Sunday, June 8, 2008

Get Up and Follow

Get Up and Follow

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder

Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
June 8, 2008

As Jesus was walking along,
he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth;
and he said to him, “Follow me.”
And he got up and followed him.

This is the sort of title that can easily be misread in the bulletin: “Get Up and Follow Pastor Elder,” it could be read. Or, “Get Up and Follow, Pastor Elder...” The second rendition, with the added comma, is better, more in line with our text for today too.

A pastor’s call, every believer’s call, is to help people learn to follow Jesus. All people, every sort of person. It is part of a pastor’s job to help believers discover that they have a calling to the faith, that it’s not just a matter of personal choice or preference like a supermarket spirituality, but rather that Jesus calls, and we respond. He is the initiator and we are the ones he moves. At least that is the way it is supposed to be.

One of the most frequent questions asked of every pastor usually has to do with our sense of calling. I can stand up here and tell you that every believer has a calling, and I believe it is true, but there exists within lots of people a sort of suspicion that pastors receive a special sense of call, a kind of high-octane summons from God. “How did you know you were called to be a minister?” people will ask, or “How did you decide to become a pastor?” How did we begin singing “Standing on the Promises,” when before we had simply been sitting on the premises?

The fact is, for many pastors, decision had little to do with it. For most of us, there has been some sort of resistance, some doubt, some question, often a question which follows us right into our ministries: “Is this what I am really supposed to be doing with my life?” And despite some appearances, for most there has been no opening of the heavens, always there remains some question, some curiosity about our own call to ministry. I suspect the same is true for most believers. It is easy for us to envy people who have what Barbara Brown Taylor once called “a spectacular sense of call.”1 She wrote,

“I once had a job that involved reading applications for admission to a Methodist seminary. One of the questions on the standard form was, ‘Why are you applying to this school of theology?’ The answers were often fantastic, many of them involving car wrecks in which the applicant’s narrow escape resulted in a call to preach...”

That would be a report of a dramatic call to ministry, like Paul’s famous blinding light when he was on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christian community there. Dr. Taylor recalls once interviewing a man who was in prison for an adolescent incident in which he was involved in an armed robbery. He became a believer while in prison and had served enough of his sentence without incident and with good behavior that when he informed his parole board of his desire to pursue a call to ministry in the church, they had told him if he was accepted as a candidate for ministry, they would let him out. During his interview with the application committee, he pulled up his shirt to show his inquirers where a bullet had gone in his stomach and out his back. “That was my burning bush,” he told them. Dr. Taylor goes on,

“Sometimes I think that those spectacular call stories in the Bible do more harm than good. At the very least, I suppose, they are good reminders that the call of God tends to take you apart before it puts you back together again, but they also set the bar on divine calling so high that most people walk around feeling short...If you walk into the average Christian church to explore your purpose, chances are that you will come out with an invitation to...volunteer at the soup kitchen on Tuesdays. It is almost enough to make you envy the guy with the bullet hole.”

This is one reason I like the story of Matthew’s call to ministry so much. Unlike Paul’s story, complete with a voice from heaven and a blinding light, tantamount to a bullet hole in the belly, Matthew’s call is as simple and straightforward as can be imagined: “As Jesus was walking along,” the gospel says, “he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.”

Ta da! That’s it. Jesus called, Matthew followed. Simplicity itself. The questions Matthew may have had, any self-doubts and worries apparently were to be addressed later, if at all. The main issue is following when called.

Another reason I like the story of Matthew’s call has to do with the person Matthew was and what he represented to those around him. Matthew was what one scholar called a “prototype sinner.” Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were people who were motivated by pure self-interest. They were equated with sinfulness in the way that some say when you looked up the word in a dictionary, you’d see their picture as an illustration. The way “byzantine” has come to mean “complicated,” and “Dickensian” refers to a dark time of social injustice, “tax collector” in Jesus’ day meant really really bad sinner.

