On Rendering

Did you know that if you type in a single word to the Google search engine, it will give you a full definition?  It comes in handy for a guy like me who likes to use fifty-cent words, but didn’t read much in high school or college or, well, life in general, and so I have to look them up.  I used it this morning to look up the word “render” because I knew of at least two meanings.  In fact, there are six for the verb form of the word.  My favorite definition ranks fifth on Google, “to melt down fat.”  Grilling and bacon cooking are made infinitely better because of rendering, but that isn’t what Jesus had in mind when he answered the question about paying taxes from the Pharisees and Herodians by saying, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (KJV)

More modern translations tell us that Jesus said to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” (NIV) which is a good translation of render, but not so much of what Matthew has Jesus actually saying.  The Greek verb which is translated as “render” or “give” is actually apodidomai,

give back

which means “to give back.”  It is a subtle difference, but one worth paying attention to because it applies not just to the things of Caesar, but more importantly, to the things of God since Jesus uses only one verb in the sentence.  “Give back to Caesar the stuff that belongs to him and give back to God what belongs to God.”  In both cases, Jesus notes that nothing we have is our own.  The coin, a Denarius Tiberius, used to pay the Census Tax was manufactured by and received it value from the Empire.  Money, be it a Roman coin or an American bill stamped with “In God we Trust” may seem like it comes by way of our own hard work, but in reality, it only exists because we are a part of an economic system that renders (definition #2) it worth something.  If the Empire asks for it back in the way of taxes, Jesus says, then give it back.

On the other hand, everything else, from the air we breathe to the lungs that transition it into our blood streams, is a gift from God.  Specifically, in his language Jesus seems to point especially to the very gift of life itself.  In what seems like an obvious reference to Genesis 1:26, Jesus reminds us that as humans we carry the image or icon of God.  We belong to God and so our whole lives should be lived as a gift offered back to God, in thanksgiving for the blessings that we have received.  This, of course, has huge ramifications.  It means that every decision we make: from what shoes to buy to what career path to follow to how much bacon to consume; is done with God’s gift of life and grace in mind.  Giving back to God the things that belong to him doesn’t mean giving 10% to the Church, it means living a life of discipleship each and every moment.

One Denarius Tiberius Please

Jesus once said that “The Son of Man has no where to lay his head,” and apparently, he didn’t carry any pocket change either.   Here, in the midst of yet another theological debate with the religious powers-that-be, this time the Pharisees and Herodians, Jesus turns the conversation on its head.  They’ve asked him, you’ll recall, if it was proper for a Jew to pay taxes to Caesar, hoping that he’ll say “no” and be open to charges of treason or say “yes” and alienate most of his followers who were devout Jews who despised their Roman occupiers.  Jesus, after calling out the questioners for the hypocrisy, delays his answer by first asking to look at the coin with which the tax had to be paid.

This tax, as any number of scholars will tell you, was the Census Tax, a one penny per person tax that had to be paid by every non-Roman citizen every year in order to help fund their own occupation (talk about insult to injury).  Now, for the most part, Rome was fairly kind to the Jewish people.  Romans loved old things, and Judaism was old, so they respected the religion and for the most part allowed the Jewish people to continue their worship of YWHW and the keeping of their own religious law.  I said “for the most part” because in Sunday’s lesson, we find one glaring moment of disrespect.

Integral to that law were the 10 Commandments, which were handed down from God to Moses himself.  Commandments 1 and 2 required 1) no worship of other gods and 2) no graven images or idols.  Mostly, this was easy enough to handle, except when it came to paying the Census Tax.  It had to be paid by way of a Roman Denarius, which looked like this:

The front carried the image/icon of Tiberius Caesar, Emperor of Rome, with the inscription “The August Tiberius Caesar, Son of the god Augustus.”  The back shows the image/icon of a woman named Pax, the personified image of the Peace of Rome, and hails the Emperor as High Priest, pontifex maximus.  There is nothing about this coin that doesn’t violate the first 2 of the Big 10 Rules.

