“Celebrity Sightings: They Saw the Child”

Celebrity Sightings: “They Saw the Child”

First Baptist Richmond, January 7, 2024

Matthew 2:1-12

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.

There’s a scene in the movie Notting Hill where the owner of a small bookstore has a surprise encounter with a very famous actress. After she leaves, his slightly scatterbrained employee comes back from running an errand and the owner says, “I don’t think you’ll believe who was just in here.” The employee says, “Who? Was it someone famous?” The owner is on the verge of telling him but then seems to think better of it and says, “No.” “No?” says the employee. “But it would be exciting though, wouldn’t it, if someone famous came into the shop. Hmm?” And that reminds him of something. He says, “Do you know—and this is pretty amazing—that I once saw Ringo Starr?” “Where was that?” asks the owner. “Kensington High Street,” answers his employee. “At least I think it was Ringo. It might have been that man from Fiddler on the Roof, you know, Toppy.” “Topol,” corrects the owner. “Yes, that’s right,” his employee says: “Topol.” And then the owner stops to think about it and says, “Actually, Ringo Starr doesn’t look at all like, uh, Topol.” His employee says, “Yeah, but he was, he was quite a long way away from me.” And then the owner tosses his head and says, “So, actually it could have been neither of them.” And the employee says, “Yes, I suppose so. Yes.” There’s a pause and then the owner says, “It’s not a classic anecdote, is it?” And the employee immediately agrees, “No, not a classic. No.” And then they

move on to another topic.

With that in mind, welcome to a new year, and to a new sermon series called “Celebrity Sightings” in which we will focus on the Gospel lessons for Epiphany and zoom in on those moments where people have an actual encounter with Jesus, who is, arguably, the most famous person who has ever lived. Because here’s what I believe: 1) I believe that the people who had such encounters were changed forever by the experience; 2) I believe that it is still possible to have encounters with the living Lord; And 3) I believe that if we do, we will be changed forever. So, welcome to Epiphany, and to a sermon series that will attempt to take us well beyond celebrity sightings.

We begin with the story of the Magi, from Matthew 2:1-12. It’s the usual reading for January 6, which some people call “Old Christmas,” and others call, “Three Kings,” and others call, “Epiphany.” But this is not January 6. It’s the day after. And if we were being strict about it we would observe the first Sunday after the Epiphany, often called, “The Baptism of the Lord.” But we are not being strict about it. We don’t have to be. We’re Baptists, not Episcopalians. There are no liturgical policemen on the premises. So, we’re going to observe Epiphany today and Baptism of the Lord next week, when we will have an actual baptism (at the 11:00 service). It’s going to be beautiful. But today, let’s look at these magi, these “wise men” as we sometimes call them, and spend a little time with their story.

You know by now that they were not actually kings, no matter what the song says. Scholars believe they may have been Zoroastrian priests, or Persian astrologers, or both, and that they would have spent much of their time studying the night sky. Which reminds me of the trip I took with my regular backpacking buddies two months ago, where we spent some time studying the night sky. One

of us is an Episcopal priest. None of us is an astrologer. But there we were, camping in the desert of West Texas, sitting around the campfire in folding chairs with our heads tilted back, drinking in the majesty of God’s creation. Trying to describe it later I wrote: “Big Bend Ranch State Park is an International Dark Sky Park. We drove an hour-and-a-half on a dirt road to get to our campsite, which was a good two miles away from the next campsite. There was no ambient light. So, when the sun went down on that first moonless night the sky was like a piece of black velvet, and then God scattered buckets of diamonds across it and turned on a spotlight.”

We sat out under the stars for a long time that first night. Eventually we started counting shooting stars, and if you tilted your head back at just the right angle and used your peripheral vision you could see them even when you weren’t looking at them—a streak of light shooting past to the right, or to the left, or sometimes, directly within your field of vision. It is meteors, isn’t it, that burn up in the earth’s atmosphere, and meteorites that make it all the way to the ground? All we saw that night was meteors, but suppose we had been sitting there when a meteorite came hurtling through the night sky and hit the ground a half mile away? Think about how bright it would be and how noisy and how the impact would shake the ground beneath us like an earthquake. Think about how it would scare us half to death, and how long it would take for one of us to say, “Let’s go have a look.”

There was, actually, not far away from our campsite, a big, roundish rock, the size of a two-story house, just sitting on the ground. We looked at it from a distance for a couple of days but then decided to go have a look. When we got there we found that it was soft stone that had probably been the desert floor at

one time until water washed around it and carried the rest of the floor away, leaving behind this monolith that looked almost intentional, as if someone had made it, or carved it, and put it there as a monument. We could see that other people had visited through the years. We could imagine it as a place that had been sacred to indigenous Americans for centuries. Someone had carved out a small shelf in the rock, and there were various trinkets and tokens on it: bottle caps and pieces of broken glass. On a low, flat rock to one side that looked like an altar there was a sun-bleached antler, as if someone had sacrificed an antelope years before and that’s all that was left.

All of this to say that staring up into the night sky, seeing something unusual, wanting to investigate further, feeling a sense of awe, and being moved to worship are phenomena as old as humankind itself. So, it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine that those wise men saw something that led them to say, “Let’s go have a look.” What was it? I don’t know. I missed the lecture that was given here at the church back in December. For today’s purposes let’s say it was a supernova—an exploding star whose light just happened to reach those wise men on that night in that place. They saw it, and unlike others who might have been impressed but otherwise ignorant, they seemed to know that the explosion of that particular star in that particular constellation could mean only one thing: that a new king had been born in Israel. And just like Jim and Chuck and Joe they decided to go and have a closer look.

We don’t know how long it took them to pack their bags and saddle their camels and tell their wives goodbye. We don’t know how long it took them to ride across the desert between Persia and Israel. But we do have a clue: In verse 7 of today’s Gospel lesson King Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned

from them the exact time when the star had appeared. And then, in verse 16 (which is not in today’s reading) we learn that he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, “according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” I’m sorry to bring that up. But if he was trying to eliminate the new king of the Jews, he was looking for someone who was less than two years old, but probably older than one. That is, he wasn’t looking for a newborn baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger, but for a little boy wearing droopy diapers, with dirty knees and grape jelly smeared around his mouth.

Keep that image in mind as you think about these wise men, bowing before King Herod and telling him that they have come to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews. This is the first Herod has heard about it, and Herod doesn’t like what he hears. He is “troubled,” and all of Jerusalem with him. Because even though he has heard the prophecies about a son of David someday sitting on the throne, he didn’t believe it would ever actually happen. But now it has and he can’t let on. He has to pretend that he’s been looking forward to the birth of the Messiah, and only needs some information about when and where he was born so that he, too, can go and worship him.

He calls together his own wise men—the chief priests and the scribes of Israel—and asks them where the Messiah is meant to be born. They say, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” And so, after learning exactly when the star appeared, Herod sends the wise men to Bethlehem, assuring them that that’s where they will find the Messiah, and asking

them, when they find him, to come back and tell him so that he may worship him, too. And so they get on their camels again and begin to ride toward Bethlehem, seven miles to the south.

And I don’t know: I don’t know if they lost sight of the star in the bright lights of Jerusalem, or if they just stopped looking, assuming that that the new king of the Jews would be the old king’s son, and therefore born in his palace. But once they got close to Bethlehem they looked up into the night sky and there it was again—their old friend, that dazzling star—hanging so low over that little town that it appeared to be hovering over a single house. Matthew says that when the wise men saw that the star had stopped they were “overwhelmed with joy,” and I want us to pause for a moment and picture their faces as they realize that their long journey has come to an end, and that they have, at last, found what they were looking for.

It’s late, but they knock on the door anyway, and can you imagine Mary’s surprise when she opens it and finds these dusty travelers bearing gifts and asking to see the new king of the Jews? She would have known who they were looking for. It’s in this Gospel, remember, that an angel comes to Joseph in a dream and says, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit, and she will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Mary knew that Jesus was special. Even so, she hadn’t really expected this. But she let them in, and when she did they saw the child.

As I said, it was late. Jesus was probably in bed. The wise men may have gathered around his crib and looked down on his sleeping face, and even though he may have been a perfectly beautiful little boy, he wasn’t quite what they

expected: this humble home, this peasant family, this boy with a smear of grape jelly still on his cheek. But remember that’s often how it is when you see celebrities: they don’t look like they do in the movies with their perfect hair and makeup. No, they’re in some coffee shop with their hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses. You don’t recognize them at first. In fact, it may be only after they have gone that someone says, “Hey, wasn’t that, you know, that famous actress?”

These wise men saw this little boy and realized that he was the one they had come all the way across the desert to see. It moved them, deeply. I mean, there is something holy about every sleeping child, but as they stood there, looking at this one, they must have felt that he was somehow different. Let’s pause again and think about what it would mean to see with our own eyes the one we talk about here every Sunday. Even if he didn’t look like we thought he would can’t you hear that voice in your head saying, “That’s Jesus. That’s Jesus!” and feel your knees going weak? These wise men dropped to the ground in front of his crib. They bowed down before this little boy. They brought out gifts fit for a king and presented them to his mother. They whispered, “This is the child we have come all this way to see!” They did it with tears on their cheeks. But as I said, it was late. Eventually they would have apologized for the intrusion and gotten up to leave. Mary would have apologized for not having a guest room. She may have even offered the stable knowing that, in a pinch, it would do. But they would have said, “No, we have spent most of our lives under the stars. It’s where we are most at home.” They may have ended up in that same field where the shepherds from Luke’s Gospel kept watch over their flocks by night. And it may have been there that they had a dream, warning them not to go back to King Herod. The next

morning they got up and went home a different way.

I’ve always loved that detail: that they went home a different way. I like to abbreviate it, and say they went home “different.” They did. They went home different than they were before, changed by their encounter with Jesus. As all of us could be, and probably would be, if we only spent a little time in his presence.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned: The Threat of Judgment”

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:

The Threat of Judgment

First Baptist Richmond, November 26, 2023 Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Our scripture readings for today are full of sheep, and goats, and kings: three things we don’t know very much about. But there was a time when people did know about such things, and as I sat in the Sermon-Writing Chair last week I began to wonder when that changed. It occurred to me that it might have happened around the time of the Industrial Revolution, and so I did a little research.

I went to the Encyclopedia Britannica for Kids because I (singing) don’t know much about history and the kids’ version puts it in a way that even I can understand. Here’s what it said: “The Industrial Revolution occurred just a little more than 200 years ago and greatly affected the way people lived as well as the way they worked. Before that most people lived in agrarian societies, where agriculture, including both crop production and animal breeding, were the foundation of both the economy and jobs.”i Now, those people would have known something about livestock. But not us. We know more about the stock market, about companies, and factories, and CEO’s. We know about mass production and high-speed Internet. We know about the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the

Fortune 500. But we do not know about sheep and goats, most of us. At least not much.

And we don’t know much about kings! Here on “Reign of Christ” Sunday (which used to be called “Christ the King” Sunday) we need to admit that we don’t know much about the monarchy and how it works. We know about Congress and the US Constitution. We know about the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial branches of government. But we don’t know what it is like to live under the rule of a king or queen, and we haven’t for more than 200 years. So, let me invite you to do some time traveling. Let’s go back to 1780, to the year that Richmond’s First Baptist Church was established, when the Revolutionary War was still going on and crazy King George III was on the throne. Let’s imagine that we’ve all gotten up early, milked the cows, slopped the hogs, gathered the eggs and come to church, and that as we sit here in our pews, breathing in the rich, earthy smells of our fellow parishioners, we are confronted by the audacity of the preacher, who on this day has the nerve to talk about someone other than George III being our king.

