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This sermon was originally preached on October 1, 2023 at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Hopkins, MN. The livestreams of contemporary and traditional services may be viewed here and here.
Gospel Text: Matthew 21:23-35
Good morning, beloved of God.
Since this is my first week preaching here at Gethsemane and just my second week as your pastor, I thought I might give you a little background about who I am and how I walk in this world, and the things that trouble and move me as a queer bisexual woman and pastor who whose faith has shifted in some truly monumental ways over the last six years, to such an extent that I still follow Jesus, albeit in a different -- I say resurrected -- way.
Firstly, I’m a bit of a bleeding heart rebel and always have been. From the time I was a kindergartner evangelizing to my teachers about Jesus and heaven, to my advocacy within my north Minneapolis community for my marginalized neighbors, what concerns me most is never “am I following the rules” but “who wrote the rules and who do they help and harm?” In other words, I have always been willing and ready to question authority, and I expect that wherever I might have or be given authority, including here, I will also BE questioned and held accountable to acting as if I believe what I say.
As you can probably imagine, this sometimes gets me into trouble, when I, a woman, speak my truth and preach the gospel from the intersection of queer bisexuality, when there are people around me people who really want me to be less, or smaller, or nothing at all. But I really don’t mind good trouble.
Secondly, I will always come to you with the swirl of thoughts & imaginings sparked when I encounter Scripture, because permitting myself to go deep into what my mentor Pastor Babette Chatman calls my “Holy Imagination” is how I meet Jesus all these two thousand years after his death, resurrection, and ascension. And my hope is always that what I share will spur your imaginations and curiosities, or at least that different read on the text will.
With that in mind, I want to share a bumper sticker thought I came across this week that stayed in my imaginative swirl as I studied for this sermon.
It said this: “The world is changed by your example, not your opinion.”
Remember these words as we look at Matthew 21:23-35, when Jesus’s authority is questioned and Jesus responds with three parables that animate His upside down, last-will-be-first, toppled Kin-dom. It’s a long and troubled interaction between Jesus and the religious elite that continues through chapter 25. And it begins the day after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem; his cleansing of the temple, which was meant to be a house of prayer for all, but had instead become a haven for robbers and social club for elites; and it immediately follows his cursing of the fig tree. So after all of that, he enters the temple and begins to teach his growing gathering of followers, but is quickly and loudly confronted by those “with authority” who wanted to know, really, “How dare he?” What gave him the right to heal the blind, to flip tables, to teach in this place -- THEIR place? By what authority does he dare?”
A quick side note: This question - “By what authority” do you act -- IMPLIES an important tag: “By what authority greater than ours.”
But Jesus is tired, alright, and he sees right through them. He’s been going non-stop, teaching, healing, and just being with people on his way into Jerusalem, where he already knows and has thrice warned his disciples, he will be murdered. And he still has so much to do and so much to teach before he goes to the cross. And all along the way he is harangued by the religious elites who condescend to him with every breath, even while jealous of and threatened by his sway among the throngs. How dare he teach with an authority that challenges theirs?
So when they come at him like this, he just doesn’t have the time for their traps. So he turns them around to uncover their own duplicity: They are not willing to acknowledge John’s -- and therefore Jesus’s -- authority as coming from heaven, but neither are they willing to be humiliated in front of the crowd of people who DO believe in John and Jesus. “Thus,” writes Professor Ira Brent Driggers, “what begins as an attack on Jesus quickly becomes an exercise in damage control.” They’ve been “trapped in their own self-interest,” and so “can only feign ignorance: saying “We do not know.” They save face and Jesus avoids having to play the game of aiming for the moving target of proving his authority to people who will never, ever believe in the possibility of anyone’s authority or call except their own.
Going back to that earlier quote? These leaders experienced Jesus’s re-casting of truths that had long been settled as disrespect for their authority, and so they responded with disrespect for his personhood.
What I appreciate about Jesus here is that he’s just not worried about it. He knows who he is and why he’s here, he is not threatened or troubled by those who challenge him, so he is not about their games. He doesn’t have -- no, he doesn’t make -- time for debates with those who will never be willing to hear him. Those who recognize his authority will believe; those who don’t, won’t.
So It is a wonderful lesson for all of us who’ve been sidelined, quieted, and marginalized because of who we are or what we believe: Jesus here gives us divine permission not to make it a Thing -- needing to prove ourselves to others.
But for the sake of others who are willing to listen and learn and maybe open their minds, Jesus goes on, telling The Parable of the Two Sons: The first is asked to work in the father’s vineyard and says “No, I won’t.” But he grows, changes, opens himself, and ends up doing the work. The second is asked and says, “Yes, I definitely will,” but doesn’t. And having Jesus asked “which of these sons did his father’s will,” the answer for which is obvious, he explains in plan terms that those most-reviled and least-expected within this very learning community were the ones who actually DID the work of building God’s Kindom; whereas those who should be expected to do God’s will -- the religious elite who know all the right answers and are so skilled at laying traps -- are really only interested in hearing themselves talk, and stubbornly so: They would rather feign ignorance to preserve their reputation and power, rather than demonstrate a willingness to question and be questioned for the sake of personal and collective transformation.
Do you get what Jesus is trying to tell us here?
It’s that bumper sticker I mentioned at the start--
The world is changed by our example, not our opinions.
We, as a community, are transforming and resurrecting not by standing proud & unmoved in stagnant, old water; but by learning, adapting, and responding to the changing needs around us, as part of the moving and constantly changing rivers of God’s Love and this world.
It does no one any good to hold fast to old, tired ideas that no longer serve us, even if at one time we thought and taught and believed those ideas were rooted in Scripture.
For centuries, the Christian church taught that the buying and selling of enslaved Black people trafficked to this land from Africa was not only endorsed in Scripture but commended by God, “for the salvation of the enslaved one’s soul.”
For centuries, the Christian church used the bible to defend the genocide, removal, displacement, and re-education of Indigenous people, and the distribution of their lands to authoritative white men.
Even today, much of the church -- including the ones I was raised in -- teach that women cannot preach because the Apostle Paul said we were created to birth children and serve our husbands in the home.
And while many congregations and denominations, including the ELCA, transformed into communities that affirm the call and authority of God upon women like me, too many of us still use a handful of poorly-translated and badly-interpreted bible verses to declare that homosexuality is a grave sin, and that those of us within the LGBTQIA+ community cannot do the will of God solely because of who we are at the core of our being.
My point is that however far we may have already come, there is always more to learn, there are always ways to grow, and there are always, always othered and excluded people who deserve respect and our enthusiastic welcome.
So the challenge of today’s gospel is for all of us: Who are we to question the call of God in anyone else, or stifle God’s image in their divinely made bodies, whether Black, white, Indigenous, Asian; whether male or female, trans or genderqueer; whether rich or poor, disabled or neurodivergent? However and wherever people show up, we are called to honor God in them and create space and welcome for them to teach us who God is and show us what God looks like. Their existence alone is proof enough that God is with them, and we, dear siblings, have no authority to undermine God.
In the same way, the great and glorious gift Jesus offers all of us in today’s gospel is that none of those tax collectors or prostitutes or otherwise excluded and condemned people had to prove that God called them to work in God’s vineyard; they just did the work.
Neither then, do you or I, beloved, have to answer to anyone who questions our belonging. We don’t have to prove to anyone that God has called us to God’s vineyard to do God’s sacred work. We can do the work of planting seeds of hope and liberation for everyone in this house of prayer, and in the house of prayer that is all of creation, because God has called us, and no one can stop us.
Oh God, grow your Kin-dom by the open hands and hearts of all your workers here, Amen.
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