Sept. 27, 2020
I file today’s gospel passage under the “Jesus is smarter than you” category of stories. It’s like the passage about the lawfulness of paying taxes to the oppressive Roman Empire. Jesus says, “look whose image in on that coin. Give to Caesar what is his and give to God what belongs to God.” The Jesus Seminar people back in the late 90’s – a group that took on the task of judging the authenticity of the Jesus sayings – asserted that that line must surely have been attributable to the historical Jesus because it was so uniquely brilliant and memorable. With his reply the trap that was set for him failed and his detractors were at least temporarily put into their place.
A similar thing is happening this morning. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” This is the confrontation brought on by the chief priests and elders. They ask their question ostensibly in response to his temple teachings, but perhaps also because he had just made a fruitless fig tree wither, and prior to that cleansed the temple of its money changers, and prior to that rode into Jerusalem on a donkey with the cheers of pilgrims who were somehow compelled to wave their branches and lay their cloaks on the ground as a path before him. Or, maybe “these things” that they are referencing point to all of Jesus’ ministry: his teachings, his healings, the miracles, the forgiveness of sins, the lifting up of the lowly. Who are you!? What power do you claim to have harvested in order to do all this stuff? But, Jesus doesn’t answer. Instead, He traps them with a question of his own and then tells them a story about two sons, which if they think about it for a while exposes not just the error of their ways but also the baselessness of the authority they claim for themselves.
Jesus wins. There’s no doubt about it. But, this time around with this passage I just wasn’t in a place to appreciate the victory. I’m tired of hearing arguments. I’m tired of playing them out in my head. I’m tired of rooting for or against people. So, I prayed the passage instead. I did a meditative kind of reading and I heard the question a bit differently. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” I imagined that maybe those chief priests and elders weren’t being antagonistic. Maybe they just really needed to know. If they were going to make a life change; if they were going to yield to this Jesus, this Messiah, they would need to be sure that he was the real deal. And so, they ask.
The question from our gospel passage is really not all that dissimilar to the question at root in our Exodus passage as well. Throughout Exodus and some of the book of Numbers the Israelites grumble against God. There are a number of these passages, all fairly similar to today’s, where anxiety levels rise as the uncertainties of the wilderness mount and the people complain and cry out to Moses. Their memories are short and though slavery was not far behind them, its hardships don’t press upon them the way current circumstances do. They cry out to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children with thirst?”
Once again, it’s tempting to take sides, to see the Israelites as weak of will and faith, and to see Moses as their patient and faithful leader apart from whom God might simply abandon the whole pack of them. But, let’s not. Moses named the place where God poured water from the rock, and its name is really the heart of the matter. “Is the Lord among us or not?” And, if we are honest this is not simply a question of the Israelites. This is everybody’s question. It is the question of the chief priests and elders in Matthew, and it is our question too. Is God with us or not? Is God reliable? Will God’s provisions suffice? Will God’s love do? Will God show up? Will God act? Can we count on God?
The passage from our service that I haven’t yet referenced is Philippians 2:1-13, known to seminarians and bible nerds as “The Christ Hymn.” It’s an important designation because it hints at the fact that these words aren’t originally Paul’s. Instead Paul points to a confession that was sung by this and other early churches, a confession that shows that the earliest collective response to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the imitation of Christ in the form of self-emptying and forsaking the ego’s desires in order to rise with Christ to a God-filled self in relation to other God-filled selves seeking to carry on the ministry of Jesus. And, if that was the task, if dying to the agendas of self in order to rise to one’s new and true self with Christ was the point of Christian faith, can you imagine any of them doing it without asking the very same question and all that it means? “Is the Lord with us or not?”
In part, the answer will depend upon what it is we are looking for from God. What are we looking for God to show up and do? And, whenever that question comes up my mind turns to a book I first read many years ago, but it’s made a lasting impression. In “Prayer: Living with God,” Simon Tugwell writes, “The only solution that God has to offer to all our problems is Godself, is the fact that God is, that God is the kind of God that God is, a God who has a Word to utter, which God utters in an ecstasy of joy, an ecstasy of giving, which we call the Holy Spirit… God has only the one thing to say, which is Godself, God has only the one thing to give, which is Godself. And God invites us to hear that Word, to treasure it in our hearts and find in God the source of all our bliss.”
“Is the Lord with us or not?” I asked my colleagues on Tuesday how they had experienced God showing up in their lives, if anything came to mind right away. One friend shared how all his life he’d been afraid of not measuring up, not mattering enough to the right people, and eventually he learned to cover up the pain and insecurity with drugs. Though functioning as an academic and professional his life spiraled into addiction. He said, “I was filling myself with stuff that was killing me,” by which he meant both physically and spiritually. Then he shared how God saved him, how he discovered that he could really and truly fill himself with God instead, and so, with support and love from others he did. God gave him God, and that was the gift that allowed him to heal.
In turn, my friend asked me my own question and what came to mind first for me was an experience I’ve shared with you before. It was the time that God showed up and laughed at me. I had been working all day on a sermon and yet I hadn’t produced a word. I wanted the sermon to be amazing, to change lives and save souls, because as an Associate Minister I only got to preach once a month. But, God had given me nothing to say. When I expressed my anxiety and extreme displeasure with God for God’s silence God finally showed up, and what I felt and heard was laughter. God gently laughed at me and suddenly I was freed up enough from myself and capable of taking myself much less seriously so that the words to a sermon then came easily enough.
Now, I share these examples with a slight concern that they may not resonate if you don’t struggle with addiction or if you don’t write sermons on a regular basis. So, I’ll share the thought that came next when I answered my friend. It’s the more consistent and predictable experience of settling into prayer and finding a certain kind of renewal, rediscovering the difference between a day with God and a day without God, reclaiming the joy of being a person who is invited into divine purpose as a husband and father, as a pastor and leader, as a preacher and an administrator, as a friend, as a child, and even as a sinner. God shows up and doesn’t play any of these roles for me, but makes these roles part of something sacred, makes life sacred.
“Is the Lord with us or not?” Can we count on God? I hope my thoughts help you with your answer. But, do you know what will really help? Putting words to your own stories of God showing up. Naming how it is you’ve experienced God and what those experiences have done for you – in you – to you. And, when you’ve done that, tell someone. Tell me! We’ll all be the better for it.
 Simon Tugwell, Prayer: Living with God, page 126, 127