Old Testament scholar Gene Tucker says, “This passage from Ezekiel is a highly appropriate reading for the last day of the liturgical year, the celebration of Christ as King. On the one hand, the text calls attention to important Old Testament roots of New Testament images and ideas concerning Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. On the other hand, it has its own particular contributions to make to the Christian proclamation of messianic and eschatological themes.”ii It makes me wish there were a children’s version of Gene Tucker’s Old Testament commentary, but let me see if I can summarize.

Tucker reminds us that Ezekiel was a prophet during the Babylonian Exile,

and that today’s reading comes from the part of his book where he starts to talk about the return of the exiles and the restoration of the nation. Ezekiel 34, in which we find today’s Old Testament lesson, uses the imagery of the shepherd to illustrate the history of Israel—past, present, and future.

The chapter begins with an indictment of “the shepherds of Israel,” the kings who did not feed their “sheep,” that is, their citizens (and let me just say that if you were sitting in the pews as subjects of King George III you might begin to warm up to what the prophet was saying. You might decide that old Georgie Boy was not a very good shepherd). But then comes an announcement of judgment against those shepherds: the Lord vowing that he himself will take charge of the sheep. The chapter concludes with an announcement of the restoration of the people and the promise of a “covenant of peace” (vss. 25-31) which would sound especially good in a time of war.

Within that framework we find our reading for today, beginning with verses 11-16, in which the Lord himself is the shepherd. He will search out the sheep that have been scattered, “bring them out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land” (vs. 13). Tucker says that “This clearly is a promise of return from the Babylonian Exile and restoration in the Promised Land.” The Lord further promises to provide the main elements necessary for life: food—in abundance!—and security (vss. 14-15). He will take particular care of the lost, the strayed, the crippled, and the weak” (vs. 16).

But then, in verses 20-24, the “one shepherd” is not Yahweh but his servant David, “and he shall feed them.” Tucker says, “The promise of a future David is not to be taken literally, but is a messianic hope, the expectation of a new and righteous king from the Davidic line.” Again, if you were sitting in the pew in 1780

you might begin to dream of a king better than George III, one who would actually care for his people. And you might appreciate what the prophet says next, that there will be judgment for those fat sheep who have pushed the others aside, keeping them away from the food trough, turning them into the lean sheep pitied by the Lord. “There will be judgment!” says the prophet, talking about the kings of ancient Israel. “There will be judgment!” says the preacher, speaking perhaps of King George III. And if you were sitting there in the pews you might begin to say, “Hear! Hear!” Until the preacher turned to the Gospel lesson, and began to talk about judgment in a whole different way.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory,” he would say, “and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.”

Fred Craddock says you could hardly have a more appropriate text for Christ the King Sunday than this one. “It’s not a parable,” he says, “but an apocalyptic vision of the Last Judgment. The heart of it is the coming of the Son of Man. His coming is not to the earth, but to the throne in heavenly glory. The scene is an enthronement, the Son of Man being installed as King and Judge. The ‘coming’ has been dealt with already in this Gospel: it will be sudden as the lightning (24:27); it will be on clouds of glory and with great power (24:30-31); the day and the hour are unknown (24:36-42); it will be as a burglar entering at night (24:43); it will be a time of reckoning and woe to the unprepared (24:45-51). Three parables have dealt with the delay of the coming (24:45-25:30). But now comes the full vision, glorious in appearance, cosmic in scope, and yet personal in that every life must

appear before the judgment seat.”iii

And how will they be judged? People living in an agricultural society would understand the reference to separating the sheep from the goats. They would know that this is how it was done in those days: that the sheep and the goats would go out to pasture together, and the shepherd would watch over both, but that when they came back to the sheepfold at the end of the day he would separate them from each other: sheep in one place, goats in another. He would do that on the basis of what they were. But in today’s Gospel lesson people are separated from one another not because of what they are, but rather because of what they have done—or haven’t done—for others.

“I was hungry and you fed me,” says the King “thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me. So, come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” And the righteous will marvel, wondering when it was that they saw their king in any of those wretched circumstances. But he will say, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

And then he will turn to those on his left and say, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” because they saw him in all those same circumstances and yet did nothing for him. They will try to defend themselves, asking, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison?” And he will say to them just the opposite of what he said to the others: “Whenever you did not do it for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away

into eternal punishment, Jesus says, but the righteous into eternal life. And, good gracious! Wouldn’t you want to end up on the right side of that judgment?

Well, there’s a way to do that, apparently, and that is to begin looking, now, for the most vulnerable people in society and caring for them as if you were caring for Christ himself. And I think this is where the agricultural analogy might be especially helpful, because a shepherd is used to looking over his flock for any sheep or goats who might need his special attention. If one of them is limping he’s going to inspect its hooves, run his hands over its legs feeling for broken bones or swollen tendons. If one of them is being butted away from the food trough by a bigger, stronger animal, he’s going to see to it that it gets its share of the food. If one of them is sick or diseased in any way, he’s going to do whatever he can to make it better. This is just what shepherds do—good shepherds, that is. They look over the flock. They pay attention to the sheep or goats that need extra care. They make sure that they get what they need so that they can be healthy and whole. If we really had traveled back in time we would know that, and we might begin to see the difference between a king like George III, who didn’t seem to care much about his flock, and Christ the King, who once described himself as a good shepherd, and who was always looking out for those who needed his help.

Mahatma Gandhi is often quoted as saying, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members,” but there is no evidence that he actually wrote or said those words. There is a related quote where Gandhi is speaking about cruelty to animals and says: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated. I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.” That’s close, but a scholar named

Alexander Atkins thinks the quote in question may actually belong to American writer and novelist Pearl S. Buck who wrote, “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.”iv Buck was the daughter of a missionary who spent a large part of her life in China. When she came back to America she became a passionate advocate for mixed-race adoption, minority groups, and women’s rights.

But another close contender for the quote is Hubert H. Humphrey, who served as U.S. Vice President from 1965 to 1969. In an address to the Democratic National Convention in New York City on July 13, 1976, Humphrey spoke about the treatment of the weakest members of society as a reflection of its government: “The ultimate moral test of any government is the way it treats three groups of its citizens. First, those in the dawn of life—our children. Second, those in the shadows of life—our needy, our sick, our handicapped. Third, those in the twilight of life—our elderly.”v

If it really were 1780, we would be aware that our little nation had already declared its independence and was fighting for its freedom. I don’t know much about history, but I know that the Revolutionary War didn’t end officially until 1783. And we might be thinking that if we won (which seemed unlikely) we would have the chance to do things differently. We might even dream of establishing a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and imagine that if we ever had a president who didn’t lead with compassion we could simply vote him out of office and replace him with one who did.

Jesus has provided us with the perfect model of servant leadership. He has taught us that the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. But in today’s

Gospel lesson he also warns us that in the end it will not be our government that is judged, but us—each one of us. And that even if our government has not cared for the most vulnerable members of society, we can. We can learn to not only look at them, but to see them, and to see Christ in them, and when we do we will care for them. We won’t be able to help ourselves. If we do it right, no one will be more surprised than we are when the King of Kings says to us, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

—Jim Somerville © 2023

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned: Surprised by the Day of the Lord

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:

Surprised By the Day of the Lord

First Baptist Richmond, November 19, 2023 the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Matthew 25:14-30

For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

The worship planning team met last Monday afternoon, as we usually do, to work on the service for Sunday. Everything was going well until we got to the last verse of the Old Testament lesson, Zephaniah 1:18, which reads: “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath; in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” We sat there without saying anything for a minute, just as the prophet suggests at the beginning of the passage: “Be silent before the Lord God.” But eventually I asked, “How do we end that reading?” Because I couldn’t imagine someone saying, “The Word of the Lord,” and then having everyone respond, “Thanks be to God.” How do you thank God for a reading in which he has just promised to make “a full and terrible end” of all the inhabitants of the earth? But when we turned to the Gospel lesson it wasn’t much better. Here are three servants who come before their master to give an account of their activity. Two of them have invested their master’s money recklessly but profitably, and he says, “Well done! Enter into the joy of your master!” But the third one played it safe. He buried his master’s money in a hole in the ground so nothing would happen to it, and the master said, “You wicked

and lazy slave!” and then had him thrown into the outer darkness. How do you say, “Thanks be to God,” after a reading like that?

The Gospel is meant to be good news, but here we are three minutes into the sermon and already you’ve heard: a) we’re all going to die; b) we’re all going to be judged; and c) some of us are going to end up in the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. What can we do about any of that? How can we keep from being surprised by the Day of the Lord?

I don’t spend a lot of time in the Book of Zephaniah, but in my research for this sermon I learned that Zephaniah wrote during the reign of King Josiah, one of the “good” kings of Judah, who came to the throne when he was only eight years old. He made some significant reforms when he got a little older, but Zephaniah seems to have written before any of those reforms got underway, and he seems to be particularly perturbed by those in Jerusalem who rest complacently on their dregs (and, yes, I had to look up the word dregs. It means “the most worthless part, or parts, of something”). The Lord says he is going to search Jerusalem with lamps for those who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, “the Lord will not do good and he will not do harm.” In other words, those who have given up on God’s ability to do much of anything.

I did an Internet search recently to see how many Americans still think of themselves as religious. Did you know the number has fallen to 47 percent? My guess is that if you had taken the same survey 100 years ago, 97 percent of the population would have identified as religious. But now? Only 47 percent. It makes me think that most of us no longer look to God for the answers to our questions. We type them into a search box on the Internet. We turn to science, or medicine, or technology. We sit around on our dregs like the people of ancient Jerusalem,

confident in our own wisdom, and when someone mentions God we say, “the Lord will not do good and he will not do harm.” We don’t think the Lord will do much of anything.

Zephaniah would disagree. He says, “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast…. That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom…..” Speaking for God he says, “I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath; in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.”

When I read that passage last week I was reminded of some of those apocalyptic films that come out from time to time. Films like “Armageddon,” about a deadly asteroid hurtling toward the earth: or “The Day after Tomorrow,” in which people ignore the warnings about climate change and reap the consequences; or “Contagion,” about a woman who returns from China with a virus that turns into a global pandemic (that one’s a little too close to reality). One scholar says that apocalyptic films have never been more popular than they are right now.i The threats we experience are real. It’s easy for filmmakers to convince us that we’re all going to die because at the deepest level we know that it’s true.

We are all going to die.

Our Call to Worship for this morning puts it as plainly as it can be put: “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty if we are strong.” Moses wrote those words 3,000 years ago but apparently the average life expectancy

hasn’t changed all that much. “Even then,” he writes, “their span is only toil and trouble. They are soon gone, and we fly away.” In other words, we’re all going to die! But it doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it.

At the Ash Wednesday service here at First Baptist Church we invite you to come forward so that we can make the sign of the cross on your forehead with ashes. We say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a way of reminding you that you are going to die in order to give some urgency to the way you live. This is your moment. This is your chance to do something with the incredible gift of life God has given you. Don’t waste it!

