Archive for October, 2017

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2017 by timtrue


Matthew 22:34-46


Just yesterday—or was it the day before?—Jesus turned the literal tables over in the Temple courts.

Which led to challenges from the Temple leaders about authority: Tell us, they demanded, by what and whose authority are you doing these things?

Which led to a series of parables from Jesus about what the kingdom of God is like: a vineyard planted by a landowner, he said, or a wedding banquet given by a king; tax collectors and prostitutes will enter it ahead of the religious leaders.

Which in turn led to a series of three debates: about taxes; about the resurrection; about the law of God.

Don’t make too much of politics, Jesus says; Caesar is neither Satan nor God.

God is not the God of the dead, he states; but of the living.

It’s not about the law, he declares; but love.

And, by the way, since I have your attention, why does David call his own descendant Lord?

And with this question he turns over another table—a mental table this time.

Since entering Jerusalem, Jesus has faced continuous opposition. Through it all—in his metaphors, parables, and debates—he brilliantly has overturned tables literal and figurative!

But here, with this third debate—did you catch it?—the verbal opposition comes to an abrupt halt. The last verse from today’s passage says, “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”

In terms of drama, here the scene ends. In the next scene Jesus will spend some exclusive time with his disciples before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. The conspiracy against him will continue to develop; but quietly now, secretly, in the shadows, in whispered arguments in dark corridors; and it will become greedy, self-serving, treacherous. Here, now, the house lights have dimmed; the stage hands are rearranging the props.

Obviously, with this abrupt halt in the Passion play, Jesus has made his point. Obviously, after Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with love, he has turned another table on his opponents, a final table, with this stuff about David and the Messiah. Obviously!

He’s brilliant. He’s dialectically and rhetorically unstoppable. And thus no one will dare to attempt to trap him verbally again!

But—wait a minute!—I don’t know about you but I’m confused.

It may have been obvious to them, in Jesus’ day; but not to me! Just what in the world was it? What table did Jesus just overturn here? What point did Jesus just make, exactly, to put such a decisive end to the debates?

He pointed out to them that the greatest commandment is love; but then he turned their attention to the Messiah being both David’s son and David’s Lord.

I get the part about David’s son: the Messiah is some kind of king. Also, I get the part about David’s Lord: the Messiah’s kingship will far surpass David’s in some spiritual way. But how is this stuff about David and the Messiah connected to love? To channel Tina Turner, what’s love got to do with it?


This is a riddle, for sure. Nevertheless, today’s Gospel confronts us with it. Shouldn’t we therefore try to figure it out? Here’s my take:

Jesus was demanding a change in perspective.

Now, let me explain.

The religious leaders’ established perspective was of God as supreme King.

To be sure, many scriptural metaphors liken God to a king.

As a mighty king, God delivered Moses and the people of Israel from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh. God is called king throughout the psalms. King David is called a man after God’s own heart. Even Jesus sometimes uses a king in his own parables: A king decided to throw a wedding banquet; and so on.

But there are other divine metaphors throughout the scriptures too, many and manifold, which liken God to other things: a father, a mother giving birth, a lover, a friend, fire, light, wind; and the list goes on.

God is like that. God is unexplainable, like a benevolent king who puts a stop to injustice and oppression; yet also like a lover, intimate and personal.

We try to explain; but, really, how can words convey God at all?

Now, it is a wonderful thing when a benevolent king exercises justice on behalf of his people.

But, to carry out this metaphor a little farther, a king is mostly removed from his subjects:

  • He has his palace up and away from the common people
  • He is largely aloof, detached from the experiences of daily peasant life
  • He must establish and maintain order over his subjects, order that comes through rules, regulations, and taxes
  • He must make judgments when laws are not kept
  • (And, for what it’s worth, he is male)

The trouble comes when people view God through one lens at the exclusion of others.

When people view God only as supreme King, God becomes mostly removed from them, up and away in his palace in heaven, aloof, away from the day-to-day experiences of his people. God is understood to establish order over his people through rules, regulations, and taxes—aka obligatory tithes. When his people sin against him, God presides as judge over them.

And now, the original metaphor—all that stuff about benevolence; or putting an end to injustice and oppression—has been largely forgotten.

Moreover, when the people viewing God through this lens happen to be leaders, as were Jesus’ opponents, they act accordingly, appointing themselves as spiritual kings over their “subjects.”

But the kingdom of heaven, Jesus teaches, is like a wedding banquet. It’s a king who is the host, sure; but he is there in the midst of the festivities, mingling with the guests, sharing, laughing, and dining with them; even with tax collectors and prostitutes!

