Sermon for Sept. 27, 2020. Pentecost 17A
Video is here.
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?” Jesus said to them, “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?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes 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.”
Sometimes, when I have had to go through a particularly difficult circumstance, I have told myself, just think, in 24 hours this will be behind you. I have found myself thinking that way about 2020; there will be a time when we look back on this year and all its calamities. Let us hope that we will be in a better condition in the future than we are now.
It is not just the year 2020 that is in a state of significant change, it is perhaps only one year in the dawn of a new era for the church.
If that sounds grandiose, consider this: author and professor Phyllis Tickle, in her book “The Great Emergence,” recounted a metaphor offered by Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer who noticed that about every five hundred years, the church has had what he called, a giant “rummage sale.”
By that metaphor, he meant this: at about five hundred year intervals
“the empowered structures of institutional Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable [constraint] that must be shattered so that renewal and new growth may occur.”
Here is a sketch of those five hundred year events. About five hundred years after the birth of the church, as the Roman Empire was crumbling, Pope Gregory the Great established the system of monasteries that were to prove essential in seeing the church through the medieval dark ages.
About five hundred years later, in the eleventh century, there was, what we now call, the Great Schism, in which Western Catholic Christianity and Eastern Orthodox Christianity went their separate ways.
About five hundred years later in the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation was born. We date the start of the Reformation on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle, calling for an open debate. We are now, as of 2017, five hundred years after that event.
The Recurring Question of Authority
Phyllis Tickle noticed that at each of these critical moments of change, the question of authority was crucial. Who gets to say what is right and wrong? Who gets to define orthodoxy?
During the Protestant Reformation, there were debates about authority conducted in essays by the primary protagonists. John Calvin famously carried on a debate with Cardinal Sadoleto. The Cardinal claimed that the Roman church had kept the faith for fifteen-hundred years.
Calvin argued that it was the Reformers who could lay claim to a more authentic faith, precisely because their version was more ancient. Calvin traced it all the way back to Augustine as the correct interpreter of scripture.
The question of authority was being argued utilizing antiquity: whoever could lay claim to the most ancient version of the faith was correct.
Jesus on Authority
Authority was the question that Jesus’ opponents put to him. The timing is important. Jesus had just ridden into the city on that donkey colt, went directly to the center of authority, the temple, and shut it down, at least symbolically, at least for several hours.
He was, by that action, taking on the High priest, the chief priests, and the ruling council, all of whom belonged to the aristocratic class. He had told them that they had made the “house of prayer” into a “den of thieves.” Thieves hid their loot in their dens; the temple was the central bank, the repository of all of the records of debts the peasants had acquired, and of all the taxes taken from them.
So, the challenge to Jesus was: what right do you have to challenge our authority? Jesus cleverly answered their question with a question of his own.
Jesus had been a member of John the Baptist’s movement for a while, and though he parted company with John, he had learned a great deal from him. So, he was in a position to know that the leadership, who was challenging him, were not among the crowds who came to be baptized by John, repenting of the ways they had been unfaithful to the covenant.
John had been executed by Herod Antipas, but many of the people believed he was a prophet, sent by God.
So Jesus challenged his challengers to put their cards on the table: John’s baptism — what authority was it based on? Was it from God or just a human invention? Crowd-consciously, they declined to say, so Jesus also declined to say where his authority came from.
The Parable of the Two Sons
Then, Jesus told a parable that at first seems to be a non-sequitur, but, when you look at it carefully, does address the question of authority.
It is about two sons. Their father asks them to work in the fields. One says “no,” but he changes his mind, and does do the work. The other says “yes,” but does not work.
Now, there is one thing we might miss about this parable. Both sons dishonor their father. Saying “yes” but not following through dishonors the father’s authority. Saying “no” also dishonors the father’s authority, even if you later change your mind and obey. So both have dishonored the father, undermining his authority; neither is without blame.
But Jesus’ question is not, which of the two honored his father, but which of the two did “the will of his father?” Clearly the second, who went and did the work.
Jesus then applied the parable to his opponents. He said that the people who were actually doing the will of God were not those who could talk a good talk, but the ones who were faithful in their behavior.
The contrast is between the people who, as he said elsewhere, “sit in Moses’ seat” who had places of honor in the temple, and alternatively, the lowly peasants. From the temple that he had just symbolically shut down, they read the scrolls of the law and quoted Moses, but were simultaneously defrauding the poor of their last denarius.
Jesus pointed out that the “prostitutes and tax collectors” had believed John’s message and repented. Let’s think about that. Why would a good Jewish woman become a prostitute? Absolute economic desperation is the answer.
What do tax collectors do when they repent? Return the money they have defrauded the people of. The prostitutes can go back to being the people they want to be when reparations have been made and they can afford their daily bread again.
But the point to notice is that Jesus emphasized right action, not right words as establishing a claim to legitimacy, meaning authority. One son said the right word, “yes” but his “yes” was vacuous. The other said the wrong words, but his actions were the main thing.
Right Action and the Foundation of our Faith
Let us close the circle. We began by reflection on our times as disrupted times of change. Whether or not there is any substance to the idea of a five-hundred-year repeating pattern, nevertheless, it is obvious to everyone that we are in a time of change. I believe this is not bad news; at least not all bad news.
There is good news here too. The good news is that we, in the church, are newly awake to the importance of right action. We see in a new and more significant way that following Jesus was never supposed to be comprised of merely repeating creeds correctly.
Following Jesus was not supposed to be saying the correct “yes” but actually going out into the field and doing the work of God. And that work includes doing justice. Making sure the prostitutes do not have to resort to that vocation to put food on the table, and making it clear that oppressive systems, like defrauding the poor must not be tolerated.
We are making the same argument that Calvin made to Cardinal Sadoleto, only we are pushing the question of antiquity back even further than Calvin did. We have come to see that the authentic faith is not defined by the theologians of the fourth century like Augustine, but is the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus himself proclaimed.
That gospel is indeed, exactly what the word “gospel” means, “good news” because of the way it involves liberation. First: spiritual liberation. Jesus taught us that God is not honored by temple rituals or the reading of the right words, but by the spirituality of belovedness manifesting itself in compassion and the quest for justice.
Jesus’ message is that even the prodigal sons and daughters, and the lost sheep are still objects of love by a Heavenly Father/Mother who watches over them.
Let’s make it personal: the good news is that we are beloved by God, who is not out to condemn us, but to lure us to goodness, to encourage us to do the next right thing; to embrace each other without judgment, and to create beloved communities of mutuality across all boundaries that would divide us.
The second liberation is that these spiritually liberated communities become the incubators of ministries of compassion and mercy, bridges of reconciliation, advocates for justice, and channels of liberation from oppression. The gospel is good news to the poor, the marginalized, and the excluded.
Well, 2020 is not over yet; and what is ahead for us, we do not know. There is no guarantee that things will not get worse before they get better. But we believe we are part of a story that is longer than this year, and bigger than this nation. We are part of God’s story. So, let us take our place on our watch, in our generation, faithfully doing the work God has called us to, and in which we find our shalom, our deepest joy.