ST MATTHEW, APOSTLE and EVANGELIST
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
21 September 2014, 10:30 (ST MATTHEW, APOSTLE and EVANGELIST)Independent or better together? – the Scots made their decision last Thursday.
Our media has been dominated by this momentous decision by Scotland but hostages are still held by ISIS and Boko Haram; bloodshed, terror and persecution continue unabated in our world.
Today is St Matthew’s Day but what help or significance is such a religious celebration in a world that is so diverse and divided and tortured by cruelty and tyranny?
Let us consider the call of St Matthew which we heard as the gospel for the day. We know virtually nothing of this apostle and evangelist save for these few verses.
And Matthew, a tax collector, working as a collaborator in the Judean tetrarchy, a Roman client kingdom, is called by Jesus to follow him.
He isn’t at face value the most likely sort of person to leave his shady, profitable employment and follow an itinerant religious teacher.
We tend to hear the Bible and its people in our own social and cultural tone.
It would grate on our sensibilities if we were to hear and see someone like Matthew as a contemporary character – perhaps as a dishonest Lord Sugar or a less lovable sort of Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses.
We live with such divisions and limitations – and often dare not confront a much more challenging and disruptive Gospel in which real life differences and prejudices are a part of its very fabric.
Certainly there were also very clear divisions in 1st century Israel: within Judaism and Jewish society, political fears and hatreds ran between the Gentile, pagan Roman invaders and the land and people given and protected by Yahweh, the living God.
Changing sides and crossing deep political and social barriers is never easy.
So how and why did Matthew do it?
In one sense we will never know what was in his mind; in another the transformative power is to be found in Jesus and the scriptures which reveal him and testify to him as Messiah.
Not only did Matthew answer Jesus’ call but he went to dinner with him and his circle of friends, a group described by the Pharisees as tax collectors and sinners.
Jesus bravely and clearly states that it is the sick that need a doctor not the healthy. And he tells his pious critics and detractors to go and learn what this means:
I desire mercy not sacrifice.
Here in this short phrase from the prophet Hosea lies the heart of Matthew’s transformation and everyone else’s.
We may not operate a complex system of sacrifice today but we place innumerable obstacles in the way of God’s love which seeks through our freedom to change us and the world.
Mercy is a word we use but one which we struggle to understand and live.
Mercy is a radically dysfunctional quality in terms of our human selfishness, egos, status, insecurity and greed.
Scottish independence may be viewed as a radical change and a reckless risk to the welfare of our United Kingdom but it is as nothing compared to the revolutionary power of mercy as the dynamic of God and his love in individual lives and the very fabric of society.
St Paul knew this ever since he himself was knocked off his horse and blinded by the power of the risen Christ.
And he starts our first reading today: since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry...
For Saul to become Paul, light literally shone out of darkness and the power of God in love and mercy changed everything.
Justice, compassion and forgiveness are the components of mercy and they are realised in our humanity both by our human will and God’s miracle of grace.
That is the core of new life, a resurrection that is not a revived corpse but a transformed humanity.
And the mercy of God is found throughout humanity and is not bound by religious frontiers and barriers.
It would do well for the terrorists of the Islamic State to remember that Allah is the merciful as is the Jehovah for those Israelis who show none of God’s mercy to the Palestinians.
Mercy is that radical and that political.
It knows no boundaries and we, as part of the Church, must be clear that either we submerge ourselves, our fears and prejudices, in the flood of God’s energy in the
Holy Spirit or rebel against him and resist the call and purpose of Jesus Christ.
We acknowledge God’s mercy in our cathedral’s mission statement:
Nurturing the radical hope of human flourishing in Jesus Christ
— but it requires our personal response, just like the sea change which overcame Matthew at his tax booth.
Yes, here is the radical hope that we must experience as powerfully as revolution itself.
Indeed that revolution was won, and selfishness and death overthrown, by the crucified Jesus.
Yes, from the cross, Jesus spoke the words of eternal mercy as he died: Father, forgive...
It is that revolutionary realignment that makes us his friends and his children, his Church and his body today.
The Eucharist is the Thanksgiving for that mercy and forgiveness that calls, retrieves and remakes us in his living power day by day and week by week.
It is an open unmerited gift for all and to be shared by all.
Let us receive this grace anew today and take it out into the world where differences fester into corruption and terror, misunderstanding and exploitation.
Here to end are the words of William Blake that poetic and artistic outsider from the late 18th and early nineteenth centuries:
To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
The Divine Image ~ William Blake