Sermon for 17th Sunday after Pentecost, September 27, 2020
Read Pastor Julie's sermon as shared on Facebook Live. Visit https://www.facebook.com/saronstrasburg each Sunday at 8:30 a.m. for a brief live service of scripture, prayer, and a sermon by Pastor Julie.
Ezekiel 18:1–4, 25–32 | Philippians 2:1–13 | Matthew 221:23–32
It’s important to note that today’s scene takes place toward the end of the gospel of Matthew: After the fateful decision of Jesus to go to Jerusalem where the the powers of religion and state converge—and all we can do is feel what Peter voices some 5 chapters ago, “Nooooo….. don’t do it.” Jesus knows full well what will happen and says this, too. It will at the hands of the chief priests and elders, but he goes anyway. The whole cycle of sin needs to be broken, after all, in a way that is revealed by his healings and teachings—but that needs to reach further and deeper. To do that, he has to go to the middle of it all: An act of resistance to the powers that wield their destruction and oppression over all…. Lest you think Jesus was not somehow “political,” remember that all he said and did was for the revelation and in-breaking of the “kingdom” of heaven—over and against the powers of the day.
So, here he is with the ones whom he said were going to kill him; the chief priests and elders. And we see what is so threatening to them: “By whose authority?” “By whose authority do you do these things?” Implicit in this question are a couple feelings for sure: indignation and fear. WE are the ones who are supposed to be making the rules. WE are the ones who get to say who gets “the goods” and who doesn’t. And who are YOU, Jesus, to be be lifting up the ones whom we think don’t deserve it? Like with last week- how offensive it is to use when someone whom we think to be lesser, is raised up. “By whose authority?” I invite you, today, to think about how we, too, react to this: How offended we get when we feel like the social order is somehow being upset.
This past Friday night, I was in Five Points near downtown Denver: The hundred-year-old homes crowd together here, full of history and character; interspersed now by an occasional shiny apartment buildings. It’s quiet with little traffic for being so near the city. Dan and I walked, smelling wet grass and aging leaves where mature trees hung over city buildings with a day care and beautiful mural. A couple kids played in the park and parents looked on; a well-dressed dad and teenage son got out of their car for a church event; a dad walked holding the hand of his small son, while carrying grocery bags in the other hand. There was an occasional front-porch gathering with music—including a friendly call out, “Happy Friday!” We attended an event outside of Zion Baptist church—built in 1865. Reverend Davis told the story of whites and blacks coming together at its formation and how he longs to see this happen again. The three of us stood for a long time in the sanctuary and listened to his story about COVID and caring for members and all the social programs that are so important to this community—and all the prayer and the goodness of God. And on the backdrop is the shared experience of lives that have been hard: Sunday had traditionally been an all-day affair, he said when I jokingly asked how long church went—because this is where people could come where others understood what everyone else had been through that week: They all came from their jobs where they were considered “less-than” and here, they were all equal. They dressed up in their best (and I noticed his suit even now) and all felt valuable in God’s house, with one another.
I find it curious, how people react when voices are raised in protest again unfair treatment of a group of people. Do we discount other’s experience and pain because it makes us uncomfortable? Because it messes with the way we think things are and should be? And that maybe we like these the advantages that we have and think we’ll lose them? Indeed, pushback is real: Because Jesus won’t follow the rules created by the ones in power is enough, we soon find, to get him killed. “By whose authority? AND Who gave you this authority?” In other words, if it wasn’t us- as the religious elite- then how dare you? Jesus knows they really aren’t asking a question, but telling him to get in line. Stop living up the lowly. His question about John, in turn, reveals their unwillingness to acknowledge that the power of God was at work here, too- outside of their influence also.
And this scathing parable: “You are all words and no action. Religion is a way to protect the status quo that benefits you. Your hearts and minds have not been changed. In fact—it’s the ones you hold the lowest in your thoughts and deeds (prostitutes, tax collectors… who do we deem lowest? people of color)—that will be first into this kingdom; the ones who are already humbled by their place in the world; the ones who “believe” in righteousness- maybe because their very lives depend on it. These ones who just somehow GET—with wonder and awe—this Jesus and the radical, world-changing hope that he holds out.
It’s no wonder, I suppose, that those who are humbled can understand the one who IS humble—as we hear this hymn in Philippians about Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness… he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” This Jesus is how we understand God. And at the beginning, we hear what it does to us immerse ourselves in THIS Christ: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” There is something inherent in the gospel that we cannot understand until we are in solidarity with the Suffering. (This actually transformed D. Bonhoeffer when he came to the US and studied for a year, spending much of that in Harlem and finding what he considered the only true Christianity in the US—and which inspired him to go and give his life to save others in Germany.)
We have work to do, friends: Especially as people of faith. Being Christ in the world. We, too, lift up the lowly. For one, we have a lot to learn from them about Jesus. It’s not—as made so clear in Ezekiel—a forgone conclusion that the perks or sins of the parents will or have to be passed to the next generation. (Sour grape saying.) And to complain about the result of Israel’s social and political self-centeredness that landed them in exile in Babylon saying “it’s not fair” is for God to throw it right back, “Isn’t it YOUR ways that don’t—lit.—add up?” We are called again to repent, change course, and gain life. Thanks be to God. Amen.