Call to Worship/Psalm 145:8-21
The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.
All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power,
to make known to all people your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.
The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds.
The Lord upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.
The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings.
The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them.
The Lord watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.
My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.
Surprising and persistent God, you never give up on us. You seek us, follow us, call us. We cannot escape from your yearning for us, and only when we turn to you do we find the sweetness of life, the reason for living, an ever flowing fountain of joy. Thank you for your amazing grace that surprises us, comforts us and renews us. As we gather here to worship you in the midst of your creation this morning, give us hearts of gratitude, and forever let us sing your praise. Amen.
Scripture Lesson/Matthew 9:9-13 (NRSV)
9As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. 10And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Should I be grateful, or should I resent it? That was among my first thoughts when he first called me, Matthew the tax man. I was delighted of course! Who wouldn’t? That a person of his spiritual stature should take time to even notice a despised tax collector like me, let alone remember my name. Then in front of everyone, call me to be his disciple? That was really something!
Our Roman masters saw tax collectors as a necessary evil. They needed us. When I put in a tender for my region, I did not expect to get it. Because it was such a financially lucrative pursuit, there was tremendous competition for the position. Not only was it a license to print money, so to speak, you also gained a sense of power, knowing that you have the protection of the occupying army available whenever you might need it.
My father was appalled when I got the job. He was a good man but extremely poor—a sail maker by trade. While I was a young child, I made up my mind I would not be poor like my dad. I was going to be rich. I was determined to enjoy the good life.
So, when I began to work for the Romans, my father at first raged against me: “No son of mine is going to sell his soul to the Roman heathen!” My mother and sisters wept. He ranted and raved for some time. Later, dad quieted down and pleaded: “Matthew, think, man, think. Are you, a son of Abraham, going to become the lackey of these pagan overlords, doing their dirty work for them?”
I was stubborn. To me, money was all I could think about. Wealth had become my idol. No argument was going to convince me otherwise. Due to my stubborn, single-mindedness, two weeks before I opened my office, my father called in two neighbors as witnesses and publicly disowned me. I was no longer a son. I was no longer welcome in the home that had nurtured me. I left with the inconsolable sobs of my mother ringing in my ears.
In my first year as tax collector, I tried to do it the right and moral way—never overcharging people what they owed and taking, what seemed to me, a modest, reasonable commission for myself. But I soon discovered that such an even-handed approach gained me few friends. Fairly or unfairly, people never wanted the tax collector to knock on their door.
So, I decided to try something different. In the following years I cultivated a few clients of influence who befriended me because I minimized their taxes. Good move. There was no shortage of dinner parties. Conversely, I hit most of the other citizens, usually less affluent ones, a bit harder to make up the difference. They complained of course. And when they did, I readily revised their levy upwards as retaliation for their petulant behavior.
I was becoming wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. Wine, women, and song, and lots of servants showing their deference to me and all my success. By the time Jesus began his ministry in the province of Galilee, I may not have been widely liked, but I was certainly someone to be reckoned with. A palatial home was being built for me on a hilltop, to display my success to the world. I had made it, big time.
Then he arrived at my office. And my world was turned upside down. Should I be grateful, or should I resent it? He was no stranger of course. I knew a great deal about him. My minions had been keeping an eye on his activities for some time and reporting back to me with their observations. I actually went to hear him speak a couple of times. He was good, I’ll give you that—a persuasive and powerful speaker with plenty of charisma. But much of what he said seemed impractical. He was a day dreamer who looked at building a kingdom with love. Love. Some good that’ll do you. The cynic in me smirked, as I declared to my cronies that this guy knew nothing about the real world. All that spiel about sparrows and the lilies of the field, about not storing up treasure on earth, it was sentimental nonsense! And as for praying for those who wanted to slit my throat, or forgiving my enemies, who could take that drivel seriously?
Nevertheless, his words began to haunt me. I couldn’t get the face and the words this itinerant preacher out of my mind. On the surface, I had taken what he had said in stride, but there was something underneath it all that began to fester in my gut, that forced me to shy away from the face I saw each day in the mirror. Even with my retinue of servants and assistants, I began to feel achingly alone. Did I have any real friends or were they just sycophants who had endeared themselves to me because I could supply them with the best food and wine available? Was there anyone who had any genuine respect for me rather than fear of the armed cohort that was at my beckon call? I concluded that they were all using me, just as I was using them. There was just something about this Jesus that got under my skin. His words sharpened my discontent. Where was the joy I had lost in my revelries? Where was the peace I had not found in my pursuit of wealth? Was there anything more to life than just making and spending money, and bathing myself in the feelings of power my affluence offered me?
