10-1-17 ser Under Whose Authority?

We need to set our assigned reading into context this morning. Just before this passage in Matthew, right before it, Jesus has entered Jerusalem and goes straight to the temple, where he is enraged by the money changers in the temple courtyard. He turns over the tables, scattering their money and challenging their authority, their place in the order of things. That’s when the religious authorities in this passage ironically begin to challenge Jesus’s authority. Listen.

Matthew 21:23-32 When Jesus 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 them, ‘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.’

Let’s take a moment in silence – maybe confessional silence-  to reflect on when we have said ‘no’ or when we have said ‘yes’ and not followed through on our word.

October 1, 2017

Under Whose Authority?

Who are you? What right to you have to tell me what to do? I am not one who obeys authority automatically. I used to walk my dog every day in the cemetery near our house, walking right past the signs that said, “No dogs.” Later they changed the sign to say, “Dogs have to be on a leash.” and I would walk my sweet innocent dog, who would never hurt anybody without a leash. I know I drove some people crazy, disobeying the rules. I did change my ways later, but only after many years.

I am willing to break rules to make a point. I usually have a good reason in my own mind. I spoke last week about some of how I came to be so arrogant in my rule-breaking. The Vietnam War broke something in me about trusting authority. Sometimes that rule-breaking is simply arrogant self-righteousness. I don’t admit it often, but my refusal to walk my dog on a leash for those years might have been one of those times. There were others I will not enumerate today.

Three years ago this week I started a sermon series that helped me understand how differently people think about authority and loyalty. I had read a book called The Righteous Mind which argued that conservative and liberal folks have trouble understanding each other because they have some basically different values. They value different things. Jonathan Haidt, who wrote the book, claimed that conservative folks value caring, fairness, authority, loyalty, freedom or liberty, and sanctity – all about the same. Progressive or liberal folks tend to value caring or compassion the most, and fairness and liberty a lot, but authority, loyalty, and sanctity or religious purity, not so much.

It makes it really hard to talk to each other when you don’t value the same things and you’re not even acknowledging it. Even when we read scripture, we may find different things important. So maybe when I read this passage from Matthew, it’s my liberal bias that makes me think that Jesus’ civil disobedience right before this passage is highly significant. When Jesus turns over the tables in the courtyard of the temple, you can just hear the Pharisees snorting and crying, “Who does he think he is? What right does he have to disrupt normal business at our temple. Who gave him the right?”

So they ask him, “Who gave you the authority to do what you’re doing?” It was a tricky question for Jesus, a trap that could get him in trouble. If he claims his own authority, if he says I know what’s right here, he admits to having no backing from a legitimate recognized authority, and institutional or culturally recognized authority. If he says I’m acting on God’s authority, they will claim he is blaspheming and violating their jurisdiction as leaders in God’s sanctuary.

He’s trapped, so he doesn’t answer the question. He turns it around on them – asking them a question of similar complexity about John the Baptist. He asks whether they think John the Baptist’s authority comes from God or from humans. Because John (and Jesus) are so popular, the Pharisees will get in trouble with the people if they don’t recognize his divine connection and if they do acknowledge that connection with God, they undermine their own authority.

See, authority is a tricky thing like that. Jesus goes on to tell a story about a child who says no to her father, but then goes and does what was requested, versus a child who says yes, but doesn’t do what was requested. Talk is just not adequate. In the end, we are going to follow the one who does the right thing, whether the words are right or not, even if superficially it looks like disobedience. Jesus is challenging the authority of the religious leaders who look good, but are allowing the temple to be used by people our to make a buck for themselves.

Sometimes we make a similar mistake – valuing status, niceness, formal education, or saying what we want to hear – over people with real integrity, people who may not sound as good, but who are living out their values, may not be as nice, or have the status or the education, but who are working to make a real difference in the world.

In the recent controversy over black athletes kneeling during the national anthem, I can’t help but hear my father being disgusted, “Who do they think they are? Why don’t they just do what they’re supposed to do and respect the flag? I just want to watch football, not this despicable spectacle. They need to just do their jobs, like they’re supposed to do.”

Progressive/liberal folks who don’t place as high a value on authority and patriotism and loyalty may dismiss those who criticize the athletes. Dismissing values which hold us together and are so deeply held can be really problematic. Sometimes there’s a good reason to not walk your dog in a cemetery, whether you know it or not.

Other folks who lean more conservative may dismiss the athletes themselves as unqualified to speak, or messing in an area that is not their expertise, creating unnecessary turmoil and grief and disrespect. Dismissing their concerns and values will also be a problem.

 

As I meditated on this dilemma the last few days, I finally felt like I had to ask the real authority. In our passage for this morning, Jesus asks the Pharisees, the good United Methodists of his day, to recognize prostitutes and tax collectors, the despised people, the last and the least, as being valued by God as much as anybody. So I asked Jesus, where are you? Are you on the field, kneeling with the athletes or are you with the folks who are upset at how divisive they are being?

And Jesus said, you don’t see what’s going on do you? I’m with the people of Puerto Rico who have lost their houses this week. I’m with the mother in Texas whose child is having nightmares about the water that came into their house. I’m with the girl in Mexico City whose home was destroyed by an earthquake. And yes, I’m with the little guy whose older brother was killed by police who is still wondering what he’s going to be when he grows up. I’m with the mother who lost a son who is beside herself with grief and anger. I’m walking beside the athletes, holding their hand and the hand of the child they represent. I’m walking with the fans who care about their community and are sending flood buckets and lanterns and supplies to help folks in hurricanes and earthquakes and floods

One friend of mine suggested that the real message the athletes are trying to get across may be getting lost because of the transgression of these other values. The message also is getting attention of course, but he suggested that instead of kneeling during the National Anthem, the athletes might walk into the stadium holding the hand of a child whose father or brother or sister was killed unjustly in police violence.

 

As we come to the table this morning we might notice what really pulls us together is the caring we have for each other, especially in the face of adversity. When folks in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean faced the wrath of the hurricanes, we don’t ask which state or which country or what race their from – we dig in and do what we can to help. That’s our bottom line common values coming to the fore. When folks in Puerto Rico – US citizens – were hit by Hurricane Maria this week, UMCOR, the Red Cross, and the church will be there.

Our communion offering will go for the World Communion scholarship fund, which we support on this Sunday each year, but I am again asking us to dig deep and give extra for relief for folks dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. On this World Communion Sunday, we eat this meal with people all around the world and God is especially with those whose churches are no longer standing, those are doing jobs that make people hate them, the woman who couldn’t figure out a way to feed her family except by selling her body, the little boy whose brother was killed by the police, the mother struggling to be seen as intelligent by folks who only speak one language and only value a certain kind of education. We come to this table with all of these and more, all of God’s children to say we are all one body, one people in God’s love.

 

Offering

Communion Hymn 620 One Bread, One Body