Which brings us to our Gospel lesson for this morning. Jesus taught what Jesus learned and I feel sure that at some point, in that little synagogue in Nazareth, he must have heard someone read from the Book of Zephaniah all that prophecy about the end of the world. If his mother was sitting close by she may have clapped her hands over his ears and told the rabbi on the way out, “Children shouldn’t be exposed to such things!” But Jesus was. At some point he heard these words and they rang true for him. Yes, we are all going to die, and for that reason it matters all the more how we live. And so, in those last few hours before his own death, he tells his disciples a story about making the most of what you have been given.

It’s about a man who is going on a journey, one who entrusts to his servants an incredible amount of money. A talent weighed about 75 pounds. 75 pounds of silver would have been worth roughly 15 years’ wages for a common laborer. This man—the master—gives five talents to one of his servants (and let’s picture it as silver coins in big, canvas bags that weigh 75 pounds apiece), two talents to another of his servants, and one talent to a third. And then he goes away,

apparently without giving them any instructions as to what they should do with his money. The first two go out the next day and start trading with what they’ve been given. I always picture them shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Hey, it’s not my money!” But the third servant is afraid to do that. He knows that his master is a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow and gathering where he did not scatter. I can almost picture him gulping and saying, “It’s not my money!” And so he drags his big canvas bag out to the back yard one night, digs a big hole at the base of a fig tree, and buries his talent there. Now no one will find it. Now it will be safe. And when the master asks for it, he can give it to him.

But things don’t turn out the way he has imagined. When the master finally returns he calls for an accounting and those first two servants, the ones who have been so reckless with his money, have miraculously earned a huge return. The first one drags ten big canvas bags of silver into the room. “Look!” he says. “You gave me five talents; I made five talents more!” And the master is overjoyed. “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many more. Enter into the joy of your master!” And then the second servant comes in with four big bags of silver. “Look,” he says. “You gave me two talents; I made two talents more!” And the master says the same thing to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your master.”

But when this third servant comes in, with the same bag of silver he was given all those years ago (only covered in dirt now where he’s dug it up from the garden), the master is furious. “You could have at least invested it with the bankers!” he says. “You could have done something!” But since he has done nothing with what he has been given, since he has, instead, buried his talent in the back yard, the master has him thrown into the outer darkness, where there

will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. What was his crime? Only this: he was afraid. He was afraid to do anything with what he had been given. He was afraid he might lose it all.

And that’s where the idea that we are all going to die becomes liberating. Because if this parable is actually about life, and not about money, then we know we’re going to lose it anyway. We can’t hold onto it. And so it becomes a question of what we will do with it while we have it. Will we live fearlessly, and risk losing everything, or will we bury it in the back yard, too afraid to try?

And that reminds me of my friend Joyce.

She started visiting the church years ago and someone who had talked with her referred to her as “suicidal Joyce.” I got to know her and discovered that she had suffered from severe depression for most of her life and that sometimes the pain was so bad she just wanted to end it. But it helped to talk. And so we talked that week, and the week after that, and the week after that. I don’t usually do that, but in Joyce’s case I felt it was necessary; I felt it might keep her alive.

And along the way something happened: we got to be friends. Real friends, where I cared about her and cared what happened to her. I listened to her talk about her depression and began to understand it in a way I never had before. I could almost see why she thought it would be better to end her life than to live with that incredible pain. But one day, as we were talking, she said that if she was going to be here she might as well do something, and that she’d like to do something for the people in Gilpin Court, the poorest neighborhood in our city.

She had worked in that neighborhood when she was a nurse. She understood some of the needs, and one of them was for children’s clothes. I thought I knew where we could get some children’s clothes. I thought our

preschool parents might be willing to donate. But who would deliver the clothes to Gilpin Court? “Why, I would,” said Joyce. “But aren’t you afraid?” I asked. Because some people are, and there had been some shootings over there just a few weeks earlier. But she said, “What have I got to lose? I keep wanting to die. If someone shot me they would be doing me a favor.”

And that’s how Joyce became a regular in Gilpin Court, driving over there once or twice a week with a trunk full of children’s clothes. Young mothers would come running from every corner of the neighborhood to see what she had, and they were so grateful to her for coming. She was fearless. She knew we’re all going to die anyway. She didn’t really mind if, for her, it came sooner rather than later. But it didn’t happen that way. She died several years later, of natural causes, and right up until the end she was doing good work in Gilpin Court. The last thing she did was to establish three little libraries over there, so the children could have books to read. I believe our volunteers are still stocking those little libraries, and on each one is a tiny brass plaque with Joyce’s name on it.

Now, I can’t really recommend her course of action to you. I don’t want you to go into dangerous places where you might get shot. But I do want you to realize that life is short; that it will come to an end someday; and that it matters what we do with it. We can become so paralyzed by fear that we don’t do anything, just like this man in the story. We bury the treasure of our lives in the back yard, like a sack of someone else’s silver. And when we do we come to regret it. Fred Craddock says that like the man in the story we can end up in the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing our teeth, “which is the inevitable fruit of an unlived life.”

So, how do you get over your fear and start living? You remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, and that what you do in this earthly

existence has the power to define you, to make of you something more than dust, to make of you a good and faithful servant,

Just like my friend Joyce.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

“Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned: Caught in the Act of Being Faithful”

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:

Caught in the Act of Being Faithful

First Baptist Richmond, November 12, 2023 the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Amos 5:18-24; Matthew 25:1-13

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.

It begins like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Here are ten bridesmaids, on their way to a wedding. They’ve probably spent the day getting into their dresses, putting on their makeup, fixing their hair just so. And then they go to the place where they are supposed to meet the bridegroom. They’re excited. It’s a Jewish wedding in first-century Israel. It’s going to go on for a week! But as you may recall the Jewish day doesn’t begin when the sun comes up, but when it goes down, and so these bridesmaids go off to meet the bridegroom carrying lamps—small oil lamps with a flame no brighter than a candle. Their mothers probably suggested that they take extra oil, because you never know when a bridegroom will actually show up, but only half of them listened to their mothers, because, as Jesus said, five were foolish. But if everything works the way the wedding planner has imagined it won’t matter. Ten bridesmaids will come down a country lane toward the bride’s house on a soft summer evening with their lamps twinkling like fireflies as they hover around the bridegroom, giggling, their arms linked in his.

But that’s not what happens. The bridegroom is delayed. The hour gets later and later. The bridesmaids stand there as long as they can, holding their lamps, but it is way past their bedtime, and eventually they sit down on the soft

grass by the side of the road, and then lie down, and then fall asleep. At midnight someone shouts, “Here he comes!” And they all jump up and fix their hair, smooth their dresses, and reach for their lamps, and that’s when they notice that the lamps have started sputtering; they’re nearly out of oil! The five bridesmaids who were wise enough to listen to their mothers start filling their lamps with fresh oil and the others say, “Give us some!” But they say, “No, because then there wouldn’t be enough for us. You’ll have to go to the dealers and buy some of your own.” And that’s what they do: they go off looking for an all-night oil dealer in a state of absolute panic while the others, with their lamps trimmed and burning, go off with the bridegroom to the wedding. When the others finally get there the door is shut. They knock, and beg to be let in, but when the bridegroom looks out he says, “Do I know you? I don’t think I know you.” And the door is slammed in their faces.

It’s a horrible story, isn’t it? Can’t you just see those foolish bridesmaids sitting on the front stoop crying, with mascara running down their cheeks, while the party rages on inside? Fred Craddock says we’ve gotten so used to Jesus’ parables of grace—where the ones who worked only an hour get as much as those who worked all day—that nothing has prepared us for this parable of judgment. But there it is: these five bridesmaids were foolish; they didn’t bring enough oil; and so they end up in the outer darkness with all those others who are weeping and gnashing their teeth.

I don’t like this story, and neither did Chuck and Joe, my regular backpacking partners with whom I spent most of last week hiking and camping in the Texas desert. Chuck is an Episcopal priest, and he was getting ready to preach on this same passage. And Joe is a Baptist hospital chaplain, and he decided to

preach it, too. So, we talked about this parable a lot while we were out there in the desert, and one of the things we noticed is that it’s a story about not having enough of what you need.

That resonated with us. We’ve been backpacking together for years and that’s always the question as we get ready for a trip: will we have enough? Enough food, enough clothing, enough shelter? You want to have enough but you don’t want to have even one ounce more than enough, because you have to carry everything on your back. But this time we weren’t backpacking. We were base camping and day hiking, which meant we could take Chuck’s truck all the way to our campsite. And Chuck has a big truck. That’s how we ended up with four folding chairs, a guitar, a mountain bike, a Frisbee, twenty gallons of water, and enough groceries to last us for at least two weeks. Because we had read this parable. We knew you didn’t want to get caught without enough! But enough what? What was Jesus talking about? That’s what those first disciples and the disciples in every generation since have tried to figure out.

This is the first of three parables in Matthew 25, and it might help to remember that it comes after Jesus has finished teaching in the temple, after he has crossed over to the Mount of Olives with his disciples, and after he has given them instructions regarding the end of the age and the coming of the Son of Man. It is in that context that he says, “Then (meaning in those days), the Kingdom of Heaven will be like this.” And then he tells a story about ten bridesmaids on their way to a wedding, and some who didn’t have enough of what they needed. In that context it seems clear that what Jesus’ disciples will need in the days ahead is enough faith and courage to make it through the many trials they will face. “There will be wars and rumors of wars,” he says. “Nation will rise against nation, and

kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All this is but the beginning of the birth pangs. Then they will hand you over to be tortured and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

So, how about it, disciples? Do you have enough oil in your lamps to get you through all of that? Will you be able to endure to the end? Apparently some of them did. They made it through those first few months in the life of the early church, through the scattering and persecution that followed, through the Fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. And if Matthew was one of those disciples, then he made it to a place where he could write this Gospel, and tell the disciples of that generation what they would need in the days ahead.

One of the things they would need, apparently, was patience. Jesus had told those first disciples that immediately after the tribulation of those days the Son of Man would come, and they wouldn’t have to worry about missing it. His coming would be like lightning flashing from east to west. Everyone would see it. He would come on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, and send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and then gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. And then he said to them, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” But that had been fifty years earlier. Disciples who had been young then would have been old by this point, on the verge of passing away themselves if they weren’t gone already. And so Matthew reminds his readers of this parable. “When you find your

lamp sputtering,” he says, “don’t be foolish. Fill it with the fresh oil of patience and perseverance. Remember that the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

But Jesus didn’t come then, and he hasn’t come yet, and the warnings of his imminent return don’t sound as urgent as they used to. We still give lip service to the Second Coming, but not many of us are holding our breath. And yet, as my friend Joe reminded us, whether he comes to us or we go to him we will—one day—stand before Jesus, and on that day we don’t want to hear him say, “Do I know you? I don’t think I know you?” So, what do we do? How do we fill our lamps with fresh oil in times like these?

