Asbury First United
Text: Matthew 21:23-32
The Gospel of Matthew, we understand, was composed, part by part, to meet the needs and answer the questions of the third generation church. Now Jesus has gone. Now Paul has died. Now those whom Jesus gathered have gone. Now those whom Paul inspired have died. Tell us, Matthew, the good news in truth about living together as a church. Tell us about your passion for compassion. And tell us, too, about children and their place in life; about marriage and divorce; about money and its ills and blessings; about heaven; about leadership; and, so today, about authority. What Jesus has said Matthew has noted in ways that are helpful to his church.
At the end of the first century, when this Gospel was written, the still new Christian church, spread out across the Mediterranean, needed answers to big questions. Is the gospel meant for some or all? How shall we determine the truth about this and other issues? Where can we locate the authentic words of Christ? Who will have authority in the church and of what kind will that authority be? Matthew teaches about authority a dozen times in the course of his gospel. Today we traverse the path of one point in his teaching.
After the Seven Eleven paper debacle, I was reluctant to enter another store. Shopping, in any case, for me is stepping into the forecourt of hell. I need little excuse to avoid it. In any case, I had a sermon to imagine. I had agreed, though, to pick up some more paint. We are painting our empty nest. It is good therapy in an odd season. For the first time in twenty years I can get a good night’s sleep on Saturday night. You would think the sermons would improve. Entering Sherwin Williams, I paused to let another fellow, clearly a professional and experienced painter, or at least an energetic and swashbuckling painter, in any case, one self-painted from head to toe, pass by as we headed for the counter. I needed two gallons of the interior latex paint on sale for $18.00. I knew this coming in. It was my only planned and only needed purchase. A two minute deal. One attendant greeted us. Who is first, his eyes asked. I deferred, to my contestant, in the way you do when you know that both of you know that you were there first. Of course though out of courtesy, you are giving way you know and the other knows that you were first and he will of course readily say so and demur, deferring back. He did not. I waited as 5 different gallons of specially mixed, exotic paints were prepared over many minutes. I fumed. I paced. I glared. I looked up and outside, and there, working in the hot tar and paving the parking lot, was the disappointed cigarette purchaser, and colorful valedictorian, of the Seven Eleven. Now he was outside, calm, pouring tar, and I was inside, pacing, nettled. 25 minutes later my contestant, the professional painter, paid the bill, still looking down, not sheepishly, or at least not sheepishly enough. Somewhere amid brushes and drop cloths and rollers, though, a question lingered. Who died and left him first? By what authority? By what authority, too, did I silently hurl judgment upon him? Who made me judge and jury?
The lectionary harms us again this week. Following from the two parables read September 16 and September 23 comes this dark tale of unresolved authority. With only our public reading of the gospel, you would never know that St. Matthew has just a moment ago, in Chapter 20, delivered a remarkable sermon about authority. It bears frequent repetition. It might well happily, that is, have been included in the lectionary. But no. We shall have to cut and paste.
You remember that in Matthew 20 the mother of the sons of Zebedee asks that they be given special position, when Jesus brings the kingdom. But Jesus takes aside James and John to say that it is to be different among his people. They are not to lord it over one another. They are not to find authority in power, but power in authority, not authenticity in power, but power in authenticity. They are to watch over one another in love, but to remember that responsibility shared easily becomes responsibility shirked. Everyone’s business is no one’s. As Paul told the Galatians in verse 2 of his last chapter, “love one another and so fulfill the law of Christ”; or, as he then interpreted himself in verse 6: “each man must bear his own load”. They are to define authority by hardworking service, by responsible self-giving. Who would be greatest, must be servant of all - slave of all, with a little self-awareness thrown in. As T. S. Eliot wrote: “who would serve the greater cause may make the cause serve him”. Authority raises a personal question.
My Saturday continued, unaware that its unsuspecting contours would later be fitted to the flow of a narrative sermon. Using the historic present: I park for a moment to be inspired again by the spire of this church. I wonder if the congregation will take the preacher at his word the next day and invite someone to come along, whether or not the invitation is accepted. 24 hours later I am to be jubilantly impressed at how many have done so. It is good exercise. Asbury First is like Bermuda, an enchanting combination of physical visual beauty, and personal verbal courtesy, the best of nature and architecture and culture and posture. An oasis, of sorts.
