Saturday, September 19, 2009
God in the gap - a sermon for St Matthew's Day.
When I was working in London in my twenties I always knew when the tube reached Embankment station, even if it was too crowded to see out of the window. You see, Embankment had a recorded announcement, which started the moment a train pulled in….. "Mind the Gap".
It was good advice if you didn't want to look very silly indeed, spread-eagled on the platform at the height of rush hour. Gaps can be hazardous things….
On the other hand, gaps can also be places of creative potential……where there is the space for almost anything to happen.
When I looked at our Gospel reading for today, I noticed a big gap between the first half of the story and the second. If you remember, we hear that Jesus calls Matthew, who gets up and follows him.
Full stop. That's it…
Then the story starts again, in another place: suddenly they are having dinner at the house. We aren't told which house….whether it’s the same day…we don't even know for sure if Matthew's a member of the party, though the references to tax collectors certainly make it seem likely.But it's not spelled out. We have to use the gaps imaginatively to try and get an overall picture of what's going on for Matthew, and what it might mean for us.
This isn't rare in Scripture.
It's often in the gaps that the Holy Spirit has the space to work….to draw us in to the situation, and to apply it to ourselves, perhaps by placing ourselves in the scene. There's an ancient tradition of prayer that works in this same way, by inviting us to enter the Gospels through our imaginations, so that the experience becomes our own. Sometimes, this can be very fruitful.
So, can I ask you to brave the gap with me today?
Are you sitting comfortably?
Then we'll let Matthew speak for himself.
"I can't pretend that tax collection was ever a lifetime's ambition. I kind of guessed, when the school careers advisor talked about my problems relating to people that this might be the line he'd take…..after all, you don't have to be friends with people to relieve them of their money. In fact, it rather helps if you're not too popular beforehand, as you certainly won't be once you get started.
I've always been a loner.
On the fringes.
Maybe it's not so surprising that, with nobody else to like me, or care about me, I've rather tended to take care of Number 1.
OK, I'll be straight with you.
Sometimes that's involved some less than honest dealings with the tax payer, but if you have to go home each night to an empty house, it might as well be the most comfortable house that money can buy. With a moat. And a duck house.
I kind of hoped that feathering my own nest, if it didn't actually buy me friends, might at least soften the loneliness a little.
I hated my life.
I hated the way the holy people, the Pharisees and Scribes, looked down their noses at me.
I hated the way boys I'd been at school with crossed the road to avoid speaking to me.
I suppose, if I'm honest, I hated me.
All in all, not a good place to be.
Just this huge empty feeling inside, a gap which I didn't know how to fill. Horrible.
Well…that was me as I woke up this morning. Another day….counting shekels, diverting a few here and there, passing the time till I could go home to the empty house. A day like any other, going nowhere.
Then, abruptly, it changed direction. I heard voices……..loud voices……excited voices.
A crowd, coming this way, drawn by that wandering preacher man, the Carpenter……Jesus, his name is……
Well, I'd wanted to look into his dealings for quite a while. Not much tax coming from his group, I can tell you though I'm sure that anyone who attracts that sort of crowd is raking it in somewhere…… The mob were all around me, pushing against my table, till I was worried they'd knock it over, and some precious coins would be lost…
As usual, I only saw their back views.
No-one was interested in telling me what was going on.
No-one was interested in me, full stop. I might as well have been invisible…
Or that's what I thought, till he spoke.
Just 2 words, but they were enough.
Well, I knew he couldn't mean me.
I looked behind me, to see who he was talking to…. but there was no-one behind me.
And those eyes of his, they seemed to focus on me as if I was the only person there had ever been.
Jesus, the man whose attention everyone wanted, seemed to want mine.
What else could I do?
I followed him……
I left it all.
The booth under the tree.
The tidy piles of coins (might as well forget going in to work tomorrow, then…….that's a sacking matter)….
no going back.
I followed him.
No idea where we were going. What we were going to do.
Just knowing that, for the first time in years, someone was looking at me as if I might be worth bothering with, as if I might, after all, be vaguely human.
That's what we talked about, actually, as we walked. He told me wonderful things. That I was called by name, and precious to God. That God had more than enough love in him to fill my emptiness, and blot out my failure. That God didn't really mind that much that I'd failed all the official "tests" of the Law, that I never made it to worship on the sabbath….
When the Pharisees came bursting in, full of criticisms of my life style, and my friends (not sure I'd have called them friends, really………just people I knew…..people no-one else wanted to know…….)
Well, when the religious right arrived, and started telling Jesus how awful we all were……oh, I loved that bit.
Jesus wasn't rude or unkind………he just told them that we needed him…
"It's not the well but the sick that need a doctor"
They couldn't exactly argue with that, could they?
They'd been so busy telling him what sick life-styles we had, and he simply pointed out that he was there to help us get better…..then, and this was the best thing, he used the Law and the prophets to prove his point.
He asked them if they really understood the words
"I desire mercy and not sacrifice!"
I wish you'd seen their faces. Even to a bystander, it was obvious that they didn't get it.
They were hot-stuff at all the sabbath observances, the purity laws, the showy things that marked them out as godly people, but when it came to anything deeper……..well……. They didn't know where to put themselves.
To start with, I just sat there enjoying their discomfort, but then the words started buzzing in my head too.
Mercy, not sacrifice.
Not sacrifice…. No need to go on bleeding people dry.
No need to bleed myself dry either.
Not too sure I really understand that....but I do know it means that things are alright between me and God.
Jesus didn't just tell me that. He showed me, too. When he is around, I can somehow see myself as he sees me, in a whole new light. No need to condemn myself for the past, or even for the mess of the present.
Because he finds me loveable, I might just one day learn to love myself. Meanwhile, if what he says about God is true, then looking into his face is like looking into the loving face of God himself."
There we have it. Matthew found God when He allowed Jesus into the gap in his life. He didn't try to paper over it, to tidy up the loose ends before he followed. He just came, as the broken, unhappy soul that he was, and found the love and acceptance which is on offer for us all. It may take courage to admit our gaps, but when we do, God can use them to do something wonderful.