Saturday, September 20, 2014

St. Matthew the Apostle (Patronal Festival)

St. Matthew the Apostle
September 21, 2014

Responding to God’s Call

Readings: Proverbs 3:1-6; Psalm 119:33-40; 2 Timothy 3:144-17; Matthew 9:9-13

Today we celebrate our Patronal Festival, the Feast Day of St. Matthew for whom this parish is named. What we know of him comes from Scripture, from the Gospel according to Matthew, which is ascribed to him. The Gospel message today is one of inclusion and of living faithfully in response to God's call. Both are wonderful themes as we celebrate our Patronal Festival. They are also powerful reminders of the promises of our Baptism as we bring four people into the Body of Christ.

As Jesus was walking along, we are told, he saw a man called Matthew sitting in the tax booth. Jesus issued an invitation to him. "Follow me," he said, and the amazing thing was that Matthew got up from his work, immediately got up from what he was doing, and followed Jesus. He did not ask where they were going. He simply got up from his work and became a disciple of Jesus. Had he been waiting for that invitation? Had he witnessed the works of Jesus and the disciples? The simple fact of leaving what he was doing and following Jesus should amaze us, but there is more to the story. Matthew was a tax collector. Tax collectors were despised by the Jews so much so that they were disbarred from even walking in the door of the synagogue. They were considered unclean by Jewish law. You see, Jewish tax collectors worked for the Romans collecting Roman taxes. They made a healthy commission for their work and were the wealthiest people in town. We believe we are taxed heavily, but at least we receive the benefit of social services, whereas in Palestine the money went straight into the coffers of Imperial Rome. And the taxes were punitive. First and foremost, there was a Land tax, which would have provided the bulk of taxes gathered. It was linked to the amount of produce grown on a piece of farmland. In cities and towns it was replaced by a house tax. Secondly there was a head tax levied on males, and finally there was a Customs tax, which was likely what Matthew was collecting. These were collected on goods passing through city gates, and at ports on goods and produce coming ashore.

And yet incredible as it seems Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector, a social outcast, to become one of the twelve. Not only did he call him to be a disciple, he went to his home for a meal.

When we think of the word “call” our immediate response is likely that it refers to the call to ordained ministry, the call to be a priest or a deacon in the church. We do speak of our priestly vocation as a calling. But 'call' can also be translated 'invite'. Perhaps the most astounding fact of all history is the call of Christ, the invitation of Christ, to all of us sinful people to follow him. It is not an invitation to casual acquaintance or weekly worship. It is not an offer of help when we are in trouble. It is a call to follow, to love and to serve. It is an invitation issued to each one of us. It is an invitation that we celebrate today. As sponsors take on the responsibility for these three children, as Caitlin as an adult seeking Baptism takes on her Christian responsibility, as we renew the promises of our baptism, we are responding to the invitation of Christ.
So what does it all mean? What is baptism all about? Baptism is a radical moment in the lives of each of us. For by baptism, we share in the same relationship and mission that God had with Jesus. Baptism is a gift and a calling. It initiates the work of God and Christ in and through us. It commissions and empowers us for ministry. It is, if you will, our ordination as the people of God.

For most of us though, it does not seem to be a very radical occurrence. If you are a “cradle” Anglican, that is you have been an Anglican all of your life, it is highly unlikely that you even remember anything about your baptism. Your parents likely brought you for baptism as an infant. Your experience is probably rather like mine. I was baptised on the afternoon of May 24th in the little church in Byng. I was a little over a month old. My parents, Godparents, a few assorted relatives and my older siblings gathered around the font. I wore the family gown, as did my older siblings and seven generations of Smith’s before me. My father, an Anglican priest, sprinkled me with water. He had immersed my brother David, but was forbidden by my mother to ever again do that to one of her children. They named me Ann Martha. Then they had a family party. It does not seem very significant in the whole scale of things. There were no voices from heaven. There were no claps of thunder, although being the 24th of May there may have been fireworks. And yet my understanding is that something very significant happened that has sustained me my whole life. It made the death and resurrection of Christ applicable to my life. It identified me as Christ’s own. It is the most important event in my Christian life.

The first baby I baptised was when I was doing On Call Chaplaincy at Toronto General Hospital. She was premature and was not expected to survive and in fact, had been expected to be stillborn. The family had gathered together and wanted her to be named. We found a basin of water and I held her in my arms. She was so tiny she would have fit in one hand. There in that room with her mother, father, aunt and uncle she was named Katy Harper Hall. For a few minutes we were held in a bond of love that I have experienced very few times in my life. Katy's mother later shared with me that during the baptism she felt caught up into God's presence.

One of the most meaningful baptisms I have attended took place some years ago in the parish in which I was organist. A whole family – parents and two children – came for baptism. Some friends had brought the children to the church. They joined the choir and Sunday school and became quite active. Mother and father came to a potluck supper and were overwhelmed by the welcome they received from parishioners. They too became regular attendees at worship. They asked about receiving communion, and on discovering that baptism was the requirement asked that the whole family be baptised. The church was jammed that Sunday with supporters. It was a moving experience for all of us.

I use those illustrations this morning as examples of the place of baptism in the mission of the church. None of the examples represent mission in the sense we have come to expect of the word. But all three happened as a result of mission, of evangelism. There was no hell and brimstone preaching. There was no altar call. But there was mission. Like Jesus’ call to Matthew there was an invitation to come and see. There was a response – openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit in the life those who were baptised.

Shortly we will renew our baptismal covenant. We will affirm our faith. By water and Spirit we will bring into the family of God, four people. As they are baptised we take on a responsibility to continue to invite, to support and uphold them in their Christian journey. It is not easy to bring your children up in the church. It is not always easy to get yourself out to church. So many things keep us away; it takes commitment. So pray for them, encourage them to continue on the path they have begun.
Let us be as willing as Matthew to respond to the call of God. Let us follow in his footsteps as we grow in faith. Let us live out our Baptismal Covenant. Amen.

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