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At St. Paul’s: “Our primary mission is to relate to, and minister to people who are living on the edge, who seek God’s will for their lives, struggling to find direction and purpose in a society that can be violent, insensitive and money-grabbing.”
No Means Yes
Yes means no
I want to play “Devil’s Advocate” for a moment. How many times have you
heard this? When someone wants to challenge us without really trying to make us
mad, they say this: “let me play devil’s advocate.” Or if they really question our
motives, or don’t really trust that we have the accurate story.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus questions our motives . . . is anyone else
challenged? I am challenged because I am part of the Temple community. I am
one of those Temple leaders that Jesus confronts. I am one of those guys who
represents leadership, who works with the community leaders and the elders of the
And I do the best I can to provide a place where people can worship, have an
epiphany moment, come to Jesus or at least pray and possibly relieve some of the
tension and stress of life. We come here to this church, hoping for a glimpse of the
Great Mystery, asking the Holy Spirit to touch us, reconnecting with Jesus. And I
have the credentials and the experience and the knowledge to be . . . a . . . part of
the traditional church. So my job is similar to those priests in the Temple where
people prayed. Where people paid their taxes, I mean tithes. We people bought
doves and animals for sacrifice. Where the religious community lived and worked:
the home of the priests, Saduccees, Scribes and Pharisees, who roamed the halls
wearing fine purple robes and phylacteries and other religious garb.
And when Jesus challenges this authority. He challenges me.
My parents and most of my uncles and aunts were church goers. My grandparents
and great grandparents went to church, as I am sure their forefathers and
foremothers did. I am sure it goes back a long way. Long before Methodists,
Congregationalists and Baptists. Our real roots of the Protestant religion go
back to the Lutherans and to Martin Luther, who criticized, but didn’t want to be
excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church he loved and gave his life to.
He just wanted reform. Anyway, I am sure my family roots go back to the early
Christian church and that long lasting tradition.
But it seems that the church-going tradition is ending. Most of my cousins; and
many of my friends, don’t want to go. The old traditions of going to church on
Sundays seem to no longer get any credit. People would rather have time with God
in their own way, preferably alone or with loved ones. I don’t blame them. I mean,
last Sunday I stayed home and read the newspaper and then Kathy and I played
tennis. Relaxed. Enjoying the sunshine. Didn’t want to go to church. Not that I
want to worship anywhere else besides St Paul’s anyway.
In her book, The Great Emergence, professor and theologian Phyllis Tickle has
studied the historical shifts in westernized Christianity and at the core of each shift
is the question, "Wherein now lies our authority?" She and other smart people in
academia are studying how religion impacts society and peoples’ behaviors and
they believe we are in one of those shifts that happens every 500 or so years . . .
where the church is losing members, and losing money, and losing credibility.
The institutional church is being called out. And the head of the church, Jesus
Christ is saying to us, asking us: by what authority are you calling yourselves the
leaders of this community of followers? Jesus says to the elders and priests: What
gives you the right to preach to me about Scriptures, about morality, about how
I raise my children, when and where I go to church, or even if I believe in God.
Who are you to question me? This is Jesus talking now. Who are you? You don’t
believe that John was a prophet sent by God. You are men, hungry for power
and control. You collect taxes from people who cannot afford to pay. You didn’t
believe John the Baptist, nor the prophets and Moses before him. You hide behind
religious traditions because you are scared of being with the people; you have lost
touch with the people. “Repent, you brood of vipers!” Repent from your own
twisted agenda. Choose God; choose God’s agenda, follow me. Like John the
Baptist, Jesus preaches repentance, shows people the meaning of METANOIA.
Metanoia: A 180 degree turn. A U-turn. Now let me remind you that Jesus had
just upset the whole place. Just prior to this story is his famous fit of righteous
anger when he shakes up the marketplace within the temple, turning over money
changing tables and throwing out everyone who is not praying. And then
immediately heads out of town, and oddly curses the fig tree for not bearing fruit.
