Proper 21 Year A
Five or six years ago, we were lucky enough to go on a family vacation in Italy. My husband – who is amazing when it comes to planning trips — asked me at one point, “Do you want to go to Assisi?” I remember bursting into laughter and replying, “You’re asking the seminarian on ordination track in the Episcopal church if she wants to go to Assisi? Wait, is that a trick ques-tion?” So, yes, we went. And being there, seeing the landscape, smelling the trees and flowers, walking the medieval streets of the tiny town, I was overwhelmed by the sense of integration with nature — even though there were cars and trains and electricity and wifi, and all the other accoutrements of 21st C life. There’s something about the light and the colors and the smells of Umbria in the summer that can transport you to Francis and Claire’s world — a kind of timelessness and cohesion of the senses that touches your soul. Assisi is a thin place for sure — a place where the illusory veil between our incarnate reality and God’s actual reality is more porous.
You feel that keenly when you are there: the interconnectedness of all being — not only human to God and God to human, but the presence of God in the created world as well. It’s easy to understand why Claire and Francis chose to step out of the “way things were done” and follow another path — a mystical path that was more in tune with the natural world and the landscape. It’s a choice that has a deep history in our tradition, starting with the desert mothers and fathers in the 4th century. Later today, after the 11 AM service, we will have the annual blessing of the animals, and I hope many of you will attend. The service is a chance to honor that tradition through the recognition of how strong our bonds are with our beloved animals.
The Blessing of the Animals speaks pointedly to the larger truth that we are never alone. Listening to the news of earthquakes and hurricanes and wildfires recently, one can sometimes wonder where God is in all of these disasters — in millions of people without power, water, food and shelter. One of the answers to that question can be found in the photographs of people helping — of hearts and minds and hands reaching out — of the man in