We are Mattheans!

The text of the sermon, based on Matthew 9.9-13, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the Feast of St. Matthew (transferred from September 21) on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, September 19, 2021.

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The ancient Roman Empire cast a wide occupying and oppressive shadow over many lands and peoples.

In first century Palestine, the northern territories were ruled by the descendants of Herod the Great. All propped up on their thrones as puppets of the Empire. To the south, Judea, an Imperial territory, was governed by a Roman procurator; a proxy for the Empire. His name, Pontius Pilate.

All empires required revenue. Especially the Roman Empire, so vastly complex in central and provincial governance and infrastructure, in the administration of law, in military organization, in economy and trade. This imperial income came largely in the form of taxation. And taxes required collectors.

Enter the publicans. Officially-appointed gatherers of publicly-provided income. Generally, tolls on imports and exports, custom fees for merchants who bought materials or sold merchandise anywhere in the land.

Publicans. In Judea, Jewish collaborators with the Empire. Reviled by the religious authorities as ritually unclean. Even more, even worse, considered sinful beyond redemption because of their traitorous affiliation with the hated infidels, the Romans. And scorned by all for their heinous habit, their predatory practice of adding a bit (sometimes more) to the amount of the tax and pocketing the difference for themselves.

Enter Matthew. Slogging along through the jostling crowd of angry people, their eyes narrowed in condemnation, their lips curled with curses. Every day, Matthew makes his way to his station at the custom house to make money for the Empire and for himself.

Enter Jesus. Strolling along. Seeing Matthew. Calling to him. Matthew rises from his seat and follows Jesus. Yet, soon, Jesus “sat at dinner in the house.” Whose house? So, it is that Jesus who summoned Matthew, saying, “Follow me,” has followed, accompanied Matthew to his home.

Accompany. A wonderful word, related to another word. Companion. From the Latin, com (with) and panis (bread). So, it is that Matthew has offered and Jesus has accepted the hospitality of table fellowship. In Middle Eastern cultures and unto this day, breaking bread together is one of the chiefest forms of welcome, of intimacy.

The other dinner guests? Who else? Matthew’s people. Other tax collectors and an assortment of other “sinners” – drunkards and gluttons, adulterers and prostitutes, and dishonest money-lenders.

Enter the Pharisees. Members of that social, theological, political party of ancient Judaism. Their very name meaning “separated one.” Consecrated, set aside to study and to be the bearers of God’s Law. To be embodiments for the people of what a life lived faithful to God looks like. They are scandalized that Jesus, who, with a following of disciples, is a recognized rabbi, a teacher, would hang his proverbial and literal hat with sinners. “Why?” they ask, though less as question and more a declaration of their disgust.

Jesus says, “The sick, not the well, need a doctor. I have come to heal the sick.” His word is a description of his ministry and a veiled, yet pointed rebuke of anyone who, in the light of God’s pure sight, would dare to declare oneself well.

Concerning his ministry, Jesus had a special affection for tax collectors.

When Jesus taught his followers to relate to unrepentant sinners by continually, unconditionally reaching out, his model? Tax collectors.[1]

When Jesus wanted to make a point about the hubris of self-righteousness and the humility of righteousness, he taught, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.”[2]

When Jesus discerned who had repented, hearing and heeding God’s word and who had not, he declared unto the Pharisees, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”[3]

Clearly, Matthew repented, becoming a disciple of Jesus, so to learn from Jesus a new way of life. (For it is no accident that the word “disciple” and the word “discipline” are derived from the same root.) Then an evangelist, the author of an account of the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Then an apostle; going out into the world to proclaim, in word and deed, that gospel.

Their relationship tells us all that we need to know about Christian ministry. Our Christian ministry.

We are disciples of Jesus. We follow him because only in him have we found our righteousness; our right relationship with God.

We are evangelists; the pages of our personal histories – to which we add, day by day, moment by moment, with every thought and feeling, every intention and action – are present-day gospels of Jesus. And I know that you’ve heard this word before. Nevertheless, it bears repeating. On any given day, at any given moment, you and your life may be the only sermon of the gospel of Jesus that another soul sees and hears and reads!