Jesus, a good Jewish Rabbi, doesn’t have one of these coins.  The Pharisees made their living keeping these coins out of the Temple.  The Herodians, Jews who like Rome and who you’ll recall have buddied up to their archnemeses in the Pharisees?  Well, you better believe they’ve got one.  Right there in the middle of the Temple, they’ve got a blasphemous coin, ready to show to Jesus.  What is striking is that Jesus doesn’t say “Aha!  Gotcha!”  He doesn’t gloat over them for having the coin.  Instead, the uses it as a teaching moment.  More on that tomorrow.

The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend

Hatred makes for interesting bed fellows.  After a couple of days of being outsmarted by Jesus, the religious powers-that-be have retreated and regrouped.  If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that the names have changed.  The Chief Priests and the Elders, Jesus’ original sparring partners, have been replaced by the Pharisees and the Herodians.  The first item of note is that while the Pharisees were around during the time of Jesus, their rise to power came well after his death as their system of personal piety and ethnic purity from outside influence came to prominence after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.  Another issue is that we have no historical record, outside of a few brief mentions in the Gospels of a group called the Herodians.  Their name implies enough to give us some information about them, but we actually know almost nothing about them.  Their name, rather obviously, comes from the name Herod, the puppet king of Israel of getting drunk and riled up by his step-daughter’s dancing and giving her JBap’s head on a platter fame.  We can reasonably assume that they were pro-Hellenist Jews, strongly in favor of the Roman occupation and the support that Rome gave to the Temple system.

Here’s where things get interesting as the Pharisees, a group founded on a suspicion of outside influences on Judaism, team up with the Herodians, a group staunchly in favor of Rome’s influence in Jerusalem, in order to “entrap Jesus in what he said.”  Both sides stand to lose from Jesus’ rise to power, and so they join forces to ask him yet another question for which there is no right answer.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”  Either side can charge Jesus with a crime based on his answer.  If he say “no” then the Herodians have him on treason against Rome.  If he says “yes” then the Pharisees have him on collusion with Rome.  Charges which both sides could levy on each other, but they’re not interested in that at this point.

As Holy Week ramps up, it seems as if everyone has a reason to see Jesus brought low, but Matthew continues to make it clear that it is Jesus and not these professional theologians who is in control.  Trap after trick after loaded question, Jesus sees it coming and has the perfect answer.  More on that tomorrow.

The Word of the Lord… Wait, What!?!

It is almost nine o’clock on Monday morning.  I’ve been in the office for nearly 90 minutes now.  My vacation week is over, but my brain doesn’t seem to know it yet.  I’ve done my usual Monday stuff.  I’ve sorted emails.  I’ve checked the week’s calendar.  I’ve read over the lessons for Sunday.  After a week away, I should be ready to pound out a decent Monday morning blog post, but the haze – that ungodly fog of vacation mixed with a case of the Mondays and another year of preaching “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” – just won’t go away.

To make matters worse, we’ve moved into Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians for this week and the RCL powers-that-be have once been forced to make an interesting breaking point.  “For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead– Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.”  The Word of the Lord!?!

With Nicolas Cage’s mug all over the place, selling the latest in the terrible “Left Behind” series of movies, the idea of our being rescued from “the wrath that is coming” takes on added baggage these days.  And to end the lesson that way, even if it is the end of the chapter, well that is just odd.  What wrath?  Coming when?  Let’s make one thing clear.  Paul does not have a pre-tribulation Rapture in mind as he writes this letter.  The Rapture is a theology that came into fashion in the early 19th century and continues to plague the world with bad movies starring Nicolas Cage and Kirk Cameron to this day.  We’ll deal with 1 Thessalonians 4:16, the Rapture verse, more when it comes up in the lectionary in a few weeks.

What Paul probably did have in mind, here in the oldest known New Testament text, is what we call “immanent eschatology.”  The early Christians believed, rather strongly, that Jesus was coming back quickly.  The end of this world and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God were expected within just a few years.  So, as Paul writes, he believes that Jesus is coming to judge the world sooner rather than later.  The wrath that will fall upon those who do not believe that Jesus is Lord is coming, but thankfully, the Christians in Thessalonica have believed and are being saved through Christ.  Despite the confusing way in which it comes to us in this lesson, that really is good news.  We who follow in the footsteps of the Thessalonians, while probably not thinking Jesus is coming back tomorrow, know that when the final judgment comes for the whole world, we who serve the one, true, and living God, rejoice in our salvation.  Thanks be to God.

Another Parable ?!? – a sermon

The audio is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it below.

