So today we come to the end of the church year and the final installment in our year-long reading of the Gospel according to Matthew.
But we don’t end with the last words in the book, where Jesus tells his disciples to “[g]o therefore and make disciples of all nations.“
We stop a couple of chapters back, with the telling of this story about sheep and goats.
Jesus starts teaching in Matthew back in Chapter 5, the beginning of the great ethical discourse we call the Sermon on the Mount. Which basically is a sort of handbook for how to live as followers of Jesus Christ.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus says, and he goes on from there.
And his teaching concludes with the story we just heard.
If you think of the Sermon on the Mount and the story about sheep and goats as bookends around everything Jesus taught, this last part is like a final exam: What have we learned from everything he’s said and done in between?
Way back in May of 2011, Chris and I went out to Oakland, California, to visit our daughter. And Oakland at that time was the headquarters of something called the Family Radio Network, and there was a man named Harold Camping who was the head of that organization.
And Camping had studied the Bible very carefully and come to some interesting conclusions about what happened when in history. For instance, he was sure that the creation of the world had taken place in the year 11,013 BC.
But more to the point of this story was the date he picked for the end of the world, which was May 21, 2011.
Camping was quite sure that thing people call the Rapture was going to take place on May 21–and I’ll say more about the Rapture in a minute—and May 21 would also be the day when Christ would return to earth. And he publicized this prediction on the radio and also on billboards that were said to have cost more than $5 million.
And this was in the news around the world, but it was especially hot news in Oakland. And we saw a lot of those billboards.
Well, what a strange little story Jesus tells in today’s Gospel.
A landowner plants a vineyard, and he builds a fence around it to keep the animals out, and he digs a wine press, and he builds a watchtower, which was for keeping an eye on things, but also a shelter for the people who were tending the vineyard.
Then he leaves and goes on with his business, and later he sends his people back to collect what’s owed him from the tenants. But his people are beaten and killed. he sends more, and they’re beaten and killed. And for some reason, he thinks his son will be treated better, so he sends his son, who’s killed by the tenants who say, “Let’s kill the son, and we’ll have the inheritance.”
Why? The father’s still alive. Why would killing the son get you the inheritance? What kind of sense does that make?
So it’s a strange story, but it’s all allegory. Each of the elements in the story stands for something, and that part isn’t difficult to figure out.
But before we talk about that, we need to put in the context of what’s happening around Jesus as he tells this story.
Jonah was a good man. His behavior was proper, and his political beliefs were always correct. He knew all of God’s commands contained in Holy Scripture, and he was careful to observe every single one of them.
He never plowed with an ox and a donkey yoked together, and he would never wear a cotton/polyester blend shirt—not to mention a garment made of wool and linen woven together. (And note: If you don’t recognize the reference, go look up Deuteronomy 22. The objection to mixing things that are different is a thread that runs through Deuteronomy, which is full of commands we honor but don’t follow any more. So if anyone proof-texts Deuteronomy at you, think carefully about whether it’s one of those.)
So Jonah was a moral man who held the right position on every issue. Take climate change, for example: he had studied that story about Noah and the flood, and he saw that it was obvious that something had to be done.
Yes, Jonah loved God, and he was sure that God loved him especially because he was so good.
So here’s a little bit of Bible trivia for you. Maybe you know it already, but the Gospel we just heard contains two out of three times that the word church is mentioned in all the Gospels.
In Greek, it’s ekklesia. We translate it as church. It means the gathered community, like us right here. This section of Matthew that we’re reading through is a collection of teachings of Jesus about how the ekklesia should operate, how the church should operate.
So today it’s about bringing an errant brother or sister back into community. Jesus gives us a three-point plan for dealing with conflict:
Number one, take that person aside and talk with them. If that doesn’t work, number two, include two members of the community in your conversation. If that still doesn’t work, include the whole community in your conversation.
