“For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Anyone who lives in New Orleans knows what the term means: “contraflow.” Just in case there is even one person here who is not from here, let me explain. It is a most unusual procedure. A radical measure. It looks wrong. But it’s right. For it is a life-saving measure. It happens during an evacuation of the city when the direction of incoming interstate traffic is reversed so that all lanes on the interstate can be used for outgoing traffic. If you are traveling in a contraflow lane of traffic, you are going in what looks like the wrong direction, the wrong way, in the wrong lane—opposite the ordinary, against the grain. But it is in fact, the way that leads to life. Hopefully, we will not have to employ contraflow, not even once, during this hurricane season.
But when I read our scripture lesson for this week—the call of Matthew the tax collector, the invitation to join the Jesus movement, a movement which rocked 1st c. Palestine, the radically new direction his life took from that day forward, the 180 degree U-turn he made on that day, I thought of this term. Indeed, it has always been the case that to be a follower of Jesus, to walk in his footsteps, to embrace his values, will turn your world upside down, put you “at odds with the world.” “Be not conformed to this world,” says Paul to the Romans, “but be transformed.” In other words, you are different. Your values are different. Your ambitions are different. It is counter intuitive. It is countercultural. It is not mainstream. It is upstream. There is simply no way simply to “go with the flow” when you go with Jesus. Make no mistake about it: the call to discipleship is a call to contraflow.
How clearly does this focus for us in these few verses in which Jesus so boldly confronted the mainstream religion of his day, a religion which was defined in terms of purity—who was pure and who was not, who was clean and who was unclean, who was righteous and who was sinner, who was in-crowd, who was outcast: rich/poor, Jew/Gentile, male/female, whole/less-than-whole. These were sharp, rigid social boundaries that could not be transgressed, not without penalty. The only way one who was impure could become pure was through a complex and costly system of continual sacrifices. Subsequently, most people in Jesus’ day lived most of their lives in a state of impurity. Especially the tax collectors who were among the most unclean, branded as traitors to the Romans, excommunicated from the temple, sometimes beaten before being cast out, expelled from decent society, loners, rejects. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with a tax collector. Except Jesus. And here came Jesus into this rigidly stratified society eating with everybody, associating with anybody, so actively seeking out the least, last, lost, they called him “friend to sinners,” and they did not mean it as a compliment.
Every Christmas the church gets dozens of calls from people who want to help the poor, but who don’t know anybody who is poor. Think about that! Do you know anyone who is poor? Do you have friends who are poor, lonely, lost, dejected, rejected? Do you actively seek to befriend those who have no friends? Jesus did. “Why?” they wanted to know. Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” To which Jesus answered, “Go and learn what this means,” quoting from a verse in Hosea, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, and not burnt offerings.” This is what religion is all about —love, compassion, mercy, not who is included and who is excluded, who can become a member and who can’t, who can be a minister and who can’t. Do you know how much official church business is spent debating those questions, making those rules, drawing those lines? For 20 centuries it has been perhaps the key question that the church is still coming to terms with: are we to be an exclusive community or an inclusive community? Every generation has had to grapple with this question. Will we let the Gentiles in? slaves? women? commoners? foreigners? Barbarians? Europeans? Native Americans? African Americans? Homosexuals? Where do we draw the line?
When Mahatma Ghandi was a university student in South Africa, he decided to give Christianity a try and he went to a worship service in the Anglican cathedral. He slipped into a pew in the back of the church but was there for only a few seconds before an usher came and tapped him on the shoulder and politely told him that colored people were not allowed to worship in that particular cathedral. Later reflecting on that experience, Ghandi said, “That poor usher. He thought he was ushering a colored man out of a cathedral, when in reality he was ushering India out of the British Empire.” Who do we usher out today? What would Jesus have to say? Would the one who reached out to lepers and prostitutes and untouchables, to a demon-possessed Mary Magdalene, a woman caught in adultery, a woman with 7 husbands, a betrayer like Judas, a denier like Peter, a doubter like Thomas, a persecutor like Paul, have ushered out anybody? I can remember not so very long ago at the Annual Conference session when the candidates for ordination were presented to the body of delegates how homogenized it was, almost entirely young white men. Not any more: this year they were black and white, young and old, men and women, Latino, Asian, African. What a change! Do I detect a pattern here? Yes, a pattern of inclusion, ever-expanding circles of compassion. Do I detect a direction here? Yes, the direction is contraflow.
