Proper 21a, October 1, 2017

October 2, 2017

Powerful Questions

Matthew 21:23-32


23 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?” 24 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. 25 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?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 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. 28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 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. 32 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.


Dr. Charles Campbell is a professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School – which means he tries to teach people how to preach. And that’s got to be one of the hardest jobs there is. I don’t know how you train a person to speak for 12 to 20 minutes in a way that’s creative, inspirational, relevant, insightful, wise, witty, and true to the Biblical text. I wish someone could have trained me to be all of those things. Actually I wish I had given them the chance to train me to be those things. I hardly took any classes in preaching when I was in seminary. I’m not sure what I thought I would be doing when I became a preacher, but it turns out that preachers do a lot of preaching.


But I came across something Charles Campbell wrote as I was working on my sermon earlier this week, and it made me think he’s the kind of professor I would have enjoyed having. He mentioned that while he was channel-surfing one day – I don’t know if that’s something he recommends to his students to do in order to get sermon ideas or not, but while he was channel-surfing he came across someone who was interviewing the celebrity psychologist, Dr. Phil. And he heard Dr. Phil say something that got his attention.


Dr. Phil usually does the interviewing, but as I say, on this occasion Dr. Phil was being interviewed, and when Dr. Phil was asked who he would like to interview if he could interview anyone from any period of time he immediately responded by saying he would like to interview Jesus Christ. He said he would like to have a conversation with Jesus about the meaning of life.


Charles Campbell said that when he heard Dr. Phil’s answer he immediately thought to himself how badly it would go if Dr. Phil tried to interview Jesus. It’s not that Dr. Phil isn’t a skilled interviewer, he would probably do as well as anyone, but it just never went well for people who tried to extract information from Jesus. Jesus would probably not have given Dr. Phil the interview of his dreams. It’s far more likely that such a conversation would turn in to a nightmare.


Children could probably have asked Jesus questions without being frightened by his response, but the adults who questioned him usually found themselves in some kind of a bind. Of course, the people who shot questions at him were usually out to do him in. They were often trying to get him to say something that would either get him stoned to death by a crowd or arrested by the police, but that’s not what generally happened. Such interrogators usually found themselves running for theological cover.


But even those who weren’t out to get him were often troubled by his response to their inquiries. I’m thinking of the well-meaning and affluent young man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him he should go sell everything and follow him – which is not what he was hoping to hear. Maybe Dr. Phil could do what no-one else ever did, which was to leave a conversation with Jesus without having their world turned upside down, but I’m with Dr. Campbell on this – I don’t think that would be a real career-boosting move for Dr. Phil to interview Jesus.


Of course it’s not always a bad thing to have a painful experience that provides you with greater understanding. I remember the day I learned about the power of fire. I think I was probably 5 or 6 years old when I climbed up on the kitchen counter to get the box of matches that I had seen my parents use every now and then. Those matches were so interesting to me. I struck one of them and held it to the curtains on the kitchen door. I didn’t think anything had happened until after I had put the box back up and turned around to see a large flame growing. Luckily my keeper was in the house and came quickly when I screamed. She got the flame put out, but not without some tragedy. We had a parakeet in a cage nearby, and apparently the bird was going nuts. She opened the cage and the bird flew in to the wall and died.


It was a terrible and memorable event for me. That may be my earliest memory. That was a very educational experience for me. An educational experience – that’s what you call an idiotic act a couple of years later when it’s safe to bring it up.


I don’t know if the chief priests and elders were ever able to recognize this encounter with Jesus as being an educational experience, but they certainly underestimated their adversary, and what they exposed was not what they wanted people to see.


I’m guessing these chief priests and elders were accustomed to being in the role of Dr. Phil – they were the ones who liked to put people on the spot and make them answer uncomfortable questions. They were hoping to expose Jesus as being someone who was totally out of bounds, and I can understand where they were coming from. This conversation happened the day after Jesus had gone in to the temple and totally disrupted the religious marketplace. When they asked Jesus who gave him the authority to do those things, the things they were talking about included turning over the tables of the money changers, freeing the unblemished animals that were for sale, and driving the sales staff out with a whip. Those things Jesus did had not gone over well with the temple authorities, and they wanted to know who gave him the authority to do such things.


