Sermon for 28Sept14
Matt21:23-32; Ezek18:1-4,25-32; Phil2:1-13: Ps25:1-9
With this reading, I could just about repeat my last sermon, telling you to get off your kiesters and get to work, that simply paying lip service to faith won’t cut it, won’t count as devotion. But I don’t really want to re-give that sermon; it’s available if you need it.
Again, with talk about tending the Father’s vineyard, I could describe the People’s Climate March last weekend, and how, as God’s creation is faced with catastrophes of climate change, our civilization is at last turning from non-action toward caring responses, as 400,000 people focused on energy sources and agricultural ideas and political adaptations and technological innovations and concern for resources for the poor and compassion for all kinds of creatures and creative resistance and humor and being guided by faith, with delight and hope. But a travelogue isn’t a sermon, so I’ll thank you for your support and leave it to the photos on the TV and the words of my new hymn this morning.
Instead, let’s bite off the other part of the reading. By the time we got to the parable of two sons, disobedient each in their own way, but still striving to please the Father, perhaps we’d already overlooked what came first. This reading began with an obscure debate in the temple about authority.
The question for Jesus is, “by whose authority are you teaching?” As he’s trespassing on their turf, it’s a question of permission, like “What gives you the right?”
It’s not a bad analogy still to imagine yourself coming up here, pushing me out of the way, and starting to give your own sermon. (Perhaps that has already occurred to you, anyway!) If you tried to preach, still I might be expected to ask what gives you the right, what makes you think you’re so qualified and authoritative, what gives what you’re saying any credibility at all? In our times, you might say that you had a special spiritual insight to share, or maybe you’d been studying and had learned some things.
But in the ancient world, it didn’t work that way. There was no claiming credentials for yourself; it had to be given. And, in spite of how highly we think of him, Jesus just plain didn’t have that authority. He wasn’t a religious official or connected to the Roman government or well-educated or wealthy. He was poor and working class and rural and didn’t have a powerful father, or maybe didn’t have a father around at all. “Who gave you permission?” the muckety-mucks ask. It’s a trap. By their standards, Jesus had no claim to authority.
But, as usual, the sneaky Jesus reverses the trap, with a retorting question that begins to subvert their old standards of authority. So here’s what we know about Jesus’ authority: It’s not the old models, that he was of aristocratic lineage and born into a place of importance. It’s not the authority of the crowds, in an ancient popularity contest, because Jesus ends up pretty well abandoned by all. The authority of Jesus, plain and simple is from God.
But that still messes with us, really subverting our own views of authority, of credibility. The Christmas carol we sang this morning (Once in Royal David’s City) ties into these readings and themes. The image of Jesus in a manger challenges authority, changing our view of God. He’s not born into a palace, nor even a sterile and tidy hospital room. He’s born to a poor family, stuck where ox and ass are lowing. Lowly is definitely the word for it. A “humble life begun in scorn,” as another hymn says.
Still, even that takes extra noticing for us. We are people nursed on and enamored of the so-called American dream, that even with such miserable beginnings, he might pull himself up by his bootstraps and really become something. We love those sagas with surprise endings where the poor barefoot child went on to become CEO.
And so we’d fashion ourselves as bystanders at the manger, pointing to a helpless infant, “He may not look like much now, but he went on to become a better teacher than the temple priests. He became a mightier ruler than the emperor in Rome.”
Except that’s not the point. His ending was that he died on the cross, still weak and poor and powerless. It would appear to justify the question of the religious authorities: Without lineage or prestige, no special training or upbringing or prominence. With no typical credibility. And then killed as a criminal, so lonely that he even cries out that God has forsaken him. We’d have to say that’s about as low as he could get.
And yet what we confess, what we trust, is somehow that’s nevertheless, in spite of it all, where God chooses to be registered! From fragile birth and messy cow stall, to peasant family, associating with lowlifes, surrounded by the sick and unliked and oppressed, and finally dead, buried in a borrowed tomb. That’s how God wants to be known, and in that is exactly what our God’s authority looks like.
Which sounds miserable. But it also sounds like good news for miserable people, for broken and hurting people, for a sorry world. Jesus says today that it’s for prostitutes and tax collectors. It’s for those who don’t even have bootstraps to pull themselves up by. The sick and those who feel they’re no good. This God is for those who make mistakes, the wrong, and the wronged. This God is for you, even if you’re only as good as dead.
If that seems like you’re stuck with a consolation prize, if you’d prefer some other sort of God who is on the winning team and does everything right and is fancier and shinier and mightier than all the rest, if you imagine that the old authority of success was better than how things end up with Jesus, then you’d better keep listening.
Our reading from Philippians lays out this whole trajectory for us in such a stunning way: God didn’t want to be known as the biggest boss in the sky, and so God became human, though it would seem like a poor idea. As a human, Jesus didn’t seek the old style glory, but humbled himself, like a slave, a servant, like one who pours himself out for others. What he did was love, love those who weren’t even all that loveable, love you. And that got him killed.
But on the third day, that love was proven as God’s vision, raised from the dead, trumping those old powers of selfish preservation who thought they had such exquisite control. And the surprise ending is, as Philippians says it, that this crucified Jesus is worshipped above all. His way of suffering love, of pouring himself out, in the long view is proven as the shape of God’s will. Not the old standards of authority, going for fame and fortune and our American dream of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, for mustering the crowd to revolt and take control. Somehow, as we ourselves continue to see the kingdom spreading, Jesus is the way. Finally, in Philippians’ vision, everybody will agree with what God has already decided in Jesus. In the end, he’ll receive universal acclaim, as all creatures on earth and above and below will come to the authority of loving service in him.
This morning there are two saints of St. Stephen’s highlighting that for us, first in the baptism of Alice Elizabeth. Baptism is connected to Jesus’ resurrection, a promise of life. But the Great Commission for it, the shape of it comes from the end of Matthew’s Gospel, worth repeating today because of this theme of authority. Jesus says, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We baptize Alice Elizabeth into a life of discipleship, of learning to follow Jesus and being a representative of his authority of love. So it’s not saying, “here’s an extra boost of blessing so you can really make something of yourself in life.” Instead, she is chosen and commissioned to be Christ-like, to “care for others and the world God made and work for justice and peace in all the earth.”
Also this week, we mourn the death of Carol Wiskowski. More than most of us, she understood and embodied this life of pouring herself out in loving service. She was extraordinary in community work for seniors and abused women and on and on. Here, she wouldn’t even put up with being thanked for overseeing Easter breakfast, organizing Christmas decorating, taking care of our Foundation, donating lead gifts to capital campaigns, filling in weeks for secretary vacations in the office, and more even than I knew she was up to. In these past 17 months of cancer, she would say that the doctors thought they had the answers, but she preferred to trust herself to our God. “The Lord is my shepherd,” she’d repeat.
In the baptism, in an upcoming funeral, we see the true value of what Jesus was up to. For a baby and a dead woman, we celebrate and continue commending ourselves to live with love, and to be loved even beyond what we live.
Hymn: Rise Up, O Saints of God! (ELW #669)