Jesus is confronting his opponents with their need to change perspective.

Jesus’ opponents viewed God as king; but Jesus told them not to make too much of politics.

Jesus’ opponents viewed God as ruling from on high, far away and largely separate from the lives of his people; but God is God of the living, Jesus said, dwelling with and among the people as they dwell with God.

Jesus’ opponents viewed God as maintaining order by the rules and regulations of the Torah; but the greatest commandment is love, Jesus declared.

The Messiah, David’s Lord, will not rule and reign as David’s son—he will not rule as supreme King, far off in his high palace, removed from the daily experiences of his peasant subjects.

Rather, God is love. God is relationship. Like a friend and lover, God dwells among us and in each of us.

God is upending the hierarchical, dominating systems of the world that breed injustice, fear, and judgment—systems political, social, and religious.

It seems to me, then, that in all his confrontations with the Jewish religious leaders since entering Jerusalem a few days ago, Jesus is proclaiming a largely forgotten yet very real side of God. It’s not the side they’ve all been looking at for so many centuries; not the side from which they’ve inferred hierarchy, fear, judgment, rules, and regulations—but the other side, the overturned side, the side that reveals God as friend and lover.

Thus: Jesus was demanding a change in perspective.

But this change was so radical that it would upend his opponents’ entire system of spiritual domination and control. It was a threat to their established religion. He was a threat to them. As far as they were concerned, the debating—not to mention his life—had to come to an abrupt and decisive end.

The curtain drops; the lights dim; the scene ends.


Now, I don’t know about you, but all this makes me a little uncomfortable. For, doesn’t the modern Christian church, by and large, continue to view God as king rather than as friend and lover?

To view God as king is to view him (male image) as a distant, powerful being; who spoke and thereby brought the sun, moon, stars, planets, trees, plants, animals, and us humans into existence. He continues to operate in our world, but aloof, as sovereign judge from his throne far away in heaven.

This view makes sin and guilt focal points of our faith.

Theological concepts like repentance, redemption, liberation, and salvation are all defined by sin: sin is what we repent from; it’s what we are redeemed, liberated, and saved from. Yet none of us is able to meet the requirements of God’s law; none of us measures up—yielding no small amount of guilt.

And so we who are the church end up acting like the God we image. Far too often we appoint ourselves as judges over the world around us, keeping track of broken moral laws, feeling guilty and ashamed ourselves.

That’s the message the world has heard anyway; and it’s an old, tired message.

But God is a friend; and does a real friend make rules and regulations to be obeyed or else? But God is a lover; and does an ideal lover want his beloved to feel guilty?

Think about just how radical this turning of the tables is! Jesus is telling us today that God is not all about law and record-keeping and sin and judgment. Rather, God is love.

What does this perspective do to sin?

It’s still there, sure: sin is part and parcel of the human condition. But it is no longer an all-encompassing, guilt-inducing focal point of our faith. It no longer defines and constrains concepts like repentance, redemption, liberation, and salvation.

No longer do we stand condemned, as if stuck in a jail cell awaiting a judge’s sentence. Instead, we are merely estranged from the lover who seeks to win us back, who knows us personally, and who cares for us intimately.

God is our friend and lover.

This is the message Jesus proclaimed to the world so long ago;

This is the message which confronted the religious establishment;

And this is the message we are called to proclaim today.


Crude as Cold, Hard Cash

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2017 by timtrue


Matthew 22:15-22


I once knew a man who felt strongly that it was his constitutional right to avoid paying taxes intentionally. Let’s call him Greg.

Greg was one of these guys who, commendably, studied his Bible all the time. Whenever any sort of question about life came up—what to do on weekends, how to divide up family chores, even what kind of car he ought to buy—he consulted his Bible, searching for some kind of answer or at least guidance.

Somewhere along the way he determined from his personal study of the Bible that federal and local governments extend their authority far more than they should.

The government’s purpose, Greg reasoned, is to protect its citizenship; so for a government to provide military, police, and fire departments, for instance, is its bounden duty.

But to offer services and agencies to look out for the welfare of its citizenship—for Greg this was an absolute no-no. Public schools are out, he reasoned; anyone using them, in Greg’s mind, commits grievous sin. And, of course, all of welfare’s variations—like Fannie Mae, Medicare, and Social Security—simply cannot be an option for Christians.

One of our country’s chief founding principles is separation of church and state. As a consequence, Greg felt deeply that the church, not the state, should establish and maintain all organizations concerned with the well-being and welfare of its members.

And so Greg’s logic led him to the conviction that he, and every US citizen, therefore possessed the constitutional right not to pay taxes.

