17 Pentecost A—9/27/20
Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Pr. Scott Kramer
The religious “influencers” were outraged. Jesus had just disrupted the business of the church—or, the temple in this case—by turning upside down the tables of the moneychangers, and so they confront him: By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? Just who do you think you are, Jesus of Nazareth?
Well, in the eyes of the religious power brokers, Jesus was a nobody. And yet, this “nobody” understood a lot that they didn’t. For example, that following the rules doesn’t save us. Following traditions doesn’t save us. Going to church every Sunday doesn’t save us. Being good, sincere, well-intentioned, hard-working…doesn’t save us.
What is it then that saves us? Well, we’re inclined to forget that it’s not about us. It’s God alone and the power of the Holy Spirit that saves us—from fear, despair. From ourselves. Recognizing the authority of God alone results in changed hearts and changed minds. The Bible calls it repentance, turning in a new direction.
But transformed hearts and minds are a big ask for those of us who see no reason to change. Like those religious “influencers” who confronted Jesus, we can easily see the need for others to change. But “tax collectors and prostitutes will enter into the ‘kin-dom’ of God before you,” Jesus says, “because you did not change your minds.”
Changed minds. St. Paul, in his love letter to the Philippian church, puts it this way: “5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”: having the same mind…as Christ; having the same love…as Christ; being in full accord and of one mind…as Christ. And if that’s not clear enough, Paul says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others…obedient, even to death.”
But human nature and human sin weave a tangled web, and those of us especially who enjoy privilege in our society—those of us who are white, those of us who are male especially– frankly, are unlikely to release that privilege–to “empty ourselves,” as Paul puts it. Like those religious leaders in today’s gospel, we cherish our privilege and will invent the most elaborate justifications for hanging onto that privilege. Even religious justification.
I just finished a powerful book called “Reconstructing the Gospel.” The subtitle is more pointed: “Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion.” The author distinguishes between Christian faith and American religion, which he calls “slaveholder religion.” He grew up in a conservative Christian household but eventually realized that the faith he’d been raised to embrace did not embody the mind of Christ. Instead, it was little more than a religious spin on his culture’s racist, white supremacist values. The same faith that he describes has embedded itself in the beliefs not just of American evangelicals but Catholics and Presbyterians and Episcopalians…and Lutherans. The author’s story is a personal story of repentance: a changed heart, a changed mind, a changed direction.
Here is someone who has taken to heart the question the religious influencers asked in Matthew’s story. You see, it’s not that they got the question wrong. They got the question exactly right! “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you that authority?” It’s a great question for each of us! At our best, we would be asking this of ourselves every minute of every day.
By what authority do we believe the things we believe and do the things we do each day? In this election season, how would you answer that question? Who do you support and by what authority do you make your decision? What issues do you support and by what authority do you make your decision?
Dear friends, who is the ultimate authority of your life? This election season is a good test. There are many “authorities” vying for our attention! It’s not the stories we like to tell ourselves but how we choose that tells the tale. If your ultimate authority is Fox News—or any news—that will determine how you choose. If it’s patriotism and national identity, that’s how you will choose. If it’s the Constitution and human laws, that is how you will choose. (An article in today’s paper begins with a quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: “It’s important for us to remember that everything Adolf Hitler did was legal.”) If it’s a political party, cherished traditions, economic self-interest, personal opinion or fear that’s your ultimate authority, that is how you will choose.
For those whose authority is the mind of Christ, is this year’s presidential election really a difficult choice? We don’t expect or even need saints in high office. What we’re looking for is one who best embodies the mind of Christ. Our choice this election cycle is: One candidate whose entire life has been devoted to self-interest (St. Paul teaches in today’s reading: “do nothing from self-interest”) and whose guiding authority is only himself (again, in today’s reading: “think of others as better than yourselves”); the other candidate, whatever his faults, is one whose overall lifetime record is one of service to the common good, including society’s despised and rejected.
Those of us who choose the mind of Christ as our ultimate authority need to do a much better job of proclaiming and publicly embodying what that means! Being the Body of Christ often means looking beyond the loudest religious voices in our time to anyone whose life priorities reflect the mind of Christ.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example, was not a Christian. She was not even a practicing Jew. But being deeply religious is not necessarily evidence of a changed heart, a changed mind, and a changed direction. (In fact, it could signal a cold heart and a rigid mind.) Consistent with the life of Jesus, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life was devoted to the rights of women and others with less power who have been denied justice in our land. In this way her life was affirmation of St. Paul’s invitation to the Philippians: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Who is our final authority? It is God who judges, as the prophet Ezekiel declares in today’s reading: I will judge you…all of you according to your ways (not your words), says the Lord God. Repent and turn…Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!…Turn, then, and live.
The word of God likewise is before us each day, asking the same question as the religious influencers asked Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things?”
We worship a God who longs to be the ultimate authority of our lives, not for the sake of power and control, not for the sake of vanity and ego, but for the sake of replacing our fear, confusion and selfishness with the gifts of the Spirit: among them peace, hope, joy, and love.
By what authority do you do these things, and who gave you that authority? What does it mean to have the mind of Christ? Jesus didn’t fall into the trap set for him by the religious influencers of his day. He didn’t answer their question with words. He answered the same way each of us does: with a lifetime of choices that proclaim to God and the world by what authority we act, and who gave us this authority. May the power of the Holy Spirit through God’s amazing grace continue to lead us to repentance: to change our minds, to transform our hearts, and our lives!