Monday, September 21, 2009

Matthew: "God's Gift"

In the fall of 1995 I blocked out a week for private prayer and continuing education at our motherhouse, Julian House Monastery, in Wauksha, WI. My time, unfortunately, was cut short because of the death of a parishioner, and I had to return home on the fourth day. That was the feast of St. Matthew the Evangelist, September 21, just two weeks after Sister Scholastica Marie, OJN had been installed as Guardian of the Order of Julian of Norwich. Her sermon that morning was one which, at the time, resonated very deeply with me, and I've never forgotten it. Sister Scholastic Marie was gracious enough to give me a copy of her sermon, and I'm happy to share it with you now.

"Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom-house and said to him, 'Follow me'; and Matthew followed him." (Mt. 9:9 - REB)

"Several years ago I heard a sermon on the healing of blind Bartimaeus, the man who sat by the side of the road and cried out to Jesus, 'Son of David, have mercy on me.' I'm sure you do, and when Bartimaeus responded that he wanted to receive his sight, Jesus healed him. The story ends with--'Immediately he received his sight and followed Him on the way.' The preacher on this particular occasion exhorted the congregation that WE must not be like blind Bartimaeus, only crying out to Jesus for what He can do for us and then disappearing--never to be heard from again. Never to be heard from again? Which one of us is to define how we shall be known in the Kingdom? Never to be heard again? Bartimaeus did exactly what St. Matthew was invited to do--'Follow Me'--and Bartimaeus 'followed Him on the way.' After one responds to Jesus' invitation--the manifestation of our 'yes' is not our business. It is not up to us to proclaim our place in the kingdom--we are simply called to follow Him.

Perhaps, like me, you have wondered if it would be much easier to 'follow Him' if Jesus Himself had walked into our places of work and said, 'Follow Me.' Then we'd know FOR SURE that we were following the will of God for our lives. Right? NO! Then we would only have the same questions and doubts of the 1st cenutry disciples--is He really the Son of God? Are you the one or should we look for another? What about us? We have left everything to follow...?

Being a tax collector gives you choices. You can throw caution and friendship to the wind and squeeze plenty out of people. Or you can be reasonable, give the authorities what they demand, and live decently off the rest. This much people understand and perhaps grudgingly accept. But someone else was watching the proceedings which took place in that busy docking area in Capernaum. A certain man from Nazareth was in the area, and small groups were meeting in a couple of the local houses. It is possible that He and Levi, son of Alphaeus as he is called in Mark and Luke's Gospels, had already spoken a number of times--nothing lengthy or intimate, perhaps odd moments of sizing each other up during casual conversation. One day a figure passed that small window which overlooked the pier to allow the tax-collector to keep a keen eye on all the hustle and bustle. A moment later the figure blocked the light from the door and sent deep shadows over Levi's neatly written column of weights and amounts.

Whether Levi actually walked out of his office there and then does not really matter. But it may well be that he often looked back to that moment as the time when something ended and something began. Life is often like that; its dividing lines appear clear and neat only in retrospect. But that was the moment when Levi said, 'yes,' and probably like the rest of us, not knowing quite what he was saying Yes to, but knowing only a Person Who called and Who had to be followed. It changed him deeply and forever. He expressed that change in his name. Because he always felt that the encounter was worth more than all the calculations and contracts in his ledgers, he saw it as a gift beyond price. So he became Matthew, which means, 'God's gift.'

To the extent that we possess intimations and yearning for God, we are all Matthew. Yearning for God is His gift to us. There are rare souls, not necessarily brilliant or academic or saintly in the accepted sense, who possess certainties, who walk with God for much of their life. But most of us discover God only in moments of presence and flashes of insight. Yet these moments and flashes mean that we have been encountered by One who is offering us the gift of Himself. It means that, as for Levi carrying on his business on the landing pier of Capernaum, there is One who approaches and speaks and withdraws again, waiting for our response.

From our side--response is the beginning of OUR gift giving. Levi becomes Matthew not only because he realized that Jesus had come as a gift to him, but because he in turn has offered himself as a gift to Jesus. One of the unbelievable facts in the relationship between Christ and men and women is that the process of giving ourselves is done in total freedom. We can withhold ourselves. I personally know several people who up until now have continued to make that choice. Levi did not lay down his pen and book in a hypnotic trance. His allegiance was not forced. He did not become less Levi by becoming Matthew. Rather for the first time he recognized with blinding clarity the Levi part of him and accepted it as good material from which something else could be created.

The call of Levi, the changed to Matthew, made eyes widen and tongues wag in that long ago community. Whenever a Levi becomes a Matthew we are always astonished. At a party in Levi's house Jesus was questioned on the seeming strangeness of his choice. His answer, which we are continually forgetting, even as we look in the mirror, 'I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners." (Sermon of Sister Scholastic Marie, OJN, September 21, 1995)

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