinking about what it means to be the church, to be a church for life, I want us to remember what it may be like to be nonreligious and outside of the church and walking into the church. Often nonreligious persons have this perception on the Christians they have contact with out in the world. And so we want to ask this question: What would the church look like if Jesus was the pastor? What would our church look like if Jesus was the pastor? And you know what that really is my hope. I believe that Jesus really is our senior pastor our lead shepherd and we all work for him trying to represent him and trying to become the church that He wants us to be. Now as I think about this I go back to an incident that happened some years ago in my previous church. I had a man come to me and say, “What does it take to join your church?” He was interested in joining, and I said, “Really all you have to do is express to me your desire to do that and we will set up a date when we have a membership Sunday, and I invite you to come up to the front and answer the questions of church membership in the front of the hymnal. And that’s about it.” We have an exploring the church class that I would recommend you take.” And I told him if you don’t want to join you’re still welcome to participate in anything we have going on. You don’t have to be a member to be involved in anything we have going on. And he said, “That’s just too easy. That’s not the way it was in my last church.” I said, “How was it in your last church?” He said, “Well in my last church you had to go before the elders. You met with them and you had to prove to them; you had to demonstrate to them that you were truly a Christian. You had to give them your witness and testimony. You had to show them how the fruit of the Spirit was being manifest in your life. And then you had to explain how your intention was to not commit any sins from that time forward. And then if you were able to say that then the elders went back into another room and they voted whether to receive you into the membership of the church. And he said if you were not a member then you were not allowed to participate in most of the things. You could come to the worship, but really you couldn’t participate in any of the church gatherings, the church fellowship events or really anything else because it was important for us in that church to make sure that we were receiving true and authentic Christian fellowship with one another and we didn’t want to have people in there who might pull us away from Christ. And you could hear the logic of that undoubtedly. But you know as I listened to him I thought, “You know I wonder if any of the 12 disciples would have passed muster with that group of elders?” Would they have been approved at the vote? I mean if you look at what those disciples lived like over the next three years from the time they met Jesus to the time He was crucified I can’t imagine they’d be approved. Or the woman who wept at Jesus’ feet, would she have been accepted into the membership of that congregation? Or Matthew the tax collector after he hears Jesus say, “Come follow me.” And he goes to follow Him and he’s still got the same old friends he’s always had. Would these people be welcome in that church? And I told this man, “You know maybe the ideal is somewhere in between, but we really try to take Jesus’ approach.” He doesn’t say to Matthew, “Matthew, tell me about your witness. Tell me about your theology. Let me see the fruit of the Spirit. That you’re clear about what is sin and what is not sin, then maybe I’ll let you come and be my disciple.” In the story that we have before us today He looks at Matthew and says, “Come and follow me.” In the United Methodist Church we practice open communion. You hear me say that every time we celebrate Holy Communion. That means that each time we serve Holy Communion here “all are welcome at the Lord’s table.” You don’t have to be a member of this church. You don’t have to be a United Methodist. In fact if you walked in on a communion Sunday and you weren’t a Christian, but since you were sitting here you said “I’d like to follow Jesus.” That’s all that’s required. We’re not going to test you. We’re not going to vote on you. If you say today, “I’d like to follow Jesus,” then you can come and feast at His table. That’s the spirit that we try to exemplify as a church reaching the unchurched. Because that’s the spirit that Jesus had when He connected with other people. So we find Jesus at the town of Capernaum. Capernaum is on the sea shore of the Sea of Galilee. And Matthew has a tax collecting booth. Now let me just remind you a little bit about tax collectors in the 1st century. Tax collectors were considered to be by the Jewish people in the same category as thieves and robbers. And they were so for several reasons. First of all remember that the taxes were going to Rome to support the occupation by the Roman soldiers in the Holy Land. And so if you were collecting taxes to support that you were already working against your own people and their freedom and their liberation. So you were a traitor to your people by virtue of collecting the taxes. But it got worse than that. In the 1st century if you were a tax collector the Romans would say, “Here’s what we ask of you. You can buy that tax collecting spot for an annual sum of ___ and it was approximately the taxes that they hoped to collect there. And so Matthew would have paid in advance the taxes the Romans hoped to collect and then the Romans gave him permission to collect as much as much as he possibly could collect in taxes from the people and everything above what he paid to the Romans he got to keep. You see the dilemma here? So his lifestyle – his nice home and lifestyle was supported by taking money over and above what was demanded by the Romans from his own people. This is why he was considered a thief and a robber. He was considered unclean by the people; not welcome in the synagogue, not welcome in their fellowship. And so this is what Matthew did. Now the thing is if you’re not welcome, if you’re a social pariah or outcast, who are your friends? Well the only people who will eat with you are other social pariahs and outcasts, right? And so Matthew had friends – other tax collectors, prostitutes, and a whole host of other people who were considered social outcasts would have been Matthew’s friends. And that makes this scene really remarkable in Matthew 9 – that Jesus walks up to Matthew’s tax collecting booth and he said, “Come and follow me.” Jesus chose Matthew to be his disciple. What does that tell you about the heart of Christ? What does it tell you that he chose you to be a disciple? Or how we act towards other people? Now I want to remind you, Matthew’s name – do we have any Matthew’s here this morning, any of you a Matthew? Matthew means “gift from God.” And when Matthew’s parents gave him this name in the 1st century the giving of a name was really important. Because that name meant something. And so when Mathew’s mother and father gave him the name Matthew what they said was, “God we recognize our child is a gift from you.” And they wanted their son to know that he was a gift from God, that his life was a gift from God. And they prayed for him and no doubt raised him in the synagogue and nurtured him. But there came a point where Matthew walked away from what his parents had taught him. And eventually when he became a tax collector it no doubt broke his father’s heart. And all that time they prayed maybe one day their son might come back to God. Maybe one day he would return and he would want to follow God again and he would recognize that his life was a gift from God. And on this day, Jesus walks up to his tax collecting booth, he calls him by name, “Gift from God, come and follow me.” And somehow Matthew knew in that moment, he felt the penetrating gaze of Jesus - and Matthew actually says, “Yes!” He closes his tax collecting booth and he begins to follow Jesus. Now the first thing that he does he says, “Jesus would you come to my house tonight because I’d like to introduce you to my friends?” And Jesus says, “Of course. I’d love to eat with you and your friends.” So he goes to the supper that night, and remember all of Matthew’s friends are also social pariahs. And also remember in the 1st century to eat with somebody, to break bread with somebody was to have fellowship with them. It was to commune with them. And so if you were a rabbi sharing life together with all of these other folks who were sinners and tax collectors and social outcasts, what does that say about you? Now the Pharisees come along and they see that Jesus is eating with Matthew and his friends and they are stunned. “What is he doing eating with people like this?” They asked the disciples that very question. They asked that question over and over again in Jesus’ ministry because he does this over and over again, “Why does Jesus eat with people like this?” Now let’s take a moment and remember something about the Pharisees, because the Pharisees are Jesus’ arch-nemesis in the New Testament. They call for his crucifixion. They are constantly trying to undermine his ministry. But let’s just remember a little bit about the Pharisees. Interestingly enough Jesus shares more in common theologically with the Pharisees than with any other group in 1st century Judaism. Now the Pharisees – the word Pharisee scholars think comes from the Hebrew word peris, which means separated. And so the Pharisees were those who sought to separate themselves from those who were unclean, from those who were sinful and sought to obey the rules. They wanted to please God and they thought that pleasing God came from following the rules. Follow the rules, God will be pleased. Stay away from sinful people, God will be pleased. And so everyone in the community knew Pharisees were very pious people. Now it was interesting though. As they were pious people, they saw their piety in a certain way that didn’t line up with Jesus’ definition of piety. But there were a host of places where they agreed so Pharisees were constantly coming to hear Jesus speak, to hear what he had to say, but they were constantly confused by Him. Now the Pharisees again were very interested in following the rules – piety was in following the rules. They took the 613 commands that God has in the Hebrew bible and then they sort of began to help us understand what those mean. So for instance the most common example of this is the Sabbath rules. The Hebrew bible says to honor the Sabbath to keep it holy to refrain from work on the Sabbath. And then it was the job of the religious leaders to figure out what constitutes work on the Sabbath. So I reread some of the rules that were meant to help the people understand what constitutes work, and here were a few of them: One of them was that if you were to carry a piece of rope that was long enough to be made into a handle on a box on the Sabbath, this constituted work and you were guilt of sin. If you carried a quantity of