A hunger for something better was awakened in me by that prophet Jesus and, no matter how hard I tried to fend it off, it refused to be silenced. But despite these feelings, I decided that I was not going to relinquish my position of power or let go of my wealth. That was not up for debate. I was not going to become poor and insignificant like my dad. I was Matthew, a man to be reckoned with. Matthew, a man soon to be living in that big house on the hill. Matthew, the power broker to whom you show, at least outwardly, courtesy and esteem because of the role I play. Confound this Jesus! Why should a carpenter’s son from Nazareth with all these pretty parables and sayings, disrupt my life? My life’s my own! I have it all! There is nothing I can’t really afford.
But did I? Did I have it all? There was a restless and lonely soul inside me that that was shivering beneath my outward show of success; an emptiness that left me hungry and thirsty for something more satisfying. That day, everything changed. I was busying myself with the accounting records at my office, while my servants manned the tax counters. A shadow fell on the doorstep. I did not look up. Just another client coming to gripe and complain about how much they owe. Then a calm voice simply said: “Matthew. It’s time to follow me. Come.”
I rose very slowly to my feet and stared into the face of Jesus of Nazareth? Was he joking? Making fun of me? Maybe. Yet there was nothing in his steady eyes to suggest anything but sincerity. And something else was present in those eyes that I desperately needed: love—a genuine concern for me, not because of my wealth or status or influence, but for me as simply a human being.
I stood transfixed for what seemed ages. Maybe it was ages—if so, Jesus was surprisingly patient. Maybe it was only a few minutes, while I trembled on the knife-edge of indecision. A familiar voice inside me warned “Don’t do it! Don’t give up on everything you’ve worked so hard for. This fellow is either crazy or a religious con man. You’ve got it made! What more could you want that you don’t already have?”
Yet another voice inside my head whispered: “At last, here is the love and genuine respect for which you have been so hungry. Think how lonely you have felt at the core of your soul. Consider how deeply you have craved for something else, for something more. Move your feet, man, move! Follow. This is your opportunity to be liberated from your idols of wealth and power and status to whom you have been enslaved for so long!” At last, I moved. I knelt down before Jesus and said, “Master.” He lifted me up and kissed me on each cheek. “Let’s go, Matthew,” he said. I grabbed my coat. He turned and headed for the door with me following, half in a daze. I went outside with him, passing my employees on the way as they attended clients at the counters. I glanced at them. They were wide eyed with complete confusion at what was happening.
I joined the group other disciples who grinned broadly as I arrived. The big, brash leader called Simon Peter laughed and shook my pampered hand with his big, calloused paw. The young kid called John, the son of Zebedee, gave me the kiss of peace and hugged me. Three women in the group of disciples, smiled and nodded at me as if I were their brother. One question puzzled me, right from the beginning: Why me? Why did Jesus choose and call me? Was it because of my business acumen? Or because he knew I had possessed a sound, religious upbringing? Or because he felt sorry for my godly parents who were humiliated by my collusion with the oppressive Romans? Or because he had heard what a good scholar I had been as a youth in the synagogue school? Was it because he saw something in me than no other person had ever noticed or nurtured?
Like fireflies on a summer night, these questions darted around in my mind. None seemed likely candidates for a definitive answer. The reason for calling me remained shrouded in the dark mystery of the inexplicable and abundant grace of God which had embraced me through Jesus. Perhaps it’s enough to accept that he called me and that somehow, by God’s patient and merciful kindness, I left behind everything I had worked for and let go of all the dreams that I had in the past, and followed.
It’s not been an easy road. There have been moments of frustration and doubt. I’ve had to contend with deeply rooted feelings of shame and disgust over my previous pursuits. There were times when I was sleeping out in the open, huddled with the others close to a rock against the biting wind, when I remembered my comfortable bed and that big, beautiful house on the hill. There were days when, walking beside a corn field, I was hungry enough to pick heads of hard grain and chew on them for sustenance. There were cold mornings in some peasant’s house when I remembered how comfortable it had been to have a servant bring me warm water and a towel. When trudging down a road under the hot sun, I recalled the pleasure of sitting in a sedan chair while servants carried me, and another walked beside me whisking flies away from my face.
