Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 27, 2020
Year A, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
This service was outdoors at Shrine Mont, so there was no recording.
Authority is an age-old issue of power dynamics. There’s the authority that comes with power and dominance; there’s authority that comes with true leadership, authority that has come about because a leader cares about the people and causes they lead.
Anyone who’s ever had a brother or sisters, or if you spend time around children now, know that their battles are often centered on usually the older ones bossing around the younger ones. You’ve heard it – one telling the other what to do and the younger ones saying, “Who gave you the right? You’re not the boss of me!”
Our Gospel today starts out with the same kind of power struggle, with Pharisees saying “what gives you the right? What makes you think you’re the boss of us? Who gave you that right?”
“Do you have the right to tell us what to do, to do the things you do, to stand here, and dare to instruct us?”
The Pharisees were used to being obeyed, not challenged. People in power often take that position. They’ve made their way to the top of the power pyramid, and they think their authority is not to be questioned. So anyone who challenges their authority is violating their whole concept of the power of position. It’s all about winners and losers.
You know I couldn’t help but be amused this morning as I drove here to Shrine Mont. What came on my playlist, but Meryl Streep singing the “Winner Takes it All” from Mamma Mia. ‘The winner takes it all, the loser has to fall.’
That’s what the Pharisees were all about. They were the winners. The Pharisees saw anyone else claiming authority as somebody who was trying to gain power and authority away from them so it couldn’t possibly be valid. They had to be the losers.
Jesus, by the way, didn’t even seem to acknowledge their power, which was politically dangerous for them. So they resorted to veiled insults, implying he had no right to speak because he wasn’t properly credentialed.
We are living in a world of insults these days, both subtly veiled and outright vile.
The insults I heard growing up seem a bit mild by comparison to today’s toxic insults, though they were still hurtful and painful and made me feel bad. Insults are always about dominance and power, making someone feel small, but now these insults are amped up to dangerous levels. Physical violence and threats by so many against some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Physical violence and threats to keep people “in their place.”
How do we respond to what is happening in our world around us? This gospel is instructive. It starts with a challenge from the religious ruling class. And, what does Jesus do? Does he engage in a smackdown of epic proportions?
No. He does something very different. He responds, as he often does to such a question, with another question. It’s not unusual – that’s deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition. He says, “I will answer your question if you answer one for me: were John’s baptisms of heaven, or simply a human act?”
Jesus knew that the people thought John brought great power, blessed by God. He was viewed as a prophet of God. The Pharisees couldn’t say anything that denigrated John’s words and acts – the people would rebel against them. They couldn’t say anything that lifted up or endorsed John’s words and acts, because he had regularly challenged the Pharisees. You may recall what John called those religious leaders when they snuck down to check him out: “you brood of vipers!”
So when Jesus asked that question, the Pharisees stepped back. And Jesus continued teaching, using a parable, telling a riddle of sorts, and turning the conventional understanding of faithfulness upside down. It wasn’t the power players and those who were outwardly religious who were living God’s commandments, it was those who were regularly insulted, treated as unworthy, as sinners, as “less than.” Those who would have been scorned, turned out of the Temple as ritually unclean, dismissed as broken, sinful, unwelcome.
These words had to soothe the spirits of those who were listening to Jesus’ teaching, those who themselves felt dismissed, marginalized, judged unworthy. Hearing that by listening and living Jesus’ teaching, they were fully worthy, fully righteous, fully beloved.
Mary Thorpe from the Diocese wrote that she asked on Facebook – what were the insults/teases/disses that you heard growing up? She expected a few responses from those who are close to her. 18 hours later, the list was up to 80 responses. If you’re a Facebook user like me, you know 80 is a lot of responses.
Most responses fell into the category of “names people called me.” Some had made peace with what they had been called. But the pain, the ache of what people were called, was still alive for many of those who responded. I presume some of the people who called her friends those names thought they were being clever. Some enjoyed the feeling of power that diminishing another person gave them. Like the Pharisees, right?
And I find myself reflecting on Jesus’ response when the Pharisees tried to dismiss his authority – Jesus’ authority! – to retain their own power. This carpenter’s son from Nazareth – “Can anything good ever come out of Nazareth?” – what gave him the right to speak?
What gives any of us the right to speak? Who gives any of us the right to speak? If you look at some of the exchanges on social media, on the opinion page of the newspaper, in speeches and arguments, you’ll find people claiming their right to speak. A good thing, right? Free speech and all that? It was a cherished tradition in my family. The question might become how do we speak to one another?
At the heart of Jesus’ questions to the Pharisees: he questions their authority, their accountability for their words. But he doesn’t call them names. Instead, he points toward the fact that their words and their deeds do not align, that their teaching is designed to retain their own power. The rest of their Jewish brothers and sisters? Bottom of the pack. And the Pharisees want to keep it that way.
Instead, Jesus turns the Pharisees’ world upside down. Because Jesus speaks not only to the Pharisees, but he also speaks to tax collectors and prostitutes. He brings them the Good News. Jesus reminds the Pharisees, reminds all of us that we all are God’s beloved children.
By the way, he doesn’t tell them they’re not going to the Kingdom of God. He tells them they’re not getting there first. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Ouch. That’s got to sting for people used to being in charge.
We are used to being in charge of our lives. It’s hard to believe that it has been six months since we’ve been able to gather for in-person worship and we will still only to gather irregularly. The pandemic has turned our lives upside down.
In times of difficulty and chaos, it is easy to despair and fear. We can see it in Exodus. While the Israelites were led out of bondage from the Egyptians and were facing difficulty and challenge in the desert, they grumbled and quarreled with Moses. Having lost faith and sight of God’s presence, they would rather be back in bondage.
Just like the Israelites, we all long to go back to the previous “normal” life. The truth is that there will be no “normal” life we once had. Things will be different. But being different doesn’t mean that we should allow our lives in Christ to be any less full. We are still called to live in the way of love. And when we stray from the path, and of course we will because we are human, we are called again and again to love God and love our neighbors. Unless we prefer to maintain the status quo, of insisting on being right and being in charge. That’s not what I prefer, and I don’t think you do either.
What we prefer and profess is that all people may experience life as beloved children of God.
Before the Covid-19 caused us to cancel services inside our churches, the sermons were usually recorded at St. Andrew’s and uploaded by Kemp Miller, for whose ministry we are all grateful. To access the entire library of audio files for past sermons, CLICK HERE.