He refused to get social security numbers for his kids. He ran a business completely “under the table,” paying his (always temporary) workers in kind. And while he was off conducting business during the day, his wife homeschooled the kids.

For Greg, to avoid paying taxes was to exercise his freedom of religion. Not sure the IRS would see it this way, but there it is.


Anyway, I tell you about Greg because he sounds a bit like the Pharisees of today’s Gospel.

They come to Jesus with their minds already made up, with cold, hard cash in hand, in order to trap Jesus.

The coin they hold, a denarius, has an image of Tiberius Caesar on it; as well as an inscription, which reads, “Tiberius Caesar, august and divine son of Augustus, high priest.”

Good Jews find this coin simultaneously oppressive and blasphemous: oppressive because it reminds them that they are subject to an ungodly people, the Romans; and blasphemous because of its graven image and supremely arrogant message.

This highly offensive currency—whose minting and circulation is an ongoing violation of the first two commandments!—is required for the tax to the Romans: no other currency is acceptable.

So, what would Jesus do? What could he do?

If he says, “Pay the tax,” why, he’s guilty of collaboration with pagans!

And if he says, “Don’t pay the tax,” well, that’s sedition!

Either way, the Pharisees think, they have him trapped.


My old friend Greg, like the Pharisees of today’s Gospel, separates church and state to an extreme. On the other hand, I also have friends who convolute their religion with their politics; friends who commingle religion and politics to such an extent that their religion becomes their politics; and vice-versa.

Do you know anyone like this? It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking Democrat or Republican. Their tendency is truly bi-partisan.

I was in seminary during the 2012 presidential election. Discussion in one of my classes turned to politics, and more specifically to the church’s role in modern America. One of my classmates commented, “I don’t know how someone could ever vote Republican and call themselves Christian.”

That same night—no joke!—a family member who was visiting expressed his similar sentiment, “I don’t know how someone could vote Democrat and call himself a Christian.”

Exact same comment—except the parties were switched!

Well, I have news for people like this. For every Conservative who claims Jesus as his champion, there is likewise a Progressive claiming Jesus for her cause.

Anyway, these folks—those who essentially equate religion to politics and vice-versa—sound a lot like the Herodians mentioned in today’s Gospel.

Did you hear it?

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians.

Perhaps the most amazing thing here is that both the Pharisees and the Herodians have come together!

That would be like my old friend Greg and my seminary classmate going out for coffee—a meeting I simply cannot envision!

But the Pharisees and the Herodians from today’s Gospel share a common enemy: Jesus.

And so they come to him together, saying, “Teacher, we know that you . . . show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”

Jesus, they say, you are neither Pharisee nor Herodian; neither Conservative nor Progressive; neither Republican nor Democrat. Or that’s what you say, at least. But we’re forcing you into a corner. And we’re doing so with this coin. Where do you land? Pick a side already!

And we know the story: both the Pharisees and the Herodians seek to trap Jesus, to incriminate him with either sedition or collaboration; but Jesus is so brilliant he takes their question out of the political realm and into the realm of theology; and thus blows their minds.

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, he says; and to God what is God’s.

It is not an either-or but a both-and proposition.

Jesus gives us liberty to be loyal to the state; yet subordinates this loyalty to the lordship of God.


Which brings up a great question: just what is the church’s place in the world?

The Jewish community of Jesus’ day included both those who believed in complete separation of church and state (the Pharisees) and those who believed that salvation came through the state (the Herodians).

Little has changed in two millennia.

On the one hand, there is a message spread far and wide through today’s church that says we Christians have been called out; we are separate from this world.

And thus, this teaching tells us, we shouldn’t care too much about what happens in our world—about ecology and the threat of nuclear war and so on—for the Bible is clear that we Christians are all going to be raptured away and the world will burn up in some kind of end-times apocalypse.

Let’s call this the sanctuary view: while we Christians have to endure the trials and hardships of this bluesy world we live in, the church provides us a temporary sanctuary from the storm.

On the other hand, there is another message that says we Christians can’t know about any of that end-times stuff, whether we’re all going to be raptured away or whatever, or whether there even is a heaven or a hell.

What we do know is that Christ has called us to care for widows, orphans, the sick, the lame, the poor, and the homeless. Our call as Christians is to make this world a better place, and thus, using the present political means at our disposal, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

Let’s call this the social-gospel view: we Christians spread salvation to the ends of the earth through present society and its political systems.

There are many people in today’s church that hold to the sanctuary view; and, at the same time, there are others who hold to the social-gospel view.

Both Pharisees and Herodians fill today’s pews!

