Sunday, September 28, 2014


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 28, 2014

Year A, Proper 21: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

            If you’ve been in church these past few Sundays, you may remember that we’ve been making our way through the Gospel of Matthew, hearing Jesus teach about how we are called to forgive and forgive again, and hearing Jesus teach about God’s overflowing – and even downright unfair – generosity.
            At the same time, the way Matthew tells the story, Jesus has been journeying to Jerusalem where he knows and we know - and the disciples are starting to know - that he will face rejection, arrest and death.
            Now, in today’s gospel lesson we’ve skipped ahead a bit.
            Jesus is in Jerusalem.
            And his arrival in the capital city has made a quite an impression.
            He was greeted by a parade – a celebration we reenact every Palm Sunday.
            We’re told a large crowd welcomed this unexpected king from Galilee, laying their cloaks on the road and waving palms as he passed, shouting,
            “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
            As if that wasn’t enough, Jesus then goes to the Temple – the center of Jewish religious life – and “drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.”
            Probably more than anything else he did, this bold attack at the religious establishment is what ultimately gets Jesus arrested and killed.
            But, wait, there’s more!
            We’re told that – in the Temple - Jesus heals the blind and the lame.
            And, finally, in a frightening display of power, we’re told that when Jesus finds a fig tree without fruit, he curses the tree saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again!”
            “And the fig tree withered at once.”
            Which brings us to today’s exchange between Jesus and the chief priests and the elders.
            The religious leaders want to know where – or from whom - Jesus is getting the power and authority to do these amazing things.
            Now, to me, this sounds like a legitimate question.
            If someone here at St. Paul’s started performing miracles – as the local religious leader I would want to know what’s going on. Why are you doing these things? Where – or from whom - is your power coming from?
            But, Jesus thinks – or knows – that the religious leaders are insincere in asking these questions.
            So, in response Jesus brings up a sore subject: John the Baptist.
            John is a sore subject because he had been really popular with the people but not so much with the religious establishment. You’ll remember that John had very little use for “holy” men in their long and flowing robes.
            So, Jesus reopens an old wound asking these holy men, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?”
            They are reluctant to give John too much credit but also don’t want the crowd to turn against them in favor of the still-revered John. In the end, the holy men can only answer, “We do not know.”
            And Jesus refuses to answer their question about the source of his authority.
            Instead, Jesus offers a parable about two sons.
            The one son refuses to work, saying “I will not,” but later changes his mind and gets to work.
            The second son tells his father what he wants to hear, “I go, sir,” but then takes the day off.
            Obviously, Jesus is condemning the religious people who say all the right things, who say “I go, sir” but then refuse to do God’s work.
            So, I wonder, who are we in this parable?
            Who are we in this parable?

            One of the sometimes fun, sometimes quite challenging, parts of my job is that people ask me a lot of questions.
            When I was in seminary we were warned to be ready for the “Coffee Hour Question.” You know, you’re chatting away, nibbling on a donut, when somebody sidles up to you and asks a tough and complicated question like, “Why does a good and loving God allow so much suffering in the world?”
            Other people can just shrug and throw up their hands and walk away. But, as religious professionals we are expected to offer some kind of an answer.
            By the way, we don’t have time to talk about that today!
            And sometimes I do get questions like that – and I’m more or less prepared to take a stab at answering them.
            Other times I get questions out of the blue that just make me sad.
            For example, one time out in Madison I was at a meeting of local community leaders who were concerned about substance abuse.  I was the clergy representative.
            Anyway, after this particular meeting a woman approached me sheepishly and said, “Can I ask you a question?
            “Sure,” I said.
            She asked, “Does your church…help people?”
            I was so startled by the question, I stammered a little, “Well, yes, of course…I mean, sure we help people.”
            Later I found out that she had approached other churches and had discovered, at least in this case, that they didn’t – they refused to - help people.
            These churches “talked” but didn’t actually “do”.
            What a question! “Does your church help people?”
            And here’s another one.
            Some of you know that for a year I was the Episcopal chaplain at the University of Florida. One time I answered the phone and heard a very hesitant voice on the other side.
            In fits and starts he began to tell me a little bit of his story. Eventually I understood the main issue was that he was gay and he was a Mormon. I said, something like “OK” and “uh-huh.”
            And then he got to the heart of the matter and asked his question: “So, I guess what I want to know is, would I be welcome at your chapel?”
            Again, I was startled and saddened by the question.
            “Yes, of course!” I said. I’m not sure he really believed me. But, he came to check out one of our services and, in fact, he became a pretty regular member of our little university congregation.
            But, obviously, he asked that question because he had experienced rejection elsewhere. He wanted to know if we were real when we said, “All are welcome.”
            Some churches “talk” but don’t actually “do.”
            So, I wonder again, who are we in today’s parable?
            Are we the church that says we help people but when the time comes we fail to step up?
            Are we the church that says “All are welcome” but actually we aren’t so welcoming to some people – to strangers, to people who seem different, to people we may not like for whatever reason?
            Or are we the church that maybe is at first a little reluctant to help – we’re all busy and stressed out by our lives, after all – but we come through in the end?
            Are we the church that is tempted to just stick with the people we know and like but pushes itself to welcome absolutely everybody?
            We have the flowing robes, the beautiful temple, and all the right words.
            But, who are we in today’s parable?
            People out there, people all around us, are asking questions…