Matthew Under Siege
Are some people's voices better not heard?
This sermon is taken from Matthew 9, verses 9-13
Matthew Under Siege
MATTHEW UNDER SIEGE
It occurred to me the other day that I have been a Minister now for thirty-five years and that during most of those years, I have led a church membership class. The numbers attending have ranged from two or three to fifteen or sixteen. (I did start doing sums in my head to work out the total, but it turned me mad….) Every single membership class has been different. Every group has been diverse, ranging in age from mid-teens to mid-nineties, representing a variety of knowledge, experience and personality. It has been a tremendous privilege for me to engage with all these different men and women who are honestly searching for God, for faith and for a church community.
The one thing I would say that ninety nine percent of these people have had in common is that they are none of them sure that they are quite good enough to become church members. Maybe they think they don’t know enough about the Bible or enough about the church or enough about the trickier aspects of the Christian faith; some feel that they have made too many mistakes in the past or that they may not be able to maintain a certain standard of behaviour in the future; some have fallen out with previous churches and fear that they might fall out with this one; some are anxious that they may not be able to keep up a strong commitment to the church if their lives become complicated. Am I really good enough to be a church member? How do you think I should respond?
Should I say, “Don’t be silly. Of course, you are good enough?” No. That would be making a mockery of people’s deep and genuine concerns.
How about, “Oh, don’t worry. The church will take anyone these days?” No. That would be making a mockery of something which is called in the Bible, “a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, God’s special possession, called to be people of light.”
Should I say, “Well, yes, maybe you are somewhat inadequate now but once you join the church, you will soon become perfect?” Don’t even think about it. That would be making a mockery of other church members all of whom are deeply fallible and, hopefully, know it.
Or how about “Well! You should hear some of the terrible things I have done and the stupid things I still do and me a Minister?” No. That would be a mockery of Christian ministry, which is not all about me but about what God does with me and through me.
Thinking it through, I have come to the conclusion that the best answer is to say, “friend, if you think you are not quite good enough then you are precisely the kind of person Jesus Christ is looking for to follow him and to become a most precious part of his church.”
We are thinking, over these few weeks, about what it means to follow Jesus when you are “under siege,” that is, threatened by something malevolent or destructive. Today we heard the story of Matthew. What do you think was besieging him?
I suspect, that more than anything else, he was under siege from his own assessment of life and of himself. The things we tell ourselves can be just as destructive as the taunts of the most vicious bullies in our lives.
Matthew was a Jew by birth, living in the Jewish country of Israel, which was under Roman occupation. Not a pleasant situation to be in. There was a lot of anger and bitterness and religious resentment in the air. Why should the Romans march in and take over someone else’s country? Why should they brutally supress any attempt at rebellion so as to keep the people frightened and downtrodden? Matthew’s people believed that their land had been given to them by God, they were asking where is God? Why is He letting them do this to us? Matthew had grown up, nurtured and fuelled by anger.
He became a tax collector. He collected taxes for the Romans from his own people, which made him highly unpopular. The tax system also made it easy for the Jewish taxmen to cheat their own people and line their own pockets. Matthew was working in a corrupt system for a foreign government. Therefore, he was social outcast. He had no place to go. The Romans rejected him for being a Jew. The Jews rejected him for serving the Romans. He had to watch his back whenever he went out and the only thing for him to do, as he saw it, was to make as much money as possible to ensure his own safety.
When you live in a bad world, the easiest option can be to make up your mind that you are a bad person and just get on with it. Why fight against that which cannot be beaten? Why deny the anger and frustration building up inside you? Do whatever it takes to defend yourself- whether through greed, corruption, violence, drugs and let the world go to hell. Think of all the anger and frustration erupting in this country right now and you will see what I mean.
Jesus walked up to Matthew and said, “Follow me. Let’s get you out of here. You are worth more than this.” And Matthew’s life changed completely.
You might ask, well, what did he gain? Not money. Jesus and his disciples lived very much hand-to-mouth. Not security. Matthew remained living under the harsh injustice of Roman rule for the rest of his life. Not even religious certainty or a faith community of delightfully sweet-natured people. On the contrary, Jesus’ disciples were always questioning, misunderstanding and arguing with each other.
What Matthew gained was mercy; mercy for him and mercy in him. In meeting Jesus, Matthew was confronted with a source of mercy greater than himself; greater even than all the evil in the world. This meant that he was not alone, struggling to cope with the injustice around him and the anger inside him. He did not have to accept his own assessment of life as hopelessly bad and himself as a socially branded, “taxman, sinner and outcast.” He could believe in mercy for himself, that he was worth more than this; and so, he could discover mercy in himself. He could start believing that there was something worth saving in the most brutal of Romans, in the most sneering and self-righteous of Jews, in the most corrupt and pathetic of social outcasts. Matthew found mercy.