But Jesus comes along and tells us we’re not focusing on the right things: it’s not an either-or proposition; though we may feel trapped by one worldview or another, it doesn’t have to be that way.

To focus on sanctuary makes our faith all about hope: life is fairly miserable but we have the hope that some glad morning, when this life is over, we will all fly away and be with Jesus in paradise.

To focus on the social gospel makes our faith all about action: what we will do in the here-and-now for the betterment of society.

But—please hear me here—our faith is not either hope or action. Rather, our faith is both hope and action!

Our future hope motivates us to present action—action towards the common good yielding salvation to the ends of the earth.

The world’s political systems simply are not able to operate from such a place.


By the way, it’s not lost on me that Jesus is dealing with money at the same time that we are launching our pledge drive.

When Jesus says to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God, money is the immediate and specific application. (I don’t know how my old friend Greg skirts around today’s passage.)

And, yes, we depend on money for almost everything necessary to function in modern society. This dependence applies to us both as individuals and as a church. So, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar—pay your taxes—and to God what belongs to God—make your pledge, so that as a church we can continue to accomplish Christ’s ministry in the world.

But, as we launch this year’s pledge drive, here’s a closing thought to consider.

Jesus looks at the coin’s crude image of Caesar and recognizes it for what it is: simply cold, hard cash.

All the state can ever be is a crude, cold, hard image of its human leaders. At best, it is two-dimensional, something neither to separate ourselves from nor to view as our salvation.

With the church, however, we do not see a crude, two-dimensional image but the perfect image of Christ. This image is not always easy to see; but it is there—on the faces and in the hearts of every living, thinking, feeling, image-bearing person. Even at our very worst, then, the church is nevertheless three-dimensional.

Jesus reminds us today: the church is something the state is not; the church is much more; it fills the voids society cannot.

And thus: Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and make good your vows to the Most High.

Glad to Be in Matthew’s Church

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2017 by timtrue

Delivered on Sunday, October 15, 2017

Matthew 22:1-14


I wish we were in the Church of St. Luke today.

The way Luke tells it, this parable is delivered in the house of a Pharisee who’d invited Jesus to dine with him on the Sabbath.

A person desires to throw a great feast, Jesus says. But one by one the invitees give excuses as to why they cannot attend.

“I just bought a field,” one says, “and must tend to it.”

“I just got married,” another says, “and you know how that is.”

“My father just died,” says a third; “I must go and bury him.”

And so on.

These excuses makes the host upset. He tells his servants to go out into the city and invite everyone—the poor, blind, lame, and so on. For that is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

“Let us fill these halls!” he exclaims.

God is merciful. And who in their right mind would want to pass that up?

Luke’s message to his Church is mercy.

But we’re not in the Church of St. Luke today. Instead, we’re in the Church of St. Matthew.

And here in Matthew’s Church the message doesn’t feel very merciful. With Matthew, instead, the message feels more like judgment.

Not only do the invitees reject the king’s invitation, some of them are also violent in their rejection. They beat and even kill some of the king’s servants!

And there’s that poor guy toward the end. What do we do with him?

The king sees him and says, “Friend”—seems a happy enough beginning—but then continues less affably, “how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”

And then, as we all know, it continues from bad to worse. This wedding-robe-non-wearer is bound hand and foot and thrown out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!

Really? Is Matthew’s God about judgment?

Where’s the mercy? Where’s the love? Why can’t we be in the Church of St. Luke today?


Okay, okay, surely, Matthew isn’t all judgment! Surely for Matthew there’s mercy and love too! Right?

Remember the beatitudes, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount? Blessed are the poor in spirit and all that? Well, that’s from Matthew.

Remember the feeding of the 5,000? That’s from Matthew too.

And remember the healing of the two blind men? They followed Jesus shouting, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” And so Jesus touched their eyes and said, “Let it be done to you according to your faith.” And they were healed. There’s mercy there! And this story shows up only in Matthew’s Gospel.

So, yeah, there is mercy for Matthew.

But why not here? Why does the message from today’s parable feel more like judgment?


Good question. Let’s take a closer look.

Recall from the last few weeks that Jesus is addressing the temple leaders.

The temple leaders were settled and inflexible; they’d established for themselves a religion of control, manipulating the Jewish people often by means of fear and—especially noteworthy for today’s purposes—judgment.

The common folk were judged by how often they made or didn’t make pilgrimages to the temple.

The common folk were judged by whether or not they could afford a sacrificial animal without blemish.

The common folk were judged by how well or not they kept the 613 commandments.

And now, today, Jesus is addressing not the common folk but the leaders who seat themselves in judgment over the common folk.

