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.

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