During Ordinary Time, a worshiping community may transfer its feast of title to the nearest Sunday. Hence, St Matthew's, Bloomington celebrated St Matthew's Day on what was otherwise the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Matthew 9:9-13, Proverbs 3:1-6, Psalm 119:33-40
As I travel around the diocese, now on my second round of parish visitations, and have conversations with congregations and vestries in parish halls after coffee hour or during the adult education time, and as I share the emerging vision for mission in the diocese, it’s pretty much the same conversation in every place. The details vary, but there are some important themes that come up every time. One of these themes is the rapid dechristianization of western society. Within my lifetime it could accurately be said that, while America has never been officially a Christian nation, it is very much a Christian culture. Not everybody went to church, but pretty much everybody at least had a particular church that they didn’t go to!
We can’t say that anymore. Things have changed, and changed more quickly, than most of us had anticipated. We can no longer assume that someone who is raised and educated in this country has at least a basic understanding of what Christianity is about. In fact, I would suggest that the problem, from our perspective as Christians—particularly when we’re talking about people under the age of around forty—the problem lies not only in what they don’t know about Christianity, but in what they think they do know that isn’t accurate. The people we interact with every day are swimming in a sea of misconceptions about what the gospel is and what it means to have Christian faith and what it looks like to live as a follower of Jesus.
Some of these misconceptions center around the notion that the heart of Christianity is about keeping a certain set of rules—rules that strike many people, particularly young adults, as just self-evidently stupid and worthy of ridicule. So we have a PR problem. And passages of scripture such as we encounter on this celebration of the Apostle and Evangelist Matthew don’t appear to be making our job any easier.
First we heard these words from the Book of Proverbs: “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments …bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart.” Then we prayed these words together from Psalm 119: “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end.” And then we encountered a passage from Matthew’s gospel where the Pharisees appear to criticize Jesus for breaking a religious rule, a rule that says you can’t hang out socially with people whose manner of life was considered morally suspect. I suspect that many of our contemporaries might be critical of Jesus, not for hanging out with “tax collectors and sinners,” but for hanging out with Pharisees! But, either way, we still have our PR problem.
Of course, the roots of our PR problem go beyond scripture passages like these. The most primitive Christian creed may not be about laws or rules, but it is about authority. It’s simply this: Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Lord … of everything … and everyone. When I explain the vows of baptism to a young child, I use very direct language: “Jesus is the boss of me.” Commandments … statutes … laws … rules … authority … someone to boss us around. There it is. There’s our PR problem. People who already think that Christianity is about “keeping the rules” and then hear stuff like this are just going to be confirmed in their misconceptions and get as far away from any church or community of Christians as they can.
Alongside the process of shaking off our Christian roots, our culture is also becoming progressively more individualistic. Americans have always been pretty individualistic (sometimes I think our national anthem should be Frank Sinatra singing “My Way”), but we’ve really ramped it up in the last few decades, and I’m afraid my own Baby Boomer generation is largely at fault. We’re the ones who undermined the whole idea of social conformity in the 60s and 70s. We became adults in a very anti-authority, anti-rule, frame of mind. We were raised to ask the question, “How am I supposed to do this?” but as we’ve matured, the question has changed to, “How can I make this work for me?”
One illustration, I think, will make my point: When my parents were young, it would scarcely have occurred to a couple in love to move in together before getting married. It just wasn’t done. It was against the rules. Among my Baby Boomer peers, when we were young, we knew it was against the rules, but a lot of us didn’t care, and thought the rules were stupid, and many of us did it. Among our children’s generation, who are now young adults, it’s not so much that they’re into rule-breaking as that it never occurs to them that there are any rules on the subject. Cohabitation is seen as a completely normal and unremarkable behavior, and to suggest otherwise is at best stupid, and probably controlling and bigoted. The only rules that are acceptable are those that keep us from doing immediate harm to each other, and for those we have police departments. Anything else is … well … nobody’s business.
I can identify. My earliest understanding of Christianity was a misconception. I thought it was possible to take Jesus as my Savior without also taking him as my Lord. I trusted that Jesus’ self-offering on the cross could win forgiveness of my sins and save me from an eternity of suffering outside the presence of God. But I drew the line there, and wasn’t interested in naming Jesus as my Lord, acknowledging Jesus as “the boss of me.” You see, I was afraid that, if I turned my life completely over to Christ, if I told Jesus, “I will go where you send me and do what you tell me,” Jesus would for sure send me to be a missionary in the jungles of Africa, and I didn’t want to be a missionary in the jungles of Africa. If I recognized Jesus as my Lord, I may as well pack my mosquito netting and start taking malaria shots.
I suspect that everybody in this church this morning has their own personal version of what, for me, was becoming a missionary in the jungles of Africa. Each one of us has our own unique and customized reason for holding out on Jesus, for claiming the benefits of Christ the Savior while resisting turning everything over the Christ the Lord. But on this feast of St Matthew, in St Matthew’s Church, we hear a voice gently inviting us to rethink that question. We hear a voice gently inviting us to let go of our confusion and our fear. We hear the same voice that Matthew heard as he sat doing his job as a toll collector for the Roman government. We hear the voice of Jesus saying two simple words: “Follow me.” And, despite our best efforts at stopping our ears and ignoring that call, we know in our heart of hearts that in those two words lie our only hope for enduring peace, freedom, purpose, and joy. The spirit of St Matthew, the spirit of the saint whom we honor today, the patron saint of this parish, is the spirit of surrender.
It took a vibrant youth ministry during my high school years in the church I was raised in to get me past my fear of owning Jesus as my Lord. But I did it. I did it joyfully, and I’ve never regretted it. Jesus is Lord of all. Jesus is Lord of me. I’m relieved to say that I was wrong about being called to be a missionary to the people of the African rain forest. The Lord had something rather more challenging in mind. I can tell you that that Baptist boy at least had an idea of what it’s like to be a missionary in Africa, but he could not even have imagined being called to serve as a bishop in the Episcopal Church!
In spite of all our conditioning to resist authority and challenge not only rules but the whole idea of objective norms, our invitation today is one of surrender, one of humbly following the one whose service is perfect freedom. This is a frightening proposition. Our instinct is to rebel, or to flee, or both. But when we exercise the faith to let go of our own egos and aspirations, and give ourselves without reservation to “mission work in Africa”, we find that God invariably gives us back not only the selves we thought we had, the selves we thought we were, but he gives us back our truer selves. This is exactly what Jesus did with Matthew. He received a tax collector, something Matthew thought defined his identity, but he gave back an Apostle and Evangelist, something greater than Matthew could ever have asked for or imagined.
As a true child of my generation, I don’t think I’ll ever, in this life, reach the point of not being at least a little put off by somebody telling me what the rules are, and dictating what I have to do. But as a follow of Jesus, I have learned the blessing that comes from surrender, of finding myself after having first lost myself. Behind any written code of law is something more enduring still, Ultimate Reality itself, that which we do not invent or choose, but simply recognize and receive. Behind any authority is the Author himself. He is not merely the ruler, but is himself the Rule. He is not merely the law-giver, but is himself the Law. He is the One to whom we offer our surrender, no longer, in the words of the Proverb, leaning on our own understanding.
Today would be a good day for the people of St Matthew’s Church to emulate their patron saint, to follow Jesus on the road of discipleship.