They—these temple leaders—are the ones in the parable who find excuses not to attend the wedding feast.

They are the ones who rose up against the king’s messengers, prophets such as Ezekiel and Amos and John the Baptist; who beat or even killed them.

They are the ones who, when they do show up to the wedding feast, wear their own robes and not God’s.

So, is that it? Is Matthew saying what goes around comes around—that the temple leaders will be judged with the same manner of judgment they themselves pour out on others?


But there’s another matter that lies beneath the surface of today’s parable: historical context. Let’s take a step back and consider it.

Matthew penned the words we hear today more than a generation after Jesus’ death.

More than a generation!

That’s a lot of time, enough for stories about Jesus to develop, circulate, and percolate.

By this time, communities of disciples had congregated—each with its own personality and peculiarities—communities like the Church of St. Luke and the Church of St. Matthew.

And thus, though these communities told more or less the same old stories, Luke’s main point might in fact be quite different than Matthew’s.

The specific community of Matthew was a lot like our congregation today: a group of people which shared a common life in Jesus Christ, a faith that Jesus’ message and mission would bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

But at the same time Matthew’s Church was much different than our congregation because of its specific cultural and historical context.

More to the point, when Matthew penned his version of the old story, I’m sure the destruction of Jerusalem was on his mind.

In 70CE, under orders of Caesar, the Roman military commander Titus razed the city, including and especially the Temple—the emperor’s special focus. You can read about this horrific event in Josephus.

My point for today is that Matthew wrote today’s parable in hindsight; and his hindsight told him a couple of things.

First, it told him that Jesus had been right so long ago. He’d been right to confront the temple leaders. He’d been right to challenge the status quo. And he’d been right in his mission to topple unjust systems.

The second thing Matthew’s hindsight told him is that God is looking for transformation. God invites all to the wedding feast. It’s only those who are unwilling to be transformed—only those who come up with excuses or are found not to have put on God’s clothes—who find themselves outside the doors of the banquet hall at the end of the day.

And, surely, Matthew cannot help but wonder if things would have turned out differently if those temple leaders had instead listened to Jesus, if they had put on his robes instead of their own.

If only they hadn’t continued to control and manipulate the Jewish common folk by means of fear and judgment!

If only they hadn’t continued to aggravate, frustrate, and rebel against the Roman rulers, thereby provoking Caesar to an act of war!

Then Jerusalem wouldn’t have been destroyed at all!

Then no one would have been cast outside into the darkness, where there was, among so many other horrors, weeping and gnashing of teeth!


I’m not sure, then, that Matthew’s message is so much judgment as it is lament.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Matthew 23:37)

Whatever the case, whether destruction or judgment, in it and through it Matthew offers consolation to us today.

Matthew’s Church endured and survived nothing short of a massacre.

The temple leaders and the Jewish people had faced the horrors of war. Many of them were killed when Jerusalem fell. Many others—those who lived elsewhere and those who fled the coming destruction—survived but were dispersed.

Matthew’s Church managed to gather itself together in the aftermath of the destruction.

And today, magnificently, the Evangelist tells us the story of a wedding feast, a lavish table set for anybody and everybody—“for both good and bad,” he says—for both temple leader and commoner—for both Jew and Gentile—for both rich and poor—to come to and be transformed; a transforming banquet rising gloriously out of the ashes of the ruined city!

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad we are in Matthew’s Church today. For today Matthew reminds us:

Even in hardships; even when everything around feels like judgment; even in the midst of destruction, Jesus is there, inviting us all to his lavish banquet table.

Will you come to it and allow yourself to be transformed?

Fear Blights

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2017 by timtrue

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Matthew 21:33-46


I begin today with a kind of parlor trick. Feel free to pass it along to your friends and family, especially the younger set.

<How to remember the Ten Commandments with your ten fingers.>

So, there it is. With this parlor trick, not only are you able to remember all ten commandments, but also you can remember which is which.

Now, before turning to today’s Gospel, I’d like to offer a couple remarks on this passage from Exodus:

  • Moses had recently freed the people of God from oppression: the oppressive hand of Pharaoh.
  • This new people was wandering in the wilderness, groping as if blind, not knowing their way forward.
  • As such, they were a new society in need of new rules. In addition to questions about religious worship, how were they to live together in relative harmony?
  • And notice Moses’ message: “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” In other words, Moses said: Do not be afraid; but be afraid of God.

Okay. . . .


Now, over in today’s Gospel we find some interesting parallels.