As if the last five minutes between Jesus and the Chief Priests weren’t bad enough, Jesus says, “Listen to another parable.” Last week, we heard the first part of this story. It started on Sunday, as Jesus entered Jerusalem to the shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David” while people threw palm branches on the ground. He immediately rode to the Temple where he flipped out on the money changers and sacrifice sellers and began healing anyone and everyone who came to him. Monday morning, the conflict between Jesus and the religious-powers-that-be came to a head as they confronted him, “Who do you think you are? Where did you get the authority to do these things?”
Jesus responded with a parable about two sons, both of whom failed to live into the fullness of their father’s expectations. One son said “no” to going to work in the vineyard, but eventually went. The second said “yes” but didn’t life a finger to help out. Jesus made it clear that the Chief Priests were the son that said “yes”, but were failing to live into the Father’s wishes and that even prostitutes and tax collectors were living lives of the Kingdom. If I were them, I would have walked away at this point, but they just stood there as Jesus laid into them again.
“Listen to another parable…” This time, he pulls out the big guns, quoting from the Prophet Isaiah, “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower…” If you were paying attention to the first lesson this morning, you probably noticed some similar imagery. In the end of the Isaiah lesson, the prophet tells the people that the vineyard that God had so carefully tended, representing the whole house of Israel, was producing nothing but sour grapes and that God had no choice but to plow it all over and try again.
Jesus changes that story slightly. There is still a vineyard and still a landowner who gives it everything it needs to thrive. This time, however, the vines are tended to by some tenant farmers. Apparently, they do good work. The vineyard produces a quality harvest and the landowner sends some slaves to collect his portion of the fruit. Here’s where things go sour. The first set of slaves are treated terribly: one is beaten, one is stoned, and one is killed. Rightfully, the landowner could now forcibly remove the tenants from the vineyard. Instead, he decides to try again, sending even more slaves this time. They too were beaten, stoned, and killed. Rather than helping these tenants meet a miserable end, the landowner gives them one last chance: he sends his son thinking that surely they will respect him and hand over the fruit. They do not. Instead, he is dragged outside the vineyard walls and killed.
“What is the landowner to do?” Jesus asks. The Chief Priests walk right into his trap in answering, “He’ll put those wretches to a wretched death.” [rubs hands together] Indeed he will. Or will he? Remember back this summer, when I was all excited about parable season? I told you that I loved parables because they work like narrative time bombs . Jesus plants these stories in the minds of his hearers, and though they might come to an initial understanding, a much deeper meaning is sure to follow. This is one of those time bombs, with several possible meanings.
First, there is the way that the Chief Priests initially heard it with God as the landowner, Israel as the vineyard, they were the tenants, and Jesus was claiming to be the son. They rejected the parable however, because they didn’t see themselves as rebellious. To their minds, they’d been faithful to the will of God. They had been meticulous in their keeping of the Law, down to the tiniest detail. Jesus came and questioned their authority, questioned whether or not they’ve been faithful to God, but they’d become so entrenched in their understanding of God that they couldn’t possibly see that they’d failed to respond faithfully when God sent servants, like John, to call for the harvest. If they had been unfaithful, they thought, then God would have put them to a miserable death, but he hadn’t so clearly they were doing ok.
The second way to read this parable has been the prevailing understanding in Christianity for two-thousand years. Here again, God is the landowner, the Chief Priests are the tenants, the Kingdom of God is the vineyard, and Jesus is the Son. After Jesus’ death, it became quite easy to see the connection between his crucifixion outside of the walls of Jerusalem and the death of the Son outside the vineyard. As the Church became increasingly composed of Gentile or non-Jewish, Christians, this story grew into a strong polemic against the Chief Priest, the elders, and eventually the Pharisees and the whole Jewish people who were thought to be the Wicked Tenants who killed Jesus. Now-a-days, we call this understanding supercessionism. The idea being that God made promises to the people of Israel, but when they failed to follow Jesus, he superseded those promises by giving the vineyard, the Kingdom, to Gentile Christians. In time, the Church used this parable to justify treating the Jewish people as outcasts from God’s love in all sorts of terrible ways. This reading of this parable was used to justify the forced conversion and killing millions of Jews over the years, and was brought to the fullness of evil in the days of Hitler and the Holocaust. In response to that horror, Biblical scholars have spent the last seventy-plus years trying to read this parable in a new way.
I’ll spare you the liberation theology reading and the feminist theology reading and the “the Nazis are the tenants” reading and instead share with you what I think this parable says to us today. Matthew is a Gospel all about fruit. Matthew 21 is a chapter all about fruit. Today’s passage is a story all about fruit. In fact, we hear the word four times in just a few verses. Jesus begins the souring of the story by saying, “When the season of the fruit came, [the landowner] sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his fruits.” The Chief Priests, in their answer to Jesus, say that the vineyard will be given to “those who produce fruit.” Jesus agrees, emphatically declaring that indeed the Kingdom will be taken away and “given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” In its original context, this is, of course, an exhortation to the Chief Priests that they had failed to offer God the fruit of the harvest; that they had become so enamored with the Temple and the worship of worship, that they had forgotten to worship the Lord God who gave it all to them. The warning does not end there, however. Matthew, writing after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, has already seen this happen by the hand of Rome, but he also knows that it could happen again. He uses this story as a warning to the Church that was coming into being: your newly found status is not without responsibilities, bear fruit and give God the glory, or this too can happen to you.
In the Kingdom of God, the harvest, the season of fruit, is every day. God continues to call us to produce fruit worthy of the Kingdom by caring for the poor and needy, looking after widows and orphans, visiting the sick and imprisioned, and just generally loving our neighbors as ourselves. Through this parable, we are reminded to not lose sight of the gift of a well prepared vineyard that God has given us. Bear fruit! Bear fruit in thanksgiving for God’s great love for you and for the world he has created. Amen.