We are apostles. We, who bear St. Matthew’s name, go forth into the world and, with the words of our lips and the works of our lives, “preach, teach, heal, and make disciples…(as) God-centered people…shar(ing God) with everyone we meet.”[4]

© 2021 PRA

#JesusandMatthew #Jesuscallssayingfollowme #ourChristianlifeandministry #discipleevangelistapostle


[1] Matthew 18.17

[2] Luke 18.10

[3] Matthew 21.31b

[4] Prayer for Spiritual Growth (full text): Gracious Father, we ask spiritual growth for ourselves, our families and friends, and especially for our family St. Matthew’s. Grant us growth in understanding and willingness to be your Body in this world. Empower us to live the mission of Christ: to preach, teach, heal, and make disciples. In joyful thanksgiving for the blessing of your presence in our lives, compel us to share you with everyone we meet. May our numbers increase, our commitment deepen, our lives be joyfully yours. Make us a God-centered people. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

5 thoughts on “We are Mattheans!

  1. Dear Paul,

    This is a beautiful, finely-crafted sermon. Thank you for the care with which you introduce us to history as well to the Gospel, to the real people as well as to the biblical characters, and to the truth of what it means to be called by Jesus.

    I read this with the images of the thousands of Haitian migrants encamped under the Del Rio bridge in Texas in my head. I see myself as a tax collector – easily, unthinkingly serving the purposes of the US economic empire and my own comfort. And then I see myself finding Jesus unexpectedly at my table tonight as I eat dinner, with little thought of how privileged I am not to have to worry about where it came from or how it was paid for or the fact that my table sits in a comfortable home far away from Haiti and the Mexican border in Texas.

    I’m pretty sure that Jesus is going to remind me of all those people under that bridge. He’s probably not going to let me be very comfortable brushing those thoughts away because of the distance (in all ways in which distance can be measured) between Edina and the Rio Grande or because it’s someone else’s job to deal with all those desperate people. Jesus knows, I’m quite sure, that empires don’t have a good track record of taking care of poor, desperate people. He probably knows that only individuals, aware and awake and daring to see and to care and daring to question the way things work in the empire, can do much to help them.

    And so I sit tonight, with Jesus here at my table and with some random Pharisees ready to pass judgment on everything that happens, wondering whether I can get up and follow Jesus out the door, whether realistically I can call my tax-collecting life to account and do something other than put the dishes in the dishwasher after dinner and go and read a book and forget about what is beyond my comfortable walls.

    Thank you for a powerful, moving message, Paul. I don’t know when a sermon, together with the context in which it was received, has made such an impact. And I don’t know yet what I’ll do after dinner.

    Much love,

    Karen

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  2. Great response Karen!! I LOVE this powerful sermon too!! I’ve downloaded it on my phone so I can look at it when I need a reminder of what I should be doing!! ❤️❤️

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  3. Karen and Loretta, always, I thank you for reading, reflecting on, and responding to my writing and sharing.

    And this, Karen and Loretta, as you speak to it, is the dilemma for all of us who benefit from empire. We may not be tax collectors in the literal sense, yet we, as taxpayers, gain advantages from the work of our government, which, like empires, as you write Karen, “don’t have a good track record of taking care of poor, desperate people.” In some circumstances, for example, I think of material aid for the indigent, yes, yet, for the most part and for most, no. For this historically prevailing reason, it is important that religious and non-profit institutions or, rather, organisms (as opposed to organizations, which, I believe, tend to lean toward self-preservation more than service) continue to exist for the sake of others, indeed, “the other.”

    The community of St. Matthew’s, Spartanburg, where and for which and for whom I, now, am privileged to serve, has a historically, nearly innate heart for service. I am honored and humbled to be a part of St. Matthew’s commitment to, for, and with our surrounding community, principally, weekly via the Food Pantry in the provision of boxes of food (everything of which one might think) to 60-80 families and the also weekly Free Medical Clinic, which offers care (e.g., check-ups, diagnostic, prescription, and referral services), for the uninsured.

    Love you, each and both,
    Paul

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    1. Paul,

      I am gratified to learn of St. Matthew’s deep commitment to direct service and love to poor and, no doubt, sometimes desperate people in Spartanburg. My heart goes out to the church and to those it serves as it follows Jesus’ and St. Matthews’ example. That you serve as their priest is so fitting, for I know your heart of love and commitment to the path that Jesus walked among the poor and downtrodden. I will keep you and the church in my heart’s prayers for the work in which you are all engaged together.

      Much love to you and to St. Matthew’s,

      Karen

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      1. Thank you, my dearest sister. As an olden friend oft said, “I covet your prayers.”

        Love,
        Paul

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