  • Jesus is seeking to free people from oppression.
  • This new Jesus movement is just that: new. And as such his followers feel much like they are wandering in the wilderness, not sure of a way forward.
  • Many questions surface about how to worship and otherwise understand corporate life.
  • And—while not specifically stated in today’s Gospel but most definitely a part of the larger context of his mission and ministry—Jesus shares a similar message: “Do not be afraid.”

But, unlike in Moses’ day, now it is not a political oppression that the people find themselves under but a spiritual oppression; and, ironically, it’s an oppression brought on by certain followers of Moses, the very agent of freedom we just heard about.

Back then, under Moses, the people wandered a little while longer, forging a path ahead, not knowing where God would lead. Their place of worship was a tabernacle: a large but flexible tent of worship, made so that in a day’s notice it could be packed up and moved to the next location.

Now, however, the corporate place of worship for the Jewish people is an inflexible, fixed, permanent temple.

The message under Moses was to fear God and obey his commandments—all ten of them.

The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day, however, declare that there aren’t just ten; but 613. Now the people are called on not just to fear God, but also to fear those who on earth bear God’s special authority; namely, the leaders of the temple.

And so, like Moses, Jesus comes along and upsets the status quo.

He enters Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey amidst the shouts of throngs of people.

He goes to the temple courts and overturns tables.

He tells tricky parables that impugn the religious leaders.

And he suggests it’s actually not 613 commandments; not even 10; but really only one—in two varieties—love.

Do not be afraid, he says, like Moses; but, unlike Moses, his message is not to fear but to love. Love God; love neighbor.

And I cannot help but notice this detail: at the end of today’s Gospel, the religious leaders, who run their whole operation by means of fear—keeping the people fearful of God and of themselves—are themselves fearful: they do nothing to stop Jesus because they fear the people, who hold Jesus to be a prophet.


So, let’s carry this comparison-and-contrast exercise one step further.

Pharaoh was oppressive; Moses liberated the people and started something new.

Many generations later, the Jewish religious leaders were oppressive, keeping the Jewish laity under clouds of fear; Jesus sought to liberate the people and begin something new.

Now—one step further—here we are today, many generations later again, having established and maintained the mission and movement that this man Jesus began.

And where are we?

Have we listened to his message? Are we loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind? Are we loving our neighbor as ourselves? Are we “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom”? Are we bearing fruits of love?

Or do we see God as someone to fear? Are we keeping ourselves and our neighbors under clouds of fear?


Now, I’m not going to deny it: there is in fact much to fear in our day.

Just this week we heard about a tragic and senseless act of gun violence. Why is this sort of thing happening more and more frequently, we ask? And why isn’t more being done to stop it? We could have been one of the victims, we know.

And, rightly so, we fear.

Then there’s the seemingly increasing threat of nuclear war. What if North Korea doesn’t back down? What if our president does something rash?

Again, we fear.

And then there’s that nagging question of the environment. Science is warning us that the globe is warming at an alarming rate. There’s a great plastic patch in the Pacific, choking and otherwise killing off the life that teems there. How can we leave a healthy and thriving planet to future generations?

We fear.

Cancer hits close to home for all of us. What if I’m its next victim, we agonize?

And what of earthquakes, hurricanes, and other so-called acts of God?

Yes, there is much to fear in our world!—just as there was much to fear in the world of Jesus’ day; and in the world of Moses’ day.

But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid!”

To live under fear—and it doesn’t matter whether its source is human or divine—to live under fear is to live under oppression.

And Jesus came to free us from oppression.


But haven’t we been going down a rabbit trail?

This parable calls us to bear fruit. In the end, that’s who the landowner is counting on; that’s who will be called on to tend and keep the vineyard: those who are already demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit in their lives; those who walk in love as Christ loved us.

Bearing fruit is the point of this parable; and so what does fear have to do with it?

Just this: it’s how we bear fruit.

As he delivered this parable, Jesus was speaking directly to the religious leaders of his day. For our day, just like then, this is a message directly to church leaders.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were running the established religious institution by means of fear, not by means of love. They bore some fruit, sure; yet the little fruit they bore was sour and difficult—like 613 times more sour and difficult than it had to be!

Fear proved a blight on their harvest.

Part of Jesus’ mission was to change this, to take the religious leadership out of the hands of the few who led and controlled by fear and put it into the hands of those who would lead as servants, by means of love, and thereby bear truckloads more fruit; tasty and productive fruit.

This is a message for today’s church leaders. And so, as a leader of today’s church, I want you to know: I am committed to lead by love, not fear; and thus bear fruits of love, not fear.

But, at the same time, this is not just a message for today’s church leaders. It is also a message for the church as a whole—bishops, priests, deacons, and laity. For who else is going to offer spiritual leadership to society today?

