A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
September 25, 2011
Between the parable we heard last week, and the one we just heard this morning, Jesus did a few things you might want to know about. Minor little things. Like a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a colt. And a small little moment when he entered the Temple and turned over some tables and called people names. He also tells a few more parables where the moral of the story continues to be “last will be first and the first will be last”.
So, when the Temple leadership, the chief priests and the elders, come up and ask him the questions, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”, we can understand their point of view. They just spent the last night picking up the Temple, sweeping up the turtle dove “offerings” that were left after their cages were broken open and they nested in the rafters.
They had just spent the last night dealing with the angry money-changers who wanted restitution, after Jesus threw their money all over the place, while the crowds scrambled around, picking up loose shekels. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
We can understand their frustration. If someone came in here and did something similar, you can be sure the Building and Grounds Committee and the Session would want to know who gave them permission to walk in here, move the pews, and leave a big mess!
But their questions are bigger than that. Because they consider themselves to be the authority. And they certainly didn’t invite this itinerant rabbi from Nazareth into their midst. They also probably recognize their position as the “first” and they keep hearing his comments about the first being last and the last being first.
Just who do you think you are, mister?
Interestingly, their questions remind us of the questions Jesus asks his disciples. “Who do you say that I am?”
Identity. Authority. Place in the Kingdom.
The questions of the religious leaders are dangerous though. If Jesus answers, “God has given me all authority”, then they can get him on blasphemy charges. If he says, “I am my own authority”, then they can dismiss him. Both of those answers would be true, of course, but they wouldn’t see that. Because they continue to order their world, their understanding of authority, power, and God in a different way than Jesus does.
And his continuing conflict with the Temple leadership will lead him straight to the cross. They will kill him before they will change their minds.
Because that is what he’s asking them to do. Change their minds, reconsider what they thought to be true, and believe that God is working for the repentance, the renewal, of the world, in new ways.
His answer to their question is another question. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
At first glance, it seems an odd question. John was killed chapters ago, after all. But John had preached a message of repentance, proclaiming “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
And remember that John was very popular. Betting people in that day would have guessed that in 2,000 years people would still be talking about John, not Jesus.
So, when Jesus asks, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?,” he puts the authorities in a tricky situation. Do they anger the fans of John the Baptist? Or do they acknowledge he was speaking for God and they killed him anyway and now want to kill the person he spoke about?
So, they bravely answer, mumbling under their breath, “we don’t know.”
Jesus is offering them a chance to change their minds. He is giving them a way to say, “John came from God and, hey look—he was talking about you! Oh, we get it now!”
But they won’t do it.
So Jesus tells them a parable about two brothers, a very Biblical way to tell a story. Wonder what their names were. Cain and Abel? Jacob and Esau? Alden and Elliott?
In any case, we have this parable about two brothers. One of them tells his father he won’t go work in the vineyard, but then he does. And the other one says he will do it, but then he doesn’t. And he asks the religious authorities, “which son did the right thing?” And even these politicians who wouldn’t make a stand unless it had been focus-grouped, say, “the one who did the will of his father.”
But parables don’t usually have such an easy and obvious answer, which gives me pause. Even though Jesus has now twice trapped the religious leaders, leaving them with only wrong answers, he is not done. He makes sure they understand that they said the right things but did all of the wrong things. And the people they don’t invite to church—the tax collectors and the prostitutes—have responded to God’s call more faithfully than have God’s own servants.
And all because the religious leaders wouldn’t change their minds.
It seems so simple, doesn’t it? To change your mind.
But think how hard that really is to do. Especially on the big things.
Just the other day, I heard a news story about neutrinos. I confess I had never given any thought to neutrinos, which are subatomic particles, until I learned that scientists had just done an experiment in which neutrinos traveled faster than the speed of light.
And, apparently, that’s impossible. According to Einstein and E=MC2 and all that, nothing travels faster than light. Nothing.
So even the scientists who led the experiment, who read the results that showed these neutrinos traveling faster than they ought, are asking other scientists to look over the data and figure out what they did wrong. Because, clearly, they can’t be right. I’ve read of very few scientists who have said, “it’s possible, I suppose”. Most have said that there clearly was a mistake in the calculations, a mis-reading of the data, or just blamed it on the pesky neutrinos themselves, which are notoriously difficult to study. It is too soon to say what we’ve really discovered about neutrinos, but I find it interesting that even the authors of the study are having a hard time changing their minds about what they know to be true about the way the world works.
They don’t want to believe the results of their own experiments.
It isn’t just in science where we have trouble changing our minds. The Presbyterian Church has been ordaining women to ministry for over 50 years, which sounds like a long time. But I know there are people here in this room who were among the first women ordained to the office of Elder. For this faith community, 50 plus years down the road, women in ministry is no big deal, and I am thankful that I’m just your minister, not your “lady minister”. But I still encounter people who question my decision to “disobey God’s rules” and become a pastor. We are still in the midst of watching people change their minds about the role of women in the church.
That is just one illustration of the social and societal changes we have seen. The way we view slavery, evolution, geology, colonialism, divorce, and homosexuality have all changed, or are in the process of changing, and major fights are still being waged over many of these issues.
Jesus criticizes the religious leaders for not changing their minds when presented with the message of John the Baptist and when presented with the person of Jesus, himself. And, looking back on it with the advantage of History, we realize they were wrong. They thought they were being faithful Jews. They thought they were upholding tradition.
They knew that not all change is good.
Back in the 80’s. It was horrible. That was not change to believe in, and Coca Cola went back to the “classic coke” formula less than 3 months after the introduction of the new formula.
We aren’t called to follow every new thing that is out there. We are called to change our minds when God sends his prophets to lead us on the path of righteousness. We are called to change our minds when God sends his own Son to live among us and teach us what true, sacrificial love looks like.
Like the two brothers in the parable, we are given new information—go help in the vineyard, neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light, Jesus Christ is God’s own son, etc—and our job is to respond to that new information.
We all respond to the news, for good or bad. The brothers walk away from their father and both of them change their minds, after all. Even the religious authorities respond by choosing not to believe it.
But this week, as your life unfolds around you, ask if there are places where you are being called to change your mind. Is God asking you to do a new thing? To see the world differently?
In a few minutes, people will be coming forward to say that God is calling them to help get a House Church up and going. Is God calling you to join in? Sure, you’re busy. Sure, we all have good reasons to say no. But do we have better reasons to say yes?
Or is there another way that God is calling you to respond to the grace you’ve received? We heard this morning briefly from PCUSA mission co-worker Rusty Edmondson, who will be back with us tonight, sharing about his response to God’s call.
Or, is God calling you to reconsider something you’ve faithfully believed like the scribes and Pharisees were called to do?
All I know is that when there is a parable where the answer seems too easy, it means we should spend some time with it, searching for the place where God is speaking to us today. May our hearts and minds be open to change. Amen.