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Sermon: Mattins - Feast of St Matthew 2014

Sunday 21st September 2014
1 Kings 19:15-end
2 Tim 3:14-end
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In Sex and the City: the Movie Carrie Bradshaw is reading Cinderella to her friend's daughter, Lily.  They get to the end; Lily would happily listen to the story again and again. Carrie looks at her and says 'You know this is just a fairy tale, right sweetheart? Things don't happen like this in real life'.

It's not just little girls who long for happy endings. Hollywood follows that same fairy tale formula; perhaps we're uncomfortable with films and novels tinged with tragedy or ambiguity.  But Carrie is right: real life isn't like that.  Just as in our lives, so with fictional stories, it is perhaps in the complex, disruptive and disappointing that we show resilience; that a deeper love of the other is kindled.  Unlike a Disney movie, it is in our frailty that our capacity for altruism grows.

As the Irish poet Micheal O'Saidhail expresses it in Knowing:

'.... An infinity of laughter

hangs beneath the orchards of before and after,

Our endless yearning among things that sunder.

A majesty and awe, but even more the wonder

That something is where nothing might have been.

Even in our brokenness a beyond is breaking in.'

How do we learn to live in relation to these moments of fragmentation, attending to the gaps and possibilities?  How do learn to attend to the beyond that is breaking in?

In his latest book, The Edge of Words, Rowan Williams encourages us to enter the  puzzlements of human language and communication; he says that he hopes to persuade us 'to listen afresh to how and where the language of faith in a communicating God comes into our habitual speaking'.  God is there amidst all our questions; amidst all that energises, disturbs and overwhelms us.

Our listening is rooted in Scripture.  Rowan explores this in a more accessible book, Being Christian. He says: 'Bible-reading is an essential part of the Christian life because Christian life is a listening life. Christians are people who expect to be spoken to by God... listening in so as to be able to speak.'

We listen so that we can speak, act, think, wonder and engage.  We listen together; we listen alone; we listen before God and our world. Scripture is learned and recited; we inhabit it and are in-dwelt by it.

Rowan acknowledges that the claim that the Bible is the 'territory in which Christians expect to hear God speaking' is not an uncomplicated one. This morning's readings are a very good example of that.

On the one hand we have the assertion made in 2 Timothy that:  'all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.'

On the other, we hear an except from the first book of Kings, which Richard Dawkins would dismiss not just a banal fairy tale but as an example of a text endorsing mass-murder and leading to the justification of such atrocities and xenophobia today.

Our response and engagement with these questions is profoundly important as we celebrate the Feast of Matthew, the Apostle and Evangelist.  For he, like us, is seeking to witness to the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ; and to put that love at the heart of every human life; and to be guided by the Spirit in listening to and living out this story of our redemption.

To paraphrase the American priest and theologian, Bill Countryman, the Bible is made up of hundreds and thousands of stories about human beings trying to make sense of the world and of God; and of God's self-communication to us, calling us to live according to his loving purposes.  Thus, rather than being  a series of instructions, we are confronted with law, history, psalmody, visions and parables; we encounter dense theological argument, sublime poetry and pastoral letters.

If we think we have got the Bible neatly packaged up, we will be surprised to turn the page and as Rowan puts it, find something different. He calls us to go beyond the surface meaning; to place ourselves within this narrative; to explore our response.

The whole things, he says, 'is a gift, a challenge and an invitation into a new world, seeing yourself afresh and more truthfully.'  To understand Timothy, we can't just take one bit that we like, that endorses our world view or roundly condemns another; nor can we approach Kings with the view that it is so unpalatable that we throw it out.

The reality is more complex, more honest and more life-giving.  'Are we capable' asks Rowan, 'in light of the Bible as a whole - of responding more lovingly or faithfully than ancient Israel?'

In the verses preceding our first lesson, we hear that Elijah had been zealous for the Lord; he was angered that the people of Israel had forsaken the covenant; the prophets who'd tried to draw them back to God's ways of justice and mercy had been killed.  Elijah was the only one left and as he hid on the mountain top, he found the Lord God not in wind,fire or earthquake but in the sound of sheer silence.  That experience has been romanticised and articulated afresh in the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.

Silence before God can both disturb and reassure. In Kings, silent encounter leads to the call of Elisha to become Elijah's servant; he takes up the dangerous mantel of prophesying to a people intent on ignoring the commandments of God.  But the narrative also speaks of the obliteration of the royal house of Ahab, and indeed anyone who had had dealings with them. 

Rather than seeing this as a moment of triumph and glory, the texts of scripture reflect back on this episode as a moment of failure and shame.  The prophet Hosea a few generations later sees it as problematic.  In the face of idolatry and self-service, God's people needed to be re-called to the commandments of love and faithfulness; but not by adding to the tragedy of human violence.

How are we faithful to God's love in our own circumstances? How do we approach scripture as a resource for that life-long dialogue and participation in the things of God?

It is by putting Christ at the centre: the word made flesh, who dwelt among us; the one who is, to coin Matthew's phrase, Emmanuel, God with us. He is the one who lived and died and rose again for us; who proclaims a kingdom that is not a fairy tale of  glass slippers, prince-charming and happy endings. He proclaims a kingdom that speaks of our redemption; of our being drawn more deeply in the love of God, transformed moment by moment. 

Christ is the 'luminous centre' of a 'virtuous circle' says Rowan.  We will continue to grow in understanding; revisiting our past, glimpsing the beyond as it breaks into our brokenness in creativity, compassion, forgiveness and delight. 

God loves us with a risky generosity that refuses to give up; his spirit is poured out on us, that with Matthew we might be sent into the world to witness to that abiding love; to God's light that refracted in the world.  May we take prayerfully in habit that story of redemption with a simplicity of heart, which mediates on Matthew's vision of a world where satisfaction is found not in material wealth but in spiritual wisdom.

Scripture invites us to abide in that wisdom: teaching us who Jesus is; directing us to walk in his steps; holding up a mirror to our lives; training us in righteousness; equipping us for every good work, embodying God's reconciling love.

So let us pray, in the words of a sonnet by Malcom Guite: poet, musician and chaplain at Girton College, Cambridge

First of the four, saint Matthew is the Man;

A gospel that begins with generation,

Family lines entwine around the Son

Born in Judea, born for every nation

Born under the Law that all the Law of Moses

Might be fulfilled and flower into Grace

As every word and deed in time discloses

Eternal love within a human face.


This is the gospel to the great reversal

A wayside weed is Solomon in glory

The smallest sparrow's fall is universal

And Christ the heart of every human story

'I will be with you, though you may not see

And all you do, you do it unto me.'