Jesus’ message is to all of us, particularly this corporate body we call St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church and School.

In and around the Temecula Valley, and in fact throughout the world; in this day and age characterized by fear, Jesus calls us to fear not; and to bear fruits of love.

Authority’s Paradox

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2017 by timtrue

Matthew 21:23-32


Why did Jesus pick John?

In response to their question, Jesus asks the chief priests and elders about John the Baptist’s authority—whether it is from the people or from God.

But why did Jesus pick John?

Why didn’t he pick, say, the emperor?

This was always a question on the minds of the people: did the emperor’s authority come from the people or from God? The emperors themselves maintained their authority came from the heavens—divine right, they called it.

Yet others, probably most of the common people of the empire, and certainly the temple leaders, disagreed: the emperor’s authority was purely human.

The Jews worshiped the true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Whereas the emperor was a pagan; he worshiped a different god—a whole pantheon of false gods in fact. Jewish tradition would have said absolutely and unapologetically no, the emperor’s authority is not divine.

And so I suppose this was a good reason for Jesus to pick John instead of an emperor. He was addressing Jewish leaders, after all.

Still, John was a relatively minor figure in the history of the Jewish people. He was an eccentric person, off doing some obscure work in the wilderness, proclaiming some sort of convoluted message about repentance. And besides, didn’t he eat bugs and wear uncomfortable clothes?

Most of the people of the day, if they’d even heard about this guy named John who baptized people for repentance in the waters of the Jordan River out beyond the edge of the city in the wilderness—even if they’d heard of him, he was weird. Why did Jesus use him as an example?

Why didn’t he use someone like Judas Maccabeus? Yeah! Remember him? He was a true Jewish hero. He took a stand and defied the oppressive hand of the Romans, much like Moses had with Pharaoh. He was fresh in the people’s memory as a messianic figure, held in high esteem by both Jewish leaders and the common people. He was certainly viewed as having authority.

So why didn’t Jesus use him? Why didn’t Jesus ask the Jewish leaders: “Tell me, was Judas Maccabeus’s authority from God or from the people?”

But, then again, Judas Maccabeus’s rebellion had come to nothing. He was killed by the Romans, his army was dispersed, and eventually the whole thing blew over. In the end, I suppose, his authority had not been from God; his mission and movement came to nothing.

And so I suppose this was a good reason for Jesus to pick John instead of Judas Maccabeus.

But, still, couldn’t Jesus have used many other, better known examples to make his point? Why did he use John—obscure, eccentric, weird John?


We’ll come back to this question. But first, let’s look at the real issue: authority. This is the question the temple leaders raise. How can Jesus do the things he is doing? Who does he think he is? What right does he have?

I can’t help but identify with the chief priests and elders in this story, at least to some extent.

They understand their tradition; they’re leaders in their religion; they know how spiritually to direct a congregation of people. For them, a lot of ecclesiastical kinks have been long worked out. They’ve got their bylaws, their articles of incorporation, their canons, and their policy manuals. Their experience in these matters allows them to be efficient and smooth as they run their religious organization.

They place a lot of value in having a codified methodology (to which I—and perhaps every Episcopalian on the planet—can relate).

And so, justifiably, they ask, “By what authority are you doing these things? And by whose authority are you doing them?”

Of course, it helps to know what “things” they’re referring to. This is a very important detail—one we skip over entirely, unfortunately, in Lectionary Year A.

The most recent thing Jesus did, just yesterday as Matthew tells it, was to overturn the tables of the moneychangers in the temple courts.

So, imagine if someone were to come into our building, fresh off the street—we don’t know him; he may have been here a time or two before, I suppose, but a lot of people pass through these doors so it’s hard to tell—and he randomly starts tipping over chairs and other pieces of furniture, maybe even the baptismal font, maybe even the altar! I’m sure we’d have a thing or two to say to this character. Who does he think he is, after all? What right does he have? And, beyond these questions, why even do it in the first place?

No doubt this is something like what the temple leaders in today’s Gospel feel. After all, it is their established policy to allow moneychangers to sell sacrificial animals in the temple courts. They’ve come to this policy after many a long and difficult vestry meeting. So who is this rebel to upset the status quo?

But, actually, come to think of it, they have seen this character a time or two before, or maybe even several. He’s that guy who blasphemed, telling the paralytic that his sins are forgiven. He’s that guy who eats meals with tax collectors and sinners. He’s that guy who casts out demons by the power of the chief demon. He’s that guy who healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath! He’s that guy who supposedly fed five thousand people with only some loaves of bread and a few small fish.

