By whose authority? A Sermon for Proper 21A, September 27, 2020

Proper21A

September 27, 2020

“By what authority are you doing these things?”

That’s the question the chief priests and elders asked Jesus in today’s gospel reading. It’s also a question that is very appropriate in our own context as we watch the assaults on democracy in our divided nation and continued protests over the apparent unbridled power of police to kill African Americans with impunity and celebrations for those who attack and kill protestors. 

By what authority? The context for this scripture is absolutely essential to understand what’s going on here. Today’s reading takes place the day after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. He followed that display of royal symbolism by going to the temple and staging a violent demonstration—turning over the tables of the moneychangers and expelling all those who were buying and selling things there. The next day he returns to the temple, and upon his arrival is confronted by the guys in charge. Does any of this sound familiar? Does any of it resonate with you?

“By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you this authority?”

In a similar situation, we might ask, “What right do you have?” 

I don’t think it’s a legitimate question. I think they mean to put Jesus in his place, to remind him where he is, where they are, and where they are standing. It’s coming from a place of privilege and power, and it’s meant to stop the disturbances, to quiet things down, to shut Jesus up.

But he isn’t having any of it. He doesn’t back down. He responds, as he so often does, with a question of his own, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” 

It’s quite a risky thing to ask, from Jesus’ perspective. To put it another way, he might be asking, “Was John the Baptist’s ministry, his preaching of repentance, his baptizing in the wilderness, was all that right, did that come from God, or was it his own personal invention?” A risky question, because John had been executed by Herod. For Jesus is not just asking a question about the source of John’s authority, he is also aligning himself with John’s ministry—aligning himself with a prophet who was executed because he was a truth-teller and challenged Herod, calling him out for his immorality, venality, and corruption. 

The gospels tell us that “all Jerusalem went out to see and listen to John” but we can be certain that the temple authorities were not big fans of his, that they perceived him as a threat to their power and wealth.

Unlike John, he preached against immorality, greed, and corruption from the wilderness, Jesus has brought his message to the heart of Jerusalem, to the very heart of Judaism. By overturning the tables of money-changers, Jesus is bringing John’s message of repentance and God’s coming reign to the temple and to the temple elite.

For us, in this moment, the significance of Jesus’ actions, the significance of this question asked of Jesus, and the question Jesus asks in reply, may seem obvious. We may think it has to do with a conflict between Jesus and Judaism, or more narrowly between Jesus and a religious establishment that refused to acknowledge him as the Messiah. We may want to project it forward into the controversies and division of our own time and see it as a question to be asked of political leaders or police officers with whom we disagree, or to be asked of protesters who have taken to the streets. But I think any of those strategies are inclined to leave us off the hook, to let us avoid the uncomfortable question about Jesus’ authority that is being asked of us, and of exploring the nature and extent of his authority in our lives and in our world.

If we reflect on those questions, we might find ourselves in a position of question our own perspectives, the way we have appealed to Jesus’ authority to support our own arguments and positions. Instead, I wonder if we might learn something from the reading from Philippians.

Have this mind among you that was in Christ Jesus… Paul is addressing life in Christian community, in the first instance he is writing to the small group of Christians in the city of Philippi, urging them to resolve their conflicts, to deepen their relationships with each other. He tells them to imitate Christ and then, in language that soars like poetry and has inspired Christian theology and liturgy for nearly 2000 years, he writes:

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God 
as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, 
being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself 
and became obedient to the point of death– 
even death on a cross. 

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name 
that is above every name, 

so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend, 
in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 

and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord, 
to the glory of God the Father.

While there is much one could say about this, and let’s be honest, it includes language that we might find troubling or problematic, like slavery… I would like only to focus on what I think is Paul’s main point, that Christ emptied himself, did not himself grasp for power or prestige, did not demand his “rights” but emptied himself, becoming human in obedience to God. 

It’s a mystery that is beyond our comprehension, though we have tried to make sense of it for two thousand years—Christ’s love, his humbling himself, his self-giving. I’m not sure it’s something we can actually emulate or imitate, notwithstanding Paul’s admonition. Instead, it stands before us, not as model, but as gift—God’s gift of grace. And if there is a mind that we have in Christ, to see in Christ’s actions a new possibility for our own and for human existence in the world, a possibility of self-giving love, that offers love’s gift to the world. It’s a witness, a way of life that is desperately needed, especially in these dark days. And to circle back to the question that began this homily, to see Jesus’ authority, not in his divinity or his ability to work miracles, but in the self-giving love that brought him to the cross, raised him from the dead, and brings us hope.