Both stories have Jesus challenging the current religious authority and opening the
door to today’s dialogue. The authorities here react in a way any religious
authority — including me — would react given the circumstances, by challenging
the question . . . and the questioner. Who the hell do you think you are? A rabble
rouser? Here is rousing the rabble. He is elevating the most common people to the
status of theologian. He makes God accessible. Jesus makes it easy to connect with
Abba, his father. That is what it means to have a theology; believing in God . . . in
effect, Jesus is saying to his followers: These guys are full of hot air. You don’t
need them. they will lead you off track. You all can have a savior, you all can
have a faith in God through me.
The dialogue between Jesus and the chief priests and elders is typical for the times
and rabbinic style, says my friend, Rev. Mark Suriano. During Jesus’ time, the
Temple was the place to go to school: discussing, learning, debating, and here we
see Jesus playing the Devil’s Advocate with the temple leaders. And he beats
them at their own game. Their questions are met with a question they cannot
answer, do not dare answer, and they are confounded: they had not recognized
John the Baptist; they had "refused to recognize the messages and people sent by
God." John and Jesus, and their followers, who now number in the thousands are
making quite a splash in the Temple. And so Jesus plays “Devil’s advocate.” It is a
challenge to the whole social order.
The second part of today’s reading, the parable of the Two Sons, is a metaphorical
tale that recognizes the establishment of a new religious order. Did you get that:
Jesus is calling forth a new religious order. These folks who have been identified
as outsiders are the very ones who are speaking and living the truth. The tax
collectors, whores, and degenerates of all kinds who have recognized Jesus are
coming into the sacred space and it rubs the whole social order the wrong way.
So this passage actually, should be rubbing us to wrong way, too. That’s why this
story is about us, too. We, as followers in the way of Jesus and as members of the
church, may wind up like the first son; we say “no” to Jesus, resisting the voice of
God and refusing to follow, but eventually work ourselves around to coming back
through those doors to see if God is still here in the church.
But we are also like the second son, we are the ones who say “yes” to Jesus and
go on about our business, or forget, and even sometimes stray. We stray from the
traditions, turn away from following Jesus to God, or worse yet, we make God
in our own image. I am doing what you asked, we say to Jesus. I am believing in
you. And that is being challenged today. We are being challenged to do something
different, change the no to yes.
The word metanoia carries the connotation of change of heart and "doing a 180,"
and that is exactly what is being called for here. We are being called to put God
first, above all else. Frederick Buechner, in his story, A Room Called Remember,
says: "To be commanded to love God first, is like being commanded to be well
when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs
are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the
wilderness - especially in the wilderness - you shall love [God]."
So here we have the ultimate response: give your life to God. Say no, if you think
you need to, but let the invitation sink in and let your heart and mind be opened to
the idea that God can be the center of your life, and it will bring your peace, joy,
hope and love. Don’t say yes if you are not ready because you cannot lie. It is God
after all; you have nothing to hide, and actually could not hide if you really tried.
I was listening to a song last night by Brian Sirchio. He came to visit last weekend
to the Middleburg Heights UCC, you know the people who cook and serve the 2nd
Sunday meal. Anyway Kathy and I went down there last Saturday. A good song
writer writes lyrics that tell a good story; or have a message that teaches us an
important lesson. One of his song is about tough choices. We often complain that
we have so many things to do. So many demands on our lives. We don’t want to
let people down. We try to please everyone. So here is the chorus: The greatest
enemy of God’s will for your life is all the good things others want you to do. You
keep saying yes until there’s no time left for doing what you’re most deeply called
to do. You know YES doesn’t mean much if you never say NO. are you doing what
you’re meant to do. Don’t let the good things take what’s best from you.
Choices would be easier if they were between the essential things and the
expendable. But, the harder choices are between good and best, rather than right
and wrong. So I want to end here with this idea that sometimes Jesus calls us to
a higher level than where we are currently existing. What that means exactly is
different for each person, but the challenge is this: keeping faith alive when the
church is challenged. Traditions are nice, but only serve as teaching tools. Putting
Love of God above all else, even the church, I believe, is our calling. And the
church will respond to our leadership. After all, we are the church together.