One way is to remember that Jesus taught what Jesus learned, and at some point in that little synagogue in Nazareth he must have learned from Amos 5, our Old Testament lesson for today, where the prophet talks about “the Day of the Lord.” As in Jesus’ parable it’s a moment of crisis, a moment when someone shouts, “Here he comes!” And the question is the same: will we be ready? In Amos’ day, apparently, the people were trying to get ready by going through the half-hearted motions of worship, but the Lord was having none of it. He said, “I hate, I despise, your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.” Because this can happen, can’t it? We can replace religious devotion with religious ritual. We can stop earnestly seeking the Lord, we can stop actively waiting for his return. Instead we yawn and stretch and come to church on Sunday morning. We sing a few hymns, say a few prayers, and listen to the more interesting parts of the sermon. We stir the pot of our faith, as it were, keep

it simmering on the back burner for the next two thousand years or until Jesus comes back, but God says, “I hate that! I hate it when people are simply passing time in the pews. No, if you really want to please me do this: let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

And that reminds me of Jesus. Because he didn’t have much patience with empty ritual, did he? He criticized the Pharisees for it again and again. But he was passionate about justice, wasn’t he? And for the kind of righteousness that would change the world? Jesus wanted more than half-hearted devotion; he wanted his disciples to help him bring heaven to earth. When people ask me how to do that I say, “Just look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, and then roll up your sleeves and get to work.” That’s justice. But I could also say, “Look inside for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, and then roll up your sleeves and get to work.” That’s righteousness. If your lamp is full of those two things, of justice and righteousness, then whether Jesus comes to you or you go to him you will have nothing to fear.

In Matthew 24 Jesus talks about a slave whose master has put him in charge of things while he goes away and says, “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives,” that is, blessed is the one who is caught in the act of being faithful. May it be so for us, and when Jesus comes to First Baptist may he find justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

One day while we were in the desert, Chuck and Joe and I went hiking and ended up walking through a dry riverbed. It went on for miles and miles, with big, yellow-leaved cottonwoods on either side and dry gravel on what used to be the river’s bottom. But at one point we found a place where the water used to flow

down over a huge slab of white rock, and in the rock itself were these smooth, round basins, hollowed out, I suppose, by gravel in the bottom being swirled around and around by rushing water over the course of centuries, millennia, maybe even eons. I’ve seen some of these rock-cut basins in the James River. Maybe you have, too. But this was different. This river had died. Where once there had been rushing water and flowing streams now there was nothing but a dry riverbed, and empty basins, bleached like bones.

Is that the way God sees the church these days? Have the waters of justice and righteousness simply stopped flowing? Have we given up any expectation that the bridegroom is coming? Are we simply going through the motions of religious ritual because we have nothing better to do? “I hate that,” says the Lord. “I despise all this emptiness, this barrenness. Put your minds to it! Put your hearts into it! Put your backs into it! Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

We could try. We could look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up our sleeves and get to work. We could look inside ourselves for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up our sleeves and do the same. We could seek by our own efforts to fill our lamps with the fresh oil of doing and being what God wants us to do and be, and we might succeed. I hope we will. But something happened out there in the desert that seemed like a parable of grace: it rained. For two of the four days Chuck and Joe and I were there it rained. When there was a break in the weather we went for a walk, back down to that dry riverbed, and there I saw those same basins with a little rainwater in the bottom. Not a lot, but a little. It was as if God were saying, “Even when there is no river here, I’m here. Even when you’ve got nothing left to give, I

do.” So let justice roll down like waters, Lord, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream, let rivers of oil flow from your holy throne and fill the empty basins of our lives until we have enough, and maybe more than enough, to light the way to your eternal kingdom.


—Jim Somerville © 2023

“Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned: Be Holy as God Is Holy”

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:

Be Holy as God Is Holy

First Baptist Richmond, October 29, 2023
The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Matthew 22:34-46

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”

One thing we know for sure: that little synagogue in Nazareth where Jesus grew up had a Torah scroll. You couldn’t have a synagogue without one, without having the first five books of the Bible copied meticulously—by hand, by a scribe, using quill and ink—onto a long roll of sheepskin parchment. It took as long as a year to produce a scroll like that and, as you might guess, it was enormously expensive. These days a good quality Torah scroll can cost as much as $100,000. It wouldn’t have been like starting a men’s Bible study today, where you simply ask everyone to B.Y.O.B. (bring your own Bible). Starting a synagogue in the time of Jesus would have been a commitment. You would have had to go door to door raising money until you had enough to buy a Torah scroll. No wonder that, to this day, observant Jews love it so much. No wonder that they parade it around the synagogue singing songs of celebration. No wonder that they take it out of its velvet cover and kiss it like a trophy, guard it like a treasure. It is! If you can imagine the boy Jesus sitting in that synagogue in Nazareth watching all that, and feeling all that emotion, then you can imagine what it was like for him to hear someone read from Leviticus 19: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

The word, in Hebrew, is kadosh. It is usually translated as “holy,” or “sacred,” or “set apart.” It is an adjective, which means it modifies a noun. And the noun it usually modifies is God, who is not only holy but, as you may have heard, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” I don’t know how people heard the command to be holy in that little synagogue in Nazareth, but they may have had some idea of what holiness looks like from hearing Psalm 1, our Call to Worship for this morning: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord (the Torah), and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in due season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” “Be like that,” God may have meant. “Delight in the law of the Lord.” And there are some people who try to follow that particular path to holiness. They study the Bible faithfully. They underline their favorite passages. They read devotional materials and listen to Christian music. They do their best to live lives that are pure and pleasing to God. That may be you, and if that’s you, then good for you. May your tribe increase.

Only don’t overdo it.

I think the Pharisees overdid it. As I mentioned last week the scribes were the experts in the Law of Moses. They were the ones who would read through the Torah looking for any commandment they may have missed on the last time through, and over time they were able to identify 613 different commands: 248 positive ones and 365 negative ones: a “Thou shalt not!” for every day of the year. But it was the Pharisees who took those commands and tried to keep all 613 of them. That word, Pharisee, comes from the Hebrew word parash, which means “to separate.” Keep that in mind. The Pharisees wanted to be holy as God was holy. They tried to separate themselves from anything that was unholy. Their mothers must have taught them that cleanliness was next to godliness, because they came to associate holiness with cleanliness—with purity—and unholiness with anything that was unclean or impure.

But that’s not the only way to think of holiness, as the author of Leviticus understands. When he writes, “Be holy as God is holy,” he doesn’t mean “Be as holy as God is.” He means, “Be holy in the same way God is,” and later in that same chapter he gives some examples. Listen to the remaining verses in today’s reading from Leviticus 19, and in each verse listen for the word neighbor.

§  Verse 15: You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.

§  Verse 16: You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

§  Verse 17: You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.

§  Verse 18: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

If you were listening closely you may have noticed that none of these commands is about keeping yourself separated from what is unclean, or keeping yourself pure. Each of them is about the reality of life in the community, where you often rub shoulders with your neighbors and sometimes find those shoulders to be unclean.

Again, when the author of Leviticus tells us to be holy as God is holy, he isn’t saying that we have to be as holy as God is; he is saying that we need to be holy in the way God is: by treating our neighbors with justice; by not treating the rich better than the poor; by not slandering or murdering our neighbors; by refusing to hate them; by helping them get back on track when they go astray; and, yes, even by loving them—not necessarily by liking them, but, as Frederick Buechner says—“by acting in their best interests even if, personally, you can’t stand them.” Even if they play their music too loud. Even if they vote for the wrong candidate. That’s the way God has treated us; that’s the way his holiness has manifested itself.

It doesn’t mean that God isn’t perfect and pure. When you read those Old Testament stories you can often see why the people talked about the “fear” of the Lord. Out there in the wilderness God’s holiness—his kadosh—descended on Mount Sinai like a devouring fire. The author of Exodus says, “The smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.” When Moses spoke to God, God answered him in thunder. And yet God had come to make a covenant with his people, to say to them, like a groom might say to his bride at a wedding, “If you will be my people, then I will be your God.” It’s a tender moment; it’s another way of saying, “I love you. I want you for my own.”

The people responded like a bride might respond to her groom, by vowing that they would always be his. They promised to love him and honor him forever. They enshrined that promise in the words of the Shema, which every observant Jew is obliged to recite daily: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). It was, in the opinion of many, the first and greatest commandment. So I doubt that the Pharisees in today’s Gospel lesson were all that surprised when Jesus answered their question with those words. “Which commandment is the greatest?” they asked. “Love the Lord your God,” Jesus replied. And they must have been pleased. Because that’s what they were doing: loving God by trying to be just like him, by trying to be just as perfect and pure as he was, even if it meant separating themselves from everyone and everything else, from anything that might be imperfect or impure.

If you will notice, Jesus, who was the only begotten Son of a pure and perfect God, did not do that. At his baptism he waded into water that was muddy with human sin. In the wilderness he wrestled with diabolical temptation. In his ministry he reached out to lepers and prostitutes. At the table he ate with sinners and tax collectors. Maybe that’s why he stopped the Pharisees from walking away, nodding their heads, congratulating themselves for obeying the first and greatest commandment. Maybe that’s why he said, “Before you go, there is another commandment so closely related to the first that you cannot separate them (Did you hear that? Separate? From the Hebrew word parash?), and the other commandment is this,” Jesus said: “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” That is, you can’t separate yourself from the world. You can’t cut yourself off from others. You have to live in community. You have to rub shoulders with people who are neither perfect nor pure. You have to love your neighbor as yourself.

That’s how God has loved you.

Thanks to my friend Marcus Weinstein I was able to attend a lecture at the University of Richmond a few weeks ago where Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, was talking about his new book, The Upswing.[i] I was fascinated by the subtitle: “How America came together a century ago and how we can do it again,” because I’d love for us to do it again. Quoting from the back cover, The Upswing looks at the problems of “deep and accelerating inequality; unprecedented political polarization; vitriolic public discourse; a fraying social fabric; public and private narcissism—Americans today seem to agree on only one thing: This is the worst of times. But we’ve been here before. During the Gilded Age of the late 1880’s, America was highly individualistic, starkly unequal, fiercely polarized, and deeply fragmented, just as it is today. However as the twentieth century opened, America became—slowly, unevenly, but steadily—more egalitarian, more cooperative, more generous; a society on the upswing, more focused on our responsibilities to one another and less focused on our narrower self-interest. Sometime during the 1960’s, however, these trends reversed, leaving us in today’s disarrary.”

Robert Putnam is in his eighties these days. He is a professor of public policy at Harvard University and a former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government. I watched him pace back and forth on that stage, pointing to the graphs behind him, and marveled at the way he made sense of our current situation. “The temptation,” he said, “is to look at the decline that began in the late sixties and wonder what went wrong. What we need to do instead is look at the upswing that began in the late eighties—the late 1880’s, that is—and ask what went right? Because that’s when we started coming together as a nation.” He talked about a number of factors that may have contributed to the change, but then he summed it up by saying, “You know, you can do a word search to find out how often a particular word has been used during a particular period of time. The data is available.” He said, “I decided to compare the use of the words and we during the century under consideration and found that it was the same bell curve as the one we’ve been looking at. That is, when we were using ‘I’ more than ‘we,’ we were down here, at the bottom, but when we were using ‘we’ more than ‘I’ we were up here at the top.”

Does that surprise you? Does it surprise you to realize that Jesus figured it out 2,000 years before Robert Putnam did? And would it surprise you if Jesus said the author of Leviticus figured it out centuries before that? Jesus taught what Jesus learned, and in Leviticus 19 he learned that you shall love your neighbor as yourself. That is the key to prosperity! If you want a happy, healthy, functional society you have to stop caring only about yourself; you have to look around to see how your neighbor is doing, and if your neighbor is not doing well, you have to help! And I have to say, this [holding up my phone], the so-called “smartphone,” is not helping us.

