Good fences make good neighbors?

Kevin Gasser

Staunton Mennonite Church

6/8/08

 

Matthew 9:9-13

9As 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. 10And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

 

            As Sonya and I have been looking for a home here in Staunton, we have looked at houses of all kinds.  Old houses, new houses, brick houses, stucco houses.  You name it, we have looked at it.  And some of the houses really stick out to us, not because of the house itself, but because of what surrounds the house.  A beautiful lawn can make an old house really shine like a gem.  And sometimes we find around these houses nice fences of various kinds.

            Now Sonya thinks that when we get a new house that she also needs a new dog to go along with it.  So a fenced in back yard looks pretty good, because I would like to not have to leave a dog in the house all day while we are gone at work.  And having grown up on a farm with a lot of pasture land, I know the importance of a good fence.  A good fence can keep things inside a boundary that you want them to stay inside of, like keeping a dog inside your yard.  But fences can serve two purposes.  Not only do they keep things in that you want kept in, but they also keep things out that you want kept out, like neighbors’ dogs and thieves.

            Well today I would like to look at the fences in our lives, the ones that we have erected to keep things out, the things that we perceive to be a danger to us.  And I hope to show how Jesus has called us to build bridges, not fences.

            Our scripture begins with Jesus walking along and he comes across a man called Matthew.  The parallels to this story in Mark and Luke call him Levi.  And we read that this man Matthew was sitting at a tax collecting booth.  The reason he was sitting there was not because he was paying his taxes; no, he was a tax collector.  We all know how much we like to pay taxes; food taxes, sales taxes, income taxes, and fuel taxes.  And we probably like the people collecting those tax dollars just about as much as we like paying all of those taxes.  Well tax collectors were not too well liked in Jesus’ day in part because they were the ones collecting the tax dollars (hence the name).  Also, in the first century the tax collectors made their living off what they collected.  They could collect a little more for themselves on top of what was supposed to be collected.  This was a commission for their work, a commission that the tax collectors imposed upon the tax payers and this commission was pretty much set by the tax collector.  So you can imagine that these tax collectors were not well liked by the Jewish tax payers.  But not only that, the tax collectors like Matthew were Jews working for the Roman Government.  They were working for the enemy!  They were sell-outs, collaborating with the enemy just to make a few bucks!

            So Matthew and the other tax collectors were not well thought of in their days.  But it seems to me that Jesus really didn’t care about people’s reputations.  He walks right up to this despised Jew and says to him, “Follow me.”  Jesus is inviting Matthew to be one of his disciples.  He is inviting him into his close circle of friends, companions, and confidants.  And we don’t have written in the text how Matthew responds to this invitation, but in the next paragraph we find Jesus sitting and eating with none other than the “tax collectors and sinners.”  So it looks like Jesus and Matthew developed some type of relationship quickly and they decided to eat together later that evening.  And Matthew invited his friends who also happened to be tax collectors and sinners to dinner that evening as well.

            I think this reveals an important detail about tax collectors and sinners…they hang out with other tax collectors and sinners.  And this is just as revealing for those of us who are a part of the working class, blue collar or white, for the poor, for the Christians and the pagans.  We tend to hang out with people like us.  People that look like us, people that make about as much money as we do, people that have a similar education as we do.  We like to be around people like us in many ways, (which kind of surprises me since so many people in our society don’t seem to like themselves).   We don’t usually go out of our way to hang out with people of a lower class than ourselves, now do we?

            Let me tell you a little bit about the neighborhood where Sonya and I currently live.  We live in a townhouse in Harrisonburg.  The guy that lives to our right is a white guy who just finished his doctorate from James Madison University this spring.  To our left is a young husband and wife; he also graduated from JMU and is now working in finances.  She graduated from Eastern Mennonite University and works in a doctor’s office.  In fact, a lot of the people in our development are a lot like us; 20-30 somethings, college graduates and grad students.  Many are married and have young families.  We live with people just like us.  We have surrounded ourselves with other young professional people.