So, rather than simply call the temple police and confront him, the temple leaders formulate a question about authority: By whose authority are you doing these things, Jesus?


But here’s where I hope we’re different than the temple leaders: they approach Jesus with their minds already made up.

Their question isn’t genuine: it isn’t asked from a teachable spirit with the hope of truly learning something. Instead, their question is designed to trap Jesus.

They reason that there are only two possible answers. If Jesus answers, “By human authority,” then he will be acting in rebellion against the authority of divinely inspired tradition. But if he answers, “By divine authority,” he will be blaspheming. Either way, he will be guilty.

They have him cornered—or so they think.

But Jesus turns the tables on them again—mental tables this time.

He doesn’t provide an answer. Instead, he asks them a question: Tell me, John’s authority, was it human or from heaven? And he assures them that if they answer his question, he will answer theirs.

Well, the temple leaders mull it over.

They cannot answer that John’s authority is from heaven, for they do not believe John. How could they? For they had to jump through all sorts of hoops to get where they are today—a discernment process, postulancy, seminary, etc.; but John hadn’t done any of that!

But, on the other hand, they cannot answer that John’s authority is human, for the people believe him to be a prophet; and they don’t want to provoke a violent mob.

Thus, they refuse to answer Jesus. Or, maybe, because their minds are already made up, they cannot answer Jesus.

Whatever the case, Jesus responds: Fine! Then neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.


Nevertheless, an answer has risen to the surface. And it’s an answer that, among other things, explains why Jesus referred to John in the first place.

A father has two sons. He asks them both to do some chores. One says, “No, Dad, I don’t want to”; and the other says, “Sure thing, Dad.” But in reality the son who first said no in fact goes and does what his dad asked; whereas the second son, the one who originally said yes, does not.

The first son, Jesus says, is like the tax collectors and prostitutes; the second is like the temple leaders.

And isn’t this an amazing thing!

On the one hand we have tax collectors and prostitutes—sinners.

On the other hand we have temple leaders—the keepers of the religious tradition.

Then there’s John, who came in the way of righteousness—with a divine authority.

Now, put these together: the so-called sinners recognized John’s divine authority; yet the keepers of the religious tradition did not!

And this is why Jesus uses John as his example.

John came with a divine authority. His authority is recognized by the common people, even the lowest rung on society’s ladder. We might call this the work of the Holy Spirit. And yet, ironically, those who proclaim themselves as possessing a God-given authority fail to see the divine nature of John’s authority.

And thus Jesus actually answers his opponents’ question. His authority, like John’s, is divine, whether or not the religious establishment recognizes it; the proof that the HS is at work is seen in the consensus of the people.

Jesus is not like an emperor, a tyrant whom we all obey or else! Neither is Jesus like a Judas Maccabeus, a revolutionary who rose to power from and for the people but whose mission and movement fizzled out.

Jesus is God Incarnate. And we know this from the consensus of the people—throughout all ages, from the earliest beginnings of the Jesus movement right on down through today.

The Holy Spirit works and moves not through the religious establishment but through faithful people.


The Holy Spirit is like that. It goes where it chooses—hovering as a wind over the waters at creation, descending as a dove on Jesus’ baptism, overwhelming like tongues of fire at Pentecost. We cannot bottle it up. We cannot codify it, define it in bylaws, or capture it in any kind of methodology.

It’s not that the Holy Spirit won’t work through the religious establishment. It will if it wants to. But the Holy Spirit will not be contained by the religious establishment.

Look at the temple leaders. Their minds were already made up. Their methodology was fixed and rigid. If something or someone came along and didn’t fit within their rigid scheme, it was all too easy for them to conclude that God wasn’t present.

The Holy Spirit could have worked through them; but why?

To have bylaws and policy manuals in place is helpful, sure. And, yes, there’s authoritative weight behind a priest who has been to seminary. Yet the Holy Spirit is infinitely larger than these human-made structures.

John the Baptist shows us this. He heralded Christ’s coming and called the people to repentance not within the confines of the temple, abiding by the temple leaders’ methodologies and otherwise conforming to society’s expectations; but by going out into the wilderness. And there the Holy Spirit blessed his ministry beyond measure.

So, beyond all this, how are we supposed to discern the Holy Spirit?

Granted, this is a tricky arena to jump into. Some people will go to Cursillo, for instance, and declare that the Holy Spirit was most definitely moving through the place. Others will decide that, no, it felt like my emotions were being manipulated. Who is right?

Maybe neither! Maybe both! Maybe each is partly right and partly wrong! Who can say for sure?

But I think that’s the point. With the Holy Spirit, maybe we aren’t really supposed to come to the discussion with our minds already made up.