Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reflections on the Feast of St. Matthew - September 20

Making the Grade 
I don’t think I realized how complicated it would be to become a Pastor.  Sometime in 1982 I began to feel a call to become a Pastor.  At the time I was a very active member of the LCMS mission in Caracas, Venezuela.  But after speaking with my Pastor, I began applying to seminary and soon realized that my two degrees in music performance were suspect and might not qualify me to be admitted to seminary.  So I was required to demonstrate proficiency in a wide range of other disciplines before they would accept me – including philosophy and writing.  I had to join an LCA congregation and then apply to the synod committee for professional leadership for approval.  I had to take a battery of psychological and vocational exams.  And once I was accepted and started at seminary I had to maintain my grades, demonstrate that I had the skills to be a pastor, participate in at least one summer unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at a hospital.  I had to do a year of internship, which I completed in Pasadena, CA.  And then I had to endure two separate evaluations – one from the seminary and the other from the synod approval committee.  This evaluation had two parts: 1. A written exam that took me 3 days to complete; 2. An oral exam that had multiple parts and took a full day.  At the end of it all, I was approved for call and ordination.  And then I entered into the call process which also took about 6 months.  Finally, I was called to serve Bethany Lutheran Church in Akron, Ohio, and on September 19, 1987 I was ordained and began ministry.
I have often thought that if the disciples whom Jesus had called had been required to endure a process similar to the professional leadership process in the, now, ELCA Jesus might not have had many disciples.  “Follow me!”  Is all that Jesus says and according to all 4 Gospels we know that 12 men did give up their livelihoods, left their families and followed Jesus.  And not only that, but they continued to follow Jesus even after the crucifixion and resurrection.  This seemingly random call process did not include any examinations or interviews, there seems to be no minimal qualifications, there does not even appear to be any religious or moral standards either.  The 12 disciples are a curious mix of men from different backgrounds, social status and affiliations.  We have fishermen – hard working men from the Galilee who barely made enough to feed their families (Peter, Andrew, James and John); we have radical revolutionaries (we might call them terrorists today) – Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot; we have deep thinkers, men who might have been Pharisees – Philip, Bartholomew and possibly Thomas; and we have a Roman collaborator, a tax collector named Matthew.
Wait, what?!!!  A tax collector!!!  Now, I know that few of us even today much like paying our taxes.  But tax collection today is a completely different business from the Roman process of tax collection during the 1st century occupation of Palestine.  The Romans enlisted local men, usually men who were educated a little and who had a some community status and gave them the authority to assess and collect whatever taxes they thought appropriate.  The Romans of course did not pay these men.  They were required to submit a certain amount to Rome, but anything over and above that amount they could keep for themselves.  So the tax collectors became notorious for their assessments especially on landowners, charging them huge amounts and then pocketing a large part of it and making themselves rich which others fell deeper and deeper into poverty.  And if you didn’t want to pay, the tax collectors could invite the local Roman garrison to pay you a visit to help you make up your mind.  It is obvious why these men were despised and hated.  Not only were they collaborators with the hated Romans, but they were fleecing their own people.  They were despicable and they were excluded and shunned.  It is not an accident that in the gospels tax collectors are lumped in the sinners – “tax collectors and sinners.” 
But Jesus sees this hated tax collector and says, “Follow me!”  It must have been a shock not only to Matthew, but also to the others – especially the revolutionaries in the group.  I can only imagine how well they all got along at first.  But it does beg this question – What criteria did Jesus use to pick these disciples?  What qualified them to be disciples?  The answer is – nothing! They were not qualified to be disciples, to be followers.  The only thing that was necessary is that they “left their nets and followed him,” or that “he got up and followed him.”
We live in a society that places high value on qualifications and certifications (and, I hasten to add, there is nothing wrong with that – we need people to be qualified for the work they do), but we tend to apply this to our faith life and our relationship with God.  We think that in order to follow Jesus you have to believe x, y z – you have to have these specific moral values and live this kind of lifestyle – you have to do this or that or hold these political views and so forth.  Not true! Not Biblical!  To follow Jesus, to be a disciple of Jesus, all that is required is that you are willing to get up and follow.  And the fact is that Jesus has called to each and every one of you as well: “Follow Me!”  It happened in your Baptism; it happen at confirmation; it happens each and every time you receive bread and wine and here the words: “given and shed for you;” it happens every time you voice your affirmation to “Go in peace, serve the Lord; Thanks be to God;” It happens each and every time you open your bible and read about God’s amazing Grace; It happens each and every time you utter a prayer to God in Jesus’ name; It happens each and every time you offer someone a drink of water, or a visit, or some food, or kindness.” 
Jesus is constantly speaking these works to you: “Follow Me.”  I suspect that Matthew did not think well of himself, that all of the hostility and hate shown to him during his time as a tax collector probably took a huge toll on him.  He probably was just trying to get through the day, accumulate as much as possible so he could use that money and the luxury it purchased to shut the hateful world out.  But then he heard that voice – “Follow me.”  And his life changed completely. Not that there still wasn’t hardship and suffering and even hostility.  But it was different now.  He was a part of a community, he had experienced God’s amazing unconditional love and that enabled him to continue on even when it required him to pick up his own cross.

What happens to Matthew after the events of the Passion and Pentecost?  We do not know.  The Gospel that bears his name is attributed to him.  Some of the early church fathers suggest that he travelled to Ethiopia but others say Persia.  Traditionally it is believed that Matthew was martyred, but the circumstances are unknown.  Ultimately it doesn’t matter.  What matters though is that on a hot day in Palestine while Matthew was working at his collection table he encountered Jesus, who looked at him and said these words to him: “Follow Me!”  And “he got up and followed him.” 

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