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The Authority of Jesus- (Video and Transcript Available)

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September 27, 2020 The Rev. Mark Pendleton Christ Church Exeter The Authority of Jesus Matthew 21:23-32 23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" 24 Jesus said to them, "I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" And they argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?' 26 But if we say, 'Of human origin,' we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet." 27 So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 28 "What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' 29 He answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir'; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. Questions of authority follow us through our lives. For most of us, we grow up in homes where parents, and sometimes grandparents, have the upper hand and authority over us. It is the grown-ups who, by in large, decide where we live, how we live, what we eat, what we learn, believe and value. This power imbalance plays out ever Thanksgiving around the country as some are relegated to the kids' table - as I was for many years. Some of us, as we grow, start testing authority more than others. We know those who stir the pot, speak out of turn, challenge the dominant view, rebel and refuse to go along with the prevailing wind. Have you ever been told that you might have an "authority problem?" Moving beyond our home we come to see the others who have authority in our world. Teachers, principals, coaches, doctors and nurses, policemen and women. We grow to see how the civil leaders have authority. Whether in democracies or dictatorships, someone at the top makes decisions that impact everyone else. Good enlightened leaders or bad and cruel leaders, respected tribal chiefs or ruthless war lords, someone somewhere will claim, hold and execute authority. For church goers, the priest or pastor you used to greet at the front door of the church holds certain authority - we certainly dress differently when we talk about God, celebrate Holy Communion and baptize new Christians. David Holroyd and I, in our Bible study this past week, started sharing stories of our early days as young rectors. I was 30 years old in my first parish outside of Hartford and by far the youngest in the room for every vestry meeting, working with some formidable "Swamp Yankees" as the long-time locals liked to call themselves who had lived for centuries alongside the Connecticut River. I learned through trial and error that in some places authority is more earned than given. My greatest lesson and comeuppance came when I would naively refer the church canons during meetings to point to the precise section that clearly stated what a rector - me -- was allowed to do. As soon as the book opened I had lost the point, and the room, and had to work even harder to regain trust and yes, earn my authority in their eyes. Today's gospel reading is all about authority and the choices you and I make when confronted with decisions of what to believe and how we are to live. The point behind the conversation is the turning we are all invited to make as to look towards God and follow where Christ leads. We hear in the reading from Ezekiel that above God wants us to all to "turn, then, and live." Ezekiel 18:32 Let's set the scene as we always try to do. When Jesus enters the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Matthew 21:23 The timing of this encounter are the events that we read on Palm Sunday, the week before Easter Day. Jesus enters Jerusalem in a triumphant procession and heads right to the Temple, the heart and center of Judaism. He drives out the money changers. Jesus seems on edge and curses a fig tree as a sign for things to come. He is making a strong and loud statement as Passover pilgrims steam into the city: a confrontation was inevitable. We know that confrontation leads to his trial and death on the cross, then his Resurrection - the pivot point of our entire faith. Jesus engages in this exchange with those we might describe today as political, religious and financial elites. Though occupied by Rome, the chief priests and elders had great influence in the city and countryside. About this Galilean rebel with his entourage of outcasts: they wanted to know the how and who of Jesus' power. As we see, the "grown-ups" if you will did not have much to say to the question Jesus posed about the work of John the Baptist. The best they could muster: "We do not know." I'm struggling a bit with the question of authority and what is true and not true. I know as a preacher and a concerned citizen I cannot afford to turn off all sources of information, especially in these few weeks before the election. I do look at social media. I post but I do not tweet. We are using this new technology to stay connected and worship in ways that few of us could imagine seven months ago. How are we to know what is true? This whole "fake news" thing has seeped into the collective well water and many people simple do know who or what is an authoritative source for news and information. "I saw of it online" or "I read about it in the New York Times" or "someone told me that they heard about it from a friend" is leading us into countless directions and often down a rabbit hole of unbelief. For all the good the internet has offered by interconnecting the world and our lives, it also comes with great power to slander, distort and divide. I personally go through a love/hate relationship with the internet almost every week. I am concerned in the ways in which some bad actors can manipulate data and facts and sow doubt in the minds of many who were already on the margins of society - precisely the people Jesus collected on his long walk from Galilee to Jerusalem - the forgotten, the disgruntled and the ignored. We heard again last Sunday his re-ordering of God's economy from the last to the first, always making the point that the survival of the fittest world of today often forgets: God's care for the last, the least, the lowly and the lost. What then is the point of the parable we hear today? Jesus begins, not with "truly, truly, I say to you" or "the kingdom of God is like" but rather, "what do you think?" A man had two sons. He tells one: go to work in the vineyard and the son says "no way." But later, for some reason, he changes his mind and goes. And second son gets the same invitation: go and work in the vineyard today. "Yes, sir, I'll go." But that son never did go. Which son, asks Jesus, pleased his father? Those gathered guessed correctly, the first son, the one who changed his mind and went to work in the vineyard. The tax collectors and the prostitutes got it right, the priest and the elites got it wrong. A familiar and beloved hymn is the Shaker Song #554. 'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free, 'tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, and when we find ourselves in the place just right, 'twill be in the valley of love and delight. When true simplicity is gained to bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed, to turn, turn, will be our delight till by turning, turning we come round right. To describe the moment in time we are living through as a turning point may fail to fully capture the different directions and choices that lay before us. Taken all together -- living through Covid, the coming Elections, the Supreme Court battles ahead, the Census, the Post Office, on-line learning for students and teachers, it can all be overwhelming. Social isolation is a real thing and can spiral and lead to a sinking feeling that we have very little agency over anything right now. Frustration and fear is reaching a boiling point and there are some days when I really, for the first time in my adult life, I am worried about the future of this country. I have fond memories of the song we would sing in school assemblies back in the 1970's that is also #719 in our hymnals. "America! America! God shed his grace on thee, mend thine every flaw, crown they good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea." (Materna) And still, may we turn and go to work in God's vineyard to join in healing and mending and encouraging. I offered a blessing for a graduation in June when I reminded those gathered of the ancient words from Scripture (Ecclesiastes). The turning that God is asking us to making can show us how today is a time to be born, a time to plant, a time to heal; a time to build up; a time to laugh; a time to dance; a time to embrace, a time to seek, a time to keep, a time to speak; a time to love, a time for peace. May we offer more light than darkness, more hope than fear, more justice than violence. 2
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