First Congregational Church
September 28, 2014
16th Sunday after Pentecost, Baptism Sunday
“Authority, Relevancy, Grace, Oh My!”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Apparently it is true that two battleships were training, doing maneuvers in heavy weather for several days. The visibility was poor, so the captain of one of the ships remained on deck to keep an eye on all the proceedings.
Shortly after dark, the lookout on the wing reported, "Light, bearing on the starboard bow."
"Is it steady or moving astern?" the captain called out.
The lookout replied, "Steady, Captain," which meant the ship was on a dangerous collision course with the other ship.
The captain then called to the signalman, "Signal that ship this message: 'We are on a collision course, advise you change course twenty degrees.'"
The signal came back, "Advisable for you to change course twenty degrees."
The captain said, “Send this message: "I'm a captain, change course twenty degrees.'" "I'm a seaman second-class," came the reply. "You had better change course twenty degrees."
By that time the captain was furious. He spat out, “Send the message: 'I'm a battleship. Change course twenty degrees.'"
Back came the response, "I'm a lighthouse."
Our scripture passage for this morning has potential for several different lessons, including that of authority. Just before this passage, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus went from that cheering crowd to the temple, where he drove out the money changers, healed some blind and lame folks, and managed to get himself more under the saddle of the chief priests and teachers than ever before. In frustration or weariness or agitation or whatever, Jesus curses a fig tree for not having fruit. In the Hebrew tradition, a cursed fig tree symbolized judgment on the people of Israel. (Apparently there wasn’t a lack of barren fig trees back in the day.) In that situation, the curse seemed to be directed more at the leaders of the temple than the population at large.
23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. 30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
Thank you, Josie. I came across an old Jewish witticism in which someone asks his rabbi, "Why do rabbis always answer a question with another question?" to which the rabbi replied, "Why shouldn't a rabbi answer a question with another question?” They say that in politics, one should never ask a question unless you know the answer. It almost lends credence to the popular idea - back then - of Jesus becoming a new political ruler.
At one level, it appears that Jesus is merely being a little arrogant. On another level, maybe Jesus is simply recognizing that there is very little sense in talking to people who are so close-minded. Maybe they weren’t really seeking information. Maybe their minds were made up about Jesus long before they asked their questions. If that is true, then was Jesus equally guilty of stereotyping - in his non-answer? Even though they are conjectures, there is a question we can ask ourselves. Is there something about which I being close-minded? The follow-up to that question would then be, ‘do I need to do something about that?’
For the gospel writer, Matthew, authority was a big deal. That’s why he began the whole book with Jesus’ genealogy - going all the way back to the father of the Hebrew people, Abraham. That theme runs all the way through Matthew, right up to the penultimate verse, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (28:18-19). The bottom line of this authority issue is that the teachers and chief priests got their authority as it had been handed down from Abraham. Jesus got his authority straight from God.
One contemporary question for us is, ‘what difference does it make to us - Jesus’ authority?’ What does his authority - as it comes from God - mean for us? Perhaps if nothing else, his authority allows us to trust that his name is above every other name, anywhere, any time, so that praying in Christ’s name is not just a nice way to end a prayer, but invokes God’s greatest power.
On the surface, the parable portion of our passage poses a possible follow-up to the idea of evaluating our motives, and it would be easy to get caught up in the rightness and wrongness of the first or second son. It seems that Jesus even leads us down that path.
But if we focus only on the brothers, we miss the core of God; God’s grace - and that which underlies the second part of today’s passage. All throughout the Bible, including the New Testament, chosen Israel is often compared to a vineyard. In this parable, Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary, suspects that when we hear the father asking his sons about working in the vineyard, it is the equivalent of asking people to do good work among the people of Israel, whoever they were.
Mr. Hoezee also suggested that, “What Jesus confirmed what his cousin, John, said, is that it is precisely the people who constitute the vineyard - the tax collectors and prostitutes - those deemed to be “other” than privileged - it is in their midst that we find amazing, holy work. We sometimes forget that this very gathering, in this very community, in this very county, this is the holy vineyard to which God calls us.
Vineyard work is sometimes dirty, sometimes hot, sometimes unrewarding, often times repetitive. We can find a million reasons to delay working in the vineyard, with every good intention to spend our precious time visiting those who need visiting, serving those who need to be served.
If we ignore or postpone working in the vineyard, we essentially write off those opportunities in which we could experience incredible holy moments. It’s the equivalent of telling God we will work in God’s vineyard but then never doing it. And in the end, not only do we risk disappointing God, we disappoint ourselves and all that we are able and capable of doing. Lest we miss our opportunities for holy moments and God’s grace, let us pray.
God, we are well-aware that it is our actions, not as much our words, that confirm the authority you have given us - through Christ - to do great things for your kingdom. Help us to be cognizant of those sacred moments in your vineyard, and that we not delay what you have need of us to do. Help us to remember that we are all your children, and that as followers in the way of your Son, we all have an important part of revealing your kingdom. For all your moments of sacred and holy grace, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.