As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But 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.”
"Life Around the Table: Worship, Fellowship, & Service"
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
Feast of St. Matthew the Apostle & Evangelist
A few months ago, I had the privilege to attend a church conference in Atlanta with two longtime members of St. Matthew’s. The Episcopal Church Foundation taught us and other parish leaders about topics including church leadership, fundraising, and financial management. I know that might sound boring, but it was actually very helpful and enjoyable.
The three of us came away with a lot of shared knowledge and a clearer sense of what our next project should be. We left believing that St. Matthew’s needed us to spend some time talking about our identity and our calling again. Churches are made up of people, and people tend to like routines. We have a tendency to fall into patterns of behavior and just repeat them because “that’s what we always do.”
Most of the time this isn’t really a problem. But it can lead to us “doing church” unreflectively, that is, without taking time to think about why we do what we do and how we might improve. The most helpful way we know to encourage reflection is to focus on who we are and who God is calling us to be here and now.
So we began the task of naming those things in a short, simple statement of our parish’s mission. We wanted our mission statement to communicate our sense of God’s call on St. Matthew’s as clearly as possible. It should be easy for everyone to memorize and easy for everyone to understand. We needed to find the common thread that holds our parish life together.
So we took some time to listen to people in the church who aren’t currently on Vestry. (I hear their voices on a regular basis.) We held a parish community meeting where we heard from many of you about your likes, concerns, and wishes/hopes for St. Matthew’s. We found out that there are a ton of things that people love about this parish, about the people who gather here, and the way we do things. Sure, we’re not perfect and we’re working on improving things, but we focused our energy on the things we are already good at. We named the parish’s strengths.
Then we came back to these topics in Vestry meetings and during Sunday School hour throughout the summer to share our thoughts and reflections based on the information we collected. In early August, we announced that we had found something.
As we looked at our parish’s strengths and weaknesses, our hopes and dreams, and the concrete realities of what we do, we saw some common themes. We saw that the Sunday Eucharist was really important to the congregation’s sense of identity and mission. Our people love gathering for singing, hearing the Bible, preaching, praying for the world, and receiving God’s grace in our simple meal of bread and wine. This Sacrament of God’s love poured out for us powerfully holds our community together. Our Worship at the Lord’s Table is key to our identity, and calling.
We also noticed that people love the community of St. Matthew’s. We like being social with each other. We go to the parish hall to eat brunch or lunch after each Sunday service. We sit around those tables to talk and laugh and cry with each other. We offer the love of God to each other through our bonds of friendship. And we create space for new friendships by welcoming newcomers with hospitality. Our Fellowship at the tables in the parish hall is key to our identity and calling.
And we saw that our opportunities for serving our neighbors also revolve around feeding those who are hungry. One of our signature ministries is the midweek Bread Ministry, in which members collect baked goods from Panera Bread and distribute them to local soup kitchens and food pantries. In August, we held a “block party,” and in October, we’ll hold Trunk or Treat to feed our neighbors and make new friends. We send meals to our sick & shut-in members every Thanksgiving. We feed our fellow Episcopalians every January at the Martin Luther King Day Parade luncheon.
We host the Board of Directors for Emmaus House each month and will begin sponsoring their Empty Bowl Fundraiser this year (coming on November 5). Emmaus House is a ministry downtown that feeds hundreds of hungry and homeless people every weekday. And we have ongoing partnerships with Episcopal Relief & Development and Food for the Poor, non-profit organizations which both do important work to feed hungry people around the world. Our service at the tables of those in need is key to our identity and calling.
So the image of a Table kept popping up in our minds: The Altar-Table in the sanctuary, the table of fellowship in the parish hall, and the table of service in the community. And so the way we have chosen to name our calling in 2017 and beyond is this: Life Around the Table: Worship, Fellowship, & Service.
Even 162 years into our parish life, God is calling St. Matthew’s Church to something old and something new. God is calling us to continue our unique purpose and witness to the community. We are a simple church made of earnest people who want to worship God in the Holy Eucharist, have a good time together, and reach out a hand to our hungry neighbors. God is calling us to live our Common Life Around these Tables, and finally to see them as one Table. God is calling us to look for the presence of Christ in every table we see, to find Jesus not just in the bread and wine, but in family, friends, and strangers.
In this way, God is at work in us, just as God was at work in the life of our patron saint, Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist. Matthew was a tax collector, which means that we’re already off to a better start than he was.
You see, tax collectors were hated people in 1st century Judea. It’s not just that people didn’t like paying taxes (that’s always been the case). But they hated who the taxes were going to. Judea was not a free, sovereign nation. It was a Roman colony, brutally conquered generations earlier and passed from one empire to the next like slaves. So Jews were forced to pay taxes to Caesar’s foreign, oppressive government. Not only were Jews insulted and mocked on a daily basis by these powerful outsiders, but they were also forced to pay extraordinarily high taxes to support the Roman military state. The working people were impoverished and their families suffered.
And so Jewish tax collectors were considered traitors. They were the scum of the earth. They saw how the Roman government treated their people and decided to make a buck on the system themselves. The tax collector had to pay Rome what was owed, but there were no laws against collectors asking for more and keeping the extra for themselves. There were no checks and balances, so if the collector asked you for double, you had to pay double or else expect to be arrested, brutalized, or even killed by the state police.
So despite all that, Jesus walks up to Matthew, working at the table where he collected taxes and remarkably says, “Follow me.” Jesus is able to look across any table and see a beloved child of God. God wants all of us, even the people we consider the worst of sinners, even you and me. Because deep down, we all know that we’re worse than we come across. We may look good enough on the outside, but each of us sins in all kinds of ugly ways, even if it’s in private. But despite knowing that, God loves you and me and Matthew and all of us.
But then what is the first thing Jesus and Matthew do after he accepts the call? How do they begin their relationship? How do they grow in friendship? How do they begin a journey of fellowship, working toward worship and service?
They sat down for dinner in his house. Jesus and Matthew sit at a table and eat together. This is how their bonds of affection grow, how they are confirmed. When you sit with someone to eat, it’s hard to be enemies. The warmth of giving and receiving hospitality can break down a lot of the walls we put up between ourselves and others. A Life Around the Table is a life of love, peace, and happiness.
And each of us, in the depths of our sin, has been called to share in Jesus’ Life. Jesus invites this church to gather around his table in the Eucharist. And in response, we invite one another to table fellowship, and we show our love to the rest of the world through invitations to meals around a table.
It has been 162 years since St. Stephen’s, Savannah, was founded, 145 years since St. Augustine’s, Savannah, and 74 years since the two Vestries agreed to merge into one St. Matthew’s Church in 1943. But God is not finished with us yet. The Spirit still speaks and God is still calling us to be more than we are by ourselves and more than we are right now. God is calling us to New Life: Life Around the Table in Worship, Fellowship, and Service. Amen.