And they all lived happily ever after.
The prince defeats the dragon and saves the princess.
The ship sinks, but love is unsinkable.
True love’s kiss broke the curse.
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
No, I’m not accidentally starting with the last page of my sermon. It’s just that most of our readings for today are either beginnings or endings, aren’t they? Because it’s the beginnings and endings of things that we tend to remember – about good books, good movies, good stories in general. And at the end of the very best stories, the ones that stay with us, all of the messy and complicated plot points are all woven together in one giant and satisfying “AAAaaaaah.”
But. how things begin is almost as important as how things end. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It was a dark and stormy night. The hills are alive with the sound of music. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. Not to mention, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.”
You’ll notice in you bulletin that there is a very long reading that you did not hear read aloud today, from the first chapter of Genesis, AKA the very beginning of everything. Please, read this on your own sometime this week, and notice the beautiful poetic language that our ancient forefathers and mothers used when describing the love our God has for God’s creation, a love God has for us from the very beginning.
But today we’re going to focus on endings – the ending of the Gospel according to Matthew, to be exact. We are skipping ahead, all the way to the last page of the gospel, to hear the last thing that Matthew wrote that Jesus said – the command to go out and make disciples, and the reminder that Jesus presence will go with them to the end of space and time. Which sounds pretty good, right? But if we look closely, not exactly every plot point is resolved. There’s no satisfying “the end.”
Now if I had my way, the end of Matthew’s gospel might have included the following addendum: And then, after Jesus said that he was going to be with his followers always, he added, “and because of this, your lives will always be exciting but never frustrating, you will always succeed at everything you do, and telling people about me will never be hard, ever.” And the people totally and completely understood what Jesus was saying, and rejoiced.
But this is most certainly not the case, and this is certainly NOT what how Matthew ends his gospel. Even after an earthquake, an angel that looked like lightening, hardened soldiers fainting, and Jesus himself showing up, alive, saying “Hey, what’s up?” and giving instructions to meet up with him in Galilee, EVEN AFTER ALL THIS, some of the eyewitnesses did not quite believe their eyes. “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” It seems here that Matthew hadn’t paid attention in his “how to write end of your Gospel” class.
The word that Matthew chooses to describe these doubting worshippers, or worshipful doubters, is “distazo,” which, for once, means pretty much what it sounds like it means – distracted. Or more exactly, to be of two minds about something, to waver, to hesitate, to literally be standing in two places at once. As much as we can fault Matthew for his gospel ending, he might have been on to something: these disciples were distazo when it came to Jesus on that first Easter, and I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’ve been pretty distazo about Jesus ever since.
The truth is Jesus’ followers today are living in a pretty distazo world. We are dis-connected, dis-integrated, and distracted.
Too often we are DIS-CONNECTED from one another emotionally and empathetically, even though we are technologically more connected than we have ever been before.
Our relationships are DIS-INTEGRATED within our own lives when we believe the culture’s lie that we are the center of our own universe.
We are a DIS-TRACTED people, literally, knocked off track like a derailed train, by life’s many demands that have become our taskmasters. It’s like the universe is playing a constant tug-of-war between what draws us to God and what keeps us away from God. And WE happen to be the rope.
Think about all the times this last week that you’ve been distazo – actually, scratch that - think about the last time you DIDN’T feel distazo. When was the last time you were fully present in any given moment? Are you even feeling a little distazo right now, in this very moment?
What if the solution to this problem of being of two minds, of being constantly distazo, was to be of THREE minds?
To be of three minds, I think, might mean something like this. We are not more distracted and divided by the tension between what draws us toward God and what draws us away from God. Instead, we are more aware of the presence of God’s three-pronged reality in the world - “the grace of our lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.”
We begin our worship with this very phrase, you may have noticed. We happen to be quoting Paul’s words as he ends his second letter to the Christian community in Corinth, who were very divided and very distazo by many things. So Paul reminded his congregation, and reminds us many centuries later, that this three-fold blessing of God is WITH us.
The GRACE of our Lord Jesus, who showed us the lengths that God would go to prove that God is not in the sin-accounting business, is WITH US.
The LOVE of God, our loving Father who created you and knows you and is absolutely head-over-heals for you, is WITH US.
The Holy Spirit’s COMMUNION, which draws us together into a community of love from all corners of the globe, from every language, color, and background, is WITH US.
When Paul first committed these words to paper, and when we speak them into the universe every Sunday from this day into eternity, we remind ourselves that in the end, the distazo cannot win. It does not have the last word. It does not have control over our ending.
We may not always live “happily ever after” like in the fairy tales. But in fact, we have something better than a fairy tale ending – the assurance that no matter where our stories take us, Jesus promises to be with us through its chapters, to the end of the age. And so, what we have taken for an ending in the Gospel of Matthew is actually a beginning, a “once upon a time” in disguise.
Because even if you flip all the way to the end, the very end, the end of Revelation, last page of the Bible, we only have another beginning: “Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.” And that means you. Jesus is WITH YOU. So what’s that going to mean for YOUR story? What does that mean for you? Now that the sermon is over what is that going to mean for your next chapter?
And so they lived full of grace, full of love, and in the communion of God, faithfully ever after. The end.