The last time I preached on St Matthew's day, I was part way through my training for ordination, and enjoying a 3 month placement at St James's Church in Tredworth, Gloucester It was a memorable evening for assorted reasons.
To begin with, for the first time, though not the last, I had one of those experiences that make a preacher's blood run cold. As the gospel reading began I listened with growing horror. This was not the account of the call of Matthew that I was expecting, the reading that my service sheet suggested, - but something quite quite different. I came within a whisker, as a very new preacher, of throwing in the towel there and then and asking the vicar to take over - but I knew that one of my tutors was there to assess my performance, so that wasnt really an option. Fortunately that night I'd chosen to tackle the call of Matthew via an Ignatian style meditation, inviting my congregation to enter into the story and experience its power at first hand...so it was possible to continue with just a few words of introduction. I told the story again from Matthew's viewpoint, highlighting his experience of being made an outsider because of his profession, his lonely existence as the one whom nobody really wanted to know. I imagined people shying away when they found themselves close to him, considered the impact that must have had, the steady erosion of self-esteem till he began to see himself, perhaps, as less than fully human. I talked about the radical shock of hearing himself called by Jesus, of being told that Jesus needed him - him, the one whom nobody needed, nobody wanted Of his amazement in discovering that he could just walk away from his old life into a future made bright by the welcome shining in Jesus' eyes
That despised and broken as he was, Jesus saw his hunger and sat down beside him to eat.
I talked about the discomfort of the Pharisees as they were put in their place, - they, the experts in the law and its meticulous observance, hearing it turned against them "I desire mercy not sacrifice"
Above all, I talked about liberation... The realisation that with Jesus, we can turn from our old way of being, and can embrace with confidence a future beyond our imaginings. That no matter who we are, mercy, not sacrifice, is the yardstick by which we are judged.
It wasn't a bad sermon, actually - but what made that evening memorable was the impact it had on one member of the congregation. I led the intercessions, reflecting the same themes of acceptance and of liberation, and when the time came moved into the nave to share the Peace. That's when I saw him, a middle aged man in rather shabby clothes, sitting in the back row sobbing his heart out. For all my reticence as a learner priest, I knew that I had to go over and see if he wanted to talk. Imagine my surprise when he gripped my hand in both of his and said "Thank you so much. That sermon was my story. You won't have seen me here before because I've been in Dartmoor for the past 5 years. I was released on Friday. I've been the one whom nobody wanted to know...but I'm also the one whom Jesus called, and Jesus welcomed. Now I'm free." My own tears mingled with his as we sang the Offertory hymn, And Can it be "My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed thee"
That evening, two of us at least were so very conscious of the reckless mercy of God...Two of us, amid a congregation of fifty, went home knowing that God still calls not the righteous, but sinners to repentence.
We've no idea what prompted the founding fathers of this church to choose Matthew as its patron, but we can be glad that the gospel truth of unconditional love and boundless welcome is built into our DNA from the day the foundation stone was laid.
May God give us grace to cherish the outsiders and welcome them in his name, even as he welcomes us, broken and battered by sin, to feast at his table.