Mildred, the church gossip, and self-appointed monitor of the church’s morals, kept sticking her nose into other people’s business. Several members did not approve of her extra curricular activities, but feared her enough to maintain their silence.
She made a mistake, however, when she accused George, a new member, of being an alcoholic after she saw his old pickup parked in front of the town’s only bar one afternoon. She emphatically told George and several others that everyone seeing it there would know what he was a drunk.
George, a man of few words, stared at her for a moment and just turned and walked away. He didn’t explain, defend, or deny. He said nothing.
On an evening later in the week, when Mildred’s husband was out of town on business, George quietly parked his pickup in front of Mildred’s house, walked home, and left it there all night.
There will always be the Mildred’s of the world. Those who are quick to point out the moral faults of others, tear them down (many times using the Holy Scripture to do it), turn their noses up in disgust, and dismiss them as unfit to associate with.
Unfortunately Mildred’s behavior is not limited to individuals. Have you ever known a church to behave in such a way? Have you ever known a church that was quick to point out the moral faults of others, tear them down (many times using the Holy Scripture to do it), turn their noses up in disgust, and dismiss them as unfit to associate with; categorizing them as degenerates. Immoral. Unclean. Scandalous. Say it ain’t so! Of course you have. We all have. And our Patron Saint, Matthew, was on the receiving end of such behavior.
“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” In the eyes of the people, Matthew had three strikes against him. First, he worked for the IRS – no explanation needed. Second, he was a Jew working for the IRS, collecting money from other Jews and probably cheating his own people by collecting a bit extra for himself. Third, he was a Jew, working for the IRS, and the IRS was an agency of the of the Romans, the oppressive regime that was occupying the land. Three strikes, you’re out. He was collecting money for the enemy and stealing from his own people. The Pharisees asked the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” In effect they looked at Matthew and the others Jesus was associating with and declared them degenerates. Immoral. Unclean. Scandalous. My goodness.
Sometimes, it would seem, that not much has changed in the last 2,000 years, but whether Jesus likes it or not, it really does have to be that way. Doesn’t it? After all, we can’t have any sinners in church. That just will not do, we must send them packing. The degenerates, immoral, and unclean must go. For the likes of them to remain in the church would be scandalous. Last one out, please turn off the lights and lock the door! We’ll call a realtor and put the church property up for sale tomorrow.
This is too long of a quote to read to you in a sermon, but its too good of a quote not to. From the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, “History shows that attempts to be rid of the scandal of the Church, by puritanically turning out people who don’t conform to certain moral standards, cause more evils than they cure… Attempts to purge the Church like that break down because it is so easy to turn out those who by their actions have failed to uphold those standards, while leaving inside the Church the smug people, the proud people, the prigs and the hypocrites. The Christian Church was never meant to be a Society of the Moral, but rather a Society of the Forgiven, and of those who put themselves in the way of divine forgiveness; a society ready to carry within its embrace many who have fatally compromised, and all who are unworthy—for all of us are unworthy: the mixed society of those called to be saints.”
A story. In the past, it was just that, a story, but these days the beginning is almost a bit too real.
There is a two thousand member church and on one Sunday it is filled to overflowing capacity. The preacher was ready to start the sermon when several men, dressed in long black coats and black hats entered through the rear of the church.
One of the two men walked to the middle of the church while the others stayed at the back. At once, they all reached under their coats and withdrew automatic weapons.
The one in the middle announced, “Everyone willing to take a bullet for Jesus stay in your seats!”
Naturally, the pews emptied, followed by most of the choir. The deacons ran out the door, followed by the assistant pastor.
After a few moments, there were about twenty people left sitting in the church. The preacher was holding steady in the pulpit.
When it was quiet, the men put their weapons away and said, gently, to the preacher, “All right, pastor, the hypocrites are gone now. You may begin the service.”
On one level I want to like that story. It speaks about standing firm for your faith, but on another level, I’m not so sure. Twenty out of two thousand remained and the 1,980 that left are called hypocrites. But what if we rephrase that in the terms of our Gospel reading. Jesus said, “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” What if those twenty that remained were the righteous and those 1,980 that fled were in fact degenerates? Immoral. Unclean. Scandalous. What if they were the sinners? Would Jesus have condemned them has “Hypocrites” and turned his back on them? Would he have shouted, “Let them go! We’re better off without them.” No. Instead he would have gone in search of each and everyone of them and when he found them, he would have sat down with them, eaten with them, and spoken to them of the salvation he was offering.
Jesus says, “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.’” Jesus would not have seen those 1,980 as hypocrites. He would have seen them as those in need of a physician. In need of a healer of souls. He would have withheld judgment in favor of extending mercy. I believe Jesus expects the same from His Church.
In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Portia says:
“The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
Mercy is in the heart of kings, it is an attribute of God, and it is the responsibility of the Church to extend it to all – saints and sinners alike. When the Lord calls us all home and we are walking the golden streets of that Heavenly Jerusalem, there will be more than enough time to rub shoulders with the Saints of God, but for now we are the ones God calls upon to bring the Good News to those who would hear it.
Today is our Heritage Sunday, when we celebrate the rich history of our church. That heritage began back in September 1893 when “a large and respectable number of” sinners gathered around a wagon and listened to Bishop Frances Brooke preach and celebrate the Eucharist. Today, we sinners gather in the place those sinners built. Our history is not one of glowing saints – especially with you lot! Lord have mercy! – but we are Archbishop Ramsey’s “mixed society of those called to be saints,” and by the grace of God we will be in Enid for years to come acting as agents of His mercy and proclaiming the Good News of Christ Jesus to all who would come and hear it.
The Mildred’s of this world and the churches that would respond to sinners as she did will continue to exist. In the end, they may be the ones proven to be right, but I would rather err on the side of mercy and grace, for Jesus condemned many for judging, but he condemned none for loving. If we are that church, the one that chooses to love, we will continue to have a beautiful heritage.
Let us pray: God of eternity, in your Son Jesus Christ you redeemed all of human history and called your church to proclaim the Good News of his death and resurrection to the ends of the earth and to the end of the age: pour out your Spirit afresh upon your people in this place, with grace to remember and rejoice in your blessings in the past and courage to trust your power to shape our future, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.