This suggests there may more to getting up and following Jesus than just getting up. There is more to our call to follow him than good intentions poorly wrought. And there is certainly more to this call business than being good people, as the story of Matthew’s call amply demonstrates. Matthew didn’t start out as a good person destined for ministry. Jesus called Matthew, and Matthew rose up and followed. That was the test for discipleship, for calling, the getting up and following. Any other necessary qualifications could apparently be added later.

That Jesus called fishermen to be his disciples and to share his work sounds lovely and rural and somehow particularly satisfying in a homespun way. Fishermen like Peter and Andrew were, after all, industrious, hardworking, productive members of their community. Easy enough to agree with Jesus’ decision to call them. But tax collectors? It’s as if Jesus chose to include in his class of disciples Mike Tyson, or the executives of Enron who were willing to sacrifice the welfare and savings of thousands to line their own pockets. The hard truth is that it’s true, Jesus does call such people. But not just such people. Jesus calls all sorts of people, and our names are on his list side by side with them, yours and mine.

It has been said that people do not volunteer to be disciples, they are called to that work. A church is not an association of volunteers, it is a congregation of people who have been called by Christ. In the gospels Jesus was known to reject people who supposed they could become disciples simply by means of their own decision;2 likewise, in our passage today Jesus calls one who would have been rejected by others.3 Rejecting the chosen, choosing the rejected. There is certainly good news for someone hidden in such a gospel story about Jesus. It must have been good news for Matthew and other sinners. He collected a house full of other tax gatherers and assorted sinners to listen to the words of the master.

I think the combination of the story of Matthew’s call with the account of the healings of the little girl and the hemorrhaging woman is insightful for this reason: Jesus responded to his critics that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Yet the hard truth is, no one is well. No one. Those who believe they are sinless thereby shield themselves from the grace of Jesus.

How did it feel to be a prototype sinner, like Matthew, despised one day, a disciple the next? How does it feel for any of us, really, to carry the name of Jesus? Probably for Matthew, as for the rest of the disciples, as for us, there is a feeling of being unequal to the task of representing Christ to the world. And still we are called.

Some of you may be familiar with the operas of the great composer, Giacomo Puccini, who wrote such works as Madam Butterfly, and La Bohème. While suffering with cancer he was working on his opera Turandot, which he continued to write at a clinic to which he had been sent in Brussels. Turandot proved to be his final, though still unfinished, work. It is said that he realized he was not going to be able to complete it and asked his students to finish it for him. He left many pages of drafts for a duet and the last scenes of the opera. The completion of the project finally was left to one of Puccini’s students, Franco Alfano, who completed the opera six months after the maestro’s death.

Soon after Puccini died in 1924, the opera opened at the La Scala Opera House in Milan. It was conducted by another of his students, his son-in-law Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini conducted the opera until he reached the point where Puccini's work had remained incomplete at his death. Toscanini stopped the orchestra and singers and put down his baton. He faced the audience and announced, “Thus far the master wrote. Then he died.”4 After a pause, he said, “But his disciples continue his work.” He raised his baton and finished the opera, which was greeted with thunderous applause.

I suppose that disciples of all times know what this sort of story means. Anyone who has ever had a mentor, a figure to whom they have looked for guidance knows the feeling of inadequacy in their presence. I recall preaching in my church once when an invited guest speaker for a renewal event at the church — one of my former seminary professors, a brilliant man who electrified students in the lecture hall at Princeton Seminary — was sitting in the pews, on one side, about three rows from the back. It was nerve-wracking, I can tell you. What a challenge it is to carry on the call to ministry in front of your master! Even so, we recall with Matthew’s story today that Jesus persistently calls disciples, all of whom are made whole through their love of that man, all of whom labor to continue his work.

And it has been this way for those who follow him ever since.

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1 “True Purpose,” by Barbara Brown Taylor, in Christian Century, February 21, 2001, p. 30.
2 Matthew 8:18-20.
3 New Interpreter’s Bible VIII, Matthew Boring, Abingdon, 1995, p. 235.
4 Source: