A Homily for St Matthew’s-tide
It is a great privilege to be here this weekend, as much today as last night. Thank you again to Fr Naylor, and to all of you, for your warm welcome. It is a joy to preach here at St Matthew’s, at St Matthew’s Tide, and to stand where one of my great heroes of the faith, Fr George Campbell Ommanney, once stood. And I bring you greetings and prayers from the people of my own parish, Holy Trinity, Ettingshall, in Wolverhampton.
Before I begin, I need to check – is there anyone here today who has anything to do with the television programme ‘Come Dine with me’? Please say no…
‘Come Dine with me’. What a contrived load of nonsense that programme is. If you haven’t seen it (and that would indicate good taste on your part) it consists of four people being invited for meals in each other’s houses, and carping about the standard of the food, the decor and the hospitality. There is an irritating man doing a voiceover who tries to convince us that this is somehow a terrible serious and life-changing business. Whoever gets the highest marks for their dinner party gets a cash prize. And that’s it. An hour of your life you will never get back.
But today is different. ‘Come Dine with me’ says Matthew to Jesus, as well as to his tax collector pals. And it must have felt a little strange. Up until now he has been seriously outcast – a tax collector, someone who took his own cut off the top by extorting just a little bit more than his Roman overlords required, and was therefore doubly unpopular – doing the occupying power’s dirty work for them, and feathering his own nest into the bargain. Such a one was not only unpopular. He was shunned by polite and orthodox Jewish society, because he was impure. But he follows Jesus, the one who accepts sinners as they are, with no preconditions, and he throws a dinner. And a lot of his friends from his professional circle drop in at the same time, and there’s a room full – a roomful of sinners, outcasts, those beyond the pail. And there is Jesus. It is a public relations nightmare, a real Daily Mail moment, just waiting to happen. And happen it does, because those stern, vigilant and observant Pharisees, for whom purity is all, point out that this really isn’t respectable company for a rabbi.
Jesus gives them short shrift.
If in your self-centred arrogance you believe that all is right with your world, sufficient for you to spend time policing others;
if you really feel yourself to be healthy, and at rights with God, then so be it. You’re wrong, but so be it.
You probably won’t be interested in what Jesus has to say – you certainly won’t want to dine with him.
If, on the other hand, you are humble enough to recognise that all is not entirely well in your life – that you are frail, and foolish, and prone to sin and error – if that is your view of yourself, then come and sit down, pour yourself a glass, and tuck in, because you are the people Jesus lived for, and died for, and rose again for.
I don’t know if Fr Naylor experiences this in Sheffield, but one of the most frustrating aspects of Mission I have ever encountered is when someone says to me that they don’t feel that they are ‘good enough’ or ‘virtuous enough’ to go to church. How did we manage to convey to people that church was a place of impossible standards for people, when in fact it is a hospital for sinners? How did we communicate such a false message?
Your patron saint looks on, with a bemused expression, in heaven, whenever people decide that they are not good enough to come to church, and, even worse, when we set ourselves up to be better or more virtuous than others. It is a damning indictment on the church, and has no place in our understanding of who Jesus is and why he took flesh in the first place. A Christian gathering has three common features: love to be freely shared, grace to be received, and sins to be forgiven. There are no exceptions. We learn to love one another, and we learn to recognise our sin and we learn to allow Jesus to deal with it.
Why else did this Mass begin today with an opportunity to contemplate and confess to one another and before God our sins and shortcomings?
Why else does the Mass say ‘Before we start, and so that we can praise and worship God properly, and receive all he longs to give us, let’s clear the decks of all obstacles.’ We commit sins, we aren’t perfect, but we don’t need to fear sin. Because of Jesus, and what he does for us, sin has no hold on us. Our God is merciful.
Paul reminds us that we were called – all of us, called by God, into one and the same hope – priests, prostitutes, Scousers, Lancastrians, even people from Yorkshire, EVEN the man who does the voiceover on Come Dine With Me. We are all called into one and the same hope, hope in Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, ascended, glorified; because the Jesus who called Matthew to follow him calls us to do the same, and to live in the same hope that the Jesus who calls us will save us to be his in heaven.
There isn’t a person who has ever lived who has been somehow not good enough to be part of the church. There is no-one to whom we can say ‘I’m sorry, but you just don’t come up to our standards.’ Everyone has a place here. We are not bound by the regulations which governed the way the Pharisees lived their lives. We have no place, no time, no reason to worry about whether the person sitting immediately to our left is free from the stain of sin.
Matthew followed Jesus. He abandoned his former life. He turned his back on the past, recognising the Jesus was the one who could free him from all that he had done. And that is worth celebrating, as he did, because the love of God is the only love worth having – all other love flows from it, is a reflection of it.
So thank God, from the bottom of your heart, for the taxman, who followed him, and who threw a dinner. Party long and hard, with brass bands and singing and with joy. For through him we learn the story of how one sinner found his way not just to the dinner table, but the heavenly banquet: and how we, who honour Jesus this day might do the same. St Matthew, our glorious patron, pray for us!
Preached at the Church of St Matthew, Carver Street, Sheffield, Saturday 24th October 2016