Do you think it was worth it? Worth giving up that fairly high income. Does it sound suspiciously pie-in-the-sky?
The thing about believing in mercy, is that it means you can live in hope.
You have probably all heard Shakespeare’s famous speech about how “the quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth down from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed- it blesses him who gives and he who takes….” Do you know the story? It is set in fiercely anti-semitic Venice during the Middle Ages and Shylock, a Jewish money lender has tricked a gullible young man-Antonio- into accepting a loan, on the agreement that if he should fail to pay it back, Shylock can claim, “a pound of his flesh, as near the heart as possible.” In other words, Antonio will pay with his life. When Antonio loses his money and cannot repay the debt, Shylock takes him to court to demand the pound of flesh. Antonio’s friend, Portia, disguises herself as a barrister and begs Shylock to show mercy. Her speech is passionate, proclaiming that mercy is what God himself is all about; that we are all fallible and standing in need of mercy.
Not a dry eye in the house but Shylock remains unconvinced. He will not budge. Only a legal loophole saves Antonio and Shylock is then deliberately and publicly humiliated by his so-called “Christian” opponents. Mercy did not win the day, not for either side. I just cannot help wondering what would have happened if it had? If, in a play created by one of the most popular and influential writers of the time, Shylock the Jew had believed in mercy and let Antonio off the debt; if Antonio had recognised his need of mercy along with Shylock, if Christians and Jews had shaken hands and worshipped God side by side, as fellow human beings all standing in need of God’s mercy, might the anti-semitism souring European society for the next 400 years, culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust of World War 2 have been even slightly weakened?
I don’t know and you probably think I am being hopelessly naïve….. But when I think of the lasting influence of people like Anne Frank, Corrie ten Boom, Dag Hammerskjold, Etty Hilisum, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela- those who have believed in mercy; those who have refused to give in to hatred and revenge; those whose belief in mercy has fired a passionate hope for the future of the world and of the human race, yes, I believe in the supreme value of mercy as our salvation.
Jesus said that it was the frail, the failing, the sick who needed his healing. He had come to those who knew and admitted that they needed him. Not to make them perfect but to give them hope and to create a people of hope in a bad and despairing world. And that is why the people I have known who have asked “am I really quite good enough to become a church member” are precisely those who Jesus Christ needs to follow him.
Just a minute! Is this about making people feel bad about themselves so that we can hit them with God when they are down? It is an accusation frequently aimed at the church and there always has been a certain amount of truth in it. But going right back to the story of Matthew, Jesus appears to be making him feel a whole lot better about himself rather than worse. And, far from insisting that Matthew spend long hours grovelling in prayers of self-hatred and accusation, Jesus and Matthew go off together and have a party. Jesus has actually succeeded in lifting the siege; the destructive forces of self-hatred and anger waging war against Matthew. And that sounds like good news to me…..
Just another minute! Is this a message based on fantasy and fairy tale? After all, this story is two thousand years old. Granted. But the besieging powers of self-hatred and despair remain with us. And millions of human beings have encountered the power of Jesus Christ to lift that siege and to offer them mercy, saving grace and hope. And many have made huge and life-enhancing changes in the world around them. We cannot deny that.
In C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia a character called Puddleglum encounters a witch of the underworld who tries to convince him that there is no such place as Narnia; that there is no world at all except for the dark underworld which she rules; that there is no hope of anything other than an existence of total slavery to her regime. And Puddleglum replies that even if Narnia is no more than a childish fantasy, it stands for something infinitely better than her so-called “real world;” and that with whatever life he has left, he is going to live by the beliefs and standards of Narnia because this way of living is far superior to her way, to the person she is and to the people she has enslaved.
Who may stand with uplifted head in (the house of God) wrote Huub Oosterhuis, reflecting on Psalm 24, “People with hearts that are not divided; those who have turned from lies and appearances. People uncrushable, laden with light, who do the good that must be done; the kind that ask and fight for (God), who want to see him with their own eyes.
Today we celebrate the festival of All Saints and who are saints but ordinary, fallible people like ourselves, who have seriously wondered whether they are quite good enough for God, but who have learned to believe in mercy, to find in that belief inspiration in living and comfort in dying; to create a faith community built on the saving grace and person of Jesus Christ; proclaiming a power to lift the siege of anger and despair; entering a communion in heaven which surrounds us here on earth.
No wonder Matthew threw a party. Wouldn’t you?
May it be so. Amen.