It’s not just because of recent events, a certain vote in Scotland, that I’ve been reading up on Robert Burns. A couple of weeks ago we took our son Michael to Edinburgh to start at university there. A number of people quipped about him going to a foreign land and his fellow servers at St John’s gave him a passport cover as a leaving gift. I’m so glad that won’t now be needed! We stopped off at Dumfries on our way back to break the journey. Robert Burns is buried in St Michael’s churchyard there and there is a museum dedicated to him. Fortunately I found a copy of his poems with an English translation so that I can make out his dialect. It made me a pedant when watching ‘The Last Night of the Proms’ and the Promenaders committed the usual sin of singing ‘for the sake of auld lang syne’. Which liberally means ‘for the sake of old time’s sake’ – too many ‘sakes’. No wonder Scots get annoyed with us at times when we mangle their national poet!
Robert Burns grew up as a farmer. But when he moved to live around Dumfries, to supplement his income, he became a taxman, working at the Dumfries excise office, and moving to the town. So Scotland’s national poet was enforcing taxes for the fairly recently United Kingdom, just 50 years earlier. He wrote his poetry, much of which I am new to, while continuing to work as a taxman. Today we celebrate another taxman, Matthew, but he gave it up when he heard the call to follow Jesus. Thinking of these two taxmen, Robert Burns and Matthew, has made me think about what it means to follow Jesus and not leave your former career.
The danger when we celebrate Matthew is that we set up a model of following Jesus which leaves no space for the day job. Now on one level when we decide or become aware of the call to follow Jesus we come under new management. To proclaim Jesus is Lord means that he is the boss and we will allow him and how we understand his gospel to set the road map. I came into the cathedral the other day for Evensong and there was a couple sitting in the chairs by the choir with a massive sheet map opened out in front of them which they were studying intently. It was a good image of what it means to come to the cathedral. The spirituality of this place, the spirituality of Matthew and the other gospels lays out a road map for us that plots the route for our lives. But it does this in the thick of daily living. Most of us are not called to give us the day job. Most Christians are called to stick in it; like Robert Burns to stay at the tax booth.
There are ways of earning a living and behaving which are incompatible with following Christ, being under his new management. Extortion and corruption, which first century tax gathering often involved are such examples. Modern tax gathering does not involve those. It involves upholding justice and requiring us all to pay what is due, which is determined by a democratically elected government who are therefore answerable to us the people. It’s not quite as simple as that and there are times when tax law works well and times when it doesn’t. But we do have a process through which that can be called in and made accountable, even changed. Tax is our common subscription as citizens of this nation and the United Kingdom. We pay according to our ability and administering it is not only compatible with following Jesus, it is a noble act of public service.
A lot of thinking about work and faith, God on Monday projects and other Christians in business programmes, tend to focus on the higher level jobs, which asks ethical questions for senior managers. These are important but we don’t hear much about what it means to be a follower of Jesus at the tills of Tesco (other supermarkets are available). It amused me a few months ago when I went round to a shop nearby and as I passed my bread and wine through the checkout I saw that the man serving me was called Jesus. You couldn’t make it up and the irony didn’t pass me by. He did his name proud. Checkout staff have a lot to put up with, not least rudeness and contemptuous behaviour from customers who have ceased to see a person of equal worth and see instead a slave who can be abused. That takes a lot of grace to endure. The values which make for good customer relations are actually ones we would recognize as being Christian and it is reassuring to note that putting faith into practice is actually good business practice too. Exploiting customers and employees is short-term and does not build long-term loyalty or satisfaction and therefore repeat business and it leads to high staff turnover. How we treat people makes a difference.
That word ‘slave’, particularly being a ‘slave’ for Jesus’ sake, was mentioned in our first reading (2 Corinthians 4:5). It is not acceptable to treat anyone with contempt, whatever status we may see them as having. But Paul in our first reading talks about himself being one without status, as one who subsumes himself to the Lordship of Christ; he is under the new management of God. Whatever job we do, or however we fill our days, there are opportunities to put into practice our discipleship of Christ. We are called to stay at the tax booth, not leave it.
Not everything in Robert Burns' life was exemplary. He fathered children through several women; two daughters were born within a month of each other by different mothers. He was though concerned for justice and fair treatment. He knew that faith had moral implications, even if he didn’t always manage to keep to the road map and got a little lost. Well who doesn’t? In his ‘Epistle to a young friend’, which he wrote in 1786 he included these lines, which I give in their translated form and will make no attempt at a Scottish accent:
“When frolicking in Pleasure’s ring
Religion may be blinded
Or if she gives a random sting
It may be little minded
But when on Life we are tempest driven
A conscience but a canker
A correspondence fixed with Heaven
Is sure a noble anchor!” 1
A poster on the wayside pulpit at St Michael’s churchyard, his burial place, put it more succinctly:
“If your conscience has good brakes
your character won’t skid”.
Robert Burns' poetry has entered into our everyday language, just like the other taxman’s words have – if Matthew indeed wrote the gospel that bears his name. From ‘Timorous beasties’ and ‘love being like a red, red rose’ to the highly relevant for today’s international conflicts ‘man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn’. And I was pleased to see the letter by 100 Muslims in the Independent on Thursday denouncing the extremist group ISIS as not being true to Islam. For Matthew, his golden rule ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ has become a maxim many try to live by.
Jesus met Matthew at the tax booth and called him to follow him. He left the booth. But later that night many tax collectors and sinners came to dinner and heard the healing words of Christ. Putting those into practice while remaining at the tax booth, while keeping the day job, is the calling for most people. The moral codes which flow from it actually make good business sense and are a model for good customer relations. Treating people properly matters. Our consciences need, in Robert Burns’ words, the anchor of ‘a correspondence fixed with heaven’. Following Jesus brings a spirituality that copes with life in the thick of life; it is not one that compartmentalises these into separate spheres that do not meet. When we come to the cathedral we are not coming to a place that escapes from the world, but like the couple with their map, we come to find the route for when we leave.
1 Ann Matheson (2014) The Essential Robert Burns Alloway Publishing page 101
Sermon preached at Peterborough Cathedral, Feast of Matthew, Sunday 21st September 2014