The Feast of Bishop Remi – a homily

As you probably noticed in the Collect, today the Church remembers a saint with a name as difficult to pronounce as his life story is to tell.  It would take most of the afternoon to discuss the tumultuous political and religious climate in western Europe in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, but suffice it to say, things were complicated.  Remigius, thankfully better known in his native tongue as Remi, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.  His father was the Count of Laon and his mother was the daughter of a Bishop.  Remi was a brilliant student, and rose quickly to prominence for his wisdom and learning.  In about the year 460, Remi was elected Bishop of Rheims, even though he had not yet been ordained a priest or even a deacon!

Bishop Remi lived well past his 90th birthday and served the church as a bishop for 70 years!  That would be enough to be remembered as a saint all on its own, but Remi’s real claim to fame is that he saved orthodox Christianity from destruction and changed the course of European history.  During the time of Emperor Constantine, there was a heated debate in the Church between Athansius and Arius over the nature of Jesus. Though the Arians, those who Followed Arius and his belief that Jesus was a created being rather than a co-eternal member of the Trinity, had lost the vote in Nicea in 325, they continued to survive in the Church for hundreds of years.  Increasingly, they gained strength in western Europe, especially among the rising powers of the Goths and the Vandals.  By the middle of the 5th century, Because of strong political and military allies, it looked as if the Arians might wipe Nicene Christianity off the map. Until, on a December day in 496 when on the battlefield of Tobliac, A certain king named Clovis, a pagan married to a Christian queen, took a vow that if he was victorious in the battle in which he was highly outnumbered, he would become a Christian.  Clovis and the Franks miraculously  prevailed, and two days later, on December 24th, 496, King Clovis was baptized into the orthodox, Nicene Christianity by Bishop Remi in a small church in the city of Rheims.

Over the course of the next 300 years, this event would prove to be the saving grace of orthodoxy.  On the continent, the Franks converted the Visigoths, and when Charlemagne became the first Emperor of the Roman Empire in nearly three centuries in the year 800, he brought with him the orthodox faith that had been passed down from Bishop Remi.  Meanwhile, in England, Clovis’ great-granddaughter, Bertha, married the pagan King of Kent, King Ethelbert, who was eventually baptized by Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 601, thereby ensuring that we here would be the inheritors of the catholic faith in Christ as a member of the Godhead.

The Gospel lesson for the feast of Bishop Remi is a lesson that is often read at funerals in The Episcopal Church.  In it, we hear from the lips of Jesus what orthodox, Nicene Christians like Remi have fought for as truth: that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; and that knowing Jesus means knowing the Father.  In a time when the outside world was devoutly pagan and the church was torn with strife, it was people like Remigius who kept the Church in touch with her roots.