They thought their question would get him to say something blasphemous or incriminating, but it blew up on them. His question to them about the authority of John the Baptist put them in an exceedingly awkward position, and their hesitation to answer him revealed them to be the ones who were operating with false authority. He exposed them to be like the son who said he would go in to the field but didn’t. He declared them to be less righteous than those who were generally considered to be the least righteous people in the community, and it was believable.


You’re probably familiar with that wise old saying: It’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. I don’t always let this wisdom guide my mouth, but I know there’s some truth to it, and it’s not that hard for me to keep my ignorance to myself. I have learned to be careful. I think I would have known not to challenge Jesus. I’m not like Dr. Phil – I’m careful about who I choose to challenge.


I’ve got a friend who finds it really hard not share his opinion about whatever is going on in the world or at work. He used to be real clear about what he thought about everything on Facebook, but the reactions he got sort of soured him on the practice. I sort of admired him for his honesty and openness, but it got to him. He and I were talking about this not long ago, and I told him how inclined I am to keep a low Facebook profile. It’s easy for me to be careful in that way.


Being careful has it’s benefits, but it’s got it’s downside. Careful people don’t generally provoke powerful adversaries, but it’s the people who aren’t so careful that make things happen. We don’t have any stories in the gospels about the careful people who kept their distance from Jesus. Careful people didn’t get close enough to him to be questioned or challenged, and in so doing they avoided having the most profound educational experience you could possibly have. It might have been painful life lessons, but Jesus needed misguided people to engage with him in order for us to see some truth exposed.


When I read this morning’s passage I find myself being grateful that there were these people who were so blinded by their self-serving allegiance to their religious institution that they thought they could expose the spiritual weakness of Jesus. I’m so happy that they did this for us. What I see in this passage is the value of any kind of encounter with Jesus, and how important it is to become engaged with who he was and to hear what he had to say.


It’s not good to avoid those educational experiences that happen when you engage with the unknown. It’s important to step in to situations that are out of our control and disruptive to our comfortable patterns of behavior. It’s in those situation that we can learn the most about ourselves and become more fully alive. Jesus didn’t challenge people because he enjoyed giving people a hard time (he may have, but that’s not why he did it). Jesus challenged people because he wanted them to discover true life. Jesus didn’t call for repentance because he was a religious brute who wanted to exercise his godly authority. Jesus wanted people to leave their old lives behind in order to live better lives.


The religious executives could understand why the tax collectors and prostitutes needed to let go of their old lives, but they couldn’t see their own form of unrighteousness. The only thing they could see was the need to get rid of the man who didn’t respect their authority. I don’t know if any of them were able to see what Jesus actually revealed. We don’t know if any of them learned the right thing from this educational experience, but I think I know what Jesus always wants us to see.


Jesus wants us to see the truth about God and about ourselves. He wants us to know how well we are loved by God and how we can be the bearers of that love. But he also wants us to know of the ways in which we fail to connect our professed love for God with love for our neighbors. He wants us to see who it is we are serving, and who we may be hurting. What illusions are we promoting and what truths are we denying?


Honestly, I think Dr. Phil had a good answer when he was asked who he would like to interview. I’m guessing that’s not an interview he would be able to control, but that’s an interview we all need to have. We need to be in touch with the one who sees us for who we are and who loves us enough to ask us those perfectly unsettling questions.


We aren’t just called to live careful lives – we are called to be faithful. We’re going to make mistakes, but I think we all know that we learn the most from the things we do wrong. We aren’t to be reckless, but the most spiritually deadening thing may be to remain in our most comfortable places.


It’s not an easy thing to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, but the life lessons that he offers will last a lifetime and beyond.


Thanks be to God! Amen.




One Response to “Proper 21a, October 1, 2017”

  1. Jack Williams Says:

    Good sermon.

    Sent from my iPhone


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