And that’s the direction to which Jesus called Matthew to follow him. Up until then, Matthew was just drifting, going with the flow. Why else would he have sold his soul to become a tax collector? Except for the money, the clothes, the jewels, the big office. So much easier was it just to submit to the Roman rule! They had the power, they wrote the rules, they were “The Man,” the dominant culture. Why in the world would Jesus want a sold-out tax collector as part of his movement? What did Jesus see in him? Could he somehow look past all the external trappings of a sold-out soul deep into the heart of a person who had within him the potential to write the Gospel According to a Tax Collector? To take the pen that he had used to calculate your taxes and to swindle your bank account and to use it instead for this higher purpose? This too is something Jesus was always doing—seeing past the appearance of a person deep into the heart of who they most truly were, and who they were capable of becoming. He consistently called people like you and me to defy the gravity that is always wanting to tug us down into the dirt, to rise up, spread wings, and soar. Everybody else might look at Matthew and see a lowlife bottom-dweller, traitor scum, but Jesus looked at Matthew and saw greatness and goodness.
Have you ever been introduced to someone who looked at you, but who didn’t really see you, because they were looking past you to see who was behind, if they might be more important than you, more interesting than you? Do you think that if you had bumped into Jesus at some party that that’s how he would look at you? Or would he see you the way he saw Matthew, really see you, the true you inside of you, and say, “I see something in you. Follow me.” This is how he calls us to look at one another. When we look at one another what do we see? Anne Lamott once said that “Heaven is where people finally stop talking about their weight and what they look like.” Oh, that would be heaven! To go with Jesus is to go in that direction: contraflow
And what does he see in me? How in the world did I ever become one of his disciples, and a minister at that, I who am so far from being “good enough,” whose obvious faults and failures show like a bad case of the measles? I take no small amount of comfort in the words of Martin Luther who said, “God rides the lame horse and carves the rotten wood and shoots with a crooked arrow.” In a world that extols the virtues of the purebred, blue-blooded, untarnished, unstained, seamless, straight, and pure, God rides the lame horse, carves the rotten wood, shoots with the crooked arrow, and blessed are the meek, the poor, the hungry–the lame, the rotten, the crooked.
You read the Gospel accounts and realize that this is the kind of person God was always wanting to work with, that the only prerequisite there ever was for becoming a follower of Jesus was to be aware of one’s own need for healing. And if Jesus were to walk into this room today, to whom would he reach out to first? Would it not be those who need healing the most? That’s why Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…For I came to call not the righteous, but sinners.” Someone once put it like this, “The church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.” In a world in which so many churches have become a community of mainstream respectability, a club, a clique, an homogenized organization of nice people who go with the flow and don’t rock the boat. What are we at Rayne? What do we want to be? A museum for saints? or a hospital for sinners? Mainstream? Or contraflow?
The story tells us that when Matthew heard Jesus’ call, he dropped everything, turned off the computer, closed the books, locked the door, threw away the key, never looked back, and followed him—an entirely new direction. No telling what he gave up in material security, insurance coverage, pension plan, paid vacations, perks. “But what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” That’s the trade Matthew made, losing his life in order to find his true life. He got up and left everything to follow Jesus. That’s how we must follow him too. As someone once said, “With our feet.” We follow with our feet. Faith is not just a head thing, and not just a heart thing. It involves hands and feet. Frederich Buechner says, “Faith is the direction your feet start moving when we find that we are loved.” And who knows in which direction love will lead? All we know is that it will lead us to places we are needed the most. And sometimes it will feel that we are going against the flow, upstream, uphill, against the odds. It will sometimes look like the wrong direction. It will sometimes be hard, very hard. But isn’t that what he said? He never sugar-coated it, did he? “The way is hard. Those who find it are few. But contrary to all appearance, this is the Way that leads to life.” Contraflow.