There’s a mural just down the street from here, a two-story-tall painting on the side of a building of a teenage girl looking at her phone.[ii] Maybe you’ve seen it. I have this funny idea that the artist, Nils Westergard, was trying to paint a portrait of that girl but couldn’t get her to look up from her phone, so eventually he just painted that. But it is an iconic image. And it is ubiquitous. Because if you ever take a break and look up from your phone you will see that everyone else is looking down at theirs. And it’s not only teenagers; it’s us old people, too.

How are you going to love your neighbor if you never look up from your phone? And how are you going to love God? “Oh,” you say, “that’s how I love God! I’ve got my Bible app on there, and my daily devotions, and my Christian music, and right now, even as you preach, I’m watching you on the live webcast from Richmond’s First Baptist Church—on my phone!” Okay. Okay. But when the sermon is over look up, and look around, and see if anyone else is with you. Is it possible that, even without meaning to, you have cut yourself off from others, isolated yourself, separated yourself? Is it possible that, even without meaning to, you have become a Pharisee?

There’s a remedy for that, and the remedy is community, where you have to rub shoulders with other people, people who are imperfect and impure. And I’m just going to say it: church may be the perfect place to find people like that, because we know we’re sinners. We know we need God. And we know we need each other. We come here sometimes simply because we are trying, in the best way we know how, to love God with all our heart, and soul, and might,

And our neighbors as ourselves.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

“Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned: The Lord is King!”

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:

“The Lord is King!”

First Baptist Richmond, October 22, 2023 The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 45:1-7; Matthew 22:15-22

They said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

Jesus taught what Jesus learned, and one of the things he learned was that Caesar is not Lord. He may have learned it while he was still a boy, going to that little synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath, “as was his custom” (Luke 4:16). We know that they had the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in that synagogue, and in their regular cycle of readings there must have been days when someone stood to read and opened that scroll to the place where it said, “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,” which is the beginning of our Old Testament lesson for today.

Even as a boy Jesus would have known who Cyrus was. Everybody in Israel knew who Cyrus was. He was their hero! He was the one who had delivered them from their exile in Babylon after he became King of Persia. I once described it like this: “For fifty years the exiles had been saying, ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.’ And then one day they heard the sound of the Persian army marching toward Babylon, and when they looked up they saw a multitude of soldiers advancing: their shields and helmets gleaming in the afternoon sun; their swords flashing like lightning; their

chariots rolling like thunder. They smashed through the defenses of the city as if they were made of paper. The Book of Daniel claims that Babylon fell in a single night and when the sun came up the next morning Cyrus, King of Persia, was in charge. With one royal edict he set God’s people free and allowed them to return to Jerusalem.”i

No wonder he was their hero, and yet Isaiah makes it clear that without God’s help Cyrus would have been nothing. Listen again to these verses from today’s reading: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him—and the gates shall not be closed: I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. I am the Lord, and there is no other.”

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Isaiah is saying that Caesar is not Lord. Cyrus was the King of Persia, he was the emperor of that particular empire, he was its “Caesar,” and yet, without God, he would have been nothing. God danced him across the stage of history like a puppet on a string, he used him to accomplish his own purposes, he called Cyrus his anointed one, his messiah, but Cyrus was anointed for one purpose and one purpose only: to set God’s people free. Once he had done that, and once he had sent them home with enough resources to rebuild their ruined city and restore its ravaged temple, God had no further use for him. Cyrus wasn’t Lord. As God reminds us in verse 5 of today’s reading, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.”

Jesus would have heard those words when he was still a boy, sitting in that

synagogue in Nazareth. He would have weighed those words against the Roman emperor’s claim to be divine, because that’s what the emperor claimed. After the Persians conquered the Babylonians someone else conquered them—the Greeks. And after the Greeks it was the Romans. The first of the Roman emperors, Augustus, began to think more highly of himself than he ought to think. Not only did he brag about his many military victories, but he claimed to be a god, and his subjects revered him as such.

When Augustus died in A.D. 14 and his son-in-law, Tiberius, took the throne, he had coins minted that bore his own image and the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.” In other words, Tiberius claimed to be the Son of God. Can you imagine how Jesus looked at those coins as a teenager, knowing who he was and knowing—because he had grown up going to the synagogue—that Caesar was not Lord? If God was going to use Tiberius at all he would use him like a puppet on a string to accomplish his own purposes.

And so we come to this morning’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 22. Jesus is in the temple precincts. He has silenced the chief priests and elders with three pointed parables. And now the Pharisees, his old enemies, come to him with a question about paying taxes to Caesar. But again, this is no innocent question. It’s not that the Pharisees are unfamiliar with the tax laws. As Matthew points out, they are “plotting” to “entrap” him in what he says. In fact, the next few verses of Matthew 22 read like instructions for how to build a Jesus trap;

1. Send your disciples to question Jesus rather than going yourself. That way you won’t be implicated if things go wrong.

2. Send some Herodians along with them. They don’t really get along with each other but the Herodians are big supporters of the Roman government

and they may prove useful if Jesus says it isn’t lawful to pay Roman taxes.

3. Put the Herodians on one side of Jesus and your disciples on the other, like the jaws of a trap, ready to snap shut if he gives the wrong answer.

4. Butter him up. Call him “Teacher” as if you were really interested in learning something. Remind him that he’s a straight shooter who always tells the truth, that he doesn’t care what people think and isn’t afraid of anyone. That way, he won’t pull any punches; he’ll tell you exactly what’s on his mind.

5. And then ask the question, and ask it like this: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Because it’s a yes or no question, and either answer will get him in trouble. If he says no, the Herodians can jump him, since he’s not supporting Rome, but if he says yes your disciples can jump him, since he’s not supporting Israel. Either way, you will have him in your trap.

But as my friend Annie Campbell says to people who think she’s only a retired school teacher or the wife of an Episcopal priest: “You didn’t see me coming.” The Pharisees and the Herodians didn’t see Jesus coming. They thought he was some itinerant prophet from Galilee, but Matthew tells us he was “aware of their malice” and said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.”

And someone held out a denarius.

We need to pause right there for a moment so you can appreciate the “hypocrisy” Jesus refers to. We didn’t use it in worship but two weeks ago one of the lectionary readings was from Exodus 20: the Ten Commandments. If you are familiar with them you may remember that the first one is, “You shall have no other gods before me,” and the second one is, “You shall not make for yourself an

idol” (or, in the King James Version, a “graven image”). Well, we didn’t use it in worship either, but the next week’s reading was from Exodus 32, where Aaron makes a golden calf, a graven image, and tells the people, “These are your gods, O Israel!” And the people bow down to worship. They couldn’t keep the Ten Commandments for twelve chapters! But the Pharisees in today’s Gospel lesson are no better. There they are, in the temple with Jesus, and when he asks for a coin they hand him a denarius with Caesar’s graven image on it and an inscription claiming that he is the Son of God. The first two commandments are broken again, but this time right there in the temple!

Jesus calls attention to it, in a way that must have been terribly embarrassing to people who claimed that they followed the Law of Moses to the letter: He said, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” He didn’t say “blasphemous inscription,” but that’s what it was, and that’s what it would be for any ordinary mortal to claim that he was the Son of God. If you know anything about Tiberius you know that he was far from divine, and yet there was his image, and there was that claim. The Pharisees must have hung their heads when they acknowledged that both the graven image and the blasphemous inscription belonged to Caesar, whose coin had somehow ended up in the holiest place in Israel. “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus said, “and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, Matthew says, “they were amazed; and they left him and went away.”

On my first reading of this text last week I ended up thinking about what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar. And since the Pharisees were talking about taxes I did a quick search on the Internet. One site suggested that the average American pays 13.3 percent in income tax. You may pay more than that

because you are clearly above average, but let’s use that number as an example. I thought, “Well, there you go: 13.3 percent of your annual income goes to Caesar and, if you follow the teaching of Leviticus 27:30, ten percent of your annual income goes to God. That makes a total of 23.3 percent, leaving 76.7 percent for you.” For some people it really is that simple: they do the math, they write the checks, and then they go to bed with a clean conscience. But other people, like me, get stuck on the question, “What really does belong to Caesar, and what really does belong to God?” And maybe, “Why does the government get 13.3 percent while God, who gave me my life and every good thing that is in it, gets only 10 percent?”

But then I looked at the text again, and saw the word lawful in the Pharisees’ question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” I realized that the Pharisees lived in a world where there were two different laws: the Law of Rome and the Law of Moses. Of the two, the Law of Moses was much more important to them. The scribes would go through the Scriptures with a fine-toothed comb, trying to ferret out every commandment, and then the Pharisees would try to follow every one that they found, with a commitment some would call “Pharisaical.” But when it came time to pay their taxes they had to pay them, just as we do. They wondered: “Is that in the Law of Moses? Is there anything that might get us off the hook?” Jesus’ response makes it clear that you can pay your taxes without breaking the Law of Moses, but there are some times when it is not so clear.

When I teach the newcomers class I talk about Baptist history, and say the Baptists got their start, in part, because the government was asking them to do something they didn’t think was right. It was asking them to baptize their babies.

This was at a time when the Church of England was the state-sponsored church, and the way the English government kept track of its citizens was through its baptismal records. Every baby born in England was required to be baptized, and when it was, its name was written into the books. But the people who would become Baptists couldn’t find any evidence of infant baptism in the Bible. They wondered why the government was making them do something that didn’t seem biblical. They got to that place where they felt that they couldn’t keep God’s law and the government’s law so they pulled out of the Church of England and ultimately came to this country in search of religious liberty. They could no longer tolerate the government-sponsored baptism of their babies.

Think about that before you sign up to be a Christian Nationalist. Do you really want the government telling you what to believe and how to behave? No. Caesar is not Lord. Don’t fall for that foolishness. Our Baptist forebears were willing to die for religious liberty. Paul would say, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). And that’s why we can be grateful to live in a country where the Constitution itself promises that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (First Amendment). A country like that you can feel good about supporting with your taxes. You can give to Caesar what is Caesar’s without feeling any qualms, and you can also give to God what is God’s.

In this country we have the freedom to do that. All we have to do, really, is figure out what “that” is. Jesus held up a coin and asked the Pharisees, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” “Caesar’s” they said. But he might have asked them, “When you hold up your life for inspection, whose image is on it and

whose inscription?” And even those Pharisees would have said, “God’s.” Because they knew their Bible. They knew that we human beings are made in God’s image. Everything we are and everything we have belongs to him. “Then give it to him,” Jesus might have said. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s because it’s not yours anyway. Come to that place where you care so little about his filthy money that you can throw it on the street. But give to God what is God’s, because that’s not yours either. It’s his. You are his. You belong to him. Give yourself gratefully, generously, because he’s worth everything you can give. He is King! He is Lord! And Caesar?

Is not.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned: A King Gave a Banquet

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:

A King Gave a Banquet

First Baptist Richmond, October 15, 2023 The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 25:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Today’s Old Testament lesson includes some of the most beautiful language and imagery in the Bible, and with your permission, I’d like to read it again, so you can sink down into it like a warm bath. Speaking of Mount Zion in Jerusalem Isaiah writes:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

That’s Isaiah 25:6-9: a vision of a bountiful feast, prepared for all the people of the earth, a kind of heavenly banquet where death is swallowed up forever and the tears are wiped from every face. Notice how generous it is: “the Lord will make for all peoples a feast of rich food…he will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.” It would have been nice if Isaiah had left it right there, or if the lectionary committee that selected today’s Old Testament reading had left it right there. But they didn’t. Today’s reading actually begins with Isaiah 25:1, which says, “O LORD, you are my

God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.” And then there’s the shock of the next verse: “For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.” In other words, “I will praise your name, O Lord, for you are getting ready to prepare a feast for us, your people, but only after you destroy the lives of our enemies, and reduce their capital city to a pile of rubble.”

