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Tolkien, Matthew & Baptism

Most people become claustrophobic just at the thought of entering a long, narrow, dark tunnel—so imagine being stranded within a section of a tunnel deep within a mountain. Dampness hanging about you. And as you venture to move forward in the pitch dark, instead of finding solid ground, your foot steps into a pool of icy cold water. That little splash in fact marks the edge of a great underground lake. It is here, deep under the earth on the edge of a deadly cold body of water, that the reader eventually encounters the grotesque slimy creature named Gollum.

As J.R.R. Tolkien narrates the story it is the not-so-willing adventurer Bilbo Baggins, who finds himself alone in a tunnel, separated from his Companions. And it is Bilbo’s foot that discovered the lake edge. And as in any good Adventure story, after escaping from the clutches of horrible goblins, Bilbo, now alone in the tunnel, at the edge of an underground lake, is about to face a new challenge.

From an outpost upon a slimy island of rock, out in the middle of that same cold dark lake, Gollum heard the splash of water. With his two big round pale eyes in his thin face Gollum could see Bilbo across the lake. Described as “dark as the darkness itself” without making a sound Gollum gets into his little boat and silently paddles towards Bilbo, his large feet dangling over the side, heading toward the unsuspecting Bilbo. Gollum got his name from the horrible gurgling noise made in his throat when he spoke, and Gollum would normally think nothing of sneaking up behind a stray goblin, or in this case a hobbit, and strangling them in cold blood to provide a tasty meal.

For those of you who have read the book The Hobbit which is a prelude of sorts to the Lord of the Rings, trilogy, this encounter between Bilbo and Gollum sets the stage for the great drama that takes the rest of the trilogy to unfold. For in this meeting, one learns that Gollum has been the finder and custodian of a ring so powerful—that it corrupts anyone who wears it.

In Gollum, Bilbo encounters a creature that was once a hobbit like himself; Yet, as a result of being subjected to centuries of the corroding influence of the ring, Gollum is almost unrecognizable—the ring has twisted both his Hobbit body and mind in grotesque ways. The only thing that saves Bilbo in this unexpected meeting, is that Gollum has lost the ring, and he wonders if Bilbo might have found it.

In literature, a good villain or foe is not easy to conceive and execute—and one of the examples of why The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are able to transcend the label of mere “escapist fantasy” can be found by examining the complexity of the character of Gollum. In Gollum readers encounter a repulsive creature capable of horrible deeds and yet that reality is tempered by Tolkien who eventually provides the knowledge that Gollum was once a ordinary hobbit. That there was, and perhaps still is, a goodness deep within Gollum that has been buried.

Without specifically talking about Theology, Tolkien effectively supplies the reader with the notion that Gollum might indeed have been created with an inherent goodness. A Christian might put it as—created in God’s image—with the observation that aspects of life can combine and converge in such a way that the original goodness is all but covered up.

Much further into the saga of The Lord of the Rings, when a Bilbo’s son Frodo suggests that perhaps they all would be better off if Bilbo had just done away with Gollum when he had the chance back in that very first encounter—it is Gandalf, the wise wizard, who Observes that: perhaps for Gollum—all is not lost—that there yet may be a role for him to play in their mission against the powers of darkness.

In the first century, in the region of Galilee, at the tax-booth near the sea—it would have been difficult to find a more despised and hated man than Matthew, the tax collector. Tax collectors were sell-outs. Roman sympathizers. Betrayers of the Hebrew people, they were willing to sell friends, family and neighbors, down the river—causing real pain and financial hardship. As a religious Jew, suffering under Roman occupation, to befriend Matthew would be akin to saying you were disowning your family and casting your lot with the worst of the wretched. And yet, in this morning’s Gospel we are given a scene where Jesus, while walking along, sees Matthew at his tax booth—and it seems almost casually that he offers an invitation: Follow Me.

Follow Me!? If there were any crowds around, that simple invitation would be like tossing a live grenade into the center the gathering. The text tell us that the Pharisees were appalled—but this action by Jesus would certainly also have stunned Andrew, Peter, James and John—the hardworking fisherman who were the first to respond to the invitation of Jesus when he said Follow Me. That Jesus was willing to invite: a known sell-out, a professional sinner, Our Patron Saint!, must have seemed unfathomable to his followers. And yet the fact that, upon seeing Matthew, knowing all about his livelihood, the horrible opinions that others held against him—knowing all this—and that Jesus still reached out and invited Matthew—-WELL, IT MUST TELL US, It Must Point us Towards—something profound about the way that followers of Jesus are invited to look at the world—The way that we are invited to look at and behold one another.

Where others looked and saw only a despised tax-collector—somehow Jesus was able to see beyond all the things wrong with Matthew—and grasp the beauty and goodness of his inner being. If Matthew were a portrait of a fractured and broken individual—then Jesus managed to see the light shining through the cracks, and Jesus was willing to include Matthew knowing that fellowship with followers passionate for love and fellowship with God and one another had the power to transform Matthew’s life.

This morning we have a Baptism, and it seems to me one of the significant aspects of having a Baptism on this day, The Feast of St. Matthew, is that we make explicit what Jesus implied in his call of Matthew so long ago—that each of us Come into the world created in the Image of God bearing the indelible mark of our creator’s goodness—and that Nothing can ever change that basic fact. Sure it is true that in the course of life we may make mistakes, and that things happen to us that can partially cover-up or obscure that image of goodness, but baptism reminds that that we are ever God’s own—called to a lifelong relationship with God.

Today, our ancient ritual of baptism with water and our invocation of the Holy Spirit, will initiate Sidney into a formal relationship with God and with this congregation, the gathered people of God. And together we will affirm that nothing will ever be able to break the bond of being a valued child of God with unique gifts to share with the world.

As each of us grow, we inevitably make mistakes, missteps in the wrong direction. Perhaps even there has been a time in your life that has resembled flowing a path into a darkening tunnel. A time of uncertainty and doubt. Some have experienced times where reality itself seems twisted around, with the goodness of life distorted and barely recognizable. The exciting part of this Day, a Day with a Baptism on the Feast of St. Matthew is that it reminds us that no matter how difficult or tough is our journey—we can never reach a place beyond the reach of the loving embrace of God. That our lives are never severed from the possibility of transformation and new growth. By extension, this is the good news of the Gospel that we can share with family, friends and our larger community

In the our life journey, we are unlikely to meet characters as lost or as desperate as Gollum, or shunned to the extent of Matthew the tax collector, but we will undoubtedly encounter individuals who have to some lesser extent lost their way. Sometimes it may even be ourselves who have gone off course. And In each case, this day reminds us that Jesus ever extends an invitation—that a new future is always possible, and will open up for us when we respond to the simple invitation to follow me.

Sermon preached by The Reverend Doctor Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California on 18 September 2016, The Feast of Saint Matthew and the occasion of the baptism of Sidney Thomas Hills. Lessons: Proverbs 3:1-6; Psalm 119:33-40; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; Matthew 9:9-13.