Escape From Average, Week 4 — The “Past Life” Sermon Rewind

Yesterday’s message …

  • Drilled down into ONE verse — Matthew 9:9;
  • Started with a Wheel Of Fortune moment;
  • Grew eerily quiet in two places … I suspect you can figure them out;
  • Concluded with an exercise involving writing a new story and receiving a new pen!;
  • Led to this bottom line: If you’re haunted by your past, invest in someone else’s future.  


So let’s start with a bit of audience participation, shall we? These shouldn’t be too hard but they do have a common theme. So you’ll see that it looks suspiciously like WHEEL OF FORTUNE up on the screen and you’ll also see that I look suspiciously UNLIKE either Pat Sajak or Vanna White. Anyway, we’ll give a good chunk of the WOF clue, and you fill in the rest. Ready?
ONCE UPON A _____.
(Homage to Cher!) IF I COULD TURN BACK .
I told you they wouldn’t be hard! All those have to do with before, the past, yesterday, last year, right? We can add one more to that, sort of a somber one: HAUNTED BY YOUR . Yeah, it’s sad but it’s true. If you spent a week where I sit and it is pretty clear that people have great difficulty escaping their past. Many times, the harder they try to escape, the harder they deny its reality, the longer they ignore, the deeper its hold on them becomes. This is why therapy & counseling exists, people! Yesterday – consisting both of the trauma inflicted on you AND the regret for things you did all on your own – has a vice grip on today. You know what I’m saying. It’s the abortion you had or paid for. It’s the marriage you wrecked. It’s the bruise – literal – you inflicted. It’s the wild oats you sowed that really did come up as thorns. The past haunts. One more classic quote; novelist William Faulkner said the past is not dead. It’s not even past. Tell me about it.
Yep. We’re escaping average together. And for some ppl here, average is awful because the past is shameful. But the good news in the midst of this humbling news is that you’re not the first and you’re hardly alone. Like, way before you there was Matthew. And I love the way Matthew puts together his gospel because every once in awhile he very subtly drops some autobiography into what is otherwise a biography about Jesus. Look at 9:9 and see the first thing it says about our author/subject:

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth.

See that? A tax collector’s booth. You know what that means? Some history: the Roman Empire was the occupying force in the land of Israel. Exactly as if the Germans or the Estonians conquered the US & set up shop. As part of their occupation, the Romans collected taxes from the Jews. Lots of them. Taxes on income, on produce, on grain, on fish, all of it. This tax burden made their already difficult lives even more burdensome. So Matthew was a Jew. And he was a tax collector for the Romans. You know what that makes him? A traitor to his own people? Again, it’s why if we were under occupation your neighbor would not like it if you were giving secrets to the Russian army.
And so most likely, Matthew was sitting in a toll collecting booth along a public road in Galilee. Likely collecting road taxes – hello, I-77 North!!! And no doubt, he’d entered into an arrangement with the Romans that whatever he collected ON TOP of what he was supposed to collect would be his. Extortion they call it. I suspect that Matthew had been at it so long that he had ceased feeling guilty. You know how that goes? When it’s easier to feel numb than to feel guilt?
So: could there be a worse position? A more hated man? A shadier past? This is his average and his average was awful because his past was shameful. And his past was like a minute ago. So look at Jesus’ first absurd words to this Benedict Arnold / Toll Booth Extorter guy in 9:9:

“Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

Follow me. Which means, Join my team, Matthew. I’m going to rock your world for good and you are poart of it. Follow me & work with me. Jesus takes the one guy whose past DISQUALIFIES HIM and REQUALIFIES HIM.
The worst of the worst, the hated of the hated, the lowest of the low, and what is the call? Come on, follow me, and let’s get to work. Fishers of men. Collectors of souls. So in that one invitation and the immediacy of the response we see on the one hand the miracle of forgiveness. You have a past that haunts? An abortion you funded or had, a nose you broke, some cocaine you sold, a friend you betrayed? I have the power to erase it all! For every I’ve gone too far for all the I’ve done too much for each not me there’s the refrain: DO YOU REALLY THINK YOUR ABILITY TO SIN IS GREATER THAN MY ABILITY TO FORGIVE??? It’s like guy who at 17 – 17! – told me he could never be forgiven because his list of disobediences, NOPE! Such baloney! Slate clean. News good.
Yet don’t overlook. Jesus doesn’t just over Matthew forgiveness. He gives him an ASSIGNMENT. It’s not just a fresh start. It’s a new job. A new identity. A new role. Not to collect tolls but, apparently to connect souls. Jesus is telling him: you won’t get well until you get involved. I don’t want you to wallow in your past. I want you to come to grips with it and then be mobilized by it for the sake of other people. Average people are content with simply getting forgiven; simply have the past stay back there. Those who escape from average use that past as a slingshot to learn what needs to learned, glean what needs to be gleaned, and then join in the ongoing assault on hell that Jesus authors. And it happens AT THE SAME TIME. If your past was when you got out of the car in the parking lot this morning, it happens at the same times.
Because here’s the shift, here’s what this miraculous call means: If you’re haunted by your past, invest in someone else’s future. It gets the focus of you and your trauma and/or your guilt, it makes you realize that your testimony is part of your treatment, and that there is no real healing without serving. If it’s all heal all the time, it’s likely the same narcissism you’re trying to escape in the first place. To all of you who did excellent at the Wheel Of Fortune thing until we got to haunted by your , take this good news and this wise command to heart: If you’re haunted by your past, invest in someone else’s future.
Now: sometimes you can be quite inventive in using some of your more … colorful … experiences from yesterday to shape someone else’s tomorrow. There was a local church where the guests were just astounded to see a class of 4th grade boys looking in absolute rapt attention up at the ceiling before the service began. Like they were looking for Jesus to appear, that’s how holy they were. So one of the guests asked the leader of that group how he got those boys so quiet and reverent. “Oh,” he said. “I casually mention that we had to fire the stained glass artist who made the roof panels because we discovered that he was putting bad words up there in the artwork on the sly. And so now, when the boys are bored, they’ve got something to look for.” Boom!
If you’re haunted by your past, invest in someone else’s future.