Forgiveness and Mercy: A Sermon for Proper 19A, September 13, 2020

Proper19A

September 13, 2020

The familiar words come easily, unthinkingly off our tongues and lips. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive the trespasses of others.” In the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer, it’s “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive the sins of others.” In another widely-known version, it’s “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” 

Earlier in the liturgy, we ask God’s forgiveness more directly, though in most instances, no more consciously, “For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us…”

Forgiveness is one of those concepts that is central to our experience of the Christian faith, and central to our lives as human beings bound up in relationships with other people. It’s also something we may struggle with in our personal lives, as we may struggle with forgiving ourselves for not living up to our ideals or expectations. If we can’t forgive ourselves, or others, we can’t move on; we can’t open ourselves to hope, or to change. 

Forgiveness is hard. We know that. Like Peter, we are prone to wonder whether there are limits beyond which we need not forgive, and whether there are things that can’t be forgiven. There’s the spectacle, or demand, for forgiveness. We see that when grieving family members forgive a murderer. And in prominent, public cases, those rituals of forgiveness often help us avoid or forget the absolute horror of the crime, and the hatred or evil that led to it, as in the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

Forgiveness is hard—but there’s a sense that we may expect others, God, public victims, to forgive quickly and easily, to bring closure, as is said, to move on.

There’s something of an irony that today’s gospel reading comes so close to 9/11, when we remember the events of September 11, 2001. My social media feeds were full of memes and images with the motto “Never Forget.” But we do forget, or want to, what the events of that day unleashed; nineteen years of war now, countless lives lost or irreparably harmed; our nation changed forever by the fear and anger; by militarization, torture and a breakdown of our judicial system.

 In today’s gospel, Peter asks a question that we might understand to be a follow-up to last week’s reading about how to resolve conflict in Christian community. Peter wonders how far the need to forgive goes—do we have to forgive a fellow believer seven times? Seven is a good number with lots of biblical resonances—seven days in the week, for example and we could imagine ourselves asking that question. After all, how often does someone get a second or third or fourth chance in life? Seven times seems quite magnanimous.

Peter is thinking in terms of a calculus of forgiveness, something we often do. Jesus’ response may seem to be in keeping with that calculus, but of course 70 times is on a completely different magnitude.

Continuing, Jesus tells the parable of an indebted slave. And here the calculus breaks down completely. It may be that he has become enslaved because of his debt. His master, the king, demands payment. It’s a stupendously large debt—10000 talents; a talent is roughly 6000 denarii, a denarius, the daily wages of a laborer. So one talent is upwards of 20 years of work. That’s an inconceivable amount, a debt that couldn’t be repaid, but 6000 talents? 

The story continues. The slave pleads with his master. In doing so, he exhibits what we now call magical thinking: “Have patience with me, and I will repay everything.” A debt so large that we can’t imagine how big it is or how it was incurred, and a slave saying, “be patient, I’ll repay it.” But the master relents, having pity for him, and forgave his debt. 

But then the slave, who had been the recipient of such great mercy and forgiveness, sees a slave who owes him 100 denarii, no small sum of course for either of them, and when he can’t repay, throws him in prison. When the first

slave’s master hears what happens, he becomes as angry as he had been merciful, handing the slave over to be tortured until he could repay—which of course means that he would be tortured for the rest of his life. Jesus, or Matthew, concludes, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

It’s so easy to draw a line back from the reference to “my heavenly Father” to the king in the parable to conclude that if we don’t forgive from our hearts, we will burn in hell for eternity. But I’m not sure that interpretation is particularly helpful for us. Let’s pause for a minute and reflect on the first slave’s experience. He begged forgiveness for an unimaginably large debt and received forgiveness and mercy equal to that debt. What might that feel like? In the realm of economics, when we hear about the 100000s of thousands of dollars in debt that students rack up in pursuit of college or professional degrees, and the likelihood that much of that debt can never be repaid, what might it be like to suddenly have that debt forgiven?

Or medical debt… Have you heard about the churches that are buying medical debt for pennies on the dollar and freeing people from the money they owe hospitals? Debt incurred through no fault of your own

To be free of that debt, after having lived under its burden for years or decades, what might that feel like? 

Wouldn’t you want simply to enjoy the freedom of forgiveness? And perhaps be able to share that feeling of freedom with others, at no or little cost to yourself? 

We are forgiven. God’s grace and mercy extend beyond our capacity to imagine or calculate. Many of us have experienced that forgiveness; many of us have had our lives transformed by that forgiveness. To extend that to others, to offer that freedom and joy to people weighed down with the burdens of sin and debt, and like God, to ask nothing in return.

In a few minutes, when I say the words of institution over the elements, as I raise the cup, I will say, “This is my blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Jesus said those words to his disciples on the night that he would be betrayed, abandoned, and denied by them. He said those words, knowing what would happen, what they would do. He says them to us, knowing that we will fall short, that we will sin, that we will fail to love God and our neighbor adequately, when we don’t forgive our neighbor, our loved one, or our friend. But those words remind us that God never fails, that God is present, loving, forgiving, inviting us to receive mercy, and to extend mercy to others.