Rev. Adrianne M. Meier
St. Thomas Lutheran Church
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Matthew 21:23-32
There is an official charge to pastors in the ordination rite. A direction statement about what it means to carry the title “Reverend” and take on the role of pastor within the life of the church. It is a statement about what this vocation is – it isn’t a magic-fairy-dust kind of moment where pastors become holy or special. Just ask my spouse – I’m not holy or special. I’m me. But it says something about what the church believes the role of pastor is about. I return to it often, at the suggestion of my first bishop and mentor, reminding myself of what it means to wear this collar, to don this stole, to serve this Church. That is the official charge, but there are unofficial charges, too. One charge I have is from my earliest and longest faith mentor; okay, fine, it’s from my mom. What she needs, she says, is something on Sunday that matters on Monday. Because she’s like me, and, I suspect, like you. She leaves church on Sunday full of hope and wanting so much to live out her faith in the coming week, but, come Monday morning, with its aggressive drivers, its disappointed clients, its cranky coworkers, its disheartening news – well – it can be hard to be faithful then. What is it, exactly, that we need on Monday that Sunday can give us? What sign can make us believe even in the face of all that Monday represents? Beloved, I am here to tell you, you are that sign.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is in the temple, but on his way in, he cursed a fig tree and killed it. And before that, yesterday in the story’s timeline, he entered Jerusalem on a donkey to shouts of “Hosanna! Save now!” Going straight to the temple and driving out those selling sacrificial animals. It is no wonder as the city cleans up the ticker tape parade, as the temple custodians right the tables and take out the garbage, as a withered fig tree drops its final leaf, it is no wonder the Pharisees and Scribes come to him and say, “By whose authority are you doing these things?” And Jesus, of course, gives them no straight answers. I imagine him incredulous: “By whose authority? By whose authority? I’m doing y’all’s jobs here – driving out those who might take advantage of the poor, challenging oppressive Roman authority, cursing a tree with no figs from which the stranger and alien might get a morsel to eat – and you’re asking about authority?” No wonder he asks the question about John. The Pharisees hated John in his time; no wonder, he did call them a brood of vipers, after all. But John is now dead, beheaded by the same Roman authority Jesus is challenging. And the Pharisees, it seems, may have been using a polished up version of John’s memory to keep the people in line, doing what power does: preserving itself. They return Jesus’s non-answer with one other own, and Jesus responds with a parable. But check out that last line: “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.” There was a sign, Jesus said, a sign that would tell you by whose authority John baptized. There is a sign – a sign! – that will tell you by whose authority I am doing this work. That sign is the liberation, the faith, of the least. It is the transformed hearts of tax collectors, and prostitutes, and sinners.
The question of authority has been on our minds this week. By whose authority did three police officers enter the apartment of Breonna Taylor? By whose authority did they use deadly force on innocent people? More: by whose authority are people taking to the streets in protest? By whose authority are people of color demanding change? Beloved, there is a sign – a sign! – that will tell you. Are the poor in spirit blessed? Those who mourn? The meek? Are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness filled? Do the merciful receive mercy? Have the pure in heart seen God? Do we yet call peacemakers children of God?
The question of authority is on our minds. By whose authority are school teachers asked to risk their health? By whose authority does life move on in pursuit of the idol of normal while two hundred thousand people have died, their families’ lives eternally disrupted? Beloved there is a sign – a sign? Is God’s will done on earth as in heaven? Is daily bread given? Are debts forgiven?
The question of authority is on our minds. By whose authority are peaceful elections held? By whose authority is news fairly and truthfully shared? And there is a sign, beloved – a sign! Do the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the leper cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead raised? Do the poor have good news brought to them?
Beloved, the Pharisees’ question is actually the right one to ask. Let us not forget that even to this day, many Jews practice their faith by interrogating scripture and theology to determine its faithful interpretation. That is what is happening in this story. We, too, ought to ask: whose interests are represented here? What is being left to die? Where is the resurrection?
And my siblings in Christ, there is a sign. There is a sign when God is the authority. The good news is shared with such fervor that even those least likely to be convinced are transformed by it. There is a sign. The hungry are fed. There is a sign. A spoke is driven into the wheel of injustice, to paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There is a sign. The people live in safety. There is a sign, beloved. That sign can be you.
I began by asking, “What sign do you need for your Sunday faith to matter on Monday?” And the answer is as simple as it is difficult to fulfill. To make your Sunday faith matter on Monday, be the sign you need. Accept the premise that a great authority has charged you with this responsibility.
Because, Beloved, you have received such a charge. In your baptism, you entered into a holy and last covenant with God. A covenant in which you promise “to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”
I hear you beloved. I hope you are moved by my words, but I hear your doubt. The clock endless ticks on toward Monday, with its long to-do lists and challenges. Even the Sunday paper, perhaps halfway read on the table nearby, calls with its stories of injustice and tragedy, its fear of an uncertain future. You may want to be the sign, but how?
And the answer here is same tomorrow as it was yesterday: step forward in faith. You will not earn anything by your righteousness that hasn’t already been given to you already. But your neighbor stands to gain life itself.
Matthew 21:23-32 NRSV
[The day after cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus entered the Temple again. When he did this…] the chief priests and elders of the people came to him as he was teaching. They asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 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. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Then they argued with one another: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’
he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 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.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 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. 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. Even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”