Point of Decision

Matthew 9

It was Saturday, the 29th of August 2021. I was in Columbus, cleaning out my parents’ house after moving them to senior living. I was relieved to have them moved; my dad’s cancer had returned during the pandemic, and my mom’s memory had declined significantly as well. I hoped they would have some good years there, but if their health failed, I knew the care they needed was in place. 

Two days earlier, I’d got a call from the Southern Ohio Synod. I’d put my paperwork into the synod and interviewed with the bishop in July. I was concerned for my parents and wanted to care for them in their final years. Maybe there was a church I would like to serve in Ohio, a new challenge. Now here was the associate to the bishop, calling to ask if I were interested in being considered as a candidate for the open senior pastor position at a church in Dayton called Epiphany. I had to decide if I wanted to.

My husband said to me, “Hey, you’re going to be in Ohio on Sunday.  You should check out Epiphany.  See what it’s like.” I’d looked Epiphany up online, and what I saw seemed intriguing: a congregation with two campuses, strong ministries of service, and a focus on families. I was curious about who the people were who led these ministries and how it worked.

But as I sorted and boxed up items from my parents’ house, I wavered. Somehow in the intervening month since I’d interviewed with the bishop, I’d gotten cold feet. After all, I had lived in Connecticut for almost 30 years. I’d be moving away from what was familiar and so many beloved people. I felt a bit scared to open the door to this possibility. My husband was just suggesting attending worship, but for me, it was a point of decision: did I really want to be considered for this call?

Sometimes I wonder about the stories in scripture when Jesus calls his disciples. It seems that they simply pick up and follow him, no questions asked. Consider Matthew in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus sees Matthew sitting in his tax booth and issues a command: follow me. And Matthew gets up and goes with Jesus. Just like that.

But I imagine there must have been a moment of consideration for Matthew. This wasn’t some pre-planned rendezvous; Matthew is carrying out his usual business when Jesus interrupts him and invites him to follow.

Caravaggio’s painting entitled The Calling of St Matthew envisions the moment: St. Peter is standing in foreground, Jesus behind him on the right side of the painting. St Matthew is the bearded man in the beret, pointing to himself, as if to say, “Who me?”  But here’s the detail I love: Matthew keeps his hand on the coin he was counting while he looks at Christ. And in the chiaroscuro style characteristic of Caravaggio, the light shining on their activities contrasts with the darkness of the room.  Everything in this painting highlights the moment when Matthew must make a choice—it’s a point of decision.

One thing I notice in the Gospels is that Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush. He doesn’t suggest people consider changing their lives around, he is direct. He says things like:

I am going to dine at your house today.

Go and sin no more.

Get up and walk.

And yet it isn’t a foregone conclusion that everyone will follow Jesus’ directives.

The chapter prior to the calling of Matthew has a section entitled, “Would-Be Followers of Jesus.”  The passage tells about some eager people who want to follow Jesus. But when they learn that following Jesus means giving up sleeping in their own bed, or that allegiance to Jesus supersedes that of blood family, they turn around and go home. A point of decision can go either way.

Back at my parents’ house, I had to decide where I was going to go to church the next day. I could worship at Epiphany and see what it was like, as my husband said. Or I could go to my parents’ church – my dad was playing the violin.  How many more times would I have that opportunity? Besides, he was giving a farewell speech to the organist who was retiring. Epiphany seemed like such a long shot, and maybe I didn’t want to open that door anyway.And then I talked to Barbara on the phone. We’ve been friends for 20 years, and she has been a conversation partner in many of my decisions. I told her about my dilemma about where to worship the next day. She said, “Julie, just do your homework.” Barb saw what I didn’t – she saw I was resisting this possibility. I was closing a door before I even checked out what was on the other side. She knew that I was afraid, and that fear is not of God.   

I realized that she was right. So, the next day, I drove down from Columbus. I worshipped in the outdoor chapel, caught part of the 10:30 at Far Hills, and then drove over to Austin to catch the end of the service. It was interesting – the different worship styles, the two campuses, the town. I had a lot of questions and observations. I decided that I would put my name in as a candidate for the call.

Sometimes Jesus interrupts our routines and expectations with a loving command to follow him to new places and patterns. When we stand at these crossroads, we have to choose which way to turn. It’s a point of decision. It is about being open to the possibilities of God. 

It’s been almost two years since my first visit to Epiphany. We are on the cusp of raising the funds we need to call a full-time associate pastor, and the Call Committee is ready to spring into action. People are stepping up to lead our congregation, from the new church council members that we will vote in on June 25 and the first-time co-chairs of our stellar VBS this year, to the long-standing leaders of the Pantry, Storybook Project, and Drama Ministry. We are figuring out how to be church after the pandemic shutdown, how to integrate in person and virtual ministry, how to reconnect to one another and restart ministries. 

It’s a point of decision for each of us – to be ready to being all in and to support the ministry Jesus has in mind for Epiphany in this new time. 

Caravaggio painted two other St Matthew paintings for the same chapel as the Call of St Matthew: The Inspiration of St Matthew, where an angel whispers into Matthew’s ear as he writes his gospel; and the Martyrdom of St Matthew, where Matthew is killed by the sword while he faithfully leads worship.  They recount other points of decision, as Matthew said Yes to God’s purposes for him.  But I tend to think the first Yes at the tax booth was the most important, for it was from this decision to follow Jesus that all the others flowed.

So, let’s get that first decision right, and be open to the new thing God does among us. Jesus has a loving claim on each of us: when he opens a door, it is our job to step through in faith.  Jesus is leading us.  He has given us a mission to love him by serving others. Empowered by the Spirit, we can do all God calls us to do, together. 

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