Every year we have the blessing of returning to the same scripture readings you heard a moment ago. Each St. Matthew’s Day we hear Jesus’ words “follow me” and have the opportunity to take our spiritual pulse. What is God up to in our midst? Are we faithful to God’s leading? In our Gospel Jesus meets Matthew where he is, sitting at his infamous tax booth, and instead of looking away, or looking at him scornfully, invites Matthew to follow him. Now being a tax collector in Jesus’ time was about the equivalent of being Bernie Madoff or the head of a crooked mortgage company. Tax collectors were paid from the money they added onto the already heavy tax burden the Roman government wanted them to collect. They extorted the citizens living under Roman rule, and especially the poor. Although it’s not mentioned in this snippet of scripture, Jesus is possibly encountering Matthew in Nazareth, his home town. The beginning of the chapter from which our Gospel story is taken says that Jesus was back home. So not only is Jesus dealing with someone who is extorting his fellow citizens and Jews, he is dealing with someone who is extorting his people. Amazingly, Jesus not only invites Matthew to follow him, he socializes with Matthew and other tax collectors. If you are trying to recruit students and followers, this is not an ideal way to win friends and influence people.
Our Old Testament lesson from Proverbs and Epistle from 2nd Timothy remind us of the importance of sharing the Christian faith with our children, giving them the strong foundation that will help them live fully and faithfully all the days of their life.
In the last several decades the western church has been increasingly dislocated from the center of its surrounding culture. The church has been going through an identity crisis, trying to understand its purpose and calling in a post-Christian context.
At the same time, Christianity has been growing exponentially in the majority world. Recently I had the gift of listening to some members of our faith community talk about what it was like to grow up as an Anglican in Uganda, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Jamaica. While each of their stories was different, there were many similar experiences. All of them grew up in contexts where there was a holistic understanding of the relationship between their faith and the rest of their life. God was in everything; there was no part of life from which God was absent. There was no separation between Sunday and Monday. Every day was a day for getting to know God more deeply, for learning and growing in faith. Prayer and biblical knowledge were deeply important. Each of them had regular opportunities for group prayer and Bible study. Those who attended Anglican schools remember what a profound impact those schools had. Each day began with devotions, time for prayer and biblical reflection. Beginning in childhood they engaged the biblical stories to learn more about how their faith spoke to the challenges they faced in daily life. Additionally faith was deeply relational and communal. Their faith could not be understood apart from the web of meaningful relationships they were enmeshed in. There was a palpable sense of God being alive in the world and active in the neighborhood, and of the future of the poor and vulnerable being tied up with the future of all.
I think we have a lot to learn from these members of our faith community who grew up in the Anglican Church and other Christian churches around the world. This fall and next year we will continue to pray and think together about what it means to be disciples of Christ in our daily lives, and how to support each other in this endeavor. What sorts of spiritual practices, types of service, gatherings for prayer and mutual support, and classes will help us become more dedicated followers of Way of Jesus in our daily lives? How can we, like our global Anglican brothers and sisters, live our faith daily with joy and commitment? How can we deepen the relationship between our faith and the many choices we make each day? How can we deepen our prayer life, our knowledge of the scriptures, our application of scriptural truths to our life, and our practice of generosity, simplicity, Sabbath, discernment, reconciliation, and hospitality to those outside our normal circle of family and friends? To begin with, how can we slow down enough to be attentive to God’s presence and movement in our lives and neighborhood? This way of life is as natural to our brothers and sisters from Africa and Jamaica as breathing. Let us learn from them, and share our learnings with one another, including our children.
This past Friday and Saturday Lisa Wiens Heinsohn, Kathryn Grambsch, Jack Rarick and I attended the Episcopal Church in Minnesota Convention in Morton, Minnesota. The keynote speaker was the Mark Macdonald, the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop in Canada. Bishop Macdonald noted that we now live in a world much more like the world our founding Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple encountered when he came to Minnesota. Whipple and the other followers of Jesus he worked with in Minnesota learned to find God in new ways and new places. Minnesota had a completely different cultural and physical landscape from what he had known on the East Coast.
Bishop Macdonald challenged the convention of Minnesota Episcopalians to have the courage and faith of Whipple and Native American Christian leaders Enmegahbowh and Andrew Good Thunder. Enmegahbowh, an Ojibwe, was the first Native American Episcopal priest in Minnesota. Andrew Good Thunder was a Dakota who tried to prevent the US-Dakota war. When it took place he gathered as many captives under his protection as possible, Indian and non-Indian. MacDonald said, “We are being called out of our churches to realize that the presence of God is hovering out over our neighbors. We need to go out into the community to make common cause and community with our neighbors, to receive their hospitality. We must seek Jesus in the other, the one who is not like us. This will require a kind of courage, commitment, faith and vision we have not had for awhile. It will require so much more of us.”
Our convention was held in a casino named Jackpot Junction. I had a hard time accepting that we were going to meet in a casino, and an even harder time when I arrived. The air in the lobby was smoky and I began to feel worse the longer I breathed it in. As I walked to the convention hall I walked past rows of people sitting at loud, flashing slot machines, putting in coin after coin. At first, I found it difficult to make eye contact with the people who came to the casino to gamble. I was so repelled by the place and what it stood for. I felt uncomfortable walking around in a collar. And then it hit me that this loud, smoky place that smacked of desperation and sadness was exactly where Jesus would have been. He wouldn’t have looked away when people at the slot machines tried to make eye contact with him, but would have acknowledged their humanity, their sadness, and their shame with compassion and said, “follow me.”
Jackpot Junction is located on the Lower Sioux Indian reservation. The Episcopal Church in Minnesota chose to meet there to mark the 150th anniversary of the death of 38 Dakota warriors who rose up to protest the many indignities they suffered, including the loss of their land. The sadness in the casino dovetailed with regret over how we’ve treated indigenous peoples in our country. And yet there is no doubt in my mind that God was there. Our God is not a God who runs from pain and sadness, but one who enters it and helps us find a path to healing and new life.
Our faith ancestors in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota boldly shared the good news of Jesus with those who had never heard it. They stood up for justice and mercy for those who were oppressed. They followed Jesus—by foot, by horseback, by canoe—across this land as disciples seeking to love their neighbors in God’s name. May we have the courage and faith to go, from wherever we are to wherever Jesus calls us. Amen.