            Now the next apartment complex over is a different story.  It is an old brick building and it is occupied mostly by minorities.  Many of the people that live in these apartments are poor compared to the people that live in our townhouse development.  There are people outside during normal work hours, so I assume that many of them don’t have jobs or don’t have what we might consider good jobs.  I hear the kids playing outside, yelling vulgarities and curse words that I assume they don’t even understand.  I also assume they learned those vulgarities in their homes.  It seems to me that a lot of the people in this apartment complex have surrounded themselves with people like themselves as well (perhaps not by choice).

           So inorder to keep out those people that are not like us, the people that are poor, the people that often get visits from the local police department, our homeowner’s association put up a big fence.  Like I said, this is not a fence to keep things in our development, it is intended to keep possible thieves out.

            Back in our scripture, we find Jesus sitting at the table with tax collectors and sinners.  Jesus breaks this unwritten rule (maybe it was written somewhere) that you don’t eat with “these people”, you don’t eat with people of a lower class than yourself, and definitely not with sinners and Roman supporters.  And Jesus was bringing his disciples along with him.  The Pharisees see this and they approach the disciples and they ask them, v.11 “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

            The Pharisees have recognized that Jesus is eating with someone outside of his class and outside of his religion.  He is eating with someone “below” him, and this doesn’t make sense.  It is like sitting at the lunch table with the geeks and the nerds when you are one of the cool kids in high school.  You just don’t do that.  And in eating with the sinners, Jesus was also making himself and his disciples ceremonially unclean.  Why would Jesus choose to do this if nobody was forcing him to do it?  That is why the Pharisees ask this question.  His actions just don’t make sense to them.

            I think the fact that the Pharisees don’t ask Jesus directly why he is eating with the tax collectors and sinners shows that they have learned that Jesus is a pretty sharp cookie and that they better not challenge him.  But Jesus overhears them and he answers them in v. 12, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

            I love this analogy of Jesus being the great physician, the one who can bring healing to the physically sick and the spiritually sick.  And not only that, Jesus also came to give routine checkups to those who thought that they were already spiritually healthy, because he continually challenges the Pharisees, the Scribes, and other religious leaders.  And Jesus had made the decision to spend his time where he could do the most good for the kingdom of God; he surrounded himself with the sick so that he could heal.  He surrounded himself with the tax collectors and sinners because they needed healing.

            I think that I have mentioned a time or two that I believe we as Christians need to be giving to those in need, the poor, the downtrodden, the least of these.  And we as a church do give to people in need.  We have a budgeted amount that we give to the Staunton/Augusta Church Relief Association.  We have a budgeted amount that we give for other local relief as well.  You wouldn’t believe the number of people that call here looking for help with a heating bill in the winter or for medication, diapers, food, you name it.  So we try to help out those that we can, though obviously we can’t help everyone (Alone, that is.  Together I believe all the churches could wipe out poverty, but that is another subject).

            This past week I got a phone call from a woman in the community who had been living with a friend and her young children.  They hadn’t been able to pay their electric bill in a long time and she told me what they owed and I later found out the number was closer to $600 in back electric bills.  Then her friend took off and left her with the entire bill.  I went through the normal questions, making sure she had gone to the local relief agencies and I said we would help out, but that we could not pay the entire bill for her.  So I collected her information, her account number and so forth and called the electric company to try to pay a small portion of her bill.

            So I pat myself on the back, another job well done.  I have given to someone in need.  Matthew 25, what you have done for the least of these you have done for me as well.  But what is missing?  What step did I leave out?  I couldn’t tell you anything about this woman and her family.  I can remember her name, but that is only because I believe God has convicted me this week of how we give to those in need.  Yes, we need to give to those in need.  But sending a check, paying a bill over the telephone, and giving to a cause seems to miss the point found in our scripture for this morning.  Yes we can live within the safe confines of living with people just like us, visiting people like us, being friends with people like us, but that is not how we are called to live.  We can build high fences, gated communities, and put out border patrol to keep the riffraff out, and send an occasional check, but we are missing an important step.  Because we are called to live with, eat with, worship with and love everyone from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor; saints and sinners alike.