Or I remember that time years and years ago and I was not in the best place. Stuck and didn’t know how to get out of it. Finally, I prayed with a pastor I didn’t know to get out of my stuck-ness but what happened immediately is that I had new energy to volunteers with our student ministry at the NJ church. There was no healing from what was inside me until I was also serving those beyond me. If you’re haunted by your past, invest in someone else’s future.
Or, even better, it’s like a note I got from a GSUMCer in the aftermath of a sermon series a few years ago. Here’s what it said:

As you may remember I am a recovering alcoholic and have been sober for over 26 years. PRAISE GOD!!!! I feel in my heart that the Lord is guiding me to help other ladies that are suffering with alcoholism. I wanted to let you know that if there are any women who are struggling with alcohol problems I would be happy to talk to them if you think that would help. I feel that women who have been cursed with this disease might be more comfortable talking with someone who has been there.

READ. You get a letter like that and you keep it. And the offer has been followed up on. REFRAIN
Now: here’s a real dilemma that we confront even in the middle of a nice sounding bottom line. How long do you wait? I’ve been saying concurrently, not consecutively; simultaneously, not sequentially. Yet: when are you healed ENOUGH to make a positive impact. I mean, neither we nor any church want people serving who are so wrapped up in yesterday’s dysfunction that they end up spreading their toxin to new people. It’s a great question. Years ago – and I mean YEARS AGO – a woman who was BRAND NEW IN RECOVERY comes up to me and wants to give a Sunday testimony about recovery and sobriety. Cool. But she was about two weeks in. So I said, “Great idea. Let’s wait, let your recovery get deeply embedded in who you are, and think about going public in six months or a year.” Cuz I know stuff. Harrumph! I literally did not see her again for about 10 years. And when I saw her, she comes up and says, “You were exactly right. My recovery wasn’t settled, I struggled for years, but I’m getting there now.” As I thought about that whole encounter, yes, I felt good about the STIFF ARM for a year, but I realize what I could have done better. Hey, _, not a testimony yet, but we do need some diapers changed in the nursery. We do need someone on trash duty at the student meeting. That would have been better, wiser, more Jesus-y. Because it would have let her invest in another’s future without drawing attention to herself. Jesus is much less interested in your limelight than he is in your serving.
So: how long? As long as you are willing to serve anonymously, away from the limelight, knowing that as you are faithful in the small he will ensure that you flourish on the large. That’s not a cliché; that’s the Jesus way. If you’re haunted by your past, invest in someone else’s future.
Where is it for you? Who has a future that you can invest in even while AT THE SAME TIME you come to grips with your past? Did you know that our nursery really does start the living relationship with Jesus Christ thing? With a curriculum? And diapers? Or is it as a Reading Buddy at Lake Wylie ES? Or serving in student ministries, behind the scenes or in front of them. Or perhaps it is in an informal, unstated role in your LifeGroup – where you have the patience to encourage and the wisdom to admonish. More ministry in those settings than people dream of. Wherever you are and whatever you do, don’t wallow in the past and don’t allow yesterday to define you. Use it to launch you.
Because we Matthew GOT UP in Mt 9:9, think of all he left behind. His job. His security. His income. Let all that go. Unlike the fishermen we’ve been looking at, if this following Jesus thing failed, you don’t go back to toll boothing. But he must have taken one thing. His pen. Because he noticed. He catalogued. He recorded. He wrote. And then, under the inspiration of the HS, he wrote. A biography of all biographies, with just enough memoir in it to make it even better. If we didn’t have Matthew, we wouldn’t have gems like
Matt 5:4 Matt 6:33, Matt 11:28 and maybe most of all, every December, we wouldn’t have Magi, gold, frankincense, and myrrh … Christmas as we know it. Look at all the investment in the future of others Matthew himself made with his pen. I’m not haunted by my past; Jesus has overcome it.
That’s what he does. He overcomes. And you get to write a new story. If you’re haunted by your past, invest in someone else’s future.
Closing exercise with pens, tables, and a pad …