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Jared:             All right. Well, good evening. My name is Jared. I'm one of the pastors and leaders here at TNL. Like Dan said, thanks for being with us here on a Tuesday night. We are continuing in the season of Lent, and it's a season of these 40 days that we journey towards the Crucifixion, the burial, the Resurrection of Jesus. It's a season of reflection. It's a season of contemplation. It's a season that we, as a church, both join the church citywide and worldwide in these practices of giving up and taking up. It's a season where we intentionally create the spaces in which we can hear and we can respond to God. This Lent, at TNL, we chose to immerse ourselves in the stories of Jesus from the book of Matthew. We are inviting you to join along with us as one of these practices during Lent and daily readings that you can find online through the book of Matthew. What we want to do is we want to look and we want to listen for what Jesus is saying and what he's doing, because sometimes in the space that we've created, we may actually be able to see something differently. We may be able to hear something differently. We would be surprised, maybe comforted or challenged, by engaging the text a bit deeper because of the space that we've created during this season. As I've been reading through the book of Matthew, there was one text that I circled a couple of times, a few verses in the chapter nine of Matthew. They were actually the readings from this last week, if you've been reading along with us. In the time together that we are tonight, I want to enter into the story and maybe hear what God has to say. You can either turn on your Bible if you carry it in your pocket, or if you carry it in your hand, open to Matthew, Chapter 9, Verse 9. It says, "Jesus went on from there," there being his hometown, "and he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth. 'Follow me,' he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, 'Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?' On hearing this, Jesus said, 'It's not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Go and learn what this means. I desire mercy, not sacrifice, for I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners.'" What I found intriguing about this text is that, every time that I read it, I began to identify with different characters in this narrative. The first time, it was actually the Pharisees, then Matthew, then the disciples, and actually, in small ways, Jesus himself. Every time, this story took on a little bit of a deeper and richer meaning. Every time that I was willing to find a different angle or a different perspective, I started to believe that each character was experiencing something that was actually completely unexpected. What I thought is that if we would be willing to see something and experience something new, that usually one of two things happens and maybe both. One is that it illuminates somewhat of the hidden values in our lives that lay underneath our everyday behaviors. The second is that it invites us to realign our lives based on maybe a shifting set of values. Tonight, I would like to invite you into this situation that we read into this story and find yourself. Questions: what characters do you immediately identify with? Which ones do you impulsively reject? Are you willing to see and experience something new? Because if you are, I believe those two things could happen: one is that you may actually allow the hidden values that lie underneath your behaviors to be illuminated and that you may hear the words of Jesus inviting you to re-orient your own life. Now, it's been said that there are only two things certain in life, and those are death and taxes. Right. A small service announcement for those of you in the room, that the taxes in the United States of America are due in less than a month, April 15, which is a Tuesday, which is probably a good thing that you get to go to church after you file your taxes. It's actually the Tuesday of Holy Week, which makes it a great Tuesday to be at TNL. Now I'm going to attempt to regain your attention while your mind is wandering down the very dark rabbit hole of your W2s and Quicken, right? In the text tonight, it's not the ... It is the first time, but it's definitely not the last time that Jesus interacts with questions about taxes and tax collectors. Taxes in the Roman world were a corrupt business to be in. Not much has changed. Every level, it seems, in Roman economy, someone was taking a cut, and it was expected. One commentary said about the cultural context of taxes in Rome, "The systematic and direct taxation of the country to Rome was an inextinguishable subject of hatred and strife between the rulers and the ruled. The amount assessed by Rome was no measure of the ultimate extortion." So there's layers of extortion from this culture. First you have the taxes from Rome, and then you have the taxes from the province, and then eventually you get down into this district tax. This district or area tax or road tax is the one that no Roman would actually be involved in. The Roman tax and the province tax is where Rome was taking their cut, but it would actually be a Jew who would be in this office of ... like a public office of a district tax, an area tax, a road tax. But it's a Jew that has chosen to support and get his support from the empire of Rome. There's this road that Jesus is walking on between his home town and the next village he's headed to, and it's a pretty typical road, a road that goes down to the sea where the fishermen work and where their businesses would be extorted. It's the road in which poor people would walk and be oppressed. It's the road that Jesus would walk back and forth on. On this road, there's a guy sitting, taking his cut, named Matthew. Now, beyond the cultural hatred of the public office, there's also a spiritual perspective that almost every Jew had about anyone who would be in this occupation, which was simply that there was absolutely no respect and no hope for redemption. One author described the reputation of tax collectors this way: they were licensed robbers. Their money was dirty, and it would defile anyone who took it. They could not serve as a witness because their word was seen without a basis of truth. Jesus