David Walker Sermon - 21st September 2014
May I speak in the name of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
Today we celebrate the calling and ministry of Matthew, sometime known as Levi, tax collector, apostle, disciple, evangelist, friend and companion of Jesus, and whose feast day it is today the 21st September.
It’s entirely appropriate for me to preach today of all days. As our gospel reading tells us, Matthew was called from his work as tax collector to follow Jesus, just as I too, perhaps less dramatically, have been called. My calling is to be a Reader in our church and yesterday, my licensing, was a validation of that calling by Paul, the Bishop of Durham, before whom I stood and made my vows. And thank you for your support and prayers and best wishes both before and at the service and during the last three years whilst I have been training.
We probably think we know Saint Matthew, but I suspect that we what we know is very precise and relatively little. We know that he was a tax collector and that when Jesus called him, rather abruptly, he left his work immediately and followed him. We know that he was one of the twelve disciples and one of the four evangelists who wrote the gospels.
As one of the twelve he was there at the last supper, he witnessed the resurrection and Christ’s ascension.
After the ascension he probably travelled and spread the word but we can only speculate where. Some say he stayed in Judea, others that he went to Ethiopia or Persia. No-one knows how or when he died although there is a tradition that he was a martyr.
Did he have a family? A wife? Children? How did he go about his work after the resurrection and ascension? Did he actually write the gospel ascribed to him? How and when did he write it? What happened to him in the end?
All these details are lost to us and we are left with a few verses that describe a very simple but most remarkable event. It’s easy to read through this story and move on without really understanding its significance. It’s there and then it’s over almost before we can blink.
Can you imagine yourself as Matthew (or Levi)? You’re probably living quite a comfortable existence, you have a secure and well paid job. It’s not a popular job but someone has to collect taxes on behalf of either the Emperor or King Herod. You’re just doing your job, implementing the rules and possibly making a bit extra on the side. You tend to socialise with others of the same ilk, colleagues who are doing the same job. They understand how it works and why it has to be done. You probably don’t spend too much time in reflecting on what you are doing. Is it right? Are you a good man? It is what it is.
The morning dawns like any other. No inkling that it will be any different, anything special. Another day at the tax booth. Trying to stay cool in the heat and the dust, but taxes to collect, and the promise of food, wine and companionship at the end of the day.
You walk down and take your place at the tax booth. A man walks past, just walking along. You may have seen him before. Have you seen him? Do you know him? You can’t remember him as a client. He speaks but it’s just to say “Follow me”. What does he mean, “Follow me”? And then the next thing you know you have got up and you have followed him, and you continue following him to his death and resurrection and for all eternity. He invites you to be someone and something else, but you know that he is inviting you. It is you that he wants. Why does he want me? I’m a tax collector. Does he need someone to collect taxes for him?
Jesus saw something in Matthew. What was it? It was just Matthew, a child of God, loved by God regardless of what he was doing in the world. Jesus showed God’s unconditional love when he asked Matthew to follow him, and Matthew returned that love immediately. There was no reflection or thought. He just got up and followed Jesus.
Where did it go from there? What happened the next day? How did he feel when he woke up? Jobless, careerless, possibly homeless and all for a leap of faith.
What Matthew did was extreme, an instant conversion, but even instant conversions are often accompanied by a little more than a simple invitation to follow. Think of the campaigns of Billy Graham, the rhetoric, the crowds, the music. Even St Paul had a blinding flash and heard the voice of God. What Matthew did was almost incomprehensible.
And all this makes what I did yesterday relatively small and insignificant. My calling seems to have been a lifelong whispering in the ear with intermittent periods of complete silence. I wanted more, more of everything, certainty, explanation, even security. But I got there in the end and I made my vows yesterday to Bishop Paul. And my vows are many and serious. Let me share them with you, and let me make them again here in front of you, because you are the people I am bound to, whom I have promised to serve.
Do you believe that God is calling you to this ministry?
I do so believe.
Will you be faithful in leading the people of God in worship, and in preaching the word to them?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you be diligent in prayer, in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen your faith, and fit you to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you endeavour to fashion your life according to the way of Christ?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you promote unity, peace and love in the Church and in the world and especially among those whom you serve?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you work with your fellow ministers in the Gospel for the sake of the Kingdom of God?
