St. Matthew’s Sermon 09-15-2019


St. Matthew’s Sermon 09-15-2019

The Company You Keep

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

May the Words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God. Amen

‘A man is known by the company he keeps’. It’s a well known saying, I’ve heard it many times, most often in my youth when my parents weren’t happy with the friends I was hanging out with, yet it can be traced way back to the famous fable author Aesop who penned it in his work titled “The Ass and His Purchaser”. That story reads…

A man wished to purchase an Ass, and agreed with its owner that he should try out the animal before he bought him. He took the Ass home and put him in the straw-yard with his other Asses, upon which the new animal left all the others and at once joined the one that was most idle and the greatest eater of them all. Seeing this, the man put a halter on him and led him back to his owner. On being asked how, in so short a time, he could have made a trial of him, he answered, “I do not need a trial; I know that he will be just the same as the one he chose for his companion.”[i]

The moral conveyed in this story is; ‘A man is known by the company he keeps’

So, even about 600 years before the time of Christ, we can see that unfamiliar people were judged, not by their own character, but by that of those they associated with.

A relatively few years after Christ Paul seems to go back to such thinking as he writes in 1 Corinthians 15:33 “Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.”” Also, earlier in 1 Corinthians at chapter 5:11 Paul writes; “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one”.

Yet, in today’s Gospel reading we get an entirely different message as Jesus is keeping some ‘bad company’, even ‘eating with them’.

So what are we to do? Should we be like the Scribes and Pharisees who not only keep themselves away from the undesirable sinners but also judge those who do not? Do we follow Paul’s instructions to avoid having our morals ruined? Or do we follow Jesus’ example and sit down to a meal with sinners?

I could spend quite a bit of time explaining how these verses, and many others like them, may seem to contradict each other until you pay closer attention to the context of each one, but I won’t. May it suffice for me to say, simply, that the context of the story does have a part in understanding; but so does the context of the life experience in which it is applied.

The number of voices I’ve heard calling for good Christians to stay away from this sinner or that sinner I cannot count. Their attitude in preaching conveys the message that they and those who follow them know Christ’s salvation and the others do not; that they and their followers are saved and the others are not. And that they must stay away from the others lest they all be led astray.

Voices such as these seem to have lost touch with how their own salvation came to them; as if Jesus just magically showed up in their life. They have forgotten that someone who knew Christ before them brought the message of salvation to them, giving them the opportunity to accept it when they were still sinners. And they’re content to rest on their laurels, satisfied with their position rather than do the work of passing on the torch.

This is sad. This attitude only perpetuates the ignorance Paul speaks of when he says that even he “…had acted ignorantly in unbelief.”

Looking at Paul’s life and ministry we can logically, with certainty, know that he isn’t promoting ignorance of Christ’s salvation. He, a sinner, persecutor of the Church, was saved by Christ and the Christ-appointed emissary Ananias. He was saved by those who dared to keep company with sinners! Afterwards, he traveled far and wide preaching the good news to all who would hear regardless of their status as saint or sinner. In fact, following Christ’s example, he was more concerned with saving the sinner as he was saved, than he was in rounding up the righteous to join an exclusive club. He was, in fact, as today’s gospel reading reminds us, doing the work of Christ as Christ would have it done; searching for the lost sheep to bring it into the fold; checking every dark corner until the lost coin is found.

Paul did not switch sides when he was converted. He didn’t go from being a persecutor of the Church to being a persecutor of the non-churched. He didn’t switch from being a member of the exclusive club of the Pharisees to a promoter of an exclusive church. Paul was changed! His very character was changed from being a destroyer to being a restorer! And he used his changed-self as an example to others of what the love and grace of Christ can do for an ignorant man!

Even as he writes about himself in today’s Epistle reading, he is not highlighting what he has done, but what Christ has done; for him and through him and, in turn, what Christ can do for those who will hear the good news!

In my view, it is a weak faith that fears being corrupted by the presence of the ignorant. Anyone who truly believes in the salvific power of God, as shown through Christ, should also have faith in God’s ability to strengthen them against being infected by another’s wrongdoing.

But, not only is it a sign of weak faith, it is also a failure to respond, with gratitude, for God’s grace being shown to us by showing others what it has done for us. It is selfishness, pure and simple, to hold salvation as a personal gift without the willingness to share that gift with another, and it is conceit to believe that salvation was given to me for my sake alone when, in fact, what I was given was also given to me for the sake of another.

 

Aesop’s fable about the ass and his purchaser addresses only one scenario; that of the purchaser’s judgment based on an initial encounter. But what might have happened if he had actually given the ass a try? Would it have proven to be just like the one he paired with, idle and a big eater? Or could the new ass, hanging with the idle one, have influenced the latter to be a better animal, harder working, less gluttonous; thus leaving the man with a double gain?

As it is, the man will never know. And in the same way we, as the Church, will never know another’s potentialnor our own potential if we don’t engage with those who are in most need of life-lifting encounters.

In Aesop’s fable, the purchaser falls short of sound judgment, Paul does not. In today’s Gospel reading the Scribes and Pharisees fall short of sound judgment, Christ does not. And in our world today many, even among those who claim to be faithful, fall short of sound judgment, we must not.

Amen

 

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
4:11 At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse–
4:12 a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.
4:22 “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”
4:23 I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.
4:24 I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.
4:25 I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.
4:26 I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger.
4:27 For thus says the LORD: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.
4:28 Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.

Psalm 14
14:1 Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.
14:2 The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
14:3 They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
14:4 Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the LORD?
14:5 There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous.
14:6 You would confound the plans of the poor, but the LORD is their refuge.
14:7 O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

 

1 Timothy 1:12-17
1:12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service,
1:13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief,
1:14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
1:15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the foremost.
1:16 But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.
1:17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 15:1-10
15:1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.
15:2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
15:3 So he told them this parable:
15:4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?
15:5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.
15:6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’
15:7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
15:8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?
15:9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’
15:10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

 



[i] https://fablesofaesop.com/the-ass-and-his-purchaser.html