There is a rising tide of discourtesy flowing over us, to be sure. But it is what comes out of a man, said Jesus earlier in Matthew, that defiles him. I suppose I am too sensitive to this question about authority. In the well nigh radical sphere of freedom that is the open expanse called church, there are hourly authority issues. By what authority? A firmly and rightly posed question. The Protestant churches have hundreds of years of experience trying to balance the needs for order on the one hand and the inevitable corrupting influence of ordering power on the other. So Luther split the church in twain, over authority. So Calvin retranslated and reinterpreted the Scripture, over authority. So Wesley ordained Coke and Asbury, to work in this country, over authority (telling them never to call themselves bishops). So in our time, the endless struggles over theology and order devolve so often into contests over authority. We rightly, from the perspective of the tradition of this church, delicately weigh all assertions about authority.
Otherwise we fall victim to a form of religious blindness. See: like the lectionary, the Pharisees have missed the whole point. Jesus knows they are trying to trap him, to see if he will commit blasphemy. Jesus here falls in behind John, as he did in their births to Elizabeth and Mary, as he did later along the Jordan river at the outset of baptism, as he did in the prophetic preaching of the 1st century in recollection of the prophets of old, as he did in avoiding the charge of madness (“he has a demon—behold a glutton and a drunkard”), as he did at last in death, the baptist beheaded well before the crucifixion.
But the church for which these words were meat and drink, Matthew’s church, and the many others who used his collection, did not miss the point. Jesus had something to say to them about authority. He had known and dodged the dangerous challenges of political and religious authorities. He slips out, slips by, at least for now. It would not be hard to imagine how encouraging and inspiring the scene might have been, remembered in the year 90 AD.
If nothing else, as practical help this week, let us with Matthew and his church admire and smile and chortle at the creativity, imagination and enterpreneurial cunning with which Jesus evades the cops. The middle gospels, Luke and Matthew, are written near and during the reign of Domitian, a Caesar who sent out an empire wide persecution of atheists, that is of Christians, and of others who did not worship the Roman Gods. They also were dodging and weaving in the face of civil and not so civil authority. Some were perhaps being taken, and some dying.
Here is how our gospels came to life:
Faced with the care of widows and orphans, Matthew remembered Jesus’ teaching about the poor and the young.
Faced with the need to raise another generation with discipline and compassion, Matthew remembered Jesus’ teaching about a house built upon the rock.
Faced with inevitable dilemmas related to money and resources, Matthew remembered Jesus’ parables and sayings about God and mammon.
Faced with the desire to share his own fierce passion - saving the lost, reaching the outsider, welcoming the stranger, churching the unchurched—Matthew remembered Jesus’ own parables and manners and patterns of welcome.
Faced with the vital questions of how to arrange and manage the affairs of a nascent organism, a church body, Matthew remembered that Jesus had something to say as well about authority, and that Jesus had run his own risks in the face of authority. Authority raises a religious question.
Meanwhile, along the roads in Rochester, my shopping duties done, I had finally meandered into the office. Coffee on, e-mail dispatched, desk cleared, ah, a moment to meditate and to write. Writing and visiting, two joys that keep me in the ministry. Another of the real joys of ministry with you is the thrill of anticipating our gathering on Sunday. From the layer beneath the skin, in the old bone structure of this church, there is a physical mind that is ever alert, ready to sense, beneath all our pageantry, a full sacrament of love. A Presence. All of the symbols of our common life, even in the great and beautiful space of this sanctuary, are symbols of servant authority. A pulpit: filled by a servant of the Word. An altar: prepared for the eucharistic sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. A robe and stole: worn to signify the yoke of Christ, a burden and light. A cross, a cross, a cross….GONG! My reverie was suddenly interrupted. The Saturday doorbell rings, and in comes an unknown neighbor to comment on the playing of the chimes—is there something wrong with your bells? No. Apparently we were playing some unfamiliar hymns. (Like our sermon hymn today.) We would love to see you in church. Oh, I am distant from religion. Even so, he listens, and stops to question the ringing authority that somewhere, somehow means something to him. He leaves, and in the quiet of a Saturday I am again left alone to murmur and ponder the people of God in worship, to see the faces uplifted in hymn and affirmation, to sense the hidden struggles, to admire the silent courage under duress, to be humbled again by the individual acts of kindness and goodness embodied on the Lord’s day. Here you are. You are beautiful.
I lollygag. The paper bought at the outset of the day and the onslaught of this narrative episodic sermon lies unread. I flip - now a habit—to the op-ed page. I skim - now a habit - the last two paragraphs of each editorial. A Yale teacher is wondering about authority. Can one nation act alone and unilaterally? Now, paper before me and a sermon for eight days hence to consider, I can see and overhear an anxious concern in the hearts of our people. It is related to the question of authority. In August our staff committee met and I listed three concerns I could see on the horizon for the fall: staff development, building issues, war and peace.
