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 Proclamation of John the Baptist
3 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
We’ve been stuck in the ice since Thursday night, victims of “Icemageddon 2013” in North Texas. We have come together to laugh and watch movies, gone to our separate corners to have time alone and have skated across the driveway to use a hairdryer in an effort to free the teenager’s car encased in an ice tomb. Our part of the world can get ice without snow and there is really no way to save the trees that have snapped and the cars that have collided when everything is covered in ice. So we are pretty much just hunkered down, waiting until we can peek above the freezing mark which will hopefully come soon so life can get back to normal.
I generally prefer NOT to have a day off from school – a day that will have to made up on a beautiful spring Friday where the weather is perfect, I’m sure! But I can’t even tell you how much this gift of time has been appreciated. All the hectic holiday schedules were cancelled and the tempo of time has slowed down considerably. As I have reflected and studied this week’s Gospel reading from Mark, I am struck by the image created in my mind of John the Baptist.
I picture this really crazy looking guy showing up when least expected. The Pharisees and Sadduccees are up to speed on the prophets’ stories and John seems pretty darn far fetched as the one who prepares the people for the coming of the Lord! Dressed as an outsider and maybe even smelling a little ripe, John comes on the scene shouting of repentance and that the Lord is coming, taking people to the Jordan river to experience baptism, a completely new concept in the traditions of the faith at the time.
As John is calling out the religious leaders for their hypocrisy, I can only imagine their confusion. That same confusion still exists today in those who proclaim their faith with television ratings and prosperity gospels, with our own hypocrisy in what we say we believe and the story our actions and words tell that conflict with those beliefs – the self-righteous were hustling to get baptized by John for sure. But John throws cold water on this party as he tells about Jesus who will separate the wheat from the chaff (or the righteous from the lowly) and bring those who need mercy into the fold while banishing the rest of them (or us!) from the Kingdom of God.
So here are a few observations about this story and what we can learn from it in today’s world:
- God doesn’t seem to select the high and mighty to tell of his kingdom. He chooses the lowly, the ones who look and sound different from the usual leaders. So listen to everyone with a discerning ear and a loving heart.
- Get ready y’all! Advent gives us the time to prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth and the future coming of Christ into the world. Don’t squander the time we need to get ready for all God has prepared for us.
- Don’t be the chaff. Don’t be a wasted part of the world. Add value to all you meet, love with reckless abandon, even when it is uncomfortable and don’t be afraid to listen to God’s message in your life.
- If you aren’t living the life you know that God is intending for you, take a step toward that today. One step forward brings you closer to God. Don’t assume that just showing up at church will ever be enough to meet God in his desired relationship with you. He wants to be known to us and makes himself available whenever we take the time to notice.
So, prepare the way of the Lord. Make it easy to find you on the threshing room floor when the time comes, or the ice thaws once and for all.
Giver of life, you have given us all we need to love you and follow you. Thank you for your goodness and mercy. Draw us nearer to you so that we may do the work you have called us to do in your kingdom. Give us strength and courage to love and serve you, preparing ourselves for your coming into the world. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Jesus Heals the Man with Dropsy
14 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
Humility and Hospitality
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
*Warning: This blog post will reference a Broadway musical called “The Book of Mormon.” The play is not the topic of discussion but will be used as a reference point for today’s post.
We saw the “Book of Mormon” yesterday as a family – it was our daughter’s birthday present from June and she has been begging to see this play since about a month after its Broadway debut. We tried to get tickets to see the show in NYC, but then as luck would have it, the traveling version came to Dallas for a two-week run. My very wonderful husband spent almost three hours in the queue online the day the box office opened and scored the tickets. I knew a little about the play, and knew it was irreverent and a bit naughty, but I was just blown away by the brilliant writing and the talent on that stage. GO SEE THIS IF YOU WANT TO LAUGH UNTIL YOUR HEAD HURTS!!!!
One of the great songs – there are many – is a track titled, “Mostly Me.” Here is a link so you can enjoy this song too, although you will not have the hilarious context unless you GO SEE THIS PLAY!
Today’s Gospel reading ties in perfectly with this song! Jesus gives the wedding guests some great advice. His parable is one of both grace and humility. Grace – because we really never deserve the honor of being a child of God. We get this as a free gift in spite of ourselves. And humility – one of my favorite traits to find in others and one I constantly work on having myself – the ability to be humble; or as I like to think, putting others ahead of yourself. Jesus’ advice to the guests who are trying to decide how important they are at the wedding feast as compared to the other guests is to assume that all are important and you are no more special than the rest.
One of the things I loved about the song “Mostly Me,” is that it speaks to that ugly monster that can live inside us when we get too big for our britches. It’s a well written song to which many of us can relate. We may have felt as if our presence saved the day at one point or another, and conversely, we all have been in the presence of someone who really embodied the lyrics of this song to our annoyance as well. God calls us to love one another, just as he loves us (John 13:34), which I interpret to include that we don’t put ourselves before others in order of importance (among other things that very complex yet simple Bible verse is telling us!). The presence of humility in our beliefs about ourselves gives us a schema for lifting up others rather than judging them, living a life of service in our community, helps us show love in the way we interact with others and gives us the chance to really enjoy when we receive grace and forgiveness.
The Book of Mormon as a play is best enjoyed with a great dose of humility for all who are called to spread God’s word. In teaching others about Christ and the gift of everlasting life, Christians will do well to laugh at ourselves and reflect on our place at the feast. Let’s let others sit in the place of honor, for God will surely call us to be with him though we will never really deserve it.
God of grace and mercy, we give thanks that you invite us to join you in the feast of the resurrection. Help us to put others before you and to continually serve you in all we do and say. We look forward to our perfect life with you when our work here is done. We ask this in your Holy Name. AMEN.