Readings: Proverbs 3.13-18; Psalm 119.65-72; 2 Corinthians 4.1-6; Matthew 9.9-13
May I speak in the name of God our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
‘As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ (Matt 9.9)
Good morning…And what a great morning it is as we gather to celebrate not only the call and life of St Matthew, but also the baptism of Harriet and Edward’s son, Sebastian.
As I was reading up on Matthew’s gospel and, more specifically, on the call and life of Matthew, I was struck by a simply thought, ‘We look back on his call and life through the lens of what it has been.’ As you are sitting there I can imagine that you are asking yourself, ‘Well, how else would we look at the past?’ To which I say, ‘Fair point!’ I know we see, understand and experience time through the place we find ourselves in. This thought struck me because in a retrospective view, values are added to understanding. What do I mean? As we look into our past we evaluate our life based upon what has happened to us because of the experiences we have had. Have you ever heard, or said to someone, ‘One day you will look back on this and it will all be worth it.’ Or, ‘You wouldn’t be here if not for that moment.’ Humans want to find meaning and purpose to their lives, and this is often done by looking back and attributing value to our past because of how we perceive our present. I stumbled across this thought, because as I was reading about Matthew, I kept hearing about this great man who was one of Jesus’ disciples, one of the first evangelists of the church, and a proficient enough writer to pass down a testimony to the life of Jesus. Not that I think we should ignore these things, but here we have a simpler story, a tax collector is seen and then hears, ‘Follow me.’
Having gone through a fairly extensive process to get ordained in the church, I feel very strongly that the church has, in too many ways, professionalised God’s call. We have forgotten the simplicity of a calling, and believed it to be more about a person’s potential for us than our commitment to them. When Jesus calls Matthew, the Pharisees do not get what is going on. They criticise Jesus for his choice in acquaintances. Not only did he call a tax collector to follow him, he also had supper with that same tax collector and other sinners. As the story unfolds it becomes all to clear, Jesus is saying something very different than what they are used to. They were asking themselves, as I think we should ask ourselves, ‘What is going on here?’ I would like to suggest one simply thing, God is present is what is going on here.
As Matthew begins this great adventure, that we look at and evaluate from a distant future, he has only heard one thing, ‘Follow me.’ These two small words say more about Jesus than they do about Matthew. In this simple call Jesus is promising his presence. Matthew needs to decide to follow Jesus, and he needs to act upon the decision, but if Jesus is not there to be followed then there is no call.
Have you ever tried to follow someone who is not there? Let me tell you from experience, it is impossible. Think about running through Oxford Street at Christmas with a friend as you try to do all your last minute shopping. Now imagine that your friend says, ‘Follow me.’ At first you find it easy, they are right in front of you and that crazy hot pink shirt they are wearing, which you silently thought you would never wear yourself, is the one item of clothing you are most thankful for as it is the means by which you can easily identify who you are following. But then as you get to the tube station, a hen do emerges and in a single moment the single hot pink shirt is lost in a massive hot pink sea. You begin to question who it is you are really following. Instead of those last minute gifts you find yourself on the cusp of a wild weekend wearing funny hats and celebrating the upcoming nuptials of someone you never met before.
To be called, takes more commitment from Jesus than it does from Matthew. If Jesus truly wants Matthew to follow him, then Jesus has to be there for Matthew to follow. It is not about Matthew’s potential but about Jesus’ presence. Of all the different ways God is named and described in scripture, the one that has always stuck of for me is the name the angel told Joseph to call Jesus – (Matt 1.23b) ‘”call him Immanuel.” (which means, “God with us”).’
One of my favourite parts of a baptism is how we are asked to remember our own baptism. In the language, action and symbolism we are given many ways to be reminded of God’s call to us. Shortly we will hear the words, ‘In baptism the Lord is adding to our number those whom he is calling.’ We will all have different baptism stories. For some of us our baptism was, as Sebastian will find out, earlier than our first memories. For other’s it will be more like Matthew’s call, it will be a vividly remembered, life changing moment. Regardless of how much or how little you remember, the words stay the same. Have you ever thought about what is being proclaimed in the service? None of the liturgy, none of the words, none of the promises are dependent on what Sebastian will do. Our promises today are a declaration of our intent to be there for Sebastian, no matter what happens. We his parents, godparents, family and church, will be here for him, just as God is here for all of us. This service intentionally asks nothing of the candidate, because today is not about what Sebastian can do for us, today is about who we can be for him. In baptism we recall the story of Israel, and are reminded that God is with them. In baptism we recall the life of Christ, and are reminded that God is with him. In baptism we see our own lives, and are reminded that God is with us.
As we continue on, participating in and celebrating Sebastian’s baptism and then the Eucharist, we are privileged to stand in a long tradition that says, ‘we will be with you.’ And perhaps, as we recall our own baptism, our own lives, we will hear afresh the words of our loving God, Immanuel, which are said to each and every one of us, ‘Follow me.’