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Called to a New Way of Living

Sermon Preached at All Saints, Hanworth, on 21/09/2008
Revd Sue Groom, Director of Deanery Licensed Ministers

St Matthew
Reading: Matthew 9:9-13

Jean Vanier is known in many parts of the world as the founder of L’Arche. L’Arche, meaning ‘the Ark’, is now an international Christian organisation. It enables mentally handicapped people to live together with their carers in houses as family units.

At an early stage in his life Jean Vanier had a good, secure, well-paid job – he was a university lecturer. But then he gave it all up and decided to devote his life to working with the mentally handicapped. Why? Because the lecturing job didn’t satisfy him. There was something missing in his life. Jean Vanier says, ‘I wanted more than a job. I wanted something that would give expression to the passion I felt about people, especially about people such as the mentally handicapped.’

We live in a world where a great many people are not happy or fulfilled, not really themselves, because they have never found the right niche, they have never been able to do the work which they know they were cut out for, they have never followed their heart’s deepest desire.

Our Gospel reading today recounts that as Jesus was passing by the customs office he saw a tax collector by the name of Matthew sitting there. Jesus stopped and spoke to Matthew. He made no threat, nor did he offer any reward. He simply said, ‘Follow me.’ And Matthew got up at once and followed him. Why? Since the Gospel gives no explicit explanation for Matthew’s decision to follow Jesus, we can only surmise.

Matthew was a tax collector. All governments tax their subjects, and Rome was no exception. Wherever Rome ruled, taxes were imposed. There was a tax on the produce of the land, there was a tax on imports and exports, and there was a tax on each person. All over the Empire there were tax collectors at ports and frontier towns. They had to levy tax on goods passing from one place to another. Collecting it could be very profitable, for it would be the tax collector's task to estimate the value, and he could easily over-estimate it. The men who did this work were not government officials but businessmen who bought the rights to collect in specific areas. They paid the amounts which the government had set as appropriate for each place, then they recouped their outlay and made as much extra profit as they could from the merchants who travelled past their posts.

Within any area the actual collection was made by employees of the concessionaire. Matthew was one of these. At his tax-collecting booth by Lake Galilee Matthew probably assessed the value of goods carried across the Lake to or from other regions. Not surprisingly, people hated the ‘publicans’ and their agents. They worked for the occupying power, and they lined their own pockets in the process. To the religious leaders the fact that they worked with non-Jews (Gentiles) made these men ‘unclean’ and they were regarded as outcasts. They could not serve as witnesses or as judges and they were expelled from the synagogue. In the eyes of the Jewish community their disgrace extended to their families too.

As a tax collector Matthew would have been despised. Yet we don’t know precisely why he got up and followed Jesus as soon as he was invited. It may be that Matthew was not really happy in his job. It may be that he was looking for a new challenge. It may be that there was an emptiness in his life. He may have come to that point in life where he found himself thinking, ‘There must be more to life than this.’ I can remember thinking precisely that when I was a student at Cambridge.

Or, it may be that Matthew was finding his job soul-destroying. So, when Jesus offered him a chance to do something better with his life, he grabbed it immediately, and with both hands. It would seem that he was suffering from an unsatisfied thirst for goodness. The call of Jesus may have caused him to remember the dreams he once had of doing something worthwhile with his life. Have you ever dreamt of changing the world, of making it a better place, of making a difference?

Whatever the reasons for Matthew’s response, it can’t have been easy for him. It never is. It takes great courage to give up the familiar for the unknown. Tax collecting was a secure and lucrative job. Nevertheless, in the end Matthew received so much more than he gave up. Before his encounter with Jesus he had a career. After that encounter he had a vocation. A vocation is more than a career, although it can be lived out through a particular career such as nursing or teaching. A vocation involves vision, motivation, dedication, and above all service to others in the love of God.

We are unlikely to encounter Jesus in the flesh. Few of us will hear the audible voice of God calling from heaven. But he does call each one of us. We will each encounter him in the way which is most suitable for us as individuals. That may be through the beauty of nature, through moving music, through another human being, through intellectual curiosity, through the Bible, through worship, through the Eucharist...

We are all drawn to a greater or lesser extent by the powerful love of God. We are drawn instinctively perhaps, intuitively, almost unknowingly. We are drawn in a thousand different ways; called in circumstances so natural as to be unnoticed.

If we make any response to the God of love, then for each one of us the resulting exchange of love is unique. In whatever way we are drawn to respond to his love, the sheer power of that love can easily overwhelm us, the first warm breath of love can seem like an all consuming fire.

Matthew was overwhelmed by his encounter with Jesus. His response was one of immense generosity and of a completely different character than his reputation would suggest. Far from being miserly, he laid on a lavish banquet, a banquet for sinners and outcasts. But the very presence of Jesus, God incarnate, in the midst of that company transformed the banquet into an occasion of joy and great celebration.

Every Sunday we celebrate the banquet of the Eucharist. Jesus is the host, we sinners, and yes we are all sinners, are the guests. In this banquet we are nourished with the word of God and the bread of life. And, like Matthew, we are called to something better – not necessarily a new career, although that may be the case for some of us, we are all called to a new way of living.

If someone or something makes us aware of a certain emptiness in our life, we should not despair; rather we should rejoice. For, it may be the voice of God calling us to something better. The settled, satisfied person fails to develop any further. They have no need of change. So, pay attention to what you vaguely feel at your heart’s core, take notice of what makes you uneasy, of when you are dissatisfied, even if you do not want to feel it.

The call of Matthew shows that Jesus not only saw who a person was, but also who he could be. God sees the potential in each one of us and he longs to release it. Will you respond to his call on your life?

Acknowledgements and Bibliography
As with any sermon, various ideas come together over a period of time and it isn't always possible to retrace my steps to every source of inspiration. I am particularly indebted here, however, to Flor McCarthy, New Sunday & Holy Day Liturgies: Year A, Dominican Publications, 1998. I will gladly acknowledge any other sources if brought to my attention. Thank you.

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