Challenge to change -a sermon for Evensong for St Matthew
This was a sermon preached for Festal Evensong for St Matthew. Three parishes, including one of mine, have a tradition of joint choral evensong every so often. We massed a choir of over 40 and a congregation of 116 on this occasion -and an extremely good tea
Although the quotation has been attributed to several different sources , it is widely considered that it was Benjamin Franklin who commented that “‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind wrote that there was never a good time for either of them –and added childbirth as a third general inconvenience.
Today we are remembering St Matthew, the disciple of Jesus whose former life was that of the tax man.
Tax collectors at that time were a symbol of oppression and corruption ; although often locals, they were in collusion and collaboration with the Roman Empire, able to add a margin to what the Romans were demanding in order to turn a profit –
We see them listed in the undesirables category by the Pharisees, along with drunkards & women of ill repute, they were indignant and angry that Jesus could spend time with what they saw as such dishonest people.
So such a person was Matthew, and when Jesus called him, the material cost of leaving all that behind was very great, no longer would he be in a position to come by easy money, or line his pockets while hiding behind the Empire.
Matthews calling is not though unusual,
It’s quite illustrative of the challenges Jesus placed on people when he talked about following him. He didn’t set out to make it easy and superficially attractive by a long chalk.
Jesus was always clear that following him was a big deal, a commitment that needed to be followed through – not taken up on a whim and given up on when the mood changed.
We heard just the other week of his call to take up the cross, -an image familiar to his listeners in this Roman Occupied country and one which conjured disgrace and pain and suffering – and incidentally not an image as yet associated with Jesus himself.
Jesus never issued easy to accept invitations, instead he challenged with invitations to change; to change direction completely and to have the courage to continue on that path.
In our reading this evening a certain rich young man comes to Jesus. “ what good deed must I do to have eternal life”
It’s an odd sort of question – it gives the impression that eternal life is some sort of vending machine affair –press the right buttons, do the right thing, and you’re sorted.
Jesus says “ if you wish to enter into life keep the commandments”
It’s an interesting response –“ enter into life” immediately the tone has changed –it’s not some sort of reciprocal deal that’s being offered here but a direction for life that will bring true life.
The young man is still after a deal however
He’s negotiating…. What’s the minimum offer?
Jesus lists off a few of the commandments – all of which the man has kept –but he is still searching for something more…
And then comes the killer punch..
“ if you want to be perfect, go sell everything, give it to the poor and come follow me”
And off the young man went, grieving, because this would just be a step too far.
Jesus knew that what was at the heart of this chaps life was money –his material physical possessions, we know that this is the case because of how he reacts –the price he has to pay to gain the peace of mind and life he craves is just too high.
It’s because his money had such a grip, and was this chap’s heart, that Jesus challenges him so strongly.
Like the young man, when we encounter Jesus he doesn’t just reassure us that we’re doing ok thank you very much, he doesn’t give us easy answers
He comes to challenge us further, to push us out of our comfort zone. The road on which to follow Jesus is one that requires work & commitment to keep on – we’re not given a soft option.
When we encounter Jesus he challenges our attitudes:
Like the rich young man, we’re challenged to think again about what is important, what means the most to us, what we have and what we do with it.
We’re challenged to think about how we react to people, Jesus included those who were socially beyond the pale –the tax men, the disgraced, the ill and unclean, -the women.. he showed respect and value to each of them –all of them made in God’s image. What are our attitudes to those in our society on the margins? The asylum seekers or the teenage mums, ?
When we encounter Jesus we’re challenged too to change our behaviour –We’re challenged to change what we DO as well as what we think and say. It’s very easy to trot out the right words, but as both Matthew and the rich young man knew –it’s much harder to follow that up with actions that go deep and make a difference. What do we DO with our time, and our money, -are we showing with our actions that we have changed direction in our lives or does it look to the outside as if we’re following the same path as everyone else?
When we encounter Jesus he challenges us to change our expectations. Life isn’t going to be the same ever again, whatever path we choose, and wherever we go.
If the rich young man had hoped for a bit of a pat on the back and a “ you’re doing great” from Jesus, he was going home disappointed on many levels. Rejecting Jesus’s challenge to his attitudes and actions meant that he knew now what he was really missing out on. If he was mildly unsatisfied before, imagine how he now felt!
We are challenged to life our eyes higher, to seek first the Kingdom, to revel in & delight in its topsy turvey values –where the lowest will be the greatest , where in the words of the Magnificat the proud are scattered and the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are fed and the rich are sent away empty.
Matthew took on the challenge –walking away from the values and material wealth of the Empire, and embracing the radical subversive equality of the Kingdom –
The rich young man couldn’t do it.
Which, I wonder are you?