What does any of this have to do with us today?  I won’t argue that Christians in America are being oppressed, I think that is a ridiculous notion, but the reality is that we leave in a society that is increasingly suspicious of the Gospel.  The world outside the Church sees us as silly to believe in a God who loves us.  Even within the Church there are growing numbers who would have us give up those foolish beliefs in things like the Virgin Birth or a literal resurrection of Jesus.  Yet here we stand, as faithful, Nicene Christians, who, though we might struggle to make it all make sense, we can affirm, like Remi, that God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, fills us with delight, brings us fulfillment, and enables us to live abundant lives.  Politics and theological arguments aside, that is good news.  Amen.

Let’s stop all this stupid talk

I have a confession to make.  My eldest child, FBC, loves Spongebob Squarepants.  She gets it honest, her mother and I were known to watch it well into our twenties.  To say it is a show that she shouldn’t be watching is probably an understatement, but she’s a PK and we don’t want her to be a victim of her circumstances, so we fudge some.  There are rules to watching Spongebob however.  We tend to be selective about which episodes get chosen from the DVR library, and that standing rule in our house is if you say the word stupid, you can’t watch Spongebob.  FBC knows the rule so well that she’ll correct anyone and everyone she hears saying the forbidden word.  “Uh Oh, so-and-so can’t watch Spongebob,” has been heard on multiple occasions.

After three days of trying to figure out just who is stupid in the ongoing brew-ha-ha between Jesus and the Chief Priests in Matthew 21, three days of not being allowed to watch Spongebob (thankfully), it is probably time to move on to something just a bit deeper; something more theologically astute; something like fruit.

The 21st chapter of Matthew is ripe with fruit imagery (pardon the pun).  We have the famous story of Jesus cursing the fig tree.  There’s the Parable of the Two Sons called to go to work in the vineyard.  This Sunday, we hear and the Parable of the Wicked Tenants and Jesus’ declaration that the Kingdom belongs to those who “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”  According to the folks at Sermon Brainwave, Matthew is fond of the fruit metaphor.  He’s not arguing works righteousness, but that the sign and symbol of life in the Kingdom is a life that bears fruit. Those who claim to be disciples of Jesus show their devotion by feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, loosing the bonds of oppression, clothing the naked, and caring for the marginalized (Mt 25.31ff).

The world today is ripe (there I go again) with opportunities to bear the fruit of the kingdom.  How will you be fruitful today?

So… Is God Stupid?

In Sunday’s sermon, I posited that Jesus was not stupid.  In yesterday’s post, I suggested that the Chief Priests and the Elders might have been.  Today, I’m wondering, as I do every time the Parable of the Wicked Tenants comes around: Is God Stupid?  Clearly the landowner was.  Why in the heck did he think that sending his son, after the tenants had beaten and killed any number of slaves, was in anyway a good idea?  If he was going to diffuse the situation, shouldn’t he have gone himself and either a) fixed things with his magical landowner powers or b) killed the lot of them in a messy and violent way?

This is, of course, the argument that many people make about God.  Why did he send his Son to do the dirty work?  Didn’t he know what was going to happen?  Surely, if he’s omnipotent, omniscient, and all powerful, God could have fixed the mess that is humanity by either a) waving a magic grace wand to make us all suck less or b) kill us all in a messy and violent way (cf. Noah and the flood).  So what gives?  Is God stupid?

Well, yes and no.  Love makes us do stupid things sometimes, and God seems to be no exception.  Out of an abundance of love, God created the world and everything in it.  Out of an abundance of love, God created humanity in his likeness to be in relationship with him.  Out of an abundance of love, God attempted again and again to restore the relationship once we broke it.  And out of an abundance of love, God sent his only Son to save us from our selves.  This are all crazy, stupid actions on God’s part.  He didn’t do them ignorantly.  He knew what was coming.  He knew there were other ways to fix it, but he also knew that the best way, the way that allowed all of this to be about the abundance of love and not some forced relationship or blood nightmare, was to send his Son to live and die as one of us; to feel the fullness of our humanity; to enter into real relationships with real people; and to be raised on the third day to make the whole thing new.

Is God stupid?  Yep, stupid enough to love.

Why do they keep listening?

