Here is a little glimpse into the history of St. Matthew, the saint whose feast we keep today. In the liturgical calendar, the Feast of St. Matthew is celebrated every September 21st, to honor St. Matthew and his dual roles as an Evangelist and an Apostle. The title of evangelist comes from his assumed authorship of the Gospel of Matthew, the first book in the New Testament, although scholars have cast significant doubt that he was the actual writer himself. He is also among the lists of apostles found in each one of the four books of the Gospel. The story we heard today about his calling by Jesus to be an apostle is a story that is mirrored in Luke and Mark, although he is only called by the name Matthew in today’s reading from the Gospel of the same name. His vocation was as a tax collector, one of those jobs that is certainly not popular today, but was seen as downright scandalous in the days of Roman occupation, particularly if the tax collector happened to be Jewish. It was a position that Jews viewed as disloyal at best, and significantly corrupt and immoral at its worst. So it might not be clear why we have a feast day to honor one of the most famous tax collectors and not-necessarily-authors-of-a-gospel of all time! Now, I have never been a tax collector…I wouldn’t know how to even begin doing the math necessary for a job like that. But I did spend the majority of my vocational career as a school principal. When I would answer the “what do you do for a living” question with “I’m a school principal,” it would inevitably prompt a story in return. That story might be a negative one, about their experience with their principal if they were a student who was often in trouble; or they might have shared an story full of emotions about their own child’s experience with a principal at their school. More often than not, the story was not about how much everyone loves school principals, especially if they have ever answered the phone and heard the principal’s voice on the other end of the call! While nowhere near the vilification of the role of a tax collector, and to be fair, most of my interactions with parents, children, and teachers were overwhelmingly loving and positive, I do have some sympathy for Matthew and his role in society. But this reading is not really about Matthew and what he says. In fact, you may have noticed that Matthew never even speaks at all in today’s pericope. He simply gets up, and follows Jesus when Jesus says the words, “Follow me.” And the sinners in this story….I wonder who the sinners really are? The Pharisees are sure they know….those tax collectors and other ruffians are sinners for sure. But Jesus’ message of mercy, and calling of those who are sinners, rather than those who are righteous, paint another picture entirely. It is said that Matthew followed Jesus, leaving behind his vocation as a tax collector but bringing with him a pen, bringing with him the very best of himself and turning his back on the parts that are not needed in a relationship with Christ. Each of us has gifts and talents that were instilled in us and that we have either nurtured ourselves or been led to explore and practice. Now, what can we do with those gifts to serve God in God’s kingdom? Rather than spending time looking around in judgment as the Pharisees did, we are called to follow Christ. There is no room for parsing out who we deem deserves to be called and who does not. There is no need for classifying others as outsider Christians, or looking toward some who are following Jesus with disdain as if they don’t deserve such to have such an honor. Instead, there is space at the dinner table with Jesus for each and every one of us. We only need to step out in faith as Matthew did and join in the feast. I leave you with the words from the Motto of The Daughters of the King, a religious order of women who devote themselves to prayer, service, and evangelism. In hearing it today, may it honor the life of St. Matthew and all of us who yearn to follow Jesus: For His Sake… I am but one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do. What I ought to do, by the grace of God I will do. Lord, what will you have me do?
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Coming of the Holy Spirit
2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
The image of fire invokes strong responses from people. Being warmed by a fire on a cold winter’s night is a comforting feeling; seeing a fire burn through a hillside during fire season strikes fear in our hearts. The heat of a fire can keep you alive and it can take away your life in a flash. Vivid images, both positive and negative, come from just hearing about the word fire.
The Bible is full of stories about fire and the way God uses it to get our attention. Moses and the burning bush, where God makes a very clear point about what he wants Moses to go and do for the people of Israel. The story in Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego coming out of a furnace completely unscathed after Nebuchadnezzar attempts to get all to worship him, only to find himself declaring to the people that all should worship God alone. And the story above from Luke’s writings in Acts, describing a confusing and maybe quite terrifying day when the Lord sent the Holy Spirit to live among the people, with each person present receiving tongues of fire on them.
We can’t begin to understand the power of God and when we try, we always will fall short because our human minds just can’t comprehend the power and glory of our Father. But I would venture to say that he uses fire in those three examples to get our attention. Quite successfully, don’t you think? I’m sure that God can create any sort of imagery possible, but these three examples were transformative to those who witnessed them.
On the day of Pentecost, seven weeks (about 50 days) after Jesus’ resurrection, over 100 of his disciples were gathered together to pray. Jesus was already gone to be with the Father and a loud rush of wind entered the place where they were. Were they scared? I bet they were! Wind…then fire? Then everyone speaking in different languages and onlookers (who were those folks, I wonder???) thinking they were drunk at 9 in the morning! Then Peter addressed the crowd, reminding everyone of the prophet Joel’s words about God sending his Spirit to help spread the knowledge of God to all. I am pretty sure that quieted down the doubters!
All the different languages, the rush of wind and the fire – pretty hefty imagery. And for good reason – those 120 folks were to go out and evangelize to the world and that legacy continues today to Christians everywhere. It does little good in furthering God’s kingdom to rest on our faith while others wander through life without knowing the love of God. Evangelism is a pretty scary word for many Christians (especially us Episcopalians), but it really is pretty simple. Live God’s word in your life. Love your neighbor. Tell how Jesus has changed your life. Pray for others. No need to yell and scream, to judge or condemn; just love.
I may not have a visible tongue of flame visible around me, but I am called to do the same things as those folks on the day of Pentecost over 2000 years ago. Go out in the world and share the Good News.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit, we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Jesus Christ Our Lord. AMEN
The Mission of the Seventy
10 After this the Lord appointed seventy[a] others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2 He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7 Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9 cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’[b]
As long as I have known my Mother-in-Law, she has been a worrier. We have a joke in our house that we can just tell her our worries and she’ll free us up to live without the worry anymore, because she is doing all the worrying FOR us! But in reality, worrying just gets in the way of our close relationship with Christ, because worrying is the very thing Jesus tells these early evangelists NOT to do as he sends them to unknown destinations to spread the word of God to unbelievers in a time where it was inherently dangerous to do so. Sending them out “like lambs in the midst of wolves” speaks of Jesus knowing full well the dangers that each of us face as we carry our torch of faith into the broken and misguided world in which we live. Yet he asks us to press on, just as he directed these seventy chosen faithful when he told them to stay put, no matter the welcome.
But let’s be real. If I am in an uncomfortable setting, the last thing I want to do is to stay there! And who likes to be rejected when we try to form new relationships and step out of our comfort zones? But if we stand firm in our beliefs and listen to God as He calls us into the world to do the work of the Holy Spirit, even when we we are sincerely uncomfortable, He reminds us that we are sharing the Kingdom and our works may not produce the fruit we want, but rather what HE wants. And when you think about it, growth is uncomfortable!
Stay strong, dear followers of Jesus. For as we go out into the world, Jesus reminds us that in doing so, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” How can we want more for our world if we worry about going out into that world? We are armed with faith and love and that really is all we need to make a difference.
Father, send us out into your Kingdom to do your good works. We give our worries up to you. Guide us and protect us in Jesus’ name. Amen.