I can’t read those verses today without thinking of what is happening in the Middle East, in the war between Israel and Hamas, knowing that there are people on both sides who would love to see their enemies’ cities reduced to rubble. But the people who read these verses originally also read them in historical context, and in that context I’m sure they would have made even more sense. Old Testament scholar Gene M. Tucker says that although most of the first part of the Book of Isaiah was written in the Eighth Century, BC, when Israel was being threatened by the Assyrian Empire, these four chapters—24-27—appear to have been written sometime after Israel’s return from exile, in the Sixth Century, BC. In that context it might have been understood that God would prepare a great homecoming feast for his people on Mount Zion, but only after Babylon had been destroyed by the Persian Empire. So the prophet can say, “You have done wonderful things, O Lord! You have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt! Hooray!”

Context is everything.

I learned that lesson from New Testament scholar Gail O’Day years ago. She was speaking at Wingate University in North Carolina and I was the pastor of Wingate Baptist Church, just at the edge of the campus. So, I walked over to hear

what she had to say. She spoke in the theatre, and when she stepped out on stage she said, “Context is everything.” She explained that she had just been backstage, waiting to come out, and noticed that someone had spray-painted on the back wall the words, “Break many legs.” Dr. O’Day said, “When I see those words in a theatre I know what they mean, because that’s what you say to someone when they’re going onstage: you say, ‘Break a leg.’ It means, ‘Good luck.’ I can only assume that ‘Break many legs’ means even more good luck. But when you see those words spray painted in some back alley in New York City they mean something else entirely, and that’s why I say, ‘Context is everything.’”

Jesus taught what Jesus learned, and in today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 22 he tells a parable that seems to be inspired by Isaiah 25. Let me see if I can put it in context. Jesus is teaching in the Temple the day after he has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the day after he has turned over the tables of the moneychangers. The chief priests and elders have confronted him, asking him by whose authority he has done these things. Jesus responds by asking them a question about the authority of John the Baptist: did it come from heaven or earth? They refuse to answer the question, knowing it will incriminate them. And so Jesus refuses to answer their question. Instead he begins to pepper them with parables: one about a son who said he would work for his father, but didn’t; one about some wicked tenants who wouldn’t give the owner of the vineyard the fruit that was rightfully his; and a third one, today’s Gospel lesson, about some people who refused to attend a royal wedding banquet.

If context really is everything, then we need to be aware that Jesus is face-to-face with the very people who are plotting to have him arrested and crucified, and he knows it. As early as chapter 16 in this Gospel he has been predicting his

passion, telling his disciples that, “[The Son of Man] must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21). So, there’s no innocence here. The chief priests and elders are not innocent people, hearing an innocent story. These parables have a point, as sharp as the point of any spear, and Jesus is hoping that the crowd of people standing around him will get it. He’s hoping that we will get it. So, what does he say?

He says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” And since we’ve heard this parable before we know that when Jesus talks about a king he’s talking about God, and when he talks about a son, he’s talking about himself. “[The king] sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet,” Jesus continues, “but they would not come.” Again, we know that those who have been invited to the wedding banquet are God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel, and the slaves who have been sent to them are the prophets. So far, so good. But now comes the hard part: why would they not come to the wedding banquet? Why would any of us not come to a wedding banquet? It’s a party! There’s plenty to eat and drink! And we don’t have to pay for any of it; the king is picking up the entire tab! The only reason I can imagine that they would not come to this party is that they do not believe the king’s son is who he says he is. They think he’s some pretender, some imposter. So, they scorn the invitation and go their own way. But the king is determined to honor his son.

So he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: ‘Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and

went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.” And now you have to skip ahead a few decades, realizing that Matthew is writing this Gospel some fifty years after the earthly ministry of Jesus. He has some historical perspective that seems to be influencing his telling of the story. He knows that those who were inviting God’s chosen people to the wedding banquet of his Son were seized, mistreated, and killed. And he also knows what happened next. “The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.”

Again, from Matthew’s perspective, this is something that actually happened. Fifteen years before he wrote his Gospel another empire—Rome—had conquered Israel, destroyed the people he called “those murderers,” and burned their city. Anyone who was hearing his Gospel read aloud would immediately think of the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. It doesn’t make sense in the context of the parable. You don’t put your dinner on hold while you send your soldiers off to destroy your enemies. But it does make sense in the context of history, and if you know just a little bit of Israel’s history this parable gets a whole lot easier. So, after this, “The King said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’” You can see this as the early church inviting not only Jews, but also Gentiles, to come to the banquet, and the next verse seems to support that. Jesus says, “Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

That would be a good place to end the parable. It may have been where Jesus ended it originally. It’s where we ended our reading of the parable today. But it is not where Matthew ends it. Matthew includes a brief paragraph that is

found nowhere else in the Gospels. He writes: “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” Ouch. That’s a brutal ending to the parable, and if you read it out of context it doesn’t make sense. How could Jesus say such a thing? But if you read it in context, if you read it in the context of the early church and perhaps especially Matthew’s church, it does make sense. Because Matthew seems to be talking about baptism.

I love it that we’ve had a baptism today, because Zane Frye may be the perfect example of what Matthew is talking about. He didn’t presume anything when he came asking for baptism. He didn’t say, “I’m one of God’s chosen people; you have to let me in!” No, he came humbly, knowing that he was just another sinner in need of God’s amazing grace. He stripped off his old clothes—his old life if you will—and put on a white robe as a symbol of his new life in Christ. You might call it his wedding robe. And then he entered the waters of baptism like someone who knew he hadn’t done anything to deserve this, and when we asked him for his credentials all he could say was, “Jesus is Lord.” And that was enough. Because that seems to be all God really wanted and all he really needed: for someone to acknowledge his son as Lord. But in Matthew’s day, apparently, there were people who were trying to crash God’s party, forcing their way into the church without being baptized, without acknowledging Jesus as Lord, without even putting on a wedding robe. And Matthew was having none of that.

I can sympathize.

Early in my ministry I was counseling with a couple that wanted to get married in the church, but the groom, in particular, seemed very flippant about it. He said, “Yeah, well, her parents wanted us to get married here so I guess we’ll do it, you know, to make them happy.” But he wasn’t making me happy. He wasn’t a Christian, and he didn’t seem to have any respect for Christian marriage. He kept asking if we could change the order of worship. “Do we have to read Scripture? Do we have to say prayers? Can’t we just light a unity candle?” I was biting my tongue. At the end of the session I was filling out some paperwork and asked him for his address. He gave it to me, but when I asked for hers he said, “Oh, it’s the same.” This was thirty years ago, mind you, back when some people still waited until they were married to move in with each other. So I asked, “Are you living together?” “Yeah,” he said. “Do you have a problem with that?” Well, yes. I did. Context is everything, and in that context I felt like this guy was crashing God’s party; like he wanted all the blessings of the church without any of the discipline. I finally said, “Friend, if I’m going to do this wedding your fiancée is going to have to move back in with her parents and live with them until I pronounce you husband and wife.” And here’s the amazing thing: she did.

“That’s all I want,” Matthew said, speaking not about marriage but about membership in the church. “I want people to respect my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I don’t want them presuming on God’s grace or crashing his party. I want them to show up in a proper wedding garment. I want to hear them say, ‘Jesus is Lord!’ just like Zane did. Because if they could do that, if they could only do that,

“It would be enough.”

—Jim Somerville © 2023

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned: What More Was There to Do?

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:

“What More Was There to Do?”

First Baptist Richmond, October 8, 2023 The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country…”

My first trip to the Holy Land was in 1994, and it was pretty much my first trip anywhere outside the United States. I was very excited. A member of my church, a retired pastor, asked me why I was going and I said, “Why wouldn’t I?” It seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. He said he had spent his whole life imagining those places in the Bible, and he didn’t want to ruin all that by flying to the other side of the world and getting on a tour bus and driving all over Israel just so he could stand in line with a group of other pilgrims to see the gaudy shrine built over the place where Jesus may or may not have done something miraculous. I didn’t think of it like that at all. I said, “I want to see the rugged landscape of Israel. I want to hear the waves lapping up against the shore of the Sea of Galilee. I want to smell the air of the Negev desert. I want to taste falafel from a food cart in Jerusalem. I want to put my hand down deep into the waters of the Jordan River. I want to haggle over the price of souvenirs in an open-air market. In other words, I want to experience the Holy Land with all my senses and just see what it does for my understanding of the Bible.”

Well, it did a lot. I can’t read the Bible these days without seeing those places in my head and remembering those experiences. For example: when I read

today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 5 I remember being on a bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was the middle of the afternoon. We were all a bit drowsy from jet lag and a big, Mediterranean lunch. We were beginning the climb from the coastal plain up to the hill country of Judea. But as I looked out the window I kept seeing these small, rectangular plots of land surrounded by low, stone walls. When we passed close to one I could see that it was a vineyard. I asked our tour guide about the walls. Were they supposed to keep something out? He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Not really. Those are just the stones they had to clear out of the vineyard.” And that’s when I realized how rocky that part of the country was, and how much effort it would take just to clear enough land to plant some grape vines. I could picture someone lugging heavy stones, one at a time, from the middle of the vineyard to the perimeter, stacking them up to make a wall, not so much because he needed one, but simply because what else are you going to do with all those rocks?

So, the next time I read Isaiah 5 I could see it in my mind. The prophet says:

Let me sing for my beloved

my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

That trip to Israel helped me see that digging the vineyard and clearing it of stones was just the beginning. Then you have to plant the vines, build the watch tower, and hew out a wine vat, and if my other experiences in Israel are any indication,

the wine vat would have been hewed out of solid rock. What I’m saying is this: a vineyard would have been an enormous expense of time and effort. It would have been hot, sweaty, backbreaking work. And when you finally got those choice vines planted in that fertile soil you would expect them to produce nothing but the plumpest, sweetest grapes in the land. So, when the prophet says of his beloved’s vineyard, “He expected it to yield grapes,” you think, “Yes, of course he did, especially after all that work!” But the prophet’s beloved is God, and God’s vineyard is Israel. He expected it to yield grapes, but instead it yielded wild grapes.

What are “wild grapes”? I’m so glad you asked! According to the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia, published in 1880, “Wild Grape is the rendering of the A.V. at Isa 5:2, 4 of the Heb. word which occurs only in the pl. beushim, בּאֻשַׁים, and indicates a noxious species of plant or kind of fruit. In form the word is a pass. participle of בָּאִשׁ, beosh, which means to smell offensively, as many poisonous vegetables do; and this connects it radically with בָּאשָׁה, boshah (translated as ‘cockles’ in Job 31:40), although the two seem to denote different plants, but both useless.”i After a few more paragraphs of explanation, including the rendering of the word in Greek in the Septuagint, McClintock and Strong conclude by saying, “It seems probable that no specific plant is referred to in the passage; but that the word is simply used as an adjective with its substantive understood, as a designation of bad or worthless grapes. The Lord expected that his vineyard should produce grapes, but it produced only beushim, vile, uneatable grapes.”ii

Jesus taught what Jesus learned, and this is one of the things he learned while he was still just a boy: that the nation of Israel was God’s vineyard, and God had given his people every possible advantage. He had brought them out of their slavery in Egypt; he had carried them in his arms through the wilderness; he had

brought them into a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey; he had said to them, “If you will be my people, I will be your God.” It was his marriage vow. But they had not been his people. They had chased after every foreign god and bowed themselves down at every pagan altar. He had expected grapes, but his people were wild grapes; they were bad, worthless, they “smelled offensively,” and he had no choice but to send them into exile. Everyone knew that story. It made perfect sense to them. But Jesus taught what Jesus learned and in today’s Gospel lesson he has something to teach the chief priests and elders of Israel.