            I come back to this fence that separates our home from the neighboring apartments.  I don’t know a single sole that lives in those apartments.  I have never called one to follow me, or walk beside me the way that Jesus called Matthew.  I have never broken bread with them in their home or in my own.  Instead we build fences to keep them out of our neighborhood because we don’t want their kind in our neighborhood.

            When we build fences, we are doing more than trying to protect our possessions from those heathens, those tax collectors and sinner that might come and take our things off our property.  When we build fences, we are saying “I don’t trust you and I don’t want you near my things.”  And I believe that building these fences makes plenty of people angry and they say, “You don’t want me in your neighborhood?  Well I’ll come in and do just what you don’t want me to do.”

            We have come a long way from Jesus eating with the tax collectors and sinners when we build fences to keep these people out of our neighborhoods.  We want protection from these perceived threats, and we think that keeping them as far away from our places as possible is the best answer.  But I suggest a different option.  The one that Jesus lived out.  Get to know the tax collectors and the sinners in your area.  Invite them into your home, grill a community lunch, go to their homes.  The point is to get to know the people that we are afraid of, people with whom we differ.  Because when we get to know the perceived threat, we can see them as people, not as thugs, not as criminals, not as tax collectors and sinners.  I bet Jesus didn’t see these people as tax collectors and sinners.  He saw them as people.  This will help to relieve us of our fear of people that are not like us.  And even if they were a threat to steal something from us, I would bet that it would be a lot harder for a person to steal from you after you have given to them from your time and from your kitchen.  I heard a wise man say recently that if you give someone the benefit of the doubt and treat them as someone with integrity, chances are they will be a person of integrity.  If you treat someone as if they have no integrity, they will likely act as a person without integrity.

            Sometimes I read a book that can really get me thinking, and I have been reading one such book recently.  It is called The Irresistible Revolution: living as an ordinary radical by Shane Claiborne.  Claiborne is an educated, intelligent, 33-year-old that has a passion for not only giving to the tax collectors and the sinners, the poor and the homeless.  He has a passion for living with the least of these.  After spending time working with Mother Theresa in the leper colonies of Calcutta, Claiborne and others returned to the US to find that what they found in the church was not living up to the practices initiated by Jesus Christ.  So they started living with the poor, the prostitutes, the drug addicts.  They began an intentional community known as “The Simple Way” in northern Philadelphia.  Together they help the inner city children with their homework, revive tired landscapes by planting gardens, they eat together, they worship together, they pray together.  They are imperfect people seeking to live out God’s perfect will.  And as they break bread with the modern day tax collectors and sinners, they are seeing lives transformed for Christ.

            In his book, Claiborne says, When you give to the least of these, they call you a saint.  When you live with the least of these, they crucify you, or call you crazy.  But that is what Jesus modeled for us and what he has called us to do as well.  I’ll admit, it sounds a little crazy to go and live with the poorest of the poor, to break bread with them, to worship with them, to serve with them.  But when we surround ourselves with people just like us, are we truly being faithful to our calling as Christians?  Now I am not saying that we cannot have friends like ourselves, but I am saying that I cannot limit my circle of friends to other 20 something white pastors that are interested in sports and theology.  We cannot be putting up fences, figurative fences or literal fences, between us and people that are not like us.  Because Jesus showed us when he broke bread with the tax collectors and sinners that we are not called to build fences to keep people who are different from us out.  We are called to build bridges to those people so that we can join together to work for the kingdom of God.

            At the end of every summer, our homeowner’s association puts on a community cookout for the people that live in our townhouse development.  How cool would it be if rather than having an exclusive group where only people from our development were invited we were to tear down that fence that separates us from the older apartments on the other side and invite the tenants into our neighborhood?  Jesus ate with people different from himself.  What if we followed Jesus?

**In this sermon I perhaps lumped together the poor and the tax collectors/sinners into one group.  The intention is to encourage my middle class, white congregation to be as Christ was unto people different from us.**

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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