Sermon for 17th Sunday after Pentecost - October 1 2017

Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
October 1, 2017
The Rev.  Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Two things of note today –

First, the Israelites wandering around Sinai, complaining – again – against Moses; this time because of thirst.  And Moses made the right decision to ask God for help, and God provided water in abundance, an artesian spring “from the depths,” enough and more than enough to satisfy.  The people are still struggling to learn that God provides, despite the quails and manna from heaven, despite crossing the sea between walls of water, despite their freedom from their Egyptian overlords.

Second, Jesus challenged by the Priests and scribes in the temple – asking him by what authority he acts.

Kathryn D. Blanchard offers us a messiah of “marginal authority.” 

What does that mean?  If we look to economics, we can understand the concept of marginal cost – for example, when someone wants to log a forest, there are costs associated with that we would all recognize:  the cost of purchasing the land, the cost of the equipment to take down the trees, the cost of labor to run the equipment, and the cost of taking the lumber to market.  The marginal cost is something the logging company may not have to worry about – but the rest of us should – and that’s the cost to the environment of losing the trees.  It could lead to erosion and flooding; the loss of habitat for forest-dwelling species, and so on.

So if marginal cost is what we don’t pay up front in money, what does that say about marginal authority? 

Perhaps it says that marginal authority is authority that we pay no attention to, that we do not value, that doesn’t count in our view of the world and the way things are.

We all know what authority is, right?  It’s the ability to tell other people what to do, whom to be, how to act, and to respect those in authority above all others.

And that kind of authority is precisely what Jesus rejected.  We can read about his thinking on authority in Matthew, Chapter 4 (p785 of the Pew Bible, if you’d care to follow along).

[Jesus] fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.  The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

We remember that Jesus fed thousands of people with a couple fish and a few loaves of bread – so he certainly had the power to change those stones into bread; but he refused.  He’d rather go hungry than use his power to meet his own needs alone.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, Jesus chose not to use that power – he chose to face the consequences of the way he lived his life, even if those consequences included death.  

One might also conclude that we can’t count on God to bail us out of unwise decisions and practices.  – There’s that story of the man who died in a flood, and asked God why God hadn’t saved him.  God said “I sent the police to tell you to evacuate, I sent a boat to pull bring you to dry land, I sent a helicopter when you were on the roof – what did you expect?

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.[1]

Jesus refused earthly power, temporal and secular power.  He wasn’t in the business of telling other people what to do, who to be, how to live, what rituals were important; he was going to let us discern that for ourselves.

But the Temple Authorities wanted that power. The Romans wanted that power; and many people today, even good Christians, want that kind of power; we think that God wants us to exercise that kind of power – but God-in-Jesus refused it.

All the powers that Jesus might have claimed, he rejected.  He chose to live on the margins, to spend time with the people who inhabited the margins, to treat the people on the margins as valued and lovable. 

Jesus fulfilled the prophetic purpose: to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.  He did not hesitate to point out abuses of power that the so-called People of the Covenant accepted.

His message was different: Turn to the word of God – and consider the reasons why God has said what has been said, and the specific issues God is concerned with, for guidance, and don’t assume it’s for your comfort or enrichment.

God’s love is not jealously guarded; it is the life spring for all the world, so spread it deep and spread it wide!

Don’t expect God to bail you out when you do something stupid.  Jesus died cruelly on a cross; many martyrs died, too – all doing the things their faith journey offered them: helping the sick, often becoming sick themselves; feeding the hungry, while going hungry themselves; jumping into danger to rescue those in danger such as floods, earthquakes, and landslides.  We see this in every natural disaster.

Martyrs also have stood against the power to rule, instead choosing to remember those in need, those who are despised and cast aside, remembering that what matters is respect, honor, and love – not for symbols, not for ritual, but for people.

We take a knee to honor the lost and the wounded and the hurt.  We take a knee in repentance, turning back to God and to the message that Jesus brings us: no earthly rule for self.  The only proper exercise of the gift of grace we have been given, is to share it with everyone around us, without fear or favor, without stinting, without end.

 

 

[1] Matthew 4:2-11. NRSV.

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