Dwelling at the Edge of Expectation
September 22, 2002
St Matthew's Day Ordinary Sunday 25 Matthew 20:1-16
Being the day of St Matthew, it seemed a worthwhile exercise to see what other St Matthew's churches were doing around the world. I did an Internet search, and found St Matthew's nestled in the Hollywood Hills, St Matthew's on the famous Manly Corso in Sydney, St Matthew's in the Turtle Mountains in Canada, St Matthew's in Fairbanks Alaska, and - my favourite - St Matthew's on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. When I leave St Matthew-in-the-City maybe I hope to work in St Matthew's in the Bahamas!
I came across a fascinating St Matthew's in Cobo, Guernsey, UK. They claim to have set up the first web site in their diocese. It caught my attention because its beginnings were a wonderful story of faith. St Matthews in Cobo came about because a five-year-old girl had a vision. In the 1830's a young Marianne Carey was holidaying with her family, and found herself atop a hill. She looked down on a town of mainly fisherfolk, and noticed that there was no church or school. She discovered that their nearest church was a 2 mile walk. She asked her father if they could build a church in Cobo, and he suggested she wait until she was older. Marianne didn't forget her dream. At the age of 17 Marianne began by selling a series of pictures which she had bought, framed and sold for 2 guineas.
Gradually the money came in and culminated in a total of £1600, which in those days was sufficient to build a good church with 300 seats. Other gifts were offered - a vicarage, bells and a churchyard. You can only imagine that the equivalent of what the girl raised in today's terms would amount to millions of dollars. The church flourishes today, is very proud of its heritage, and all due to the dream of a young girl. Isn't it so often true that miracles occur in surprising places and through the least likely people?
Jesus said, the first will be last, and the last first. He also said the least will be the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven. He said, become like a child if you want to become great.
In a similar vein, philosophical Taoism says,
The path into the light seems dark
the path forward seems to go back
the direct path seems long
true power seems weak
true parity seems tarnished
true steadfastness seems changeable
true clarity seems obscure
the greatest people seem unsophisticated
the greatest love seems indifferent
the greatest wisdom seems childish
Our Patron Saint Matthew teaches us much about these sayings. He was the greatest and the least simultaneously. His role of tax collector was one of the most coveted economic positions in the Empire. He was part of what Marx called the 'comprador bourgeoisie'. His pockets were lined by all but stealing from his own people. Of course the ruling class profited even more healthily by the work of the Matthews of that world. It was a high position, yet one which led to being despised by the people. It depended on which perspective you came from. Matthew was both the greatest and the least. Jesus, being enlightened, didn't perceive reality from the position of social status. He saw the heart of people and responded accordingly. 'First' and 'last' were simply social creations, changeable categories of prejudice.
The call of St Matthew's churches everywhere is to see people as they are, and not according to the perception of the day; their social status, their job, their age or sexuality. The call for St Matthew-in-the-City, is - like the first Matthew - to dwell at the edge of expectation. This means pushing theological boundaries, refusing stereotyped social perspectives and seeking the heart of people and things. In this we will get to the core of Jesus mission; the obliteration of categories such as first and last, greater and lesser, gay and straight.
It means being inclusive, but not in a sentimental sense of the word. We do make discernments about people. The young guy who regularly storms into my office, a street preacher, who condemns me to hell alongside all gay people, is not welcome in this church. I have issued him with a trespass notice, and I will have him arrested if he returns. We are inclusive in the sense that people of all backgrounds, faiths, beliefs, sexualities and cultures have equal footing in this church. Our inclusiveness has its limits, because hate mongers - those who deny the very inclusiveness we strive for - are not welcome.
St Matthew's Day is a time to celebrate our position at the edge and to acknowledge our long history of occupying this uncomfortable and sometimes lonely space. We honour those who have gone before us; those who fought to keep this church open, those who fought for the rights in the church of women and gay and lesbian people, those who had radical engagement with the city and its people, those who took a stance even if it was unpopular.
St Matthew's Day is also a time to seek solidarity in this calling. Because the edge can be a frightening place, we need each other. I see myself as a good match for St Matthew's as my journey through the church has been an uncomfortable one, as many of yours have been. All through my time in the church (and Auckland is no different) I have found more connections with people outside the church than in. I have found people who are attracted to church but only at the edge and no further in. I have met people who say to me if they weren't at St Matthew's they wouldn't be in the church, and I feel much the same.
The nature of dwelling at the edge of expectation is that most opposition comes from within the institution. I received a letter from another vicar in Auckland (who I haven't met) who opposed our recent service with the Buddhist monk, Tenzin Chosang, speaking. It was an intriguing letter. He hadn't checked his facts. He accused us of fraternising with Muslims. He tried to threaten me and used the Bishop as back up. Most interesting was that he referred to me as "Mr" Lawton and himself as "Rev". He obviously has his own ideas about who is least, or greater in that relationship. I receive regular hate mail these days, and always from people in the church, while people outside and at the edge constantly encourage me to keep at it. We need each other if our journey at the edge is to be sustainable.
Life at the edge is not all paranoia and persecution. It is also a constant delving into the bounds of possibility. Its an exciting place to be, and one which we should look forward to; as at the edge the only limitation to the life affirming ministry we can offer is our own imagination. It is exciting because here even the vision of a five year-old can inspire us to new possibilities.
Next week we elect our new Vestry and begin another year in the church. I invite all those who share a vision for being at the edge of possibility, pushing the boundaries of expectation, exploring radical and life affirming theology - those who seek the heart of people above social structures - to join in taking the long and radical history of this church to its next stage. We don't know exactly where we will end up, but together we can be sure it will be somewhere exciting.
I invite all of you to come on a journey, to dwell in possibility, to work for life and people, to stand up and be counted.