Scripture: Mark 2:13-17
In the Old City of Jerusalem, most of the tourists follow the via de la rosa, the path that tradition remembers as the path Christ took to the cross. Because people like to make money, a large part of this path goes through a marketplace. On one of the nights that I was in Jerusalem a couple of years ago, I was exploring the old city with another clergy colleague. We were a little off the beaten path. We were still in the market, but we were a few blocks removed from the main thoroughfare. We stopped at a small stall that could only be properly described as a curio store. It had a little bit of everything, and everything it had seemed to have a story to tell. While my friend was looking at clergy stoles,
I was drawn to this chess set. It was buried to the back of the shelf, looking lost and forgotten. It’s rugged simplicity and its hand made but not super artistic aesthetic really appealed to me. In the shop, nothing was priced because haggling is to be expected. When I asked him how much this was, he told me $55 US dollars. We went back and forth and did the dance until we got down to $30, a price I was willing to pay. I of course felt good about that, but on the flight home I realized that I could not have gotten that great of a deal because they guy was only going to sale something if he could make a profit. When I got home, I did some research. It took some time and clicking around but I finally found what is likely the origins of this chess set. It is likely made in India through an outfit that works with local artisans to mass produce things like this. So this chess set was made by hand, but it was done following an easily reproducible template. Something very similiar to this can also be purchased for between $25 and $35, so I did not do to badly. Honestly though, I am not a fan of haggling, the back and forth, and the laborious steps just to get down to the price that is the most mutually beneficial. I am not the only one who feels this way. In American culture the only time we ever really haggle is when buying a new car. A survey was done a few years ago and it was found that 83% of the people did not like the process of buying cars from a dealership. In general, we do not like dealing with salespeople who rely on being pushy, dishonest shenanigans, and make the hard sale. We do not like it because it feels like we are just a target to hit so that a quota can be met. Anyone who has ever made a major purchase has probably had a negative experience with a pushy salesmen. Given that there is so much negative experience with this, it is odd that a lot of how we try to share Jesus is similar with these high pressure sales tactics.
For instance, I have had this book for years. This book attempts to walk people through a step by step, foolproof process for sharing faith. I do not doubt the faith commitment of the author, but I struggle with his methods. According to his own biographical blurb he comes from the executive world of multi-million dollar business, and it shows in his approach. It almost feels like this book could be called The Art of the Jesus Deal. It offers tips on how to start a conversation with anyone and lead them through several steps in order to get them to saying the sinner’s prayer. While well meaning, this book is all about closing the deal above all else. This book and several written like it that put forth similar strategies seek that are written with the goal of winning souls. However, even that language is problematic, because those souls have names. When our concern becomes just the winning of souls then the people are just a target and we become pushy salesmen where Jesus is our product. Evangelism, sharing our faith, should not be hard. You do not need to have a foolproof five point sales strategy. Sharing our faith is not about marketing Jesus, rather it is about introducing friends to the person who has forever changed our lives. We can learn a lot from this morning’s scripture and the example of Matthew.
This morning’s scripture states it is about Levi, but we know from comparing the gospels that the Levi and Matthew are the same person. Matthew was perhaps one of the least likely disciples of Jesus. As a tax collector he would have been not very well liked in his community. Tax collectors were seen as traitors to the people, and they quite literally lived high on the hog at the expense of everyone else. Tax collectors got their income by charging more than the required amount. Tax collectors were largely shunned by the majority of the community, but they were wealthy. This meant that they tended to attract many of the other least desirable elements of society to them. Tax collectors had a reputation then of being the life of the party where nothing good ever happened.
We get the idea from this scripture this is exactly the kind of reputation that Matthew had. Yet this all changed for Matthew when he encountered Jesus. We do not get the whole story, but we know there must be more to the story. Matthew lived in the region that Jesus frequented. He knew of Jesus, perhaps even heard him speak. Something about encountering Jesus profoundly impacted Matthew and convinced him to give up everything and respond to the invitation to follow me. This is the same life changing invitation that all believers in Jesus Christ have experienced. It is different for each of us. We all have our own story, but to be a Christian is to have a life changing encounter with Jesus. There is a moment in our life where we realize that the way we have been living is off, and that following Jesus leads to the peace, joy, and fulfillment we have been missing. There is a moment that we realize for our efforts for all of the reasons why we tell are ourselves we are not that bad, that we are still guilty of sin and we can not save ourselves. There is a moment of perfect clarity where we confess we are a great sinner but praise be to God Jesus is a greater savior. In our Methodist tradition, this moment is called having your heart strangely warmed. We do not get the whole story, but this morning’s scripture records the moment when Matthew’s heart was strangely warmed. This is the moment where we realized there was more to life than the empty way he was living, and he realized that Jesus just might be the answer to his deepest questions.
