The gospel lesson for the September 25, 2011, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, is Matthew 21:23-32. Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Resurrection.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Each week we have chapel for our preschoolers here in this sanctuary. Often I say to the children, “Raise your hand if you love Jesus,” and usually every hand goes up. Then I say, “Raise your hand if you know Jesus loves you” and usually every hand goes up. Then we sing songs like “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Children, All the Children of the Word” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” So the children are learning the wonderful revelation that God loves all of us without reservation. This is a wonderful revelation for us too today that God loves each and every one of us without reservation. Do you believe it?
You might be thinking, “Why is that such a great revelation? Doesn’t everyone believe that?” The answer is “No. Many people today (just like in Old and New Testament times) are taught to put boundaries on God’s Love and Grace.” Some church leaders today openly declare what kind of people they welcome and do not welcome. Here at Resurrection we try our best to practice a gospel of grace. We believe that is what Jesus wants us to do. Today’s gospel lesson shows that practicing grace can get you into trouble, as Jesus experienced so vividly…
We are in the 21st chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Since there are only 28 chapters, we know that we are nearing the end of the Gospel and we are, in fact, reading about Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem. Earlier in the 21st chapter Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey and was hailed as the “king of the Jews”. Then he went into the temple area and drove out the money changers. Now Jesus is in the temple area teaching the people, and this is the first chance that the chief priests and elders have to confront Jesus about his actions.
We can rightly guess their reactions of anger. In systems theory, we learn that when one makes a change in one part of the system, there will be obvious and counter reactions in other parts of the system. This is true in families and in businesses and in churches. I remember back in 2001 when Pastor Carol and I decided to move the pulpit from its usual position. The next week we had a delegation of 8 people who wanted to meet with us to discuss why the pulpit was moved…
The real question of the chief priests and elders that day to Jesus was about authority. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
It’s a good question, really. In other words, they were saying, “Who are you, Jesus? Do you think that your teaching is equal to Moses and the prophets? Do you think that you know more than we do?”
Jesus’ reply comes in the form of a story about 2 sons. The story has a point that the chief priests and elders aren’t going to like. The owner of a vineyard asks his two sons to work in his vineyard. The first says “I will not” but later changes his mind and works. The second said, “I will” but does not. Jesus asked the question of the chief priests and elders, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” They answered “the first”. Then Jesus does the shocking thing. He turns on the chief priests and elders. He says, “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; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
What did you hear in this short parable? Did you hear that the chief priests and the elders will not be going into the kingdom of God? No. What Jesus said was, “you will not be going in first.” This is really upsetting, for they are doing everything they can to assure themselves a first place in God’s eyes and in the eyes of their religious community.
Jesus knows what he is doing. He knows that he has an appointment with the cross and he knows that in speaking God’s truth that the religious leaders will be offended. He boldly declares God’s good news that he loves all equally, regardless of how good or bad they see themselves or their station in life…
Dr. James Dobson tells about his daughter, Danae. Danae was an attractive baby and toddler. Dobson noted that people paid special attention to her, gave her candy, oohed and ahhed over her, mainly because she was so cute. But when Danae was fifteen months old, she fell and injured her mouth. Suddenly, her mouth took on a lopsided shape that considerably altered her appearance. Overnight, the world seemed to treat Danae differently. Strangers no longer oohed and ahhed over her. They stopped making a fuss over her. Admiring glances changes to awkward stares. Danae had not changed in the least. She was still a vivacious, smart, loving toddler. But the community no longer embraced and encouraged her because of her outward appearance.
In the religious leaders minds, God only had regard for that which was perfect, unblemished, without defect. They thought this of the animals brought for sacrifice at the temple and they thought this of people throughout their nation. They had no concept of God’s grace and love for all God’s children, even those who were tarnished in their minds.
What we learn from Jesus is that God’s grace is shocking. Jesus shows this by passing over the religious professionals and favoring the worst of the sinners. What is going on? Maybe we learn that God isn’t a Cosmic Scorekeeper tallying up our moral hits and misses. Maybe we learn that we don’t have to earn God’s love. Maybe we learn that God loves us even when we fail or don’t measure up to all the rules and expectations of society and the church…
Back to systems theory. It wasn’t easy for the Jewish religious leaders to give up their power and authority. Already they were plotting their move to get rid of Jesus. By the end of the week, they will have arranged for Jesus to be arrested, tried and put to death. Little did they know that God too reacts, and all of heaven. For Jesus’ death and then his resurrection will become a victorious eternal statement of God’s love and grace for the world.
The boldest image I have in my mind about grace is one described by Martin Luther. He pictures the cross with Jesus on it and a large area at the base of the cross that is completely level. It is level because that is where we stand looking up to Jesus. No one is higher or lower than another. At the foot of the cross, we all are equal in God’s eyes…
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord. Amen.