8th June 2008 - "The Call of Matthew"

Catherine Jupp - St Mary's and St Peter's, Ayot

May I speak in the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Calling – vocation. Words we often use and are very aware of at the moment with both Susannah’s and Diane’s ordination happening in a few weeks. Both of them have heard God calling them and they are leaving their old way of life to begin life as deacons in the Church. Exciting, scary, unknown.

God is always calling people. There are many examples in the Bible. Many did not want to hear God’s call and did their best to wriggle out of it, but God still patiently calls and equips people for the work he needs them to do.

The call of Matthew in today’s reading is stark in its simplicity. Matthew, the tax collector was at his work when Jesus passed by and told him to come with him. Matthew’s was not a salaried position. It was a contract he was carrying out on behalf of the occupying legions of Rome. He was there on behalf of Israel's enemies, acting with their authority to tax his own people for virtually everything they used or laid their hands on. Tax collectorslike Matthew bled people for all they could get, but not all of what he gathered went back to Rome. He had discretionary power to line his own pockets - which meant it was a system ripe for corruption. Not surprisingly, Rome hired the most ruthless cut-throats it could find. Not surprisingly, too, people like Matthew were despised more than most. They were not allowed in the synagogue; for they were regarded as the crooks and traitors they were.

This was the man who got up and followed Jesus that day; and neither Matthew nor Luke tell us why he did it. Put down his pen, didn't even finish the form he was working on, pushed back his chair, got up and just started heading for the door without once looking back over his shoulder. But it is what happens next is that puts this dynamic moment in perspective. It is the point of the whole episode. Jesus didn't just call Matthew because he felt sorry for him. He called him because he liked him and liked the crowd Matthew hung around with. Jesus is hanging out with a bad bunch. In Luke’s gospel we are told it was Matthew’s house. And Jesus didn't just happen to be there. He was the honoured guest; for Matthew, his new-found disciple and former extortioner, had thrown "a great banquet” for Jesus. Not only did Jesus feel comfortable in their company, they enjoyed his company too.

This is what the Pharisees can’t stand: it was not just that Jesus was associating with tax collectors, but that he was enjoying himself with them.And not only tax collectors but people whose life-style and reputation the Pharisees disapproved of and had excluded from respectable company. Jesus simply had bad taste or, worse, no taste as far as his religious contemporaries were concerned. He hung around with 'the wrong crowd of people’.

We would prefer it if Jesus had been visiting and tolerating the bad crowd, doing a pastoral visit - but he really seemed to be enjoying himself. And that was because in God’s eyes everyone is equal and we can enjoy people’s company without judging them. Now this is a shocking thought because society today places great store on appearances. If I am seen with a certain sort of people then people will question my judgement. Of course they will! But if only they could see people as God sees them, they wouldn’t.

Matthew’s life changed dramatically after the day he was called by Jesus. The road was not always easy, and there must have been times when the old way of life with its guaranteed income looked attractive. But Matthew never looked back. If and when we respond to God’s call – be it small or large, he promises to equip us for what lies ahead. I am with you always, he says. It is interesting to note that the first thing Jesus did after calling Matthew was to go to his house and socialise with his friends. When Jesus calls us he does not expect us to change dramatically. He wants to validate, to be part of our lives. He loves us and values us as we are. Everything he calls us to do and be will be because of who we are, and the experiences we have had. There is an element in any call of leaving the old behind and launching out into the new, but we are always still ourselves.

And what about us? How do we recognise a call from God? It is not as easy for us as it was for Matthew – he physically saw and heard Jesus. If we read the accounts in the Bible of people being called, by God the common theme seems to be that they felt it was something they just had to do. Even if, like Jonah, they ran away, in the end they did as God wanted.

So a call is something we cannot ignore, although many of us will try to. We may, like Jeremiah or Moses feel that we are not up to the task. Why don’t you choose someone else? But of course, if Jesus was calling twelve people to follow him and spread his message of love, why on earth choose a cut throat and dodgy tax collector with disreputable friends who didn’t even attend the synagogue. It doesn’t make sense.

But there was something about Matthew that Jesus needed. And there is something about you that God needs. There are tasks in the church and in the community that only you can do, however far fetched it may seem.  One of the most dangerous things we can do is pray for God’s guidance. "What do you want me to do, to be?" Because he will answer us, in ways we don’t expect. Matthew had a challenging new life. But I bet he wouldn’t have swapped it for his old one.

I will finish with a short excerpt from a poem by Edwina Gately Called "to Become"

You are called to become A perfect creation.
No one is called to become
Who you are called to be.
It does not matter
How short or tall
Or thick-set or slow you may be.
It does not matter
Whether you sparkle with life
Or are silent as a still pool,
Whether you sing your song aloud
Or weep alone in darkness.
It does not matter
Whether you feel loved and admired
Or unloved and alone
For you are called to become
A perfect creation.
For the Lord delights in you
And encourages with gentle joy
Every movement of the Spirit
Within you.
Unique and loved you stand,
Beautiful or stunted in your growth
But never without hope and life.
For you are called to become
A perfect creation.

Edwina Gateley