I think what is especially great is what Matthew does right after he makes this life changing, positive decision. He throws a party and he invites Jesus! Of course, Matthew also invites his old crowd the tax collectors and sinners. While the scripture does not state this, I can not help but read into it a little bit. I imagine Matthew was brimming with excitement and passion to introduce Jesus to his old friends. Matthew had found a cure for ailed his troubled soul, and I imagine he was quick to introduce Jesus to the people they knew. Jesus, to his credit, seemed eager to get to know them. When the pharisees show up to throw some cold water and shade over the party, they also notice that Jesus seems to be very comfortable with the wrong kind of people. It is then Jesus reminds the pharisees of a fundamental truth, one we sometimes need to be reminded of today: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but he sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
As we consider these words of Jesus as well as the calling of Matthew, I think there are two major thought we should really take away from this scripture. First, Matthew had friends who were not good religious folks. Right along with that, Jesus hung out with the non-religious folks. We have to be clear, these were not the contemplative, I am spiritual not religious folks. These were the crude, crass, hard partying, hard living kind of non-religious folks. These are the people who had a reputation in their town as being the sinners. Matthew was one of these worst kind of sinners, and he became a disciple of Jesus Jesus was a friend of sinners, and we should be to. Unfortunately, that is something we tend to struggle with. Several statistical analyses have shown that once someone becomes a committed follower of Jesus, their meaningful interactions with people who are from God actually decrease. The longer a faith walk goes on the more these interactions decrease until they zero out. In his book “Just Walk Across the Room”, Megachurch pastor Bill Hybels writes, “This trend spirals downward year after year until Chris followers realize . . . they have become completely insulated in an evangelism void vacuum. . .And here is what sobers my heart: rather than an isolated case or two, I believe that this is the path of nearly every average Christian.” The mission of this church, and if we are serious about following Jesus the mission of every Christian, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. In order to really do this we have to know and spend time with people who are not already Christ followers. For some of us, this means we need to be intentional. We have to go out of our way to put ourselves in places and situations where we can spend time with non-Christians.
The second major thought that we should take away from this scripture builds upon the first. It is important for Christians to have non-Christian friends, and the second take away is how we share our Lord and Savior with them. I do believe that as followers of Jesus, we have a responsibility to spend time with people who are not yet saved, but they must be our friends not little faith projects. If the only reason we spend time with non-christians is because we want to find a way to pitch our faith, then we are not even poor friends we are just being an underhanded sales person. In this morning’s scripture there is a party full of sinners. It was the pharisees who defined them by their actions. In the eyes of the pharisees they only saw these people as defined by their negative actions. If we treat non-Christians as a target to make our evangelism hard sale on, then like the pharisees we only define these peoples by their choices. In the scripture, Matthew saw these people as friends he wanted to introduce to Jesus. That should be our approach as well. We should be friends with non-Christians, because non-Christians need friends in their lives as much as we do. We should be friends with non-Christians, because even if they do not realize it they are living in darkness and the light of Christ can and will shine through our lives. They do need the love of God in their lives and we can love them with the same radical acceptance and forgiveness that God has shown us. A common thought found in many congregations is that the majority of the people believe they are not good at evangelism. It is true most of us are probably terrible at pitching our faith in an effective sales presentation that closes the deal with the sinner’s prayer. That is not what sharing our faith should really look like though. Sharing our faith is not about selling Jesus to people, it is about introducing people to Jesus. We do this by loving people like Jesus, so they know that we are for them. They know that they are our friends not just projects. We do this by living a life that follows Jesus, that way people see and experience Jesus in us. When the time is right, after we have earned trust and invested our lives in others, we do this by passionately telling our friends how meeting Jesus changed our life for the better.
Sharing our faith through example and word is an important part of being a Christ follower. Many of us might be in the place that Bill Hybels described, where we have almost zero meaningful interactions with non-Christians. For some of us the first step to evangelism might be to follow the example of this scripture and have a party. In Just Walk Across the Room, Hybels describes something called a Matthew Party. This is a get together where the guest list intentionally includes followers of Jesus and those who do not yet know Jesus. The goal is not to create salvation projects, but it is to allow relationships to build and friendships to form. We can do a better job at this, but as a church we do try to provide some Mathew party opportunities. Part of the hope behind our monthly game nights is they can be a way for people to come together around the table. In the upcoming newsletter, you will read about a church marshmallow roast, that would be a perfect Matthew party opportunity. However you go about it all of us should be willing to get out of our Christian bubbles and engage our neighbors around us.
This scripture shows that Jesus was a friend of people who needed Jesus in their lives. We should be as well. This will mean that we may need to take a step into uncomfortable territory. It means we might have to reach out to people we tend to ignore, and it might make our lives a little messier. Let’s do it anyway, because we are followers of Christ and that is exactly what Jesus would do. May we find the people in our lives or spheres of influence and may we be their friends, may we love them, and may we let them know that we are for them. In doing so and only by doing so, may we follow the Spirit’s leading and help make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of this world.