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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
© 2021 PRA
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 Matthew 18.17
 Luke 18.10
 Matthew 21.31b
 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.