What Do You Think?
Exodus 17:1-7 Philippians 2:1-13 Matthew 21:23-32
“So, what do you think?” That’s a pretty dangerous question, don’t you think? Language has some very interesting conventions and phrases sometimes. There are words and phrases that we use all the time – some of us more than others – that have the intent of establishing authority, or at least expecting agreement. Am I right?
That was one. “Am I right?” Sometimes it gets shortened further and I hear people who speak to groups or on podcasts or even just in conversation that end sentences with the declarative question, “right?” They may say something like, “Well, it’s the levee system that we can thank for our disappearing coast line, right?” or “Jesus was obviously concerned about people’s lives and not just about making sure they followed the rules, right?”
There are certainly many other, and more subtle, ways to convey power or expect agreement, and I believe that is exactly what we find in our readings today. I think it’s pretty timely that we might think about power and agreement, because we seem to be having the same conversations over and over about the threat of unchecked power or the lack of unity that leads to chaos – and the fact that there are some that will always end up better off than others.
It’s funny. Even with a statement like that I am sure that many in this room will have differing opinions on who benefits from our conflicts and how they do so. In some ways, it reminds me of the temple leaders questioning Jesus. Now, we have to remember a few things here.
First is that that they come to him after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Children were encouraged to shout, “Hosanna!” and people called him, “Son of David” and begged for his help. He had healed people, turned over the economic system of the money changers, and was interpreting scripture in the temple – the central holy place for identity as God’s people.
Scholars debate whether the Priests and Elders were truly trying to figure out, as in other places in Matthew, if Jesus gained spiritual authority through evil spirits or through God. Likewise, many feel that these leaders were more concerned about keeping peace with Rome, preserving the institution of the church, and holding on to their prestige and authority.
My money is on a little bit of both. People are complex. Motives are rarely pure. Well, anyway, they came to Jesus wanting to know whose authority he was acting under, because it certainly wasn’t theirs. Of course he answers with a question that makes it plain to see what they fear – the revolt of the people.
Then he goes a little further with, “What do you think?” There it is. When Jesus asks you what you think about something, you can bet the question is going to be loaded with the right answer, but you can’t always be sure it’s not going to hurt a little.
He tells them a story about two sons that go to work in a vineyard. One said no, but went anyway. The other said yes, but then did not. Both were dishonest, but one did the right thing in the end. We don’t know why. We just know that the point is that verbal agreement is not the same as doing what is good and right and meaningful. Not only that but repentance – turning from a rejection of God’s love to acceptance – is valued higher than simple agreement.
In all of this, it’s important to notice what Jesus does not say. He never claims his own authority. He only lifts up the need for true repentance and faithful living. He also doesn’t tell the temple leaders that that will not enter into the Kingdom of God. He just says that they have a longer road to walk, because they are too concerned with their own power and privilege to see that repentance is the first step into the Kingdom of God!
Paul takes it all a step further in his letter to the church in Philippi, but once again I think it’s important to pay attention to the negative space – the things that aren’t being said. In writing to a church about unity, he is obviously addressing some division in the church. So, these words about Jesus as the Christ with all authority were written as a way to say, “for goodness sakes, with the authority of all heaven and earth as my witness, will you people please figure out how to get along?”
And Paul was not just asking for agreement for the sake of agreement. We can all think of examples throughout history where that has gone awry. No, the point here is to be in agreement with God, and to work that out together with fear and trembling. I don’t think that means to be afraid that the boss is going to mark down every mistake. I think of it more like the quote from philanthropist and writer, Hannah Moore, who wrote, “Love never reasons but profusely gives; gives, like a thoughtless prodigal, its all, and trembles lest it has done too little.”
It is in the doing together that we find salvation come to fullness. It is when the mirror of my soul reflects the mirror of yours that we begin to see into infinity, but even then only when we recognize God’s active presence in between and through us. Without that key piece to the puzzle, we may find ourselves feeling like the Israelites in the wilderness – too focused on our scarcity to see God’s abundance.
And this is the heart of the matter! We do whatever we can to keep from feeling powerless. We seek relationships that benefit us and conversation partners that agree with us, yet the power and providence of God are found in vulnerability and reconciled disagreement over and over again.
I think that starts in here, within our community of faith, but it cannot end here. I think it starts with us as individuals, but it cannot end with only my or your relationship with God.
That’s one of the reasons that we celebrate communion in such a special way today. We’ll have a variety of breads and special prayers to remind us that we are made one in Christ with all believers and even with all of humanity. This tradition, which was begun by a Presbyterian congregation and later endorsed by the World Council of Churches, also makes it a perfect day to celebrate efforts that make for peace that impact the world around us.
That may sound a little idealistic, but it’s true. Through this offering you will support the empowerment of women and minorities. You will support programs that provide education in ways that combat violence. And through it we can hear Jesus say, “What do you think?” and become convicted and transformed by answering the question.
Here’s how it went down in a congregation in Philadelphia. An international peacemaker’s visit to Ivyland Presbyterian Church inspired the congregation to get to work on behalf of refugees. After hearing a firsthand account of the situation in Syria, Ivyland eagerly and passionately responded to an opportunity to help a refugee family from Syria resettle in their community.
Such things happen all the time, and right now we are being asked to listen to Jesus once more. Fortunately, our Ruling Elders are one step ahead. They’ve heard a call for diapers and hygiene items being gathered for Puerto Rico, and they’ve agreed to call for a collection but also to use our %25 of the Peace and Global Witness Offering to buy more!
Not only that, but our Session is actively listening for God’s ongoing question about how we might be called deeper and further into the work of living out our salvation together. Many of you know that means that we are answering questions about our buildings and their long term use, but at the heart of it we are seeking to be ever more faithful as we consider who God wants us to reach out and include. Jesus told the temple leaders that the people they would rather not see at church would be first in line.
So it might just be for us. What do you think?
I think, and I believe it to be true, that as long as we recognize that God is God and we are not, and as long as we continue to work out our salvation together with trembling over the beauty of the opportunities in front of us, and as long as we are willing to be vulnerable before God, that we will find that we have not only taken a step into but that we are actually living in the Kingdom that is available to us now and will be complete in God’s good timing.
And to God be the glory for all of these things and even more as they become revealed. Amen.