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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's sermon


19th September 2004

Fr David Shepherd

Patronal Festival

'And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples.'

If all the figures in our stained glass windows suddenly came to life who would we single out for a chat, who would be most approachable? It has to be said that many of them don't look very friendly and some are decidedly fierce. At the East end Jesus is typically Victorian and Aryan. It is not that he is unfriendly it is just that he looks rather 'wet' and therefore we might doubt his ability to help us. Of the evangelist's the smooth faced St. John looks a good bet, thoughtful and kind. Mark and Luke look solid and dependable in their C19th way, but you can't see them so you'll have to take my word for it. But St. Matthew looks like the last person we'd choose. He looks like a mad uncle about to explode in anger and rage. Sometimes the faces in stained glass were modelled on the person whose memorial they are. So perhaps our St. Matthew has the face of one of the patrician Victorian businessmen who paid for our Church. He certainly has the look of a man of finance and money.

St. Matthew, Our Patron whose feast we celebrate today was as tax collector was a man of money and dodgy dealing and as such the Pharisees for singled him out for particular disapproval. Nobody else would have like him either. Of all the many types of sinner why were tax collectors chosen for a special mention?

There were several reasons. Tax collectors like Matthew sat in the customs house exacting tax at various internal frontiers within the Roman Empire. They collected tax for the enemy, for Caesar and were thus often quislings and collaborators.

If that wasn't bad enough they also tended towards corruption and extortion. They would over-charge or take bribes in lieu of tax. They grew rich at the expense of others and damaged the livelihood of others. Thus they were hated. Caravans would have spread tales of the worst offenders. Who knows, perhaps Matthew was a bad case?

What was Matthew really like? The danger is that we only see the job, the role, not the whole person. Matthew may have been rich but he was deeply unhappy, isolated and unloved, slowly being consumed by his own corruption, one sick in need of a physician, in need of mercy and forgiveness.

Matthew had probably already heard of Jesus. When they finally met , Jesus saw straight through to Matthew's heart. When he called Matthew to follow, him those words must have penetrated to his very core. For the first time he was able to see a way out, an end to his isolation, the possibility of receiving and giving love in relationship with Jesus. So he followed and joined the party with other tax collectors and sinners, from districts where today at night policeman would walk in pairs and girls alone. The Pharisees by their self-righteousness excluded themselves.

We know the rest of the story; Matthew the tax collector became an apostle and evangelist, a gospel writer, patron of this and many other churches.

So what of us who with Matthew have heard the call of Jesus Christ? What does Matthew teach us?

  1. Knowing our sickness, our disease. Jesus is a physician of the soul. As His light illuminates our darkness so we find inner healing. At he root of what the collect describes as the selfish pursuit of gain and the possessive love of riches lies something that needs to be healed by God. Our relationships are broken by Sin; they need to be restored, healed and forgiven.
  2. There is something more precious than jewels. The reading from Proverbs describes Wisdom in such terms, more precious than gold and silver and precious jewels. Ours is a very materialistic age. We can all too easily define others and ourselves by what we have. As St Paul puts it the Gospel remains hidden. A materialistic life can all too easily be lived on the surface; underneath there can be a shallow emptiness.
  3. Seeing others (& ourselves) as Christ sees them. It is always revealing to ask who we identify with, where we stand in a Gospel scene. Part of us will want to stand with the Pharisees enjoying our self-righteous disapproval of tax collectors and sinners. But if we do we will be excluded as well as excluding Throughout the Gospel Jesus portrays the Kingdom of Heaven as a banquet or feast. Whether or not we accept his invitation to be present depends less on what we have or have not done but more on our willingness to see others and ourselves as Christ does with an accepting love. We can either be in with Matthew or out with the Pharisees. In the end the choice is ours, both as a Christian Community and as individuals.

So actually if our stained glass figures really did come alive, St. Matthew might prove to be worth getting to know. He'd teach us a lot about Jesus and about ourselves. Far from being a mad fierce uncle he'd become quite a favourite uncle after all.

St. Matthew, pray for us.

Amen

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