Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sermon, Proper 5A, Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

What is the first point of our parish mission statement? It's Invite. Our first step as a parish in dealing with other people is to invite them to join us.

Invitation is critical to who we are. We can keep the yard looking nice. We can paint the doors red. We can lay all the new carpet we want. But if we don't invite people, or if we aren't willing to invite people, then we won't grow; and things that don't grow are dead.

Invitation is not only key to our parish, but it is key to spreading the Good News about the kingdom of heaven. If we believe that we are called by Jesus to live in relationship with God, then we must also believe that we are called to emulate him. And one of the things he did that bears emulating is to invite people to join us.

This idea of invitation is foremost in today's gospel as we hear of Jesus' invitation to Matthew.

We don't have tax collectors today, but you know enough to know that tax collectors were considered less-than-ideal citizens. After all, the author of the gospel doesn't just say that Jesus ate with sinners, but that he ate with "tax collectors and sinners." Tax collectors were so bad that they got their own special place in the sin bin.

So these tax collectors are on the low rung of the social ladder. They are barely tolerated. They are sinners with their own special label. And everyone knows who they are because their reputation precedes them.

Yet, despite all their faults, despite their shortcomings, despite their blatant dishonesty and other sinful acts, and despite what the good people of the community thought of them, these are the people who Jesus eats with. These are the people Jesus specifically invites to follow him.

Ultimately God desires all people to come within his loving embrace. We heard it in the first reading when God tells Abram that through him all the families of the earth shall be blessed. All families. All peoples. All everyone.

So if God desires all people to join the heavenly banquet, why would Jesus only talk to the good people, the religious people, and the people who were already righteous in God's eyes. That would be like us only inviting Episcopalians to church.

Jesus came to save the world. There are people in this world we see as less than, or other, or as sinners. But "all the world" includes those very people we look down on. If the kingdom of heaven is only for the righteous, pure and holy, then none of us are getting in; because we are all sinners. And in the gospel reading today, Jesus is making it very clear that he is inviting sinners to follow him.

This particular passage reminds me of my bar visits. Occasionally I will get asked what I'm doing in a bar. People wonder if I'm there to preach at them, or tell them they should be in church, or tell them that it's a sin to smoke and drink. And I tell them, "I'm here to meet people where they are, to talk about church or God if they like, or the Cubs, and extend an invitation to church."

That's it. Meet people where they are and invite them to church. Because if we are going to see the kingdom of heaven manifested on earth, if we are going to witness God drawing all people into his loving embrace, then we need to invite people. All people.

On one of my bar visits, I had a conversation with a guy who had thought about going to church, but he was worried about what people might think. He said too many people knew all the bad stuff he's done and he didn't like people staring at him, wondering what he was doing there. Like Matthew, his reputation precedes him.

My answer to him was first, we aren't big enough to treat people that way. If we want to grow this parish, then we should be happy with anyone who walks through our doors.

And second, we are all sinners; some of us just hide it better than others. The only real difference is that the people in our parish have decided to answer Jesus' call to follow him.

This thing we call Christianity can be a messy business. It can be very difficult at times. But it's always a journey. Jesus calls, we follow, and none of us knows where that journey will take us. I certainly didn't know I'd be called to be a priest. Matthew had no idea where Jesus would lead him. And my bar friend doesn't know what God has in store for for him.

It's important to remember, though, that none of us would follow if we weren't invited. God invited Abram to follow him. Jesus invited Matthew, the sinful tax collector, to follow him. And I invite people in bars to our parish. Who do you invite?

Invitation is critical to who we are. Invitation is critical to spreading the Good News. Invitation is the first step of both our parish mission statement as well as the mission of the larger church. And if we aren't willing to take that first step, we might as well roll over and die right now.


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