food larger than a dried fig on the Sabbath this constituted sin. This is one I found interesting. If you bite your fingernails on the Sabbath this constituted sin. Now you probably shouldn’t bite your fingernails anytime but biting your fingernails on the Sabbath is a violation of the law against work on the Sabbath? Can you see how this made Jesus crazy? So Jesus is plucking grain on the Sabbath and eating and they’re angry because he’s violating the prohibition against work on the Sabbath. And He says to them, “You don’t get it, do you? You think it’s about all these rules, but the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. You’ve missed the point!” He heals the sick on the Sabbath and they’re really undone by this because you’re not supposed to work miracles and heal the sick on the Sabbath. They missed the fact that there is somebody who was lame is now walking again; somebody who was blind can now see. All they can see is that Jesus broke the rules. And so he’s constantly frustrating them and they him. So in Matthew’s gospel we find in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus telling His disciples – actually all who were listening, “I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And the people heard this and they said, “Well that’s impossible. How could our righteousness exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees? They are so holy. Just look at them, they are so holy we could never measure up to that.” And Jesus says, “That’s not what holiness is. It doesn’t look like following the rules necessarily. It’s about loving God with your whole heart, mind, soul and strength. And loving your neighbor as you love yourself. It’s about showing compassion for people and having pity upon them looking at ways to bless them and encourage them. That’s what holiness looks like. It’s not about not biting your fingernails on the Sabbath.” You can see Jesus’ frustration throughout the gospels. So when the Pharisees are standing outside and Jesus is in His element as He’s eating with the tax collectors and the sinners – I mean can’t you see Him? He’s smiling and laughing and He’s telling them stories about a father who loves prodigal children. And all the Pharisees can think of is, “Why is he eating with people like that?” And so Jesus comes to them and this is what He says. He says, “Those who are well will have no need of a physician but those who are sick they are the ones who need the physician. Go and learn what this means. I desire mercy not sacrifice for I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” God desires mercy not sacrifice. The Greek word is eleos which means compassion or pity. What God desires it that you have compassion for people. It’s not the following of the rules that’s most important. It is compassion that we have for people. He describes the Pharisees as whitewashed tombs. They look pious on the outside but on the inside they are full of dead things because they don’t have compassion for people. They don’t love people. They love rules. And sometimes making people feel small if they don’t follow the rules. You remember one of the great stories that Jesus tells, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, right? This could have been Matthew and any of the tax collectors who were standing outside Matthew’s home. He says, “Two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and one was a tax collector.” You remember the story. And he says, the tax collector wouldn’t even look up to heaven when he prayed but instead he beat his breast and he said, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” But the Pharisee looked up to heaven and said, “O God, thank you that I am not like this man. And you see all the things I try to do for you and you must be pleased with me.” And Jesus says this, “Which of these two went away justified from the temple that day? Was it the one who was smug and self-righteous or was it the one who recognized that he was broken and in need of saving?” And of course we know the answer. This week I came across a blog post from a pastor in Starkville, Mississippi named John Fisher. Starkville, Mississippi you may remember is famous for one thing. Not Mississippi State University, although it is located there. It’s famous for an incident that happened in 1965. Johnny cash was playing a concert at Mississippi State University and after he was done he went out partying with his friends and then late at night he went walking down Main St. and he was picking flowers – after curfew – drunk. A police officer saw him and stopped and arrested him for disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, and picking flowers. And he was thrown in jail. A very bad PR move for Starkville, Mississippi. Because right after that Johnny Cash wrote a song about the incident and he played it for the first time at his concert at San Quentin. And it was recorded live and it became a hit album and everybody in the country knew about Starkville, Mississippi, the place you better not get caught picking daises after dark. So a few years ago after Johnny Cash died the City of Starkville decided to publicly pardon Johnny Cash – 42 years after he was arrested. And so they invited Johnny cash’s family to come to the event. And they had a big festival. And the called it “The Flower Pickin’ Festival.” And at 10:00 that night finally the mayor issued his official pronouncement that Johnny Cash had been pardoned. And then one of the Carter family members came to the podium and gave