Authorized for What? – Sermon on Matthew 21.23-32

Matthew 21.23-32

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 the, “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.”

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Jesus does what Jesus wants. He has gone all over Galilee proclaiming the Good News, bringing sight to the blind, and healing to the sick. He has fed the multitudes miraculously, walked on water, and calmed the storm. He entered the holy city of Jerusalem on the back of a derelict donkey, charged into the temple and drove out the money-lenders while overturning the tables. Radical and revolutionary, Jesus does what he wants, and now the chief priests and the elders want to stop him in his tracks.

“Who in the world do you think you are? Who gave you the authority to do these things?” Of course, “these things,” refer to him cleansing the temple, curing the blind and lame, feeding the hungry, providing for the poor, listening to the weak, and giving hope to the hopeless. The question has been posed to Jesus before, but never has the question been more ominous; Jesus is in enemy territory and those asking the question will constitute the court that will later sentence him to death by crucifixion.

What gives you the right to come in here and tell us how we are supposed to understand the world?” They do not really want an answer to their question. Instead, they are seeking an opportunity to trap Jesus by means of his response. So Jesus does what he wants: He ignores their question for the moment and proposes a counter-question that they too cannot answer without getting in trouble.

“I will ask you a 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?” The chief priests and the elders argue among themselves about how they can answer. This is a classic Catch-22; “If we say his baptism was from heaven then Jesus will ask why we did not believe him and have him beheaded, and if we say it was an earthly thing the crowds will revolt against us because they all regard John as a prophet.” Caught in a dilemma of their own making, they recognize that there is no way they can answer the question without putting themselves in a worse position, so they answer with the answer that students have relied on for centuries, “We do not know.”

I imagine then, that Jesus smiled while saying, “neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Rev. Dr. Warren Smith

Rev. Dr. Warren Smith

When I was in seminary a professor named Warren Smith led my class through the great wonders of Church History. We studied some of the greatest theologians and mapped the various trajectories of theological positions that have brought our church through the centuries. After a semester of heavy reading and writing, Dr. Smith ended his final lecture with a story…

When he was a young pastor he was appointed to a church fresh out of seminary and did his best to proclaim the Word, serve those in need, and live into God’s kingdom on earth. For months the church listened deeply to his sermons and prayers, and grew in their love of God and neighbor. However, there was one older woman who never spoke to Dr. Smith after worship. She would sit patiently in her pew, unaffected by his words and gestures, and would return to the parking lot without saying a word to the young pastor. That was the typical routine until one Sunday she made her way in the receiving line following church.

Who do you think you are?” she began. “To come into this church and tell us how to live our lives. I have been a Christian longer than you have been alive. What could you possibly teach me about what it means to follow Christ?” And with that, she left.

Her words struck deep in Dr. Smith’s soul. Was she right? What could he possibly teach someone who had been following the Lord for decades when he had just graduated from seminary? Dr. Smith however, is not one to go gently into the night.

The following Sunday, Dr. Smith made his way to the pulpit and began to preach with words that resonated throughout the sanctuary: “I know I may look young from this pulpit. I know that some of you might be concerned with my ability to preach and teach in this church considering my age. But when I stand in this pulpit I AM 4,000 YEARS OLD. I speak with the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before me. I am equipped by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Good News of Christ because the Lord is with me even to the end of the age.”

“So too,” he said to my class, “remember that you have been authorized to do incredible things and you are older than you think.”

When Dr. Smith’s authority was challenged he responded by recalling the great tradition of the living Word that is brought forth into new life on a regular basis. He looked back in order to look forward. He validated his responsibility by acknowledging his earthly youth while at the same time affirming his divine wisdom through the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus’ authority was challenged by the chief priests and the elders he responded with an unanswerable question, and then with a parable. The parable becomes the lens by which they can see their error and envision a proper understanding of God’s reign in the world.

