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Pentecost 17A Sermon
Matthew 21: 23-32
27, 2020


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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 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.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God be with us in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.
Jesus was just looking for a one-word answer from the elders of the people. Just one word … heaven or human … that’s all. After a pause of unknown length during which these men most certainly put their heads together and considered the political ramifications of their response, they gave him twice of what he wanted. Yes, in the Greek language, they said, “ouk oidamen.” In English it is three words – “We know not.” A truer response was never said.
You see, when they put their heads together their only concern was their own authority and protecting it. They were convinced that John’s baptism was human in origin, even though John was a very spiritual person, hanging out in the desert with the Essenes, practicing ritual bathing and baptizing as part of their daily devotion to God. He was the son of a High Priest, and the circumstances of his birth – that he had been born to an elderly couple who were believed to be incapable of childbirth – point to the fact that he was special … sent by God … holy. He certainly acted a lot like the prophet Elijah in what he said and did. But he wasn’t one of them … he made waves with Herod and risked the relative peace that they experienced under this Roman occupation. For you see, the elders’ authority was not only from the religious institution, but it was also from the Romans themselves. The Romans put their stamps of approval on these men in Jerusalem with the understanding that they would not cause trouble.

But to say that John’s baptism was of human origin would have caused trouble, for the people loved John and many were baptized by him, much as Jesus was. But, to say that his baptism was of heavenly origin, well that would go against their own principles. It might even rile up the people against Herod, who had him beheaded. So, instead of a one-word answer, they make it political – we know not. But that is not the end of it.

You see, Jesus has just ridden triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey after an extended ministry up in Galilee. There, he often dealt with Pharisees, but none had the pedigree – the authority – of these elders in Jerusalem. He then drove the money-changers out and took up residence in the Temple of Jerusalem, which was a direct attack on their authority. He did this not only because he would be able to teach and heal in this Holy place, but because he knew it was time for his authority to be challenged by these very same elders. And as we read on in Matthew, we find that this is just the first of five times when he is challenged by the religious authorities. They try to trip him up on paying taxes, on marriage and the resurrection, on which is the greatest commandment, and whose son is the Messiah, God’s or David’s. Each time Jesus relies upon the authority given to him by God and does not allow them to shame him. In a society of honor and shame, that was important. Ironically, the elders believe they have the final word when they orchestrate Jesus’ death on the ultimate instrument of shame – the cross. But God takes that death device and twists it into a symbol of self-giving love and sacrifice.
It is easy to miss the subtle humor in Jesus’ transition to the parable of the two sons, but I happened to catch it this week. He poses a question to these leaders and they admit that they do not know the answer. He shares a story and asks a question – who did the will of the father? This one is easy … piece of cake … no brainer!! Obviously the one who went to work in the vineyard even though he said he wouldn’t. It is like Jesus is saying, “Was that one too hard for you? How about this really easy one!” The problem is, according to Jesus’ parable these leaders are not identified with the son who did his father’s will! They are identified as the one who talked about doing the work, but actually skipped out on it. Authority comes from respect, and respect comes from giving of yourself in loving service to others. That is authority, respect and a right relationship.

In our second lesson for today, Paul shares with the Philippians something that has become known as, “The Christ Hymn.” Verses six through eleven, it is believed, comprised one of the first hymns composed in these early years of Christianity, sung together by people of faith as they met in homes around meals and the stories of Jesus’ life. It professes one who has all of the authority that anyone would ever want – so much that every knee bends in heaven, on earth and even under the earth! This Jesus has been exalted by God. Why? Not because he said the right things and knew the right answers. Because he humbled himself, put aside all privilege that came with the pedigree of being God’s Son, and became obedient unto death on a cross. In his humility, Jesus claims authority. This is the basis of our theology of the cross – that the glory and strength of God is experienced in the most shameful, weakest point.
This past week our nation mourned the passing of an enormous figure who stood just over five feet tall and probably weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet. Ruth Bader-Ginsburg had the respect of people from all political parties because she helped to break down barriers that have prevented women, people of color, LGBTQ folks and so many others from their rights as citizens of this country. Over the last couple of years we would occasionally hear of her being admitted to the hospital as she battled pancreatic cancer, and each time she was released to return to her duties on the Supreme Court, we all marveled at her. Much like John the Baptizer’s birth signaled to the world that he was a holy man, so also the time of RBG’s death signals to us that she was a holy woman. She died just as the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah was beginning. According to Jewish tradition, someone who dies on Rosh Hashanah is considered a tzaddik, a person of great righteousness. Reporter Nina Totenberg, also Jewish, explains, “A Jewish teaching says those who die just before the Jewish New Year are the ones God has held back until the last moment because they were needed most and were the most righteous.”

Also this last week we lost a dedicated ELCA Pastor named Bob Graetz when he died one week ago today. Bob was a graduate of Capital University and the seminary now known as Trinity. After serving a congregation in California, Bob and his wife Jeannie, both white, went to serve a mostly African American church in Montgomery, Alabama. They arrived about the same time that the Montgomery Bus Strike was going on, and Bob and Jeannie jumped in to add their support. They were friends with Rosa Parks, who led a NAACP Youth Council that met in Bob’s church building. The Graetz’s did not only support the strike with words and protests. Bob would spend three hours each morning driving black workers to their jobs so that they could avoid riding the bus and keep their jobs. His authority was noticed by many in the community … and that wasn’t always good. Three times their home was the target of bombs from the KKK. The two that exploded did some damage, but were not big enough to destroy their home or hurt anyone in the family. The biggest one never detonated. Jeannie Graetz said, “We felt that the Lord put a circle of love around us. There were people who hated us, but that hate could not get through to us, because of the Lord’s protection.” The Graetz family returned to Ohio where they served in several congregations including St. Philip Lutheran in Columbus. They continued to stand with and speak out for all people regardless of race, class, gender, age or orientation.

It is good to remember these people who selflessly and humbly served Jesus in their lives, strengthened by the authority that he has over all of us. We don’t worship or kneel before them – that only happens at the name of Jesus! But we can remember their witness, respect their memories, and learn what it means to live with Jesus as our authority. RBG relied upon her strong Jewish roots; The Graetz family felt the real presence of a circle of love. We know the presence of the Holy Spirit because we are making it through this challenging time together and still loving our neighbors. As Paul put it, we are all working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in us. May we do the will of The Father and carry on the loving work that so many saints have started in this vineyard. Amen.