Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
Welcome! Welcome back! Welcome home! It’s so good to be here with y’all in our little chapel, making a joyful noise once again this year. We’ve just begun to share stories of summer and moving and new classes and already-changed schedules and new roommates and all of the thrills of a new quarter at UC Davis. I’m so excited about all the new-ness, but I’m also excited about the familiarity. I’m so happy to see new faces, and so happy to see returning faces. We have so much great stuff on the calendar for this year, and so much great stuff that will happen that we could never even plan for.
When I sat down at Peet’s coffee to start this sermon—like I do pretty much every time—I opened the lectionary in wonder, thinking, “What will the feast of St. Matthew say to us? What will we consider about welcome and new-ness and excitement?!” And I opened Ezekiel chapter 2 to God convincing a reluctant prophet to tell his people they’re in trouble. Oh, perfect! Nothing like a little lamentation and mourning and woe to kick off a school year!
The reason we’re reading this story today, though, isn’t because of the calamity that Ezekiel was supposed to prophesy. This is the Old Testament reading assigned to the Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, whom we celebrate today. Yep, that’s Matthew of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew gets his name from the word mathetes, which is Greek for “disciple.” His is the story of a disciple, just like any other. We don’t think he wrote this Gospel, but we think he contributed to it, and it includes his story, which we read today. We’ll get back to Ezekiel later.
You may have noticed that Matthew is a tax collector. We hear about tax collectors fairly often in Matthew’s gospel for this reason. Not because Jesus wants us to evade our taxes, but because Jesus wants us to take a long hard look at our empire. Because they were representatives of the empire, most folks were not about to cozy up to their neighborhood tax collector and invite them over for dinner.
But Jesus sees him in the tax booth and says “Follow me.” Not in a grand way, not in a “become my disciple” way—at least, not yet—but just, “hey, come here. Sit down for dinner with us, see what we’re about.” Matthew “sat at dinner in the house,” and “many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him” (v 10).
Looking around the table, Matthew absorbs the scene. There are people there who are like him. There are other tax collectors—he won’t even be the only one!—and there are people not usually invited to dine with important people. Jesus has mixed together people who are normally separated from one another, and maybe from everyone else. We know, now, in 2016, that this wasn’t how things were done in those days. Jesus got in a little bit of trouble here and there for welcoming the unwelcome.
Since today was the first day of classes, in the middle of a packed week here at UC Davis, you have probably heard the word “welcome” like 5 bagillion times. If you’re a first-year student, probably like 50 bagillion. I mean, I even made you sing about it.
Have you felt welcome? Have you entered into spaces where you felt comfortable? Where you felt like yourself? Where you felt like maybe a new-ish version of yourself? You, UC Davis edition. I sure hope so. And I especially hope one of those places was here, in our little yellow house.
College is full of incredible opportunities. You’ll learn all sorts of things and meet all sorts of people. You’ll go to class, most of the time; you’ll stay up super late with your roommate talking about the most random stuff; you’ll eat your body weight in pizza; you’ll check out some clubs and organizations; you’ll change your major, probably; you’ll move from place to place on your bicycle—which seems kind of unwieldy right now—and soon be amazed at how easy it is to find your way home.
In the middle of all of that, God will be with you. Here at the Belfry, we’ll be singing and praying and laughing and eating and learning and and questioning and maybe even answering. Maybe the Belfry is the place for you. Maybe not. Maybe you’ve checked your watch six times since I started speaking and you’re wondering if church is even close to what you want to do with your college life. That’s okay. You are welcome here.
You’re welcome here tonight, and you’re welcome here next week; you’re welcome here if you haven’t come back but it’s the end of the quarter and you decide to give it another shot. You’re welcome here when you read about another traumatic act of violence in the world and you need to process it with people of faith. And you’re welcome here when you suddenly realize during spring quarter that it’s Easter and you really want to shout HALLELUJAH with some folks. And you’re welcome here next fall when you try coming back, again. You are welcome here.
Let’s circle back to Ezekiel for a second. The section of the story we read may have felt long, but it was actually just one snippet—there’s more of pretty much the same on either side of the chunk we read. God saying, “Ezekiel, listen to me,” over and over again. Ezekiel doesn’t really have very many lines in this whole thing, but, from context clues, I don’t think God would have repeated Godself quite so hard if Ezekiel had listened the first time.
Luckily for us, God doesn’t mind saying the same thing to us over and over again. Luckily for us, the stories we read in the Bible—like this one, with Matthew—remind us, over and over, that we’re welcome. Luckily for us, we gather at the table together, as a community of reluctant prophets and tax-collectors-turned-disciples and everybody in between.
If that’s not the story you know—if the story you’ve been told is that you don’t deserve to be here, or that you aren’t good enough—well, let me be so privileged to be the first to proclaim that you are. You, whoever you are, are a beloved child of God. Nothing you did and nothing you will do changes the love God has for you. You’re in. We’re in. Everybody’s in. Since we’re in, we’re free. Free to live and love and try and fail and learn and grow and laugh and cry and sin and doubt and wonder and celebrate and leave and return and rest easy in the grace of God.
It’s the first day of school, you’ve got enough on your plate. Rest easy, dear ones. You are welcome here.