The Gospel: 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.”
Prayer: Lord, you have promised that when two or three gather in your name you will be present with them. We depend on that promise today and pray that you will move among us. Lord, we pray that you have inspired Mike's preparation, that you will enliven his presentation, and that you will empower our application. Amen
The Message: I am not a quilter, so I am trusting that my illustration for my Sermon, which I got from someone who is a quilter, will make sense to most of you this morning. I have been told that there is a type of quilt-making where the design on the front of the quilt is created using thread. On the front, it is beautifully neat and organized. But if you look at the back it is a wild collection of threads. Sometimes, I am told, when you look at the back, it looks like all you seem to have is a chaotic bunch of loose threads.
So, let me just say, that I hope this morning as I go through the thoughts I have prepared for my message that we can discover the front of my quilt rather than the back of it.
As I was preparing this week I felt I was led over and over again to Matthew 5. That is the chapter that begins with the Beatitudes. Then we find Jesus making a wide-ranging commentary on Jewish society and behavior patterns. It is a wonderful study if you want to take the time to delve into it. It could be suggested that all throughout chapter 5 Jesus is examining what it would mean if his listeners implemented the Beatitudes in their lives, and in their society. He is comparing the existing society and its behavior patterns with the Beatitudes.
At one point I felt that much of what was being said in chapter 5 could be summarized by what Jesus says in Matthew 5 verse 37: "Let your yes be yes." Can I suggest this morning that much of what we heard in our readings this morning could also be summarized in that one short verse?
This morning we had the opportunity to hear Psalm 25. I don't know if you heard verses 3 and 4 as Barbara sang them for us so I want to read them for us again now: "Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long."
Can I, can we, say that we say yes to the central truth of those verses this morning? Can I, can we, say that we seek to focus our everyday lives on the central truth of those verses?
Now, we understand, as good Episcopalians, that we made that affirmation at our Baptism and again at our Confirmation. Or if we are one of those folks who came into the Episcopal Church by reception, or transfer, then we affirmed it then. Can I ask have I, have we, continued, in that affirmation, in that yes? I have talked before about the "ongoing yes" of Baptism. One yes leads to another yes, and that leads to another yes.
So, when we come to making decisions about our lives, or our family's lives, or how we live out our faith in community, do we come back to this central truth and say yes to all that it means again and again?
Then in the reading from Exodus this morning, I believe, we have a wonderful example of folks who don't want to continue in the yes that they previously gave. The behavior we read about this week, is almost a carbon copy of the behavior we heard and saw last week.
The people are again complaining to Moses. Moses in turn complains to God. The people are chaffing under the experience of what saying yes, to following Moses, means for them. Moses is chaffing under what saying yes to leading the people means for him.
God comes through for them, despite their complaining and bitterness, and proves his faithfulness. God proves his yes and provides. He shows that his yes means being faithful and compassionate.
In the reading from Philippians, we see and hear about a radical kind of affirming of the yes given by Jesus. Paul summarises what it meant for Jesus to say yes, and then, to follow through on that yes.
"And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross."
Then Paul goes on to encourage the Philippians to say yes and to continue in that yes:
"Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
I wonder, does anyone else hear the echo from last week, about how it is only with the active participation of the Holy Spirit in our lives that we can achieve what it is that the Lord is asking of us? "....for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
This then leads us to the Gospel from Matthew for this morning.
A couple of notes that I picked up from the commentators for this week. It is important to remember the context of our reading this morning. This encounter, with the chief priests and the temple elders, takes place shortly after the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. Jesus has been hailed as the Messiah by the crowds. So, when the chief priests and the elders question him about his authority they are questioning him about the claims that the people have made about who he actually is.
It also happens shortly after he has cleansed the temple. As he is doing that Jesus proclaims:
“It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of robbers.”
This is another moment when he compares what the Kingdom of God - as he summarized it in the Beatitudes earlier - should be and what the current Jewish society was like.
This brings him into stark conflict with the Chief Priests and the temple elders.
Jesus goes on to illustrate his point, about his authority, with the parable of the two sons. Here we have another example of the verse from Matthew 5, which I raised earlier. "Let your yes be yes." Central to the change in attitude and behavior of the first son is his realization that he needed to repent from his original response. That he needed to go and do what his father asked him to do. He needed to say yes!
When Jesus asks the chief priests and the elders which one of the sons was right in his response they know the answer but are not willing to consider the point of the parable for themselves. Jesus then says that many, whom they consider, to be inferior to them would enter the Kingdom of Heaven before them. The tax collectors and the prostitutes realized their need to repent after hearing John. The chief priests and the temple elders saw that repentance and were still not willing to change.
One point, I believe, it is important to make, is that central to the hesitation of the chief priests and the temple elders is their doubt of who Jesus actually is. A key word at this moment is assurance.
I hope I can illustrate what I mean with what I hope will not become a loose thread in my quilt. At the Healing Service recently I used Proverbs 17: 22 as my text. "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones." I spoke about how a merry heart was not just a superficial or outward appearance. That having a merry heart, a truly merry heart, is based in our assurance of our relationship with the Lord. It is when we are assured of our relationship, secure in our relationship that we can face dire circumstances, we can do what the Lord asks us to do, and we can say yes, with a joy that only comes from the Lord.
When Paul talks about Jesus being willing to do all that he does in Philippians it comes out of Jesus' assurance of his relationship with his father. When his father asks him to go into the fields Jesus does because he is assured of his relationship and his role.
Now, as Episcopalians, we emphasize the assurance we have of our relationship with our Lord in every one of our services. We don't quite do it the way that some of our sisters and brothers in the body of Christ do. But assurance, and our sure knowledge of who we belong to, does make a difference in our lives.
Alan Jackson sang it this way:
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God
Born of his Spirit, washed in His blood
This is my story, this is my song
Praising my Savior all the day long
This is my story, this is my song
Praising my Savior all the day long
I have to admit I haven't quite got to the "Praising my Savior all the day long" part in my life yet, but I am working on it. I do long that in that assurance I would be able to trust that my yes will be yes. That that yes will lead to other times when I will say yes. I pray that is also true for each and every one of you.
Bishops & Father Mike