In my sermon yesterday, I made the assertion that Jesus was not stupid.  This brought about a few chuckles, probably because the idea of Jesus not being the smartest person in every room is absurd to many.  As a modern-day religious authority, I wish I could say that the Chief Priests and the Scribes weren’t stupid either, but based on the way things go in Matthew 21, I’m not sure that’s the case.

Their best question, the one they planned all night in an attempt to trap Jesus in blasphemy, was a weak noodle.  And then, as Jesus launches into a three parable tirade on how awful they are at leading the people of Israel into a full relationship with God, they just stand there slack jawed.  Why do they keep listening?

At the end of the Parable of the Two Sons, Jesus makes a very pointed statement toward the religious power-that-be, “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 (“metanoia” = repent) and believe him.”

Following the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, a particularly awful parable, Matthew tells us that they finally realized that he was speaking about them, but for fear of the crowds they did nothing.  Here’s where I really begin to wonder about these people.  I mean, they didn’t have to arrest him, but surely they could have turned around and walked away, but no, they stayed for yet another Parable.

Finally comes the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, which we’ll hear on October 12th.  This is perhaps the harshest of the three and ends with people either dead or cast into outer darkness.  Finally, they figure out they have offices to retreat to and they go off to scheme some more, but seriously, why did they stay so long?  Just to give Jesus the chance to tell three particularly harsh parables?  Probably not.

Here’s what I think.  These guys are proud men.  They’ve worked hard to get to their place of prestige and they aren’t likely to give it away easily.  My gut tells me that they stick around for two conflicting reasons.  First, and probably foremost, they stay to save face.  If they turn and walk away with their tails between their legs, it gives Jesus all the momentum.  Second, and perhaps more sympathetically, they are heavily invested in the faith of Israel.  There must be some small part of them that wonders if Jesus really is the Messiah; some part deep in their bones that feels hope even as he speaks judgment against them.  Yes, Jesus is growing increasingly inconvenient for them, but the people are drawn to him and the people seem to have been right about John the Baptist.  Maybe, just maybe, they’ve found their hearts strangely warmed in Jesus’ words to them.  It won’t last, however.  Things are about to get much, much worse.  Yet for now, something keeps them listening.  I wonder what it was.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit.

Authority in a Church Full of Hypocrites – a sermon

Audio of yesterday’s sermon is now available on the Saint Paul’s Website, or you can read it here.

When I was in seminary, I became involved in one of those heated debates that you only have when you’re in seminary.  We were trying to answer the question, “how long should a regular Sunday worship service last?”  In reality, there is no right answer to that question, unless you’re trying to get to the Cracker Barrel before the Baptists, but the one thing we could settle on was that an hour and fifteen minutes for a regular Sunday morning church service was just too long.  I had a theory that this was a function of our increasingly busy society.  I used to think that back in the good old days before the NFL was broadcast live on Sunday afternoons, nobody blinked at a church service lasting an hour and a half, or more.  In preparing for my Saint Paul’s 101 class, I learned that my theory was 100% wrong.

On August 9th of 1949, J.D. Wilson, then Vicar of Saint Paul’s, complained at a vestry meeting that very few men were showing up for Sunday services during the summer.  In fact, he said that on the previous Sunday only four men had shown up, and only one of them was actually a member!  Virgil Christensen, a faithful churchman and member of the Vestry, looked at his priest and proposed that if the services were shortened from an hour and fifteen minutes to last no more than an hour, it might help to get the men out.[1]  This was 1949, they heyday of the “Good Old Days.”  Boy was I wrong.  Mr. Wilson disagreed with Virgil, but the wider Church has come to follow his advice.  By and large these days, most Episcopal Congregations shoot for Sunday worship to last no more than an hour.  The people who put together the Revised Common Lectionary know this, and so they have made tough choices about cutting lessons to fit the allotted time.  Last week, rather than taking 10 minutes to read the whole story of Jonah, we got only the end, completely cut out of its context.  This week, our Gospel lesson opens with Jesus and the Chief Priests and Scribes already fighting with one another, but we have no idea why.