Despite the hardships, those early days in Galilee were exciting. We had no idea what was to happen later. If we had known what was to come, we might have appreciated those moments even more. We imagined that his popularity would continue to grow until all of Israel would be on fire with his love. We did not anticipate the cross and our dark night of despair. Nor did we expect the third day miracle of Easter, or the outpouring of his Spirit on people of all nations on Pentecost. We never dreamed how inclusive his loving arms would be, or where most of us would end up as a result of our call to spread the good news across the empire.
Today those early doubts I used to have “Should I be grateful or should I resent him” never bother me. If they so much as whisper, I freely laugh at them. When I look back over my life, and think of the sort of man I was as a wealthy tax officer, who had sold his soul to the god Mammon, and compare it with what has happened since Jesus called me and I said yes to him, I have no regrets at all. I left all that and followed him—and he has given me more wealth than I could ever imagine. Not gold or silver. Not palatial houses or rings on my fingers or servants waiting to cater to my every whim. Something far more precious, more beautiful has enriched my life. It is the richness of Divine love, a love so great that I want everyone on earth to know about it. I want everybody to be able to enjoy this holy love.
Through Jesus I have this treasure. Long ago I lost my possessions, repossessed by the Romans when I failed to fulfil my contract. My grand house on the hill was never completed. No doubt the ruins still sit there. I have become a poor man like my Master. And yet, I am fabulously rich.
I have been welcomed into a new family transcending the old barriers of race and class and gender. I am part of a new family with brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and children, who all care for one another. I have had new lands to explore, all in Jesus’ name. I have experienced the warm hospitality of those who welcome me with open arms here in Persia, just as others had previously done in in Pontus and in faraway Ethiopia. No man or woman could possibly be richer than I am.
No longer do I throw extravagant parties, nor feast at the tables of the wealthy or powerful. But I tell you this: when I eat at the table of my Master, with nothing spread there but the most common gifts of bread and wine, I am sharing in a feast which makes royal banquets seem like eating desert sand and drinking water from the Dead Sea.
When Christ calls a person, it is to a life of risk. Yet it is a risk underwritten by secure and abundant love which is more valuable than all the gold, silver, and precious jewels in the world. No Roman Caesar or Egyptian Pharaoh is as well off as the humblest Christian servant of Christ Jesus, our Lord.
That he came to my tax office with a call on his lips and love in his eyes, I shall be forever grateful, and will forever praise and adore him.
Gracious God, we are surprised, startled, amazed. We are surprised, Creator God, that you even bothered to create, that you had thought of a world or of a people. We are surprised by the delight you take in detail, by the subtle signs of your care that reveal a love so amazing, so divine. And God, we are startled, because you have not rejected your people. Despite the hard hearts and stiff necks of your covenant community, you have continued to come after those called by your name, eager to show your steadfast love, longing so much to know and be known that you took on flesh that we might see you face to face.
We are startled when we see you, because you challenge all our false assumptions. Lord, in your grace break down the fortresses of our misconceptions. Help us to see, once and for all, what it is you see: people cleansed and made holy by the love of Jesus Christ. Unearned, undeserved, unrighteous, except by the Word you have spoken, a Word that came and lived among us, full of grace and truth, from whose fullness we have received, grace upon grace.
And so it is that we stand amazed. Amazed that you create, amazed that you call, amazed that you care. We thank you for that care, and so lift up to you this day all who are in need of hope, encouragement, and healing. Empower us to be agents of your loving ways. As ambassadors of the reconciliation you offer us in Jesus Christ, help us to live by his example and tell others of the redemptive grace that we have experienced for ourselves. Tinge our words with compassion and forgiveness and allow our hearts to be filled to overflowing with your joy.
Gracious God, may we be daily surprised in your creation, hourly startled by the depths of your love and mercy, and every moment amazed by your care. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, who taught us these very words:
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
May God our Father bless you so that you can be a blessing to others.
May Christ bless you so that you can be healers of a world that is hurting.
May the Holy Spirit bless you so that you can spread the hope that only the triune God can inspire and give to this world.