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Mission

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.”  

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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

church.

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.

We are located at 4427 Franklin Blvd, Cleveland, Ohio, 44113 in the heart of the Ohio City neighborhood - just a few blocks north of Lorain Avenue. We're located at the corner of Franklin Boulevard and 45th Street.

Please call us for more information on our many activities and programs - (216) 651-6250.

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