The Rev. Canon Jeff Martinhauk
Proper 21A, September 27, 2020
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
Matt 21:23-32; Phil 2:1-13
As our passage today opens, a lot of time has passed since last week’s readings. Jesus has made his way to Jerusalem and is in the temple for a second day after a very full news cycle on the first day. His first day he made quite a scene by turning over tables and throwing out money changers.
Today, Jesus has drawn a crowd in the temple, and is healing people and teaching. Let’s picture that scene: the temple was a vast expanse of space, with many different areas. It’s not so much that Jesus is up in the pulpit of something like our cathedral, but more likely has found a small corner in a large, outdoor space, where crowds have started to gather around him. Imagine yourself as a part of this crowd, listening to the guy who just the day before caused a big scene by throwing out the money changers and turning over the tables.
In the midst of this scene, you watch and listen. You are an ordinary person, just happening upon this rabble-rouser. But then, you notice a commotion in the crowd. The crowd is parting. A procession nears. Imagine the highest authorities of the whole temple complex are walking right by you– making their way through this crowd to talk to this man you’ve been listening to! These are very powerful people. They do not come out here in the temple yards very often. They not only represent the temple but were established here by Rome; they represent both the temple and are connected to Rome itself. They are powerful. What will you do? Will you stay and listen? Will you move on, to avoid a confrontation and possibility of being associated with him? What if more trouble breaks out? Will it be safe?
They ask Jesus how he has the authority to do the things he does. Jesus answers them with a question: Was John the baptist’s authority divine or human?
We can tell from the narration that the problem of the chief priests is political calculation. We get the sense that their only concern was how to manipulate the outcome to their liking. We do not get any sense that they tried to lead based on their convictions.
That gives us insight into what the author of the gospel is so angry about in this passage: leadership that answers “we do not know” rather than speaking from the heart draws Jesus’ ire. Jesus has just taken a definitive action that angered people. God takes a side. Following God requires taking the risk of living into our convictions.
That sets us up for the next parable Jesus tells in this gospel.
In it, Jesus tells of two sons. One son has trouble making verbal commitments, but he takes action. We are asked to identify this son with a particular ‘side’- the tax collectors and prostitutes. The other son makes lots of verbal commitments, but takes no action. In the parable, the son who makes big promises but does not take action is the disobedient son. We are to gather that the kingdom comes not from words that ring with empty promises, but actions that stand with those traditionally left behind.
Judgement is not a popular topic today in most circles in mainline churches. But this is one of those passages where we cannot ignore it.
As we look at it, I think it is worth reframing what judgement means. Sometimes in the mainline tradition, our own wounds have left ‘judgement’ as a bad word because it feels like we ourselves might feel left out, that our belonging somehow is at stake. We are so afraid that God might not love us or someone else. That is a relic of bad theology. It is not really a legitimate issue here.
But when the taxpayers or prostitutes, the orphan and the widow– or the people of color, or Breonna Taylor, or George Floyd, or immigrants, lie dying in streets or detention centers and even in their bedrooms, there is room for judgement after thoughtful and reasoned conversation. What must not happen is to allow prolonged conversation to turn into the “We do not know” of the chief priests, inaction, and false equivalency when judgement is clear. God is on the side of the downtrodden. The scriptures are very clear about that. That is a judgement.
In many– I hope most– situations, civil dialogue is a great place to explore these issues. We can talk to our neighbors who disagree. The goal of nonviolence is transformation- not only for the other but surely also for ourselves. Sharing stories, experiences, and assuming good intentions from those who disagree with us is a way to deepen our affirmation of the dignity of every human being.
But I fear there are increasingly situations where talk, like the second son in the parable, is less hopeful in this divided world. Actions must be aligned with the love of God particularly for those who are hurt by oppression. Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, women receiving unwanted hysterectomies on the border– our idle conversations and equivocations are meaningless to them. We must not have a ‘namby-pamby’ church that stands on the sidelines; the crowd in the temple unsure if they will stand with Jesus or the chief priests. Apathy and inaction is far too prevalent in this age of blatant injustice.
It is true that blatant injustice requires conflict to resolve. Inhumane treatment will not end because we simply agree to disagree. But the Christian call to respond must remain non-violent, and to stay as committed to loving those perpetuating injustice as we are to loving those receiving injustice. Judgement does not mean withholding love. Love sometimes means entering into conflict. If we judge someone has become a monster but is capable of regaining their full humanity, the most loving thing we can do is help them restore their humanity. Following Jesus is not about seeking revenge, retribution, or punishment.
It is hard to engage these actions without becoming the very thing that we seek to overcome. The Epistle today I think may help us with that. While it is sometimes seen as a statement about Christ’s nature, if you look closely at the opening it is actually a call to action. Paul writes, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ 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. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.”
The often ignored opening of this hymn makes clear that this is not merely a description of Christ, but an instruction for us to be in the same mind of Christ, living for others and risking of self to live for the sake of love. The undertaking of non-violence, the taking of sides to end injustice, must remain rooted in self-sacrifice. Loving an enemy is perhaps the most difficult challenge in Christianity of all. When revenge or violence becomes the motivation, then perhaps it is time to step back from engagement in the cause– which is difficult because that is just when we believe more than ever that we are self-justified.
But without that focus on love of enemy, is there really any difference between Christians and those who perpetuate injustice? Isn’t the beauty of following Jesus that it is different? Isn’t the beauty of the hymn in Phillipians that we are called into this thing where God looks out especially for those who are persecuted while also calling us to care for their persecutors with special attention and mindfulness to restoring their humanity? If we lose that, what do we have left?
As this election cycle ramps up, divisions increase, and violence and injustice erupts into the open, how will you commit to both holding others accountable for the love of neighbor, and loving perpetrators of injustice while doing it?
Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner, hosts. “#744 – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost.” Sermon Brainwave – WorkingPreacher.org. Sep 19, 2020.https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx .
Tremaine, David, host. “Aligning Words and Actions.” Faith to Go . Sep 20, 2020. https://www.myfaithtogo.org/podcast .