Before we get into the parable itself let me remind you that Jesus is under attack. The chief priests and elders are upset by his lack of respect for their authority. He has ridden into the city on a donkey to shouts of “Hosanna!” He has turned over tables in the temple and healed people in its precincts. He has refused to tell the chief priests and elders the source of his authority, although everyone else seems to know. And so now they stand there, wondering what to do with this troublemaker, when he says, “Let me tell you a story,” the text of which can be found in Matthew 21:33-46.

“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard,” Jesus began. “He put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.” As soon as he said it, everyone knew that he was talking about the nation of Israel, because everyone had heard Isaiah’s parable. It was what you might call “common knowledge.” “Then he leased it to tenants,” Jesus continued, “and went to another country.” And that’s when the people listening began to wonder who the “tenants” might be, and to suspect, with a kind of perverse delight, that Jesus was referring to the religious leaders of Israel, the very people who were opposing him. “When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce,”

Jesus said, and the people rightly guessed that the slaves were the prophets of Israel, sent to collect the produce of justice and righteousness. “But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another,” Jesus said, and the people recalled that this is how the religious leaders of Israel had treated the prophets through the years.

“Again he sent other slaves,” Jesus said, “more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.” Sure enough, everyone in the crowd could remember that many of the prophets had been beaten, or stoned, or killed, simply for telling the truth. “Finally,” Jesus said, “he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” And the people in the crowd must have wondered, “Is he talking about himself? Is he the Son of God?” “But when the tenants saw the son,” Jesus continued, “they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’” Which doesn’t even make sense, right? Why would the owner of the vineyard give it over to those who had killed his son? Nevertheless, “They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.” And then Jesus asked the question that would cause his opponents to condemn themselves: “Now,” he said, “when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And the chief priests and elders, still unaware that he was talking about them, said, “Why, he will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one

who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” It was only then that the chief priests and elders realized that he was talking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Now, all of this took place nearly two thousand years ago. We weren’t there, and it would be easy to imagine that it doesn’t apply to us. But even the people who were there might have said that it didn’t apply to them. They weren’t the “wild grapes” in Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard. Those were their ancestors from hundreds of years earlier, the ones who didn’t give to God the fruits of justice and righteousness, the fruit he had hoped for when he planted his vineyard. If you read on in that parable you will find that God removed the hedge around his vineyard and allowed it to be devoured; he broke down its wall, and allowed it to be trampled down. Those who knew the story would know that the Babylonian army ran roughshod over God’s vineyard and dragged its inhabitants away to exile. “I will make it a waste,” God promised; “it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” And that’s what happened. The nation of Israel, the city of Jerusalem, was completely and utterly destroyed. But can’t you imagine that when God’s people returned to the ruins some seventy years later they said, “This time we will give God what he wants; we will produce the fruits of justice and righteousness so that he will not have any cause to send us into exile again”?

And when Jesus confronted the chief priests and elders of Israel it was easy for the crowds to stand back and listen, knowing that the threat of judgment wasn’t intended for them. They weren’t the ones who had kept from God the fruit

that was rightfully his; it was these people, the religious authorities. It was to them that Jesus had said, “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the fruits of the kingdom.” But years later, when Matthew’s Gospel was written and shared among the early Christians, they must have realized: “He’s talking about us! The Kingdom of God was taken away from those religious authorities and given to us!” But if that’s true, then even though they weren’t there when Jesus told the story, there is still an important lesson to be learned. And for us, even though we were never the focus of Jesus’ parable, we can come away from this morning’s Gospel lesson realizing, “If the Kingdom of God is taken away from those who will not produce the fruits of the Kingdom, and given to a people who will, then we had better be that kind of people—the kind who give to the King the fruit that is rightfully his!” And what is that fruit? According to Fred Craddock, “the owner of the vineyard is still expecting 1) righteous living, 2) human caring, and 3) courageous witnessing, these three being Matthew’s understanding of ‘fruit.’”iii

Because it’s a little too easy to stand back and listen to Isaiah blast the residents of eighth-century Israel for not producing the fruit of justice and righteousness; a little too easy to sit in our pews and listen to Jesus condemn the chief priests and elders for not giving to God what is rightfully his. What’s harder for us is to realize that now we have been made the tenants of the Kingdom, and that someday God is going to send his servants, and possibly even his own son, to collect the fruit that is rightfully his. On that day can we give him what he wants? Can we hand over bushel baskets full of “righteous living, human caring, and courageous witnessing”?

Take a look around you. Take a moment to appreciate this beautiful

sanctuary. Think about the manicured grounds around this building; our enviable location at the corner of Monument Avenue and Arthur Ashe Boulevard; our capable, hard-working staff and our multi-million dollar endowment. Is there anything more God could have done for us that he has not already done? And yet, when he comes looking for grapes, will he find wild grapes? When he comes to collect what is rightfully his, will we give it to him, or will we keep it to ourselves?

—Jim Somerville © 2023

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned: Which Did the Will of the Father?

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:

“Which Did the Will of the Father?”

First Baptist Richmond, October 1, 2023 World Communion Sunday

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Matthew 21:23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

There’s a word I hear these days that seems to mean something different than it used to. It’s the word agency. When I was a boy my father might say that he needed to talk with someone at the insurance agency. When I was in DC I had a friend who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency. But these days I hear people say, “I felt a sense of agency,” and what they mean is that they felt that they had some power over their situation. Here’s a better definition: “Agency is the sense of control that you feel in your life, your capacity to influence your own thoughts and behavior, and have faith in your ability to handle a wide range of tasks and situations. Your sense of agency helps you to be psychologically stable, yet flexible in the face of conflict or change. Agency is your very own power, your ability, to affect the future.”i

Agency is what God’s people were not feeling when they were in exile in Babylon. They felt that they had no control over their situation. Their parents had been brought there by the Babylonians and now here they were, the next generation, trying to understand why. They eventually came to this conclusion: that it wasn’t them; they weren’t being punished for something they had done; they were being punished for something their parents had done. Their parents

had not kept God’s covenant. They had been unfaithful to him and worshiped other gods. Therefore God had allowed the Babylonians to sack the city of Jerusalem and carry them away into captivity. But now here were their children, languishing in exile, and feeling no agency at all. They began to quote the words of an old proverb: “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth have been set on edge.”

Have you ever done that? Have you ever actually eaten a sour grape? Do you know what it’s like? It’s not only your mouth that puckers up, it’s your whole face. Your eyes squinch shut and, yes, your teeth are set on edge. It’s terrible. But it’s exactly what you get for eating sour grapes. What this proverb means is that you didn’t do it. You didn’t eat the sour grapes. And yet you are having to suffer the consequences of someone else’s bad decision. That’s how the children of Israel felt in exile. It was their parents who had broken the covenant, not them. But now here they were being punished for something they didn’t even do.

It wasn’t fair.

And that’s when the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel. He was one of the first to be taken into exile. He knew the sins of the parents, and he knew their children were right to say, “This is not our fault.” But the Lord said: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.’” And then the Lord went on to say that the children weren’t blameless, they had sins of their own, but they also had agency. If they would turn from those sins they would live. If they didn’t they would die.

“Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” said the Lord. “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live.”

And apparently they did, because when Babylon was conquered by the Persians a few years later Cyrus, the King of Persia, decided to let God’s people go—back to Jerusalem where they could return to their former way of life and rebuild their temple. Their parents may have eaten sour grapes but the children of Israel got to make a fresh start. And for a while things were good. But 400 years later they found themselves once again subject to a foreign empire, this time the Roman one. Some of them may have started using that proverb again, claiming that their parents had eaten sour grapes and now their teeth were set on edge. But that’s when the word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness, and the word was this: Repent. This is not about your parents; this is about you. “Repent,” John said, “for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”

Matthew tells us that John was the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” He goes on to explain that “John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” He looked like an Old Testament prophet. And perhaps for that reason, “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”

Keep that in mind as we turn to this morning’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 21, where the chief priests and the elders of the people come to Jesus as he is teaching in the temple, and say, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” If you want to know what “things” they are talking about you need only look back to the beginning of this chapter where Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem, humble and riding on a donkey, while a large crowd spreads their cloaks on the road and those who go before and those who follow behind shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” The whole city is stirred up. Everyone is asking, “Who is this?” and the crowds reply, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

When Jesus gets to the temple he begins to drive out all who are selling and buying. He overturns the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sell doves. He says to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” When the dust settles the blind and the lame come to him, and he cures them. But when the chief priests and the scribes see the amazing things that he is doing, and when they hear the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they become angry and say to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” But he shrugs his shoulders and says, “Out of the mouths of babes!” And then he goes to Bethany to spend the night.

The next day he is confronted by the chief priests and elders who ask, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” And they have a right to ask. These are the people who are responsible for maintaining law and order in the temple precincts. And yet Jesus says, “I will also ask you one

question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

Here’s another word you may have heard: chutzpah. It’s a Yiddish word that originally came from the Hebrew. Its meaning is usually defined by a series of synonyms, including nerve, gall, audacity, supreme self-confidence, and conspicuous boldness. It’s the word that comes to mind when I think of how Jesus responded to these religious authorities. “Are you asking me a question?” he says. “Fine. Let me ask you one, and if you answer mine I’ll answer yours.” And then he asks them about the baptism of John. Was it from earth or from heaven? In other words, did John come up with it on his own or did God send him to do it?

Earlier in this Gospel Matthew tells us that all the people of Jerusalem and Judea were going out to be baptized by John. If that’s true then chances are good that most of the people standing there listening to Jesus had been baptized by John. They believed that he had been sent by God. They waited to hear what the chief priests and elders would say, but they only argued among themselves, realizing, “If we say it was of human origin the crowd will turn on us, but if we say it was from heaven he’ll ask us why we didn’t believe him.”

But it was true: they didn’t believe him. They didn’t believe they had any need of repentance or baptism. They were the chief priests and elders of Israel! It would have been embarrassing for them to wade out into the river and tell John all the things they were sorry for. But it wasn’t embarrassing for the tax collectors and prostitutes. Everybody knew they were sinners. Their sin wouldn’t have surprised anyone. What would have surprised them is if they had decided to confess and repent, but apparently that’s what they had done. Tax collectors and

prostitutes had waded out into the water. They had stood before John confessing their sins. The tears had run down their dirty cheeks until John dipped them under the water and they came up clean. The chief priests and elders hadn’t done that. They didn’t believe they needed to. And now they find themselves standing in front of a crowd that is waiting to hear whether they think John’s baptism was from heaven or earth. In the end they mumble, miserably, “We don’t know.” And Jesus says, “Then I won’t tell you by whose authority I do these things,” although it seems clear by this point that John’s authority and Jesus’ authority come from the same place.

