By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
September 28, 2008
Read: Matthew 21:23-32
In Matthew’s Gospel story today, we once again hear Jesus speaking with the chief priests and the elders of the people. I want to issue a challenge to all of us today about just who we think we are in this story; where we place ourselves.
It is easy to read this story in Matthew today and sit back and say, “You go, Jesus”. Those elders and chief priests aren’t living the life of faith they are supposed to live. You tell ‘em.
My challenge for us today is this: Be very careful about being smug and self-righteous and pointing that finger at someone else. Remember last week I quoted the scripture about removing the log from our own eye before trying to remove the speck from someone else’s. In today’s language, be careful when you point that finger because three others are pointed right back at you. My challenge is for us to put ourselves in the place of the chief priests, Pharisees and elders of the people when we read and hear these gospel stories. After all, the Christian church as we know it was not yet formed when the bible was written. The Christian community was just beginning to come together when Jesus walked this earth. Jesus’ way was to challenge the world as we know it, as each of us knows it. He often upset our ideas of what we think is right and wrong, what is fair and what is unfair.
The question of authority and it’s inherent challenge reminds me of this story, a version of which is told in nearly every tradition. Toni Morrison tells it this way:
Once upon a time, there was an old woman who was blind but wise. The daughter of slaves, black, American, living alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both law and transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.
One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question, the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hands a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead”. She does not answer, and the question is repeated. “Is the bird I am holding living or dead?”
Still she does not answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive. The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter. Finally she speaks, and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know” she says, “whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”
Toni Morrison goes on to say that the woman’s answer “can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.” It is in your hands.
The wise old woman is saying that the tricksters are asking the wrong question when they ask is it living or dead. The question they should be asking is “how to live”. What are the living choices? How do we live a life with our hearts free for God, an undivided life that mirrors God’s intention for justice and love for all? The question is simply answered by an old woman in words that speak of our accountability to God and stewardship of God’s creation. It is in our hands.
Now, let’s go back to the gospel story and the two sons. Did you notice that neither son was anything to write home about? What choice do we really have? An insolent son, who eventually gets around to obeying and a “yes” kid, who never intends to follow through. Neither one pops the buttons off the father’s chest. And neither do we.
Maybe you’re the second son. You’re good on your feet. You’re good with the words of discipleship. You can pray in public with ease. You know the Scriptures quite well and can rehearse the finer points of the gospel. Others are maybe more like one of my friend’s speech students who came up after class crying because she felt she was so dumb. She just didn’t have anything in her life that she felt she could be proud of. Maybe you have a nagging sense of doubt when you recite the Creed. And perhaps your understanding of the Gospel is halting and unsteady. Maybe you have to look in the table of contents to find where the Gospel of Matthew or Philippians is. You may feel that you have little to contribute. So, though you’ve said yes to God, maybe you’ve felt like your life has been a big no on God’s ledger.
The good news is that to both groups God invites us to say “yes” again. To allow God’s Holy Spirit to release deep within us new vision and desire to let faith and action come together. Hear the Good News of the Gospel—God’s family is large enough to include both sons. To help all of us in our daily struggle to say “yes” to God’s call. God is big enough to take our feeble “yes’s and to forge them into a glorious heavenly yes and amen.
But God does need our permission and willingness. It’s in our hands.
This then is the great mystery of Jesus Christ that each of us must, for our own self, answer the question of what is the authority of Jesus Christ and who gave Jesus this authority. Are the hands of Jesus empty or do they hold infinity? Is Jesus crucified and dead forever, or is Jesus risen to life eternal and lordship over all the universe? Was Jesus abandoned by God to death, or is it the will of God that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bend? The great deep truth is the truth of the love and will of God Almighty who created us, who redeems us from sin through Jesus Christ, who calls us but does not compel us to righteousness, but never ceases to love and forgive and heal and accept. The truth is that no one, no authority can keep us from the love of God, and that authority is we ourselves.
It’s in our hands. For reasons we may never know, God seems to love us indiscriminately, and seems also to enjoy reversing the systems we set up to explain why God should love some of us more than others of us. By starting at the end of our lines, with the last and the least, the tax collectors and prostitutes, whoever we decide in our judgmental nature, is not good enough and should be shunned–God lets us know that his ways are not our ways, and that if we want to see things his way we might question our own notions of what is fair, what is right and what is good, and why we get so upset when our lines do not work.
God’s hands are wide open, ready and willing and loving us through it all. Take the hand of Jesus and begin each day with a heart turned towards God. It’s in your hands, reach out those hands toward the forgiving, loving and healing nature of God. Amen.
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