The 21st chapter of Matthew marks the beginning of Holy Week.  It starts with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  If you’ll recall, this grand entrance into the capital city was highly orchestrated by Jesus.  He planned the route, he set the day, and he had his disciples secure the donkey.  Crowds lined the streets as Jesus entered into town, laying down their coats and palm branches and crying out to Jesus as King and Lord, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  Matthew tells us this parade came at the beginning of Passover week, the annual remembrance of God saving the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, and it put “the whole city in turmoil.”

From there, Jesus rode his donkey straight to the Temple courtyard and began to drive out everyone.  He flipped over the tables of the money changers.  He cursed the sellers of sacrificial animals, claiming that they had turned God’s house into “a den of robbers.”  Then the blind and the lame came flooding into the Temple to be healed by Jesus and even the children shouted out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  Unsurprisingly, the chief priests and the scribes were not happy.  As night fell on Sunday, they began to challenge him by asking, “Don’t you hear what these people are saying about you?  It is blasphemy!  Tell them to stop.”

Here’s where today’s lesson finally begins.  It is Monday morning, and Jesus and his disciples have made their way back to the Temple court.  Jesus had to know things weren’t going to go smoothly this morning, nevertheless, he took a seat in the Temple and began to teach the crowd that gathered about the coming of the Kingdom of God.  The Temple Council had probably been up all night trying to figure out what to do with Jesus.  They plotted and schemed and planned so that when he returned, they were ready with their best question to finally trap him in the charges of blasphemy.  “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  As the ruling voice of religion in Israel, they knew that they didn’t give Jesus the authority, and so just about any answer he could give will lead him right into their trap.  If he claims his authority from some Zealot Rabbi, they can turn him over to the Romans as a traitor.  If he claims his authority is from God, they can try him as a heretic.  Either way, they win.  What they didn’t expect was that Jesus would answer with a question of his own.

Jesus isn’t dumb.  He knows not to trust these people.  He knows that they’ve laid a trap to catch him, but He also knows that he’s been in control of this situation from the very beginning.  His response is certain to spring him from their trap, “First, let me ask you a question.  If you answer it, I’ll answer yours.  By what authority did John the Baptist baptize people?  Was it from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  When, for fear of the crowd, they don’t answer, Jesus doesn’t have to either, but that doesn’t mean he stops talking.  Jesus goes on to tell a parable about two sons.  The father approaches his first son and asks him to work in the vineyard.  He answers, “No,” but eventually does go out into the field to work.  The father then asks his second son to go out and work.  He answers, “Yes,” but never so much as lifts a finger to help out.

Which one did the will of the father?  Honestly, neither one.  The right thing to do would be to say “Yes” and mean it and do it.  Of course, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and so, though both have fallen short, the first son, the one who actually did something at least sort of fulfilled his Father’s wishes.  And what does any of this have to do with the authority of Jesus and, by extension, the authority of the Church that calls him Savior and Lord?  Well, authority comes not from words, but through actions.

The Chief Priests and Elders claimed the authority of God by means of their lineage, their education, and their piety, but their actions betrayed them as having said “Yes” to God but saying “No” to helping those whom God cares about: the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, the widows, and the orphans.  Prostitutes and tax collectors had lives that looked they had said “No” to God, but when John the Baptist came calling, they responded with a resounding “Yes!”  Jesus had no lineage, he had very little education, and he was just a simple carpenter from Nazareth who hung out with fishermen, prostitutes, tax collectors, and lepers; the blind, the lame, widows and orphans.  From the perspective of the Temple, his life have looked like he had said, “No” to God but his actions showed a life of saying “Yes” and living “Yes” to his Father in heaven.

I’m not Jesus, which means I’m not perfect.  You aren’t Jesus, so naturally you aren’t perfect either.  Sometimes, we say “Yes” to God’s will for our lives and end up falling short.  Sometimes, we say “No thanks” to God’s dream for us, and end up doing amazing things anyway.  The Church is full of hypocrites, full of people who say one thing and do another.  Thankfully, there is always room for one more.  In the end, we are called to do our best to live lives that show what we’ve come to know about the Kingdom of God.  We gather for worship (that thanks to Virgil Christensen, lasts no more than an hour), we reach out to those in need: the poor, the outcast and the oppressed; and we take care of those who are dear to us: the sick and the mourning.  As a church full of hypocrites, we gain our authority when our actions speak louder than our words.  Amen.

[1] Vestry Minutes (August 9, 1949), p. 2.