And then Jesus asks another question. “What do you think,” he says. “A man had two sons. He went to the first and asked him to go and work in the vineyard. At first he said no but later changed his mind and went. The second said yes but never actually got there. Which of the two did the will of the Father?” And even the chief priests and elders know the answer to that question: it was the first son, the one who actually did what his father asked him to do. God isn’t looking for people whose lips say yes; he’s looking for people whose lives say yes.

And that’s when Jesus mentions the tax collectors and the prostitutes. They didn’t think that they were too good to repent. They didn’t blame their parents for what had happened to them. They knew that they, themselves, could do something about their situation. They took responsibility for their own sin. They felt a sense of agency. They waded out into the Jordan, confessed their sins, and repented. And for this reason, Jesus says, “They are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Jesus taught what Jesus learned. He taught that all people are in need of repentance and that all people are able to do it, even those who think they have no need of it: the children of the exiles in Babylon; the Chief Priests and Elders of Israel; the members and friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church. In Ezekiel 18 God says, “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways.” In Matthew 21 Jesus implies that each of us will be judged not by what our lips say, but what our lives say. And in 2 Corinthians 5 Paul insists that, “We will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” If that’s true then on that day it won’t matter what anyone else did or didn’t do; it will only matter what we did or didn’t do.

So on this day, this World Communion Sunday, I’m wondering what would happen if each of the two billion Christians around the world came to the Lord’s Table as if they were coming to Christ himself. What would happen if they experienced in those elements that represent his body and blood something like his actual, physical presence? What would happen if they found themselves standing before Jesus like those tax collectors and prostitutes found themselves standing before John the Baptist? In that moment could they think of anyone’s sins other than their own? And would they not be moved to confess them, and turn away from them, forever? I’m wondering how the world would change if on this day Christian people around the globe felt a sense of agency, enough to own up to their own sins, to confess them, and repent from them. I’m wondering how this church would change if we did that. I’m wondering how my life would change if I did that.

I’m ready to find out.

In just a moment I’m going to invite you to the Lord’s Table, but before I do

I’m going to give you a moment to sit in his presence, to confess your sins, and repent.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned: Is It Right for You to Be Angry?

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned: 

“Is It Right for You to Be Angry?” 

First Baptist Richmond, September 24, 2023 
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost 

Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16 

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 

Last week I mentioned that I would be starting a new sermon series today called “Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned,” in which I would be looking at the Old Testament reading and the Gospel lesson side-by-side. The next day I got voicemail from a very thoughtful stranger who suggested that maybe instead of saying “Old Testament” I could refer to it as the “Hebrew Bible,” which sounds a little less derogatory. I appreciated that, but on Tuesday I talked with an actual biblical studies professor, and I asked her what she thought. She said that she also prefers the term “Hebrew Bible.” I said, “Well, that makes sense. It is written mostly in Hebrew. But if we call it that shouldn’t we call the New Testament the ‘Greek Bible,’ since it is written mostly in Greek?” She said we could, but I think she began to see my point, that it wasn’t really about what language it was written in, but who it was written for, and why. Maybe the Old Testament was written for the Hebrew people, but was the New Testament written for the Greeks? 

I said, “When I call it the Old Testament, I don’t mean that it’s been replaced by the New Testament, in the way you might throw out your old shoes when you get some new ones. To me it’s not like old shoes, but rather like aged wine. It’s good! And I think it may have been what Jesus was talking about when he said, “No one, after drinking the old wine wants the new, for they will say, ‘The old is good!’” (Luke 5:39). The old is good. The Old Testament is good. The New Testament, which is filled with the new wine of Jesus’ teaching, is a little hard to swallow, but after 2,000 years it’s gotten easier, hasn’t it? His teaching has aged some. In fact, for some of us, the new wine has become old wine, so smooth on the preacher’s tongue that we hardly hear it anymore. Maybe it will help to hold up the teaching of the older testament next to the teaching of the newer testament just to see the contrast, and to see how Jesus was re-working material that would have been familiar to everyone.  

Because that’s the premise of this series: that Jesus was re-interpreting or re-imagining material that would have been familiar to everyone. In Luke 4 we are told that when Jesus was in Nazareth he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath as was his custom, and we can imagine that it had been his custom since he was a little boy, going to that synagogue and hearing the Scriptures read aloud every Sabbath. We know that they must have had a Torah scroll in that synagogue, because you couldn’t have a synagogue without one, and we know they had the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, because again, in Luke 4, that’s the one that Jesus was given when he stood up to read. But we don’t know how many other scrolls they might have had. It wasn’t like now, when the entire Bible is published in one volume and you can find it in your pew rack. Scrolls would have been expensive and hard to come by. I doubt that a synagogue like the one in Nazareth would have had the entire collection. But where they didn’t have the scrolls they had the stories, because long before anyone began to write them down God’s people had told God’s stories around the campfires of ancient Israel. There was an oral tradition as rich as any that has ever existed, and as a result there were some stories that everyone just knew.  

The story of Jonah, for instance. 

We know it because it has a big fish in it. It’s part of our oral tradition. In Sunday school classrooms across the country and around the world teachers tell children the story of this reluctant prophet who tried to escape his calling by sailing in the other direction, away from Nineveh and toward Tarshish, when a big storm came along that threatened to sink his ship. He told the sailors that it was his fault, that God was punishing him for trying to escape and that they should throw him overboard. They didn’t want to, but eventually they did and when they did the storm stopped. Jonah sank down deep into the water and would have drowned except that an enormous fish came along and swallowed him up. He prayed to God from the belly of the fish and three days later it spit him out on the shore so that he could fulfill his mission. It’s a wonderful story, and children love it (especially the part about the fish), but the fish is not really the point. The point, for God, is the people of Nineveh. 

You need to understand that these were Israel’s enemies. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and it was the Assyrians who had come down on Israel in 722 B.C. “like a wolf on the fold,”i destroyed the capital city of Samaria, and taken its citizens into captivity. The Israelites hated the Ninevites, and when the word of the Lord came to Jonah, the son of Amittai, the word was this: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah didn’t want anything to do with the Ninevites. He went in the other direction. God had to take extreme measures to get him back on track again, but when he did Jonah went through the city shouting, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He wasn’t asking them to repent. He was simply proclaiming their impending destruction and on some level it must have been extremely satisfying. But then the King rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. He called on the whole city to repent saying, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind.” And then God did change his mind, and it made Jonah furious. 

There is a kind of anger called “righteous indignation,” which I sometimes define as, “being angry for the right reasons.” Righteous indignation feels good (it can feel so good!). But the very existence of righteous indignation suggests that there is also unrighteous indignation, which could be defined as “being angry for the wrong reasons,” and that’s what Jonah was. He was angry because God had decided to spare the people of Nineveh. He said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” It couldn’t be any clearer: Jonah is angry because God is gracious and merciful, and that’s the wrong reason to be angry. The only people who could possibly be angry for that reason are the ones who believe they don’t need God’s grace or mercy—that is, the ones who believe they have inherited their salvation from their righteous ancestors, or earned it through their own hard work. Which brings us to this morning’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 20. 

This is the well-known parable of “the Laborers in the Vineyard,” and it is so well known that we [probably] didn’t even need to read it this morning. The owner of a vineyard goes out to hire some workers to help him bring in his harvest. He goes out early in the morning, again at nine, again at noon, and again at 3:00, each time hiring a few more workers. But when he goes out at 5:00 and finds still others he says, “Why are you standing around doing nothing?” And they say, “Because no one would hire us.” He says, “I’ll hire you,” and they, too, begin to work in the vineyard. But an hour later, when the harvest has been brought in, the landowner is feeling generous. He whispers some instructions in his manager’s ear, including the instruction to pay the workers beginning with those who were hired last (because this is a parable of the Kingdom, right? Where the last are always first?).  

They line up, and those who worked only an hour get a full denarius—a day’s pay—which gets all the others excited. They figure that if this crazy landowner pays a full denarius for an hour’s work, then those who worked three hours will get three denarii; those who worked six hours will get six denarii; those who worked nine hours will get nine denarii; and those who worked all day will get twelve denarii, the equivalent of two weeks’ pay! But when they stand before the manager each worker gets exactly the same pay—a single denarius—and it makes them furious. One of them complains to the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But the landowner replied, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me to work for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to these last ones hired the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I want with what is mine? Or are you jealous because I am generous?” In other words,  

“Is it right for you to be angry?” 

These who worked all day are full of unrighteous indignation. They are angry for the wrong reasons: angry because they think they deserve more than they got (or maybe because they think those others deserve less).  But this is a parable of the Kingdom, and the Kingdom it illustrates is the Kingdom of God, and Jesus knows some things about God, not only because he is God’s beloved Son, but also because, when he was only a boy, he had heard the story of Jonah. At the end of that story Jonah is sitting outside the great city of Nineveh, sulking, and maybe wishing that God would change his mind and destroy the city after all. But while he is there the same God who appointed a fish to rescue Jonah from the deep appoints a bush to grow up over Jonah’s head, to protect him from the sun, to provide a little shade. And that makes Jonah happy. But at dawn the next day God appoints a worm to attack the root of the bush so that it withers and dies. And when the sun beats down on Jonah’s head he becomes angry. God asks, “Is it right for you to be angry?” And Jonah answers, “Yes, angry enough to die.” And God says, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” 

Jesus seems to understand that the story of Jonah is a parable of grace, in which God gives to the prophet something he does not deserve: a little shade on a hot day. It makes Jonah happy. But when God takes that shade away Jonah is angry, angry enough to die. God is trying to teach Jonah a lesson: that it is his divine prerogative to give or to withhold grace. When he chooses to give it to people who don’t deserve it, Jonah must learn how to be happy, as happy as he was when God gave him a second chance. Because Jonah was sinking down into the depths, remember? Some might say he was “sinking deep in sin.” He was on the verge of drowning, of losing his life forever, when love lifted him. The God who saved Jonah also saved the Ninevites, and why? Because, as Jonah said, “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  

Jesus knew that, and when he told parables about the Kingdom that was often the point: that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are his ways our ways. We might think the destruction of the Ninevites was justified, especially after what they did to God’s chosen people. And we might think it was fair that those who worked twelve hours in the vineyard should get more than those who worked only an hour. But the God of Jonah’s story is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And the landowner in Jesus’ parable is generous, giving to those who worked only an hour much more than they deserved. It’s easy to get angry about that, to feel ourselves swelling up with righteous indignation, until God asks the question: “Is it right for you to be angry?” That’s when we realize that, like Jonah, God has given us far more than we deserved.  

God says to Jonah, “You were concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow. Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left and also many animals?” Persons who do not know their right hand from their left are little children, aren’t they? God is appealing to Jonah’s sense of justice as well as his sense of mercy. If these little children didn’t know their right hand from their left they couldn’t be guilty of sin, could they? And I love it that God’s last word in this book is a word about animals, those gentle beasts who grazed in the fields and never harmed a soul. God says to Jonah, “If you were concerned about a silly bush that you didn’t plant and didn’t cause to grow, should I not be concerned for Nineveh, that great city, in which there are so many innocent children and so many helpless animals?”  

This is a God who shows mercy to children and animals, but one who also gives to his people and to all people so much more than they deserve. He gives us more than we deserve. He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Jesus knew that, and he shared it in the parables he told, but he may have learned it first from an old, old story about a man who was swallowed by a fish, because, honestly, aren’t the old things often the best? 

Jim Somerville © 2023