Andf that doesn’t work, treat the person who has harmed you as if they were not a member of the community. But that’s the extreme. The hope is for reconciliation. There’s an emphasis there on forgiveness.
I think it’s really hard for us to appreciate the kind of courage and determination it took to be a follower of Jesus in the earliest years of the Church. As far as we know, John was the only one of the apostles to die a natural death. The rest were all martyred in Jerusalem and in the far-flung places where they had traveled to spread the Gospel on long missionary journeys.
Tradition says that Peter and Paul were both martyred on the same day, in Rome, possibly in the year 64.
I’ve been thinking about Peter and Paul—those two towering figures of the early Church—as I our readings for today over the past week: the Gospel where Peter proclaims Jesus the Messiah, and Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.
So there goes Jesus again telling funny little stories about weeds and seeds and farming. He was a country boy and so were his people, and they would have understood what he was talking about. Up to a point, at least. Because parables by their very nature are always a challenging. They raise more questions than they answer. And that’s why the disciples had to ask Jesus to explain the meaning of this story when they got him alone again in the house.
And maybe they still had questions again after that explanation. I know I have some questions.
Is this really a story about weeds and roots, or is it about human flourishing? And the weakness that makes us vulnerable to temptation, because there are still evil powers in the world? And about the way we’re all connected—whether we like it or not?
Well, this is quite a Gospel we have this morning. We have children wailing in the marketplace. We have Jesus described as a party boy, “a glutten and a drunkard.” And we have have God hiding truth from the wise and intelligent, and revealing it to infants.
So I’ll be honest, when I sat down earlier this week to think about what this all means, I found myself wondering: what does this mean!? It’s actually mostly about how people didn’t get John and Jesus. That’s what the little parable about the children is about, and the stuff that follows. But it’s not as straightforward as some Gospel readings, and I found myself doing something that I very rarely do, which is going back to my files and looking to see if I ever had anything good to say about this Gospel.
And what I found is that—you know we have this three-year cycle of readings, so these particular readings come up every three years—and in the time I’ve been preaching I’ve only preached on this particular set of readings twice. And the first time was in the summer of 2011. It was a sermon I preached here in this church, and I thought, well, that’d be fun, to read it and see if anybody who was here then remembered it. But that didn’t seem right. And in the other sermon, I completely chickened out and I preached on the Epistle, on Romans, on Paul talking about doing the thing I don’t want to do.
But this year I really wanted to wrestle with this Gospel, and my eye was really drawn to that last part, as I suppose it is most of the times we read this particular Gospel: I will give you rest. You know, that’s so appealing.
Early on in my seminary days, I met a man whose wife was very ill—and in fact she was dying, although he was having a hard time accepting that—and he was asking me what I think are some of the hardest questions that we will ever face as people of faith.
Questions about why God allows good people to suffer.
We say we believe in a loving God who wants good things for us, and yet life isn’t easy. And again and again in our lives we encounter real pain.
So how are we supposed to hold the tensions between those two realities?
What are we supposed to do with all the emotions we feel when we’re hurting. When we see pain and injustice in the world. And maybe most especially when we see people we love who are suffering.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is talking about the time when he will no longer be physically on Earth, and he says he’ll send the Advocate, the comforter, in his place. He’ll send the Holy Spirit to teach, and guide, and comfort, and strengthen his people on Earth.
And there’s one phrase that really jumped out at me: “I will not leave you orphaned.” Not just I will not leave you alone, but I will not leave you orphaned, as if he were a parent to us.
And that reminded me of some of the writing of Julian of Norwich, whose feast day actually was last week. Do you know anything about Julian of Norwich, anybody? No? Okay, great. So I won’t be telling you something you already know.
Julian of Norwich was a woman who lived in the 14th century, and she lived in the city of Norwich, which at that time was the second-largest city in England after London. It’s about a hundred miles northeast of London, not quite as far as the North Sea. It had a cathedral, and it had many churches—fifty-some churches—and 35 or so of those churches had something that was called an anchorite.