War and peace. Ah, yes. Coffee brewed, radio tuned, here is what I wrote last Saturday. Over time, I would covet your responses: In most of our churches, people of faith have usually assumed one of two traditional positions in the face of armed conflict, or as is often the case, a kind of wisened situational combination of the two: pacifism or just war. Often, too, the chief job of the pastor in such a time is to help the congregation think clearly, and also to maintain space for a variety of views within one body. There is much space here at Asbury First. Think of it as an expansive village green. The pacifist position depends upon Matthew, in verses like Chapter 5: 38: You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” The activist position does too, in verses like Matthew 10: 34, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” How shall we think about this?
I know, given the stature and venerability of this pulpit, that many of you have heard these points rehearsed many times, and engaged wisely and sensitively in the past. Perhaps there is little that I can add. You remember that there have been five basic criteria, from Augustine to Aquinas to us, in the so-called just war theory: just cause in response to serious evil; just intention for restoration of peace with justice, not self-enrichment or devastation of another; last resort; have legitimate authority; have a reasonable hope of success, given the necessary constraints of discrimination and proportionality. I am indebted to my friend Phil Amerson for this summary in a recent Oxford paper, available in our church office. These are difficult times and serious questions. Shakespeare: “Who the sword of heaven will bear must be as holy as severe.”
Response…Restoration…Last…Authority…What has caught me, at least, unprepared this fall, is that it seems that our current course as a country moves in a third way, apart from both the pacifist and activist positions in the history of Christian thought. It seems, at least, that some of our moral debate has now taken leave of the history of Christian ethics altogether, leaving behind both the pacifist and the activist, both the non-retaliatory and the just war positions. What Congress now debates, and is apparently ready to approve, is not a response but a preemption; not a restoration but a dislocation; not a last but an initial resort; not an act based on a communal authority, but a nearly unilateral act. We are told that this is a new age, that patience must be balanced with realism about the threat at large, that in due time we shall be shown the proof for the need of this new doctrine. But let us be clear: preemption, destruction, initiation, usurpation—these have little basis or foothold in the history of Christian thought, to this point. None, in fact, that I can locate, though am eager to learn from you and others. (No proof more profound can be found to show that truly we live in a post-Christian age). We are left, as disciples of Jesus Christ, either to redefine the expanse of Christian ethics developed over 2000 years, or to reconsider our current debate.
Let me ask us in the coming week to assess what we think is true by the mysterious measure of today’s scripture: “By what authority?”
The rest of this one day in the Day of God was consumed in the act of painting, together, across the quieter expanse of a now empty home. I had no illusions about the authority under which I was set to work. Like the children of Israel I labored a bitter yoke, struggling to accomplish what had been ordered. Mercifully the day ended as we had been invited to two social dinners, both by adult classes of our church and in our church. In the fellowship of this autumn evening we were again connected to our roots in faith. The welcome of a happy gathering, a good meal, a thoughtful program, a generous greeting, a confident service - all these greeted the end of this day. Particularly charming were the clear evidences, in both classes, of active and effective welcoming to newcomers, strangers, new friends. There is a form of authority that is not authoritarian at all. It is the authority of service, to which we are drawn as to our truest home. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant…Even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve.”
The servant welcome of the adult classes came to mind again in our men’s group as it studied "Service" Tuesday, early in the morning (ex libris Dallas Willard), “service”:
Comes from a relationship with the divine Is often drawn to small service Does not seek attention Is free of the need to calculate results Serves all Disciplines feeling Is a full life-style Builds community, draws, binds, heals.
And now the evening falls. Support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us: a safe lodging, a happy rest, and peace at the last. Given our own abiding, still finally unanswered questions about authority, we can well understand why Matthew remembered this argument. Given our own abiding struggles, biblical and personal and religious and political, with authority, we can well appreciate the elusive ending to this passage. Jesus slips away. He is not cornered - biblically, personally, religiously, or politically. He stands among us, by spirit. He speaks to us, in preaching. He defends and supports and reassures and emboldens us, by grace. But He will not be had. And in that divinely gracious freedom, He saves us from our worst selves and keeps alive, ever elusively alive, the day, way, peace, freedom, the reign of God. It may be, may it not, that all our fuming about authority is only overture to what truly matters, which is not authority at all, but authenticity in the presence of One who asks of your soul and mine, “I will ask you a question: By what authority…?”