What do you think? There was a man with two sons. He went to the first and asked him to work in the vineyard. The first son refuses, but later he changed his mind and went to work in the field. The father went to the second son and asked him to work in the field as well. The second son agrees to work, but never went to the vineyard. Which of these two sons did the will of his father?

The chief priests and elders respond in unison, “the first.” It is obvious that even though the son refused to work, the fact that he did, in the end, is far better than the son who agrees to work and never enters the vineyard. Jesus then uses the parable to draw the unmistakable conclusion that they, the chief priests and elders, are the second son who has failed to do the father’s will. “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. John came in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but they did. Even after you saw what he did, you did not change your minds and believe. You preach and preach, but you never practice the words you proclaim.

Jesus responding with a parable is typical of the gospels, and helpful for bringing about new understanding. He uses a story in order to open up the kingdom of God to show that it works in a way that is approachable and livable.

What do you think of the parable? In your faith journey do you feel like the first brother? Was there a time that you rejected the calling of God on your life, refused to believe, only to find yourself caught up in the grace of God and working in the vineyard of the kingdom? Is your faith vibrantly alive and fruitful?

Or do you feel like the second brother? Was there a time that your faith was so alive that you were willing to say “yes yes” to God’s call on your life only to find yourself apathetic to the work of the church in the kingdom? Is your faith stagnant and fruitless?

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Individually, we can respond to God’s call in faithful ways by reaching out to others in our community and letting God’s love abound in their lives through our actions. But collectively, as a church, it can be quite difficult to be Christ’s body for the world.

This week I met with a handful of other Methodist clergy from the valley and we discussed our local churches, some of the challenges facing our congregations, and the fruit that has come forth during our time of service. We talked about new ministry ideas that might help share the Good News with people in our communities while also affirming the many challenges of being the church for the world today. But, to be honest, most of the conversation was a time for the leaders to complain about the lack of enthusiasm in their churches, their inability to see the call of the church and the mission of God in the world. At one point a friend of mine shook his head and said softly, “It can be so depressing to hear that most of our churches are far more concerned with maintenance, than mission.

One of the hardest things to admit, as a church, is that we are more often like that second son than the first. After all, here we are sitting in the vineyard, preparing to go out to harvest the grapes. But as Christians, we can become blind to what God is doing in the world around us. How sad is it that “church work” can quickly degenerate into conversations about maintaining our building, with no excitement about what God’s living Word and grace are doing in our community? How sad is it that the majority of our conversations and budget are focused on making sure that the church will still be here next Sunday instead of focusing on the renewal of the church and the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? Like the second brother we say that we are going to work in the vineyard, but instead of harvesting grapes we spend our time rearranging the stones along the path. 

I’ll admit that our church is changing, we are slowly moving away from the maintenance model and are becoming lively and excited about the ways we can be Christ’s body for the world. We are no longer content with just being a building where people can sit together on a Sunday morning. A church is not a building. A church is the work of the people for the vineyard, for the kingdom.

Jesus was authorized by his father in heaven to do the will of God on earth. To overturn the tables in the temple, to call out the leaders of the people for their hypocrisy and limited vision, to seek out the last, least, and lost, to bring them a sense of wholeness, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to make disciples.

In the same way, Christ has authorized us to be his body for the kingdom of God. Today we have the remarkable responsibility of acting like God’s son, and the first son from the parable; even when we doubt our responsibility to the mission of God we are needed in the vineyard.

What are we doing as a church? Are we giving our tithes and offerings to God so that the church will stay open, so that we can hear an articulate and thoughtful 15 minute sermon every week. Are we content with letting our discipleship look like maintenance?

What are we doing as Christians? Are we radical people who believe that God continues to do amazing things in the world? Do we hope and pray for God’s will to really be done here on earth among us?

We have been authorized to do great and wonderful things in the world. Let us remember and believe that the Lord will provide, that nothing will ever separate us from God’s love, and that we have been called to work in the vineyard.

Amen.

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