Feast of St. Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist (tr)
September 22, 2019
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Paramus New Jersey
Proverbs 3.1-6, Psalm 119:33-40; 2 Timothy 3.14-17; Matthew 9.9-13
The Rev. Robert F. Solon, Jr.
May we, in the word written, and in the word spoken, encounter the very Word Incarnate, Amen.
This past Friday a friend and I went to go see the Downton Abbey movie on its premiere night. We dressed up a bit and went out to dinner beforehand. She and I are and were huge Downton fans. My favorite season was the last one, season 6, because pretty much everything ended up happily ever after, which, after six years of both low drama and high, I had truly hoped for. I’m not giving any spoilers away by saying the great excitement of the movie was that the King and Queen themselves were coming for a visit. I still remember when I saw the trailer back in the summer and saw Cora, Lady Crawley, in a close up, camera just on her face but over the shoulders of two others, as she smiles in that deep way of hers, dips into a deep deep curtsy, and says, “Welcome to Downton…[pause]…Your Royal Majesties.”
I was floored and excited and amazed and speechless all at once. The remainder of the trailer was flashbacks to the preparations and the buzz and the practicing and all the rest. And bits of the Royal Visit itself too. The movie was really quite fun and you should see it. Really. Because who wouldn’t want to live like that? Sign me up!
My friends, think back for a few moments about the most important, most special times in your life. Something truly unique, maybe even once-in-a-lifetime. What was it? If it’s any of our life milestones we celebrate in any public way, then there is probably some sort of gathering, some ceremony or formality involving who does what and when, perhaps live music, and probably someone says a few – or more – words about the occasion itself. Think about those events. Graduations. Marriages. Perhaps significant promotions at work. The opening of a new store or launch of a new product or something like that. We remember them because they are important events in our lives and the lives of our communities, right?
And what is almost always is part of just about every single one of these events? ….
Food. Eating. Usually a lot and very often, using some of our best plates and bowls and cups and silverware and all. Often there is a certain degree of formality about this too. We sit down together – how often does that occur these days? And we eat and drink and converse and eat some more. We even put away our devices while we’re doing so! It seems like the significant occasions of our lives are simply not complete unless we’ve also had a meal together. That’s human nature, I suspect. Every single culture in the world has deep traditions around celebration that always, just about, include eating. And even now, in this oh-so-casual 21st Century America, the more important, the occasion, the more elaborate and special the food.
If you are a Downton fan, you know that the most important and most beautiful scenes of the series – and the movie – are at the dinner table. Everyone dressed for dinner, every night, and there were always multiple courses of fabulous food and wine served on china and crystal and with silver and flowers and the footmen serving and everyone - usually - behaving oh so properly and carrying on witty conversation. From my earliest years I’ve loved those sorts of scenes, and Downton absolutely perfected them. Dressing for dinner every night, served by footmen on a dazzling table? Who wouldn’t want to live like that? Sign me up!
Of course, That isn’t the only feast on our minds today. St. Matthew, our Patron Saint, is involved in one too. And its integrally linked to what happened to him just before. And not unlike the feasts and celebrations we have in our own lives and in our communities when special events occur. It seems that Jesus is just walking along, but it must have been near a town border or something like that. Because he comes across a tax collector, whose name it turns out, is Matthew. Now you have to understand something about taxes back then. I expect there has never been a time in recorded history that anyone really liked taxes. But in that time they were particularly hated, especially by the poor. The way it worked is that the Roman authorities would essentially sell a tax district to the highest bidder. The winner would agree to pay a certain tax up front and then got the right to collect the taxes from anyone in the district. The trick was that he could charge as much as he could get away with and keep the difference. Taxation by commission sort of. And since the tax collectors had the power of the Roman soldiers on their side, you can imagine what happened. The rich simply paid to keep the Matthews of the world off their backs. The poor, well, they had the Roman soldiers to deal with. And so its no wonder that tax collectors were considered some of the worst of the worst of society. Especially if they were Jewish, because then they were considered sellouts.
So Jesus comes to a tax booth or office of some kind. And Matthew is there. Maybe looking at Jesus and his disciples and thinking, hmm, I don’t think they’ve paid yet. I’ll bet I can get a lot from them!
And then Jesus simply says, “Follow me.” That’s all. Nothing else. And the Gospel says that Matthew got up and followed him. Just like that.
I can’t imagine what that must have been like. What did Matthew see in Jesus? Did they have a whole conversation first? Scripture doesn’t say, but I think the implication is they didn’t. Jesus called, and Matthew followed. Just like that. Whatever passed between them at that moment, we won’t ever know. But obviously it was so shattering for Matthew that he literally walked away from his work to walk along with Jesus.
They must not have gone too far, because next we hear that Jesus and his disciples are dining with Matthew. Now notice this. They are dining, not simply eating. At Matthew’s house. That evening or afternoon. So Matthew has a big enough house and staff, that he can offer what Luke calls a great banquet to them on the spur of the moment. He’s rich. And obviously. He’s a tax collector after all.
Sound like anyone else recently? I sort of picture Matthew sitting in Lord Crawley’s place with Jesus as his honored guest and everyone dressed in black tie seated around the big table. And in come the footmen with the first course. And then the second, and the next. All on Matthew’s absolute best china and crystal and everything. Because, after all, Jesus was coming. Can you not see Matthew turning to Jesus with a deep deep bow and a still-tentative smile and saying, “Welcome to Casa Matthew, my Lord Jesus”?
Now remember, that even though Matthew was rich, he was hated because he got his wealth from essentially stealing, or perhaps you might call it offering folks deals they couldn’t refuse. And so the other religious leaders of the area - no friends of Jesus either, mostly because they were jealous of him – try to trip him up. How can he eat with that person?
Tax collectors and sinners, ugh! And Jesus says, “They are the ones who need help. I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
There is so much packed into those few words that to unpack them would take some time. If we were eating together at one of Downton Abbey’s dinners, we’d have that kind of time. But alas we don’t. But right now, we too are at dinner. Make no mistake, we too are dining at table with Jesus right now. We are, right now, feasting at the Table prepared for us from the beginning of time, all thanks to Jesus and Matthew who brings the Good News of Jesus to us. We are the sinners whom Jesus comes to save, just like Matthew was. Because Jesus knows, and Matthew comes to realize, that the wealth of this world really is just emptiness. We are those whom Jesus encounters in our own day-to-day lives, going about our own day-to-day business, and to whom Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of physicians, but those who are sick. Come, follow me.”
My friends, what a wonderful day this is! Today we observe the Feast Day of our Patron Saint, St. Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist. In the churches of the West, his Feast Day is always on September 21, and we’re transferring it to today with permission of our calendar rules. It’s right and proper that we make a great feast, a celebration, on the day of the name of our Patron Saint, and muster all the music and pomp and everything we can to celebrate Matthew and us and our history in Paramus and of course, Jesus our Christ, who calls us from our tax booths and from everything else to follow him.
I’ve only been with you for a few weeks, and I don’t know anything but the barest bits of history of this parish. But I understand this building was built in the 1950s I believe, just as the town of Paramus itself was about to begin its explosion as the retail capital on Northern New Jersey. And it occurs to me this isn’t coincidental. Do you know that there is only one church with our name in the entire Diocese? I think it’s no coincidence that it’s here in Paramus. I wonder if God is calling us here in this place and under the name of this saint – who was explicitly associated with money and wealth, both good and bad - for a special ministry regarding wealth and riches and emptiness and life. Jesus called Matthew to follow him, and Matthew, even though he was rich, did exactly that. Our Collect today urges us to follow the example of St. Matthew and with ready wills and hearts to obey the call of our Lord and follow him. In this country, in this state, and most especially in this very town of Paramus, we see the allure as well as the challenge of great wealth. We are to presume that Matthew, after that last blowout banquet, left his house and went with Jesus on his travels. What is the example that we should follow today? It’s not going to be the same exactly as Matthew’s, because we are not in the same time, nor the same place, nor are we him. But we can indeed do what he did in our ways to proclaim the Good News in our time and in our place and for those around us. I think there are at least three ways that come to mind. And they are perhaps from easiest to most challenging:
We do something every Sunday that most people only do on very special occasions. We throw a banquet, with silver and gold and special clothes and live music. We can follow the example of Matthew and offer this feast even more widely and deeply and exuberantly than we do now. And it’s not just for us. It’s for the other Matthew’s around us who need to hear the call of Jesus to follow him and then get to come to the Table to celebrate that. How can we, here and now, make our Feasts better and more widely known to those whom Jesus is also calling?
We can also follow the example of St. Matthew, not by writing a new Gospel, but by our own deep and intentional and ongoing study of that same Good News. St. Timothy, in our 2nd reading, reminds us that all scripture is inspired by God, and useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. What can each of us learn by our own study of Matthew’s Gospel? It’s got the Sermon on the Mount, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, forgiveness 490 times, and on and on. Perhaps we can explore some sort of ongoing engagement or Bible study in community even now in this interim period in the life of this parish. Beginning in December we will read mostly from Matthew’s Gospel anyway. How can we encourage and deepen our engagement of it, so we can hear and absorb what it is saying to us today?
And third, we can take seriously who we are and where we are and explore why we might be in this exact place and under this very Patronal name in this specific time. I really don’t know right now what that might look like, as I just am getting to know you and I know next to nothing about Paramus. But you probably do. And I have got to think that being a St Matthew’s Church in the retail capital of the region means something - something special and holy and intentional, something perhaps having to do with wealth and money and its empty promises and what true wealth really is. Did you know that Jesus spent a third of his teaching on earth about money? Under the spiritual example of St Matthew, what is it that Jesus is calling us to as a community for this time and for this place? I am certain he is doing so. Perhaps you have some ideas. We should discuss them together. Fair warning though: Just like Matthew had to give up what he thought was the center of his life and being, we may actually find we are asked to do the same in our time and place. It’s easy to get up from the tax booth and walk along with some dude whom you just met. “Sign me up” I can see Matthew saying. It’s even easy to offer a huge expensive party too if you’re rich. But, what about the next morning when Jesus comes to you, shakes you on the shoulder while you are perhaps a bit hung over from last night and says, “Time to get up and follow me for real. We leave in five minutes.” What then? Unlike Matthew, we can be ready and waiting for the call, if we choose to be.
My friends, I’m so delighted to be able to be part of your celebration of your Patronal Feast today. And I am excited about what God in Christ has in store for us, whatever it is. Let’s not wait until the morning after, when the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet. Let’s celebrate the Feast weekly, as best and even better than we are able. Let’s engage deeply with the Word written and especially in the Gospel of Matthew our Patron. And let’s look around us with wide open eyes and wide open hearts, to see how we will respond when Jesus, walking along comes to us and says, “Follow me.”
I can’t wait to see what will happen!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit Amen.