By the help of God, I will.
Those are the promises I have taken and I will do my best to keep them. I know, however, that I can only do that in the strength of God, and that’s not abrogating responsibility for what I do. The responsibility for my actions is my own and I will try to keep my word, but I will be able to try harder if I know that I am not alone in my task, that God is with me.
Doctor Who is a strange mixture of the weird and the ridiculous interspersed with some moments of sublime insight. In a recent episode the new Doctor Who asked his companion, “Do you think I’m a good man”. Clara replied, “No, but you try to be”. She could have added, as long as you try and ask for God’s support, you can be good – but she didn’t because Doctor Who isn’t quite that sort of television programme.
So, I’m now a licensed Reader. But, of course, I’ve not finished there – it doesn’t finish at the Cathedral door. That was a beginning not an end. I don’t know where else it may lead, although I probably have a better idea than Matthew had when he upped sticks and left.
My background has some similarities to Matthew. As an accountant by profession I am either tainted by money or blessed with the gift of stewardship, depending upon your point of view. I have always valued wisdom over silver and gold, but I have also felt grounded in the world. What then is God’s purpose for me? Where will He lead me from here? Only God knows. I must listen and keep listening and when I hear nothing listen harder.
My journey of discipleship hasn’t been anything like Matthews and it won’t be like his. I’ve not experienced the drama of extreme unexpected dislocation although if I think about things I am not anywhere I expected to be at this time of my life, either physically, or spiritually. If I had asked myself, ten years ago where do you think you will be ten years from now on 21st September 2014 and what will you be doing I would not have seen this.
Life can be unexpected, there can be unforeseen consequences of our actions, and I have a theory that the more you let God into your life the more uncertainty there might be. I also have a theory that uncertainty and the unexpected make life more interesting, adding to its richness. And the last ten years of my life have been the richest. But then the previous ten years before that were comparatively rich. My life has been on an upward trajectory, or so it seems.
Let me tell you about another man’s journey, someone who I was always aware of, someone who I always looked up to, but whose life developed in unexpected ways and whose actions had unexpected consequences.
Being an accountant I find the reading we had from Proverbs very appropriate, with its talk of revenue and income and the idea of weighing long life in the right hand of wisdom against the riches and honour in the left hand. This is double entry book-keeping of a divine order.
Luca Pacioli was born in the small Italian town of Sansepulcro in the middle of the 15th century. He became a Franciscan friar and devoted himself to mathematics. He is universally recognised as the inventor of double entry book-keeping, the basis of accountancy in the western world.
He was undoubtedly one of the greatest minds of the renaissance period, although not the best known outside the arcane world of accountancy.
Sansepulcro, a Tuscan town now only a little larger than Barnard Castle (and not even having a castle), was also the birthplace of Piero Della Francesco, one of the great renaissance painters. Many of you will know the Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery and in Sansepulcro itself in a building a bit like the Witham is one of the greatest paintings of all time, his Resurrection, the presence of which in the town allegedly saved it from bombardment and destruction during the allied advances of the Second World War.
Piero was a little older than Luca but a contemporary and they became friends. They worked together on the mathematics of perspective and Piero took away this knowledge, this wisdom, and applied it to his painting. Luca went to Milan and became a teacher, and passed on his knowledge to the young Leonardo da Vinci.
Did Luca Pacioli expect all this to come from his work? As a Franciscan he had turned his life to God, and the same work that helped establish the systems of trade, capitalism itself also led to some of the most wonderful and divine works of art that humankind has created. Unexpected, unpredictable, unforeseen consequences.
My ministry is a lay ministry, rooted in the world and coming out of the world. I know that it is a consequence of who I am, who I have been and who I will be. But there is no dualism there. I am part of the world as Christian in the world, and now as a lay Christian minister in the world. I don’t know what lied ahead, what bits of me God will use, where I will be in ten years from now. It’s my leap of faith.
In the same way we don’t know what Jesus saw in Matthew, how can we, but he saw something. God sees something in all of us. He knows what we are capable of. It may be small or it may be dramatic. The unexpected may be around the corner. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it. Let it in. Believe me it’s worth taking a chance.