looks at Matthew, a tax collector on a road collecting dirty money, and says to him, "Follow me." It's a new experience. It's a new experience for everyone involved, right? The tax collector has been invited to join company with a rabbi, which would be about as likely as me joining a boy band as the lead singer. It might actually be a little less likely. The question is, what parallel universe did we actually just enter into where the people who are extorting and oppressing get this invitation to follow? Everyone is disoriented by the invitation. Everyone is probably in some levels of mild shock. Matthew, my guess, high levels of shock. As a tax collector, he has been invited to follow a rabbi. The disciples, Jesus' new friends and followers, are in shock about the situation. The Pharisees, based on their words, are pretty clearly in shock about the situation. Seemingly, the only person who's not in disarray about what's going on is the only one who sees both the situation and everyone in it clearly, and that's Jesus. At this point, I would like to observe that there are probably four, maybe five friends that Jesus has invited to follow him. He's just initiated his public ministry, and he's began to invite these people to follow him. The first four are two sets of blue-collar brothers that are working the family business of fishing. Peter and Andrew, Peter is probably known in his time like he is in ours, which is that he often spoke first and then thought later. You can probably insert sailor's temper somewhere in here about Peter. Then the other two are James and John, which are known as the sons of thunder. My guess is that they are the best kind of brothers, incredibly tight-knit, incredibly deeply loyal, and they trust each other. The only other one, according to the different texts, that may have been invited in before Matthew is a guy named Thomas. Thomas is the guy with a million questions and doesn't take anything without a lot of explanation. Jesus has decided that we're going to take four rowdy fishermen and a guy who questions everything, and we're going to introduce a tax collector to the group because that's a good idea. Just think about it for a moment. Matthew has been extended an invitation to follow alongside those who he has made life incredibly difficult for, he's potentially stolen from, and definitely he has deeply offended them. The disciples are faced with that the invitation that Jesus has extended to them to follow me, he's also going to start extending to others that are not like me, and if I'm honest, that I don't like. Here's where we find ourselves, because if we choose to follow the way of Jesus, I will have to be confronted with, I'm going to be invited into a community, into a family, with those that I potentially have extorted or lied to or wounded, and I will be confronted by those who have extorted and lied and wounded me. If the story couldn't get any better, now we add to the storyline the Pharisees. It's like a Muppet show, where the two old guys that are watching this thing go down now decide to interject their commentary. It's actually the Pharisees that I first identified with in the story. A decade or so ago I realized, as I was reading through scriptures, if there was anyone in all the stories that I was most likely to be if I was living in the time of Jesus, I would in fact be a Pharisee. Because of my tradition, my performance, and my personality, I would have been these guys. I was really encouraged. I was reading a book by Eugene Peterson, and he wrote, "There was much to admire in the Pharisees. Every Jew owed a debt of gratitude to the Pharisees for keeping their Jewish identity alive. I don't think we appreciate the Pharisees nearly enough." He continued, "The Pharisees had historically proven their sincerity and loyalty to the demands and promises of God wonderfully. They were the strongest and most determined party of resistance to the ways of the world." See, the Pharisees, like Phil stated last week, had created laws around the laws to make sure that they wouldn't, in fact, break any of the laws, which if you think about it, it's actually a brilliant idea. It's how the steps of recovery work. I was talking to a friend this weekend. See, you make buffers that keep you from getting into the places that you know aren't good for you. You go to meetings every week, or you go to meetings every day. You don't go out alone. You don't eat alone. You weigh in. You check in. You put filters on your internet. You create a list. You have accountability partners. You have all these rules around the rules to make sure that you don't do the wrong thing. The Pharisees were doing the right things. They just failed to see that, somewhere along the way, they were so concerned about doing the right things that they began to do the right things in incredibly wrong ways, which was my story for a decade or two. The Pharisees had preserved and been preserved by religious traditions, by religious practices, and these words about God. Again, my story. But where things go wrong for them, and where things went wrong for me, was that they had both preserved and been preserved so much that they were like a cat in my college biology class, floating in a jar of formaldehyde. The cat was there, a fully-formed feline, not decaying at all ever. Floating in formaldehyde, the cat smelled like sulfur and hadn't actually taken a breath in years. Eugene continues, "The Pharisees and their commitment to keep the truth exact and separated from the world's ways used a language that was impersonal and controlled as possible. The Pharisees used language to defend and to define. They discussed endlessly the rights and wrongs of various behaviors. They loved definitions. They used language seriously and colorlessly." See, the world of Pharisees is black and white. It needed to be. Rome was polluting their culture. Jews were selling out to Caesars. Jews were actually tax collectors for Caesar and Rome. God and his word needed to be defended, which is why Jesus frustrated them so much. The situation's a perfect example. He has just invited a tax collector to follow him, and then he goes to the tax collector's house and eats with him and his sort of people. And there is Jesus. Jesus would tell stories, and he didn't use the agreed-upon language that clearly showed when somebody was in and somebody was out. His invitation to Matthew would infer that actually anyone could be invited in. He's going to invite people to follow him and to be with him, not just rehearse and recite these religious statements of belief. He doesn't seem to particularly care about enlisting the help of those who have been helping God out for so long, and so there's this uncertainty about Jesus, about what he's going to say next and who is he going to associate with next. Peterson contrasts Jesus to the Pharisees in saying, "Jesus, no less committed to the truth and no less concerned about the dangers of the world, used language that was intensely personal and relational and participatory." See, Jesus extends invitations. He extends invitations to follow. He extends invitations to re-orient the way that you see things, and possibly he was the one who was extending invitations to some really good parties. See, Jesus' invitation to Matthew opens up an interaction to an entire network of questionable characters. It's how society actually works. There are people that are known as networkers or gatekeepers, and if you meet one of them, all of a sudden, you meet all of their friends. This last weekend, I had the opportunity. I have two very good friends here at TNL, that they invited me to come to this little party downtown on St. Patrick's Day, and I ended up meeting a hundred of their closest friends on this deck. It was spectacular, because most of us find out that people have friends, right? Matthew has friends. Matthew has money, and sometimes, if you have money you have friends. Maybe just because you have money, you have friends, but Matthew's friends are known as this: sinners and tax collectors. Now, it's one thing to invite a tax collector into your group so you can reform them. It's a completely and entirely other thing to have a party with the tax collector's friends, but I question who's actually throwing the party. The text says that the meal is at Matthew's house, so the question is: does Matthew throw the party so he can introduce all of his friends to Jesus, or maybe did Jesus throw the party and tell Matthew to invite all of his friends to his house? However it goes down, Jesus and his merry men now find themselves surrounded by a whole houseful of people who don't and haven't hit the mark. At this point, I would like to note how they describe all the people that are at the party. I find it fascinating how often Jesus and everyone else uses the term sinners as an appropriate adjective of people and how possibly uncomfortable it would be to describe anyone that way today. Except for the skit on Saturday Night Live, I don't think that I've ever heard anybody use the word sinner as a way to describe a group of people, but sinners were recognized. They were recognized for the choices that they had made. They know, and possibly they were known by, the ways in which they had lied, taken a bribe, broken a promise, inflicted harm, and in general, just missed the mark. There's a question here that lies about Jesus at this party for me. Who is influencing who at the party? See, it's the reputation of Jesus being at the party that the Pharisees have questions about. They have no particular questions about Jesus' behavior, but the question is what kind of man eats with these kinds of people? What kind of person associates with these kind of people? Jesus says, "Well, I've come to call these sinners. I'm the one that believes that the sick need a doctor, not the healthy." He's about extending invitations. But somewhere I recognize in my own life, and I seem to see in the community both of TNL and most people who try to follow the way of Jesus, there's somewhat of a ditch-to-ditch thinking that's the temptation that we stumble into, because at times we can project Jesus at parties as licensing our behavior because of his statements to the religious preservationists, but I believe that both groups are actually missing the mark. Both groups are missing and sinning and dying, and both need rescue. See, one is death by rules that looks preserved, but the reality is is that, in fact, they are not breathing, that there is no truth there. Jesus would go later on to describe the Pharisees as white-washed tombs, which is a pretty good way of saying dead, but polished well on the outside. But the other is death by indulgence. Nothing's ever preserved. Nothing's treasured or honored. Pleasure and prestige that's enticing to the eyes and to the body is what you go for, but you don't recognize how that is just ripping and tearing apart God's design and his desire, and it's just destroying your soul. Both groups have situations and stories about how they're missing the mark. Jesus overhears the Pharisees showing up to the party and questioning his friends and followers, the disciples. Jesus offers a message, a very brief one. It's amazing how short some of Jesus' teachings are. I'm sure all of you would appreciate that, but Jesus says this, "Go learn what this means." Now, "go learn what this means" is a common line of a rabbi, that he would tell his students, "Go study this. Go do your homework, and when you're done, come back." Don't miss at least the mild irony and deep humor in the fact that Jesus is telling those who teach the words of God, "How about you go do your homework on the words of God?" The words that he quotes is, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." Jesus is quoting the prophet Hosea. It's an incredibly disturbing little book in the Old Testament about a husband, his adulterous wife, who is, in fact, a prostitute, and her three kids. The life of this one man, Hosea, plays out the character of God for his people and the rebellion of the people against God, their refusal to return to Him. Hosea's actually the last prophet before the country falls into captivity. His words and his life show that Israel, who has become a harlot, refuses to choose God and that there are consequences because they will not turn, they will not listen, they will not acknowledge how dark and depraved their worship of sexuality and power and pleasure have become. Hosea's wife has three kids, and they named them these darkly poetic names. One included is named "Not My People" and the other, "No Mercy," because God wants his people to recognize the full weight of the wrongs. As you read the book of Hosea, and if you choose to do it, I would encourage you to try to read it in one fell swoop. Doing that in the message actually allows you to do it, as I've done it several times this last week, and it's heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking about Israel's return ... or excuse me, their rebellion and refusal to return to God as their Father and as the true lover. In the book, God tells his people, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." He says, "I want you to know my heart, not just rehearse these religious rules." Why? Because mercy is the character of God. Mercy is not a blind acceptance of behavior, but it holds the full weight of those wrongs, but it does not hold them against the one who has done them. See, mercy is what Matthew hears in Jesus' invitation to follow. Matthew hears mercy in that his past choices will not determine his future calling. Matthew, the guy whose word could not be trusted, is the guy who writes a biography of Jesus that is not only trusted, but is handed down over centuries. Millions of people not only trust Matthew's words but trust Jesus' words because of Matthew's writing them. Mercy is what the band of brothers hear, in that Jesus is inviting someone who has been part of the extortion and oppression of their life to now be a part of their community and their family and their future. Mercy is what the Pharisees hear and have such a ridiculously difficult time with because it just doesn't line up with the black and white of defining and defending reality. Mercy is what, I believe, everybody at the party hears in Jesus' words as a very real possibility for them, no matter how far they may have missed the mark. An invitation to mercy, it's such an appropriate invitation for us in this season of Lent because, in this season of Lent, we recognize, we openly acknowledge that we have missed the mark. It may be the one time of year that we are willing to openly acknowledge that we, in fact, are sinners. Sinners is who we were when we were found by God. It's who we are on our own and that we are in desperate need of mercy, that none of us is right or righteous on our own, that we're all sick and need a doctor, that we need rescue. And so we're invited to recognize, not be condemned by the full weight of our wrongs, but because of what we have done, God's mercy has come upon us and rescued us. The prayer that Phil said just a couple weeks ago is probably one of the best prayers to say on a very consistent basis. "Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy." It's the prayer that puts us in the company of all these characters who are looking to Jesus and hearing an invitation to follow me. See, follow me. Jesus confronts all the characters in the story: Matthew and all of his friends at the party; the Pharisees and all those who are trying to follow all the rules; disciples, everyone who ends up coming into this family and community of friends. Jesus re-orients everyone's perspective of who God is and who they are. They're all invited to follow, and they're all invited to show mercy. As a church, together, we are following the way of Jesus. See, as a community, we come to these stories, to these texts, and we want to hear and we want to respond to the invitation to follow Jesus. So as a community, we need to recognize that our past lives of taking our cut, of our concern only for ourselves, of selling out to the empire, do not determine our future. As a community, we need to recognize and accept that those who follow Jesus with us and are invited into being friends and followers of Jesus alongside us will often be those who we have wounded and those who we have been wounded by, that mercy has been extended to us and an invitation to follow has been extended to us, but mercy has been extended to them and the invitation to follow has been extended to them. As a community, one of the most challenging things is that we could preserve and be preserved by all sorts of rules, but miss out on the heart of God and this invitation to life. If we are not careful, we end up living in a black- and-white world and we miss Jesus' words and invitation to follow and to show mercy. I think, as a community, we get to see the opportunities in hosting parties where mercy is shown, not parties that are a license to continue sinning and missing the mark of life, but parties where Jesus' words are heard and where his life is seen and where the invitation to follow him is known. Together, we're invited to follow, and together, we're invited to show mercy. Together, would we be changed by the invitation, and together, would we join God in changing the world? Would you pray with me? God, thanks for stories that remind us that, wherever we may find ourselves, you have something to say to us. For those of us who expected to just kind of walk into the room and walk out of the room and not have to hear anything from you tonight, because honestly it's a bit inconvenient at times to have our lives re-oriented, I ask that you would do that, that you would interrupt us a bit. Interrupt us because we are the one that thinks that our past is way too colorful for you to actually invite us into following you. Interrupt us because we live in a black-and-white world full of rules and regulations and we may, in fact, be missing out on your heart. Interrupt us because we are following you, but we are deeply offended by those that you might invite to follow you beside us. If there are those of us who have been wounded or have wounded others in a family, in a community, God, may we extend mercy to each other? Wherever we are, God, we believe that you have something to say, and we want to hear, and we want to respond. We pray this in the name of your son, Jesus. Amen.


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1 Ahmed M = "Think about all the trivial things in your life that shift your focus away from God. Do you find that you dedicate more time to sending text messages and posting status updates than to prayer and time with God?"
2 Ahmed M = "Giving up chocolate or Facebook for 40 days is great, but why not do something positive, too, instead of just removing the negative?"
3 Ahmed M = "Resolve to spend more time volunteering, with your family, pray more, or somehow get in touch with your faith."