Here is my sermon on tomorrow’s Lectionary Gospel reading.
In the University Library in Cambridge there is an old, leather-bound book containing illustrations copied from medieval manuscripts. There are no captions to the pictures, making them like early cartoon strips, but it isn’t hard to work out what’s going on. At the beginning of one story a woman is standing holding a club, with her skirt for some reason sewn together between her legs. Next to her, a man is standing in a barrel, with one hand behind his back. Battle then commences. The woman clouts the man, while the man tries to grab the woman. In the end she ends up head down in the barrel, her legs (still chastely covered by her skirt) waving in the air. It all becomes clear: this was the way in which they settled marital disputes in the Middle Ages. If the husband got the wife in the barrel, he’d won the argument. If she clouted him into submission – or unconsciousness – she’d proved her point. [Source]
This is not a sermon about marriage! But it is a sermon about conflict. Some people run from conflict. Some try to pacify the situation. Others – like Jesus, in this reading – seem to say, ‘Bring it on.’
The tension between Jesus and the religious leaders is escalating quickly. In particular, his overturning of the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple has proved particularly – and unsurprisingly – provocative. They have questioned his authority. He has confounded their questions, and then begun to tell parables that are pointedly critical of them.
Today’s reading is the second of three consecutive parables in Matthew where Jesus isn’t exactly subtle in exposing the shortcomings of Israel’s shepherds. What’s more, he says, this has been a pattern down the centuries.
And of course, he sees where this is going for him. The son of the vineyard owner will be killed by the tenants.
So how does Jesus chart the tragic story of conflict between God and the People of God in this parable? And where might there be both challenge and grace for us today?
The first theme of the parable is just how extraordinarily patient God is with his people. The landowner sends slave after slave after slave to the miscreant tenants. Eventually he even sends his own son. He gives them chance after chance.
And of course Jesus is telling Israel’s story here – how he formed them through the patriarchs, and sent Moses to lead them out of slavery in Egypt. Then, once they were in the Promised Land, God sent judges and prophets to them over many centuries. Even when they went into Babylonian exile, God sent more prophets to woo them back to him. But now the Father has sent his only Son. We’re talking about a feat of patience that endured around two thousand years. Some of us have trouble being patient for two weeks!
But this is the incredible patience of God our Father. How often have God’s people given him reason for despair or grief? From the golden calf in the wilderness to the golden cow of Christian materialism, he could have ripped it all up and started again with others. Yet by his grace he persists with his people.
We know, I hope, that as the Christian Church we can’t look down on the sins of Israel from superior vantage point. Whatever they did in stoning the prophets or even rejecting the Messiah, we have conducted Inquisitions and Crusades, and devised ways of flatly contradicting the Gospel while claiming still to believe. Time after time, the Church has trashed the Gospel, and yet God keeps using her.
And what about us as individual Christians? How many of us are aware of being failures in faith? Was it the going along with the crowd at work? Being as consumerist or materialistic as anyone else? Looking after number one, instead of caring for others first? Staying silent when God needed us to speak up? Gave into temptation instead of remaining self-controlled?
I imagine we’ve all been there. Some of us have assumed that at our time of failure, God would have given up on us. Surely he has rejected us? Or, if we are still in the family of God, we can never be of any use to God’s kingdom.
Meet the God of patience. He is the patient God, because he is the God of grace. He is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.
You may well have heard the saying that the only true failure is not the error, but when we don’t pick ourselves up off the floor and start again after a mistake. That is true in Christian terms. The Cross of Christ facilitates the possibility that in the mercy of God, we may get up from the ground, be dusted down by him and start anew.
Do not stay crawling in the dirt because you feel so bad about yourself. God knows the worst about you and still loves you. Let the crucified and risen Christ lift you to your feet and set you back on the road of discipleship again.
You may have been surprised about that first point when I said that the parable had arisen from a context of conflict. And the parable’s tone is shocking to some. Am I guilty of misrepresenting the holy God as an indulgent grandfather who looks down upon misdeeds and says, ‘Ah, they’re just little rascals’?
There is a time when patience passes to judgment. Israel already knew that with her history of exile in Babylon. There comes a time when individuals, groups, institutions or nations have so set their faces against the purposes of God that he says, that’s enough. In the parable, it’s the outright rejection of the landowner’s son. It symbolises, of course, the rejection of Jesus himself.
