It has been a fraught few weeks for our politicians and the country as we came to yesterday’s election. We watched too as Scotland and Fiji went to the polls.
Fiji’s election for the first time in 8 years reminds us of the privilege that we have to vote in peace and freedom. I find myself often sympathizing with our politicians who after all just want to serve their country but end up being the most untrusted and disliked of people.
Matthew was used to not being liked. Matthew was used to being an outsider.
Being a tax collector meant he was hated by his fellow Jews as his job was to extort Roman taxes from them. And he was certainly distrusted by the Romans as they would never know if he was paying over all the taxes; or keeping a cut for himself. But he had to earn a living somehow. Did Matthew have a family? Maybe.
Did he have friends? Probably not. And if he did they were also outsiders like him.
Matthew the gospel writer writing in the year 80-90, possibly in Antioch in Syria, was not so much of an outsider. He was probably a leader in the community, a community of Christians who were mostly Jews, with some Gentiles. The question of the outsider weighed heavily though on Matthew’s mind. Were Gentiles able to become followers of Jesus, and on what conditions? Was the Jewish Law to be still followed? Was Jesus the new Moses? Matthew the gospel writer wrestles with all these questions as he pens his version of the Jesus story.
In thinking about whether to keep the old ways of the law or take on the new ways of Jesus, Matthew says “new wine is not put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (9:17)
Matthew tells the community they do have to become new, to create a new community in Christ including both Jew and Gentile. But he does not suggest cutting off the community from their Jewish heritage; instead he portrays Jesus as the Son of David, as the new Moses, as the one who will fulfill the promises of the prophets. He holds onto the tradition as a basis for creating a new community.
Matthew the tax collector and Matthew the gospel writer make for good patronal saints for us here at St Matthew-in-the-City.Like the tax collector in the thick of the reality of life, we stand here in the centre of the money dealings of the city – the banks, the gamblers, the high rollers and those with nothing in their pockets. Those who pay taxes and those who benefit from the taxes paid. Walking and driving past our door every day are the poor and the rich and everyone in between. Some consider themselves to be outsiders, and are happy on the edge; others long to be invited to the table; others come in and feel they are the insiders – little do they know that they risk becoming like the Pharisees, righteous and above contradiction. Like the tax collector no one is beyond the reach of God and God’s call on their life.
Like Matthew the gospel writer we take pride in the tradition of our church, we value our heritage, while at the same time renewing our liturgy in its language and theology. Things never stay the same while retaining a certain timelessness.
After almost 5 months now of listening to parishioners and stakeholders I know I still have much to learn about this place and its rich heritage and about those who gather here on a Sunday. I have heard though of your love for this place, its music and liturgy, your pride in its history of taking a stand on the issues of the day – apartheid in South Africa, nuclear ships, the inclusion of the LGBT community, economic equity; I have heard about people and connections and community.
We celebrated the life of one of ours, Garth Port, this week and mourned with his family. Garth worshipped at St Thomas church from the age of 3, and then when the congregation of St Thomas merged with St Matthews, he worshipped here.
George Armstrong commented after the funeral that Garth will have been our longest living connection back into our past. With him we could reach back 82 years into our history. For Garth the rituals of the liturgy of the church were central to his life and the way he made sense of the world. And so his funeral was a eucharist, the offering of the bread and wine as symbols of God’s love, was the only way for us to offer thanks for Garth’s life and to offer him back to God.
In 82 years from now what might the historians look back and see? We will be not quite 250 years old as a community so I imagine someone will be writing, not on paper I’m sure, a new version of our history, ready for our 250th anniversary.
In the chapter on the next 10 years what do we want them to write? What would Matthew the gospel writer write? What would be the questions needing to be answered? It will not be can Jews and Gentiles worship together.
But it might be how does a church of gathered worshippers, predominately pakeha, relate to the city where 41% of people speak English as a second language. Our neigbourhood is densely populated and unbelievably diverse.
I know from speaking to many of you that in your work lives you are immersed in the diversity that is Auckland – as teachers, and doctors, and community workers, and lawyers. For those who are “retired” you engage in your community at many levels. So you already know how to be a 21st century Aucklander. Will the history written about us show that as a church community we embraced that opportunity?
Or might the history focus on the young people of our city, the students, the young workers who needed community and mentoring. The young artists who gather to create and to perform, and to let their voices and songs be heard?
Might the history talk about how they found a home in a beautiful building where they knew all were welcome all the time?
Or might the history talk about how this period in world history was a time of violence and war with people claiming the Christian and Muslim labels killing each other in Iraq and the Sudan and Nigeria. And so the people of St Matthew’s set about getting to know their Muslim neighbours one at a time, building relationships, sharing in prayer, welcoming refugees, building bridges.
The history might have to give us many chapters to cover all that we might do, or it might pass us over in half a chapter having jumped from the heady days of the springbok tour, peace marches and the Hero parade, to 2030 when the next major renovation of the building was begun.
When we gathered a few weeks ago for the first of our parish forums, we talked about the church as the body of Christ: where do we stand? what is in our hearts? what do we see? what do our hands reach out to? what do we say?
We stand with Matthew the tax collector in the midst of the city, in the thick of life; in the hustle and bustle of this city, with the mega rich and the mega poor.
We listen with Matthew the gospel writer to the questions and longings of our time – is there meaning beyond the day to day? how do we build community across cultures? what might inspire us to reach out to others?
As I continue my meeting and greeting across the city I have encountered nothing but interest and support for this church and its place in the life of the city. I have had many intriguing conversations about how St Matthew’s has been seen in the past and how it might play a role in the future. There is no script, there is no written set of rules about what we might do.
But I can tell you business people are queuing up to get a speaking slot at the Mandela breakfast in November, and to sponsor it as well. They get the idea of this church being a place where you come to think about important things like justice and inclusion.
And they are keen to hear what we have to say and to know what we are doing ourselves to bring about justice and inclusion.
People who visit – from school groups to U3A, to the Mayor and politicians and leaders from other churches and other faiths – they are all interested in what we are doing and thinking.
So what next for us as the body of Christ, in this place in 2014? What will our hands touch, what will our eyes see? who will our hearts welcome? where will we walk to?
Like Matthew we are sitting “at the tax booth”, sitting in our place of normality and routine; and Jesus walks up to us and says “follow me”. Are we ready to get up and follow?