an official pronouncement that Starkville, Mississippi was now officially pardoned by the Cash family. So at the Flower Picking Festival celebration, John Fisher, a local pastor there was invited to preach. And the event was held in a large bar. And so he said, “This is the first time I’ve ever preached in a bar. And by the time I got up to preach at 10:00 at night before the official pardoning people had been having quite a bit of fun for some time. And I stood up to preach and he said, I told them a story about Johnny Cash. And Johnny cash had once said in an interview that his favorite album cover ever was the cover of American Recordings, an album that he cut in 1994. And he shot the photo cover for this album in Australia. I have a picture of it here. And you see him standing there in his black overcoat, like Johnny Cash was always wearing - The Man in Black – storm clouds coming up behind him and he looks like a modern day prophet. And legend has it; just about the time they were taking his picture two dogs came up one either side behind him. And he said in the interview these dogs capture for me something really true for what it means to be human and about who we all are. He said one of them you’ll notice is almost entirely black with just a bit of white on him. And the other one’s almost entirely white with a bit of black on him. And he said – now this is Johnny who since 1965 had become a follower of Christ – he says, “That strikes me as what we’re all like. We’re all either mostly sinner. But you know even those who are mostly sinners have just a bit of saint in their hearts still. Or we’re mostly saint with a black streak running through our lives. And all of us are in need of redemption.” So as John Fisher is telling this story he says, “I think if Johnny Cash were here today you know what he’d want to say is not so much about being pardoned for picking flowers and being drunk in 1965, pardoned by the city of Starkville, but I think he’d want to say that he experienced a larger pardon than that -that God came to pardon sin. That Jesus came to save us from ourselves and from our sin and that’s the greatest pardon of all. All of us need pardoning and Christ came to pardon us. And Fisher as he said this, he said you know what, at that moment the people in that bar began to cheer. And he says for a few moments on a Saturday night that bar felt a lot more like heaven to me than most churches I’ve ever been in on Sunday morning. You know the gospel is for sick people. And the deal was when Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick… For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” The Pharisees failed to hear in that the irony, we’re all sick. We’re all sinners. We’re all in need of a Savior. And there’s not one of us who has any room for judging somebody else because we all need the same medicine from God. We all need what the Savior offers.” You know you may look a lot more like a saint than a sinner but you have a dark place in you that you know about and God knows about. Or you may look a lot more like a sinner right now, but you know what, God sees the saint in you yet to be unleashed. Now the church is the body of Christ, we’re His physical incarnation in the world. Jesus called forth the church and then he said, “Now you go and do what I’ve been doing.” What did Jesus do? He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He loved people who were social pariahs and He called them to follow and to be a part of His kingdom. He didn’t care who you were, where you’d been or what you’ve done, or how ugly or messed up your life was Jesus saw the beauty that was yet to be unleashed in them. That’s how he sees you. Do you understand that? He looks at you and he sees what you can become. He doesn’t fixate or focus on what you’ve been. But listen that’s what He asks of you towards other people. Here’s what I think about you as a congregation. I think that when people walk in the doors of this church for the most part what they feel is the welcome of Christ. It’s part of what makes me proud to be your pastor is that you actually welcome people. Jesus came to save sinners. And we’re all sinners. We’re in need of saving. We’re in need of redemption. We’re all in need of knowing that somebody loves us. And so when you go out from this place into the world as Christ’s representatives this week and you see people around you that others might consider outcasts, pariahs, sinful your task is not to heap on the judgment but to demonstrate the love of the One who called a tax collector to be His disciple. That’s a church for life. Let’s be that kind of church. Let us pray: God we confess to you that there are times that we struggle with our own pharisaic tendencies; I do, I suspect many in this congregation do. It’s so easy. As we see our lives begin to change and we try to follow you, to begin to think that holiness is found in all the externals. Sometimes we haven’t been as loving as You call us to be. We’ve spoken about others behind their back, we’ve turned a blind eye, we’ve not reached out with your mercy and grace. Lord help us to be those kind of people, Your kind of people. May Sterling Church be a place where people can come and experience your embrace and Your love, just as they are. And then find here the deep desire to follow you and to grow in you. And I pray for each of us as we leave this place today that we might go out living as your representatives, demonstrating Your love to all that we meet. In Jesus name. Amen.