I would hate to dwell on that point in the way parts of the Church have over the years, and turned it into persecution of the Jewish people. And not least because I once worked with a Jewish woman who told me vividly how she was called a ‘Christ-killer’ when she was a little girl.
But the religious leaders of Jesus’ day have had no monopoly on rejecting him as the Christ. Do I mean atheist creeds and nations, as per communism? Yes. Do I mean other totalitarian systems? Yes, I do. Do I mean our society? In a certain way, yes. After all, as John White says in his book The Golden Cow, the difference between communism and capitalism is this: communism says only the material exists, and capitalism says only the material matters.
But this is more: judgment is not merely about ‘them’. It is about us, the church. In his first Epistle, Peter said that judgment begins with the house of God. And when he says that, you could be forgiven for thinking, ‘Wait a minute! I thought we in the church were the forgiven ones. How are we judged? How are we the first to be judged?’
I think it’s something like this: God’s purposes revolve around his people – which, today, is what the Church is meant to be. However, just because that is his overall plan doesn’t mean that certain churches deserve to stay open forever, and that it’s automatically a crime if they close. The Church may be Jesus’ prime agent in the world, but no individual church has a divine right to existence. The gates of Hell may not be able to withstand the Church, but some churches will fail.
Now they will fail for many reasons, but one of them will be that they stopped taking Jesus seriously, and were judged. Oh, they mentioned Jesus. He was still in their hymns and liturgies. But he wasn’t central to the affections of their hearts any more. The church was being maintained for its own members, rather than to give glory to Jesus. Because glorifying Jesus means more than singing hymns about him. It means mission. It means holiness. And within that, the worship is an expression of the spiritual life that is going on the rest of the time.
Wesley said that Methodism was raised up to spread scriptural holiness. If we were to abrogate such a fundamental Christ-centred duty as that, then would the Methodist Church have any right to exist? No.
God has mostly fulfilled his purposes through people. So what happens if the people are put aside in judgment? In the case of Israel’s leaders, Jesus prophesied that God would raise up new leadership. That new leadership proved, I think, to be a bunch of mostly uneducated, unqualified, ignorant types. The apostles.
And if God can judge his Church an her leaders just as much as he can judge the leaders of Israel, then what will he do to fulfil his purposes? He will raise up new leaders and new churches.
A non-Christian recently asked me the old question about why there are so many Christian denominations. I’m afraid I slipped into the ‘nice’ answer, namely that we agree on all the basics of the faith, but there are some things on which it’s OK to disagree: church leadership, sacraments, blah blah blah.
I think there are other, uglier reasons. They are to do with human pride, and also to do with God judging those who are refusing to take their Christ-centred mission sufficiently seriously. The Reformers were the sign of judgment on corrupt Catholicism. But the Baptists and Congregationalists were a similar sign on those Reformers who liked to stay close to state power. Wesley was God’s judgment on a moribund Church of England. The Salvation Army was on nineteenth century Methodism. Pentecostal and charismatic Christians were judgment on powerless, lifeless twentieth century mainline Christianity. Today, emerging churches, fresh expressions, missional groups and new monastic communities are judgment on a wider church that won’t make a missionary engagement with today’s generations.
God will not simply judge, he will always find new ways of continuing his purposes.
What does that mean for us? I believe we need to lay hold of God’s patient mercy before judgment falls, and be serious about our Christ-focussed mission. All that we do and share needs to breathe the Spirit of Jesus.
That doesn’t mean that everything we do has to be overtly religious, because to the Christian everything is spiritual. It does mean, though, that we do everything to the glory of God, from eating toast at Sunday breakfast to bread at communion. Whether our gatherings have a religious topic or not, we are seeking to form community based on our life in Christ, rather than simply run a social club where the common interest is religion.
And most fundamentally of all, it is a missionary calling to make Christ known in word and deed. Our agenda is the mission of God. Not just mission as a task to be accomplished – those Jesus criticised in this parable had great missionary fervour, and would travel to all sorts of places in the cause. It is Christ-centred mission that shares his message of love in a spirit of love. We are those who are sent in the love of God to the world.
Now when we are consumed with things like that – rather than maintaining the club, or rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic – and when our business and property priorities are directed towards the mission of God’s love in Christ, too – then we know we are in the ongoing purposes of God.