Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Writing on the Heart: St Matthew

Caravaggio, Inspiration of St Matthew
[From Community Eucharist for the Feast of St Matthew, Evangelist, including Matriculation for Berkeley Divinity School 2016]

Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them round your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.

You will write a lot of words while you are here. Some will be more important and lasting than others. The word or two that constitutes signing one’s name here tonight may however be among the more important acts of writing undertaken by those matriculating at Berkeley and Yale.

What are these who sign this evening doing, exactly? The ceremony of matriculation stems from the medieval universities of Europe, where the matricula was a roll containing the names of all the students who, having joined the community, were able to exercise the privileges of membership as well as to accept its responsibilities. Matricula, a diminutive of matrix, means a womb or source; writing where many others have done before at Berkeley, going back to 1854, these students now experience a sort of untimely birth-through-writing into a new community of scholars, an alma mater which claims them as its children. The matriculants do not merely write a name, they join and form a community with the act of writing.

So what shall we write together, other than our names? We meet today under the patronage of a writer, St Matthew the Evangelist. Matthew is commemorated in the lections in two modes tonight: one is the references or allusions to scripture and its writing, in 1 Timothy and the passages from Proverbs and Psalms that refer to the writing and teaching of the righteous way of the Lord; the other is in the story of Matthew’s call away from his desk and his earlier ways of writing, and the ensuing banquet at which Jesus must defend his own taste in community, saying "I came to call not the righteous but sinners” and, quoting Hosea, “learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’"

The words about writing and teaching the way of the upright sit awkwardly with the raucous banquet scene, and the lines from Proverbs and Hosea in particular seem to struggle together in our matrix: Proverbs writes of the steady unflinching forward path of loyalty; Hosea - followed by Jesus and Matthew - describes the winding but upward road of mercy.

In fact they are referring to exactly the same thing with “loyalty” and “mercy” - it’s even the same Hebrew word. This hesed can otherwise more wordily be rendered as the covenant faithfulness of God. One of the reasons we write here - and write, and write more - is because of the desire to understand such niceties of biblical and theological language and literature, and to share them. But the more fundamental reason is to understand that same particular thing of which both Hosea and the sage wrote - and then to write it ourselves.

The covenant faithfulness of God writes us all into the matrix of a community, that “beloved community” so often spoken of. This notion, which emerges from the the thought of Dr Martin Luther King, but also before him from that of Josiah Royce and Howard Thurman, focusses on the love, the agape, to which the Gospel calls us. The beloved community is a form of life before God and with one another that is marked both by loyalty and mercy, which arise from the most fundamental virtue of love, which is not only God’s gift but God’s nature. Loyalty, because you cannot be merciful from nowhere; mercy needs a community. Mercy, because loyalty alone means just corporate selfishness.

Matthew was already a writer when called from the tax collector’s booth. He was recording names, and numbers next to them, creating a matricula of sorts - a record of exploitation under the cover of violent occupation, an accusatory list of the names of those who would then despise him for his complicity in their oppression. And now too, there are other matriculae being written under the hands of other forces; the names of Terence Crutcher and Keith L. Scott were tragically matriculated this week so far into one of them; last week twenty-nine people in Peshawar, Pakistan, whose names you would struggle to find in any news source, but are known to God and remembered and loved, were added to another such list of despair.

And so, in response, in anger and sadness and joy, we write our lists and our stories, believing these are the truer and the more powerful. We write of love and justice, of God’s grace and salvation, of the depths of sin and the glory of hope. And always we write of loyalty and of mercy, of God’s covenant faithfulness.

To write our names on this matricula at Berkeley or any list does not free us from complicity in the oppressions of our own time; rather it testifies to our willingness to receive and to give mercy, and to feast with the complicit as well as the righteous, to be part of and to build the beloved community. We choose this action, while others have their names written where they would not be, drawn into communities pf violence. We who write our names receive this gift of beloved community not to hoard but to give; to place our loyalty at the service of mercy.

So write your love and insight and anger and hope into papers these two or three years or more, of course; write it in blogs and in articles, write it in books and tweets, write it on paper napkins and chalk it on walls. But even then you will not have written it where you will find it most needed. Scripture itself witnesses, as Proverbs does this evening, to this strange and wonderful image again and again, of writing on the heart:

Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them round your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.

Write it on the heart. And may the Spirit of God guide your hand.

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