Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior’ Jesus Christ. Amen.
When South Dakota’s 23rd governor, Nils Boe, died several years ago, he left a significant gift to his alma mater, Augustana College. The sum of one million dollars was to be used to bring leaders of international prominence to the campus of Augustana and the community of Sioux Falls, to speak on world issues.
It worked! In the span of just a few years, Augustana hosted the likes of Barbara Bush, Colin Powell, Margaret Thatcher and Mikkel Gorbechev. Each spoke to standing room only crowds who were guests of the college, thanks to the Boe Memorial Fund.
About a year ago, Marsha and I drove back to Sioux Falls, my first time visiting since we moved here, and upon entering the city, we saw billboards sponsored by Augustana College. Under the headline “We’re Known by the Company We Keep,” pictures of Bush, and Powell, and Thatcher, and Gorbechev announced to all passing motorists – and more pointedly – future college students, that Augie was a school of prominence.
It was, I think, a commanding advertisement. Who wouldn’t want to attend a college that listed as its guest lecturers, a first lady, a war hero, a British Prime Minister and a Russian President? If Augustana was good enough for those world leaders to lecture there, then shouldn’t it be good enough for students to enroll? I might add this: I spoke at Augustana chapel a couple of times each year, but my picture wasn’t on any billboards under the adage “We’re Known by the Company We Keep.”
Which only proves that there is a downside to that trusted adage. We are known by the company we keep, and if the company we keep is of high quality, sound character, and deep conviction, it speaks well of us. But if, on the contrary, the company we keep includes people of questionable character, or of checkered reputation, well…that speaks poorly of us.
We teach our children the truth of the adage that “we’re known by the company we keep.” We try to help them choose good friends that will raise their prominence. At the same time, we try to steer them away from the bad kids; the bullies and the slackers, because if our kids are seen with them, they too will acquire the same reputation. Guilt by association: I know it’s not fair, but it happens.
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Walt Kallestad is senor pastor of Community Church of Joy, one of the largest Lutheran Churches in the country, located in Glendale, Arizona. When Kallestad turned 50, he bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and began riding the roads around Phoenix. One morning, Kallestad stopped at a local coffee shop and there were some other bikers sitting at a table. He ordered his coffee and sat down alone at a table, when one of the bikers called out to him “Hey Harley man, come on over and sit with us; we’re talking dirty.” Kallestad joined them at their table…and sure enough! They were talking dirty!
It wasn’t long into that conversation that they asked him what he did for a living, and he told them “I’m the pastor of Community Church of Joy.” The entire table fell silent! They stared down into their coffee cups, they coughed nervously, a couple of them apologized for the inappropriate jokes they had just told a minister. And then one of them asked about Walt’s church, and whether bikers like them would ever be welcome there? Kallestad’s face brightened and told them “You come to our church, just the way you are, and I guarantee you that you will be welcomed.”
As a side bar to that story, Kallestad was invited by some of those same bikers to join them on their annual trek to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and spoke at a worship service of several thousand Harley-Davidson riders.
The point of that illustration is that Jesus must have been cut out of cloth similar to Walt Kallestad. His entry into this world, and the circles in which he moved, were not the refined and polished and sophisticated circles of the day. Jesus ran with the biker culture of the first century. Think about it! He was born to parents who were young and not married to each other. That’s one stereotype. He was not educated at the finer schools of his day, so far as we know, but rather got his education at the workbench of his father’s carpenter shop. He was blue-collar; there’s another stereotype. His closest friends were 12 men who seemed to be social outcasts and fishermen who rarely caught fish, except when Jesus told them exactly where to throw their nets. And his entourage included a deaf mute, a prostitute, a midget and an assortment of blind and lame and demon-possessed people. Stereotypes, all.
We would never encourage our children to hang out with the people Jesus hung out with, would we? We would tell them “Remember, you’re known by the company you keep. Choose your friends wisely. Try to move among the pretty, the popular, the gifted, and the accomplished.” And yet Jesus defied that logic as he moved comfortably among the earthy, off-color and questionable characters of his day. And the religious people that swarmed around Jesus hated him for it. They hated him for the company he kept.
Today’s gospel lesson is a case in point. Jesus is walking through the streets of Capernaum, a small fishing village on the north shore of The Sea of Galilee, and he spots the office of the local tax-collector. Perhaps there was even a sign above the door which read “Matthew: IRS Agent.” But the locals didn’t need a sign; they knew who he was, and what he did, and they hated him for it. We’ve talked about first-century tax-collectors before. They were, in a word, corrupt. They over-taxed the people, turned over a portion of what they collected to the government, and they pocketed the rest. And it was legal! The Romans didn’t care how much the tax-collector actually collected; they were only concerned that they received the amount the tax collector forwarded to Rome.
Tax collectors were the first century epitome of the Mafia. They extorted from the poor and thus became rich. They had people thrown into prison for not paying their taxes. And to make matters worse, tax collectors worked for the enemy. Matthew was Jewish, he was perhaps even born and raised in Capernaum, but he worked for the Roman government, and that made what he was doing all the more unforgivable.
So Jesus walks by Matthew’s tax office and sees Matthew sitting at his desk, and he invites Matthew to become part of his team. Not only does Matthew go with Jesus, but he must have introduced Jesus to all his tax collecting friends. Because the very next verse says that Jesus and his disciples have dinner that night with all sorts of tax collectors and sinners. The Jewish religious leaders of Capernaum are stunned! They see Jesus, this supposed religious man, sitting at the dinner table with the most corrupt and sinful people in town, and they’re laughing, and drinking wine and carrying on. Some of them may even have been talking dirty! So the Jews ask Jesus’ disciples why in the world their leader would do such a thing.
Apparently, Jesus overhears the question, so he answers it himself. “Those who are healthy don’t need a doctor; the sick need a doctor. I didn’t come into the world to hang out with the pompous and religious and healthy and proud; I came to hang out with these people. The sinners.”
Marsha’s aunt Joyce had three sons who were absolute rascals when they were growing up. They fought with the neighbor kids, they fought with their parents, but mostly Bobby, Mark and Brett fought with each other. One day, when Mark was home all alone, he sat down next to his mother and said “Mom, which one of us boys do you love best?” In a heartbeat, Joyce said “Whichever one is sick and needs me the most.”
And that’s Jesus’ answer to us. You see, we think we’re the religious ones because we’re in church. We think we’re the ones with high moral character, and good values, and deep convictions. And maybe in comparison with the rest of the world, we are! We smell pretty religious. We shine up pretty good on Sunday mornings. And since we’re known by the company we keep, we like to hang around with people who look very much like us; you know, religious! But the truth is, we’re sinners. We think things we should not think, and say things we should not say, and when nobody is looking, we do things we should not do. And one of our worst sins is pride, because, just like the Pharisees, we present ourselves as the religious ones. But God knows better, because God knows our hearts. God sees us in our private moments when we think nobody else is looking.
You know what I think one of the great ironies is of the 21st century church? It’s that religious people move in circles of religious people. Do you even have any non-religious friends? Do you have any friends who ride motorcycles and drink beer and smoke cigarettes and curse? I don’t have many of those. But if I did, I think I would be concerned that, if you saw me with them, you would judge me. I would be known by the company I was keeping, and it would taint my reputation (such as it is!) around the community of Stillwater. The very people whom Jesus hung out with in the first century are now avoided by the followers of Jesus in the 21st century. I find that odd.
I want to close with this: Tony Campolo tells of the time he was speaking in Hawaii and couldn’t sleep because his body-clock was on Eastern Daylight Time. So at 3 o’clock in the morning, Campolo went to an all-night coffee shop. While he was there, a group of prostitutes came in and sat at a table together. One of them remarked to the others “Tomorrow is my birthday” to which another of the prostitutes responded “Big deal! What do you want, a birthday party?” The birthday girl said, “No, I was just telling you that it’s my birthday. Besides” she said, “I’ve never even had a birthday. I wouldn’t know how to act.”
When the women left, Campolo asked the waiter about the women. “Oh, they come in every night at about the same time.” Campolo asked about the woman in the blue dress. “That’s Dorothy” the waiter said. “Well you know, tomorrow is Dorothy’s birthday” Campolo said. “What if we had a birthday party for her right here in the café?”
The waiter thought it was a great idea, so at 2 o’clock the next morning, Campolo came in with crepe paper and balloons and decorated the café. The waiter had called a bunch of Dorothy’s friends and he had even made a cake that said “HAPPY BIRTHDAY DOROTHY.” When Dorothy walked in, everybody began singing “Happy Birthday” to her, and her eyes filled with tears.
When Campolo got ready to leave, the waiter asked him a question. “What do you do, Tony?” And Tony said “I’m a minister.”
“A minister! What kind of a church do you work at?”
Campolo said “I’m a minister at a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
“No you’re not” the waiter said, “because I’d go to a church like that.”
Well, don’t worry. I won’t be throwing any parties for prostitutes in the near future. But I wonder what our church would look like if we came to be known as “the church for sinners?” Because, in truth, that’s the church that Jesus has called us to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.
— Copyright 2002, Steven Molin. Used by permission.