Today is the feast commemorating St. Matthew (transferred from Sunday). There was a service of Eucharist scheduled, but as sometimes happens, no one but the priest arrived for the service. When that happens, it is my practice to offer morning prayer instead. It keeps the feast and it reminds me that though one person may be praying here in this sanctuary, there are still a host of other people in Christ around the world that I am joining in their personal liturgies. We are never alone in prayer.
St. Matthew is a challenging figure for all of us. Peter, James, John and Andrew were called from their fishing boats and nets to become "fishers of people." Matthew was called from his role as a publican, a tax collector, to follow Christ. Tax collectors were considered unclean, sinners for their collaboration with Rome in the collection of tax and for the way they made their living, charging usury on that Roman tax to cover their own personal maintenance. These are not desirable people, and yet Jesus calls Matthew to follow him. Why? The answer comes in the latter part of the Gospel reading for today's feast. Matthew has Jesus to his home for dinner, and at that dinner many tax collectors and sinners arrived. The most undesirable guests were mixing with the elect. This breaks the rules. The Pharisees murmur against him to the disciples. Jesus responds: "when he heard this, he said 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
Just before this affirmation, Jesus is healing paralytics, casting demons out of the possessed and is seen stilling the storms. He is crossing and recrossing the sea, moving from town to town and community to community. He is crossing the boundaries that separate us from each other. He is defining what it means to truly be church.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said again and again that the church is the one human organization that is defined in service and attention to those who do not [yet] belong to it.
I wish that were an easy practice to commit to, but too often I see us as church again and again turning inward.
After an Open Table meeting yesterday, a parishioner-one with whom I have argued as much as I have agreed with here at Trinity-said it best: "I worry sometimes that we as Church get too involved in our own issues, when we should be out there in the world giving to others and serving them in Christ."
What is my pain compared to that of the hungry, the poor, the homeless? How can I find healing in my own power? I can't. Healing and the transformation of one single person's pain into the church's reconciling grace is found only through being willing to look out from our own personal issues and see them as part of a larger, greater purpose. God in Jesus Christ says it best, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." There is no propitiating God, or our own selves. There is service and the recognition that the people we do not see are the ones we are called upon to be in relationship with at the end of days.
One of our youth, Tyler Johnson, preached at this past Sunday's Youth Eucharist in the Parish Hall on the parable of the landowner and the day-laborers. The world sees the inequity of the landowner paying all the same daily wage, even when the workers arrive in parts throughout the course of the day. The last are treated the same as the first.
Tyler's point was the one Jesus holds up in calling upon Matthew, the tax collector, to follow him: See, love and understand that everyone in this world is equal in God's eyes--and we have an opportunity to see all others in the same light. Rich or poor, ragged or righteous, wise or foolish, pretty or plain--that person you are passing is your brother and your sister.
This is the hardest lesson to learn in life, because the older we get, the more exposed we are to resentment, fear and prejudice. Tyler, yesterday and Matthew, today, remind me that every person I meet in my work in God's vineyard is my brother, my sister-one who works alongside and who is deserving of the same equal portion of God's love as I am.
"The first shall be last, and the last, first."