I went to church today and once again, the Gospel and Jesus messed with my mind and heart. And of all places, it was at an Episcopal Church and the Word was brought by an old white guy. Who knew such miracles could happen!?
Each week Bruton Parish Episcopal Church offers a mid-week service of Holy Communion. It’s about as traditional as you can get: Bruton Parish is located on Duke of Gloucester Street in the heart of historic Colonial Williamsburg and dates back to 1715; the liturgy is from The Book of Common Prayer with its florid language; the meal is wine and those dry communion wafers that have no taste, stick to the roof of your mouth, and sometimes remind me more of styrofoam than the Savior.
Today’s Gospel lesson and the homily (fancy pants word for a sermon) focused on St. Matthew. In the Christian Church calendar, this is his feast day (the last time I went to Bruton Parish for this service, the focus was on St. Bartholomew’s feast day; I appreciate the Church’s odd sense of humor that a man flayed to death is the patron saint of leather workers – but that’s for another blog post perhaps).
The Gospel reading for today was Matthew 9:9-13. Here’s the text, just in case you haven’t memorized the Bible yet:
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (New International Version)
The presiding priest made the familiar point that as a tax collector Matthew would have been seen as an outsider to avoid, the scum of the earth in the eyes of many, someone not to be welcomed at anyone’s dinner table and definitely not someone whose party you would attend.
But Jesus is not just anyone, thank God. He sees Matthew, apparently values him, perceives Matthew’s need and ability, and attends his party. And when the local clergy association has a conniption fit Jesus says he’s come specifically for people like Matthew, and then gives them a homework assignment: learn the meaning of mercy (maybe that’s where Pope Francis learned some of his holy heart lessons).
The point of the story in Matthew’s Gospel? There are no outsiders; all have value and are beloved; all count; all lives matter, including those we think don’t. To build his case, the priest referenced today the end of Matthew’s story when Jesus calls his followers to go into all the world (Matthew 28).
And then came the slam dunk that left me reeling: he retold Jesus’ story of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25), which says simply that our eternal salvation depends on how we treat those we think don’t count – the hungry or thirsty, the sick or imprisoned, the naked or the stranger All those outsiders on the margins matter to God and we more fully reflect the image of God when they become the focus of our care as well.
If there are no outsiders, if we are all in this together, if we are all embraced by God’s arms no matter who we are, then boundaries and borders disappear. That sounds good, right? Until it hit me upside the head. That includes the immigrant, the refugee, the stranger at our border seeking a home, healing, and hope. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Oh, my good Lord.
There Jesus goes again, messing with my mind and heart, calling me to see things differently with new eyes, with God’s eyes. And it’s Matthew’s fault this time (thanks to that old white preacher who just stood there talking while the universe shifted beneath my feet). You see, Matthew’s Gospel is the one that tells about the birth of Jesus the refugee whose family must flee for their lives; Matthew’s gives us that sweet picture of Jesus the undocumented family member who shows up at Egypt’s border without a passport fleeing danger and death; Jesus the immigrant who will live in Egypt not knowing the language or customs or practicing that community’s religion; Jesus the suspect outsider.
What if Jesus, Joseph and Mary had been denied entry? What if the Egyptians had built a fence to keep out strangers like them? What if the police showed up one day at their house in downtown Cairo (you can visit a church in that city that is built over the traditional site of their home there) and deported them back to that fearful place they fled?
What if Jesus is still standing at our border, at the fence, his life in danger still? The truth is, Matthew’s Jesus still is. That thought, that image from today is what haunts me.
No wonder the political and religious leaders of his day put Jesus on a cross. He didn’t get crucified because he was nice, but because he was a threat. And today my preconceived notions and perspectives were threatened. All I wanted to do was go to church and meet Jesus. That happened, but not on my terms. That’s why I am still in the process of conversion, still doing the hard homework of learning mercy in order to see with God’s eyes and to love with God’s heart and to let God set the agenda. I am yet a work in process of transformation.
Pope Francis has called on all Roman Catholic institutions to sponsor at least one refugee family. Maybe he’s assuming that if such hospitality is offered, Jesus will be there, too. What if all of us who claim to follow Jesus were to take up that holy calling, and Protestant and Eastern Orthodox congregations, campus ministries, colleges and universities, hospitals and retirement facilities also offered their open doors, open minds, open hearts? What kind of transformation and blessing would transpire, not only for the welcomed but for us standing at the door? I think part of the appeal of the Pope is that he seems to take Jesus seriously; he is the fragrance of Christ (to borrow a New Testament image) in a stuffy, stinky world. What might happen if the world saw Francis joined by legions of Jesus’ lovers, also open to seeing and serving this refugee Redeemer, the immigrant incarnating the Holy One, the stranger Savior?
When Jesus was crucified, it happened outside the city’s walls. Ultimately, even to the end, Jesus himself was the outsider, the outcast, and cast-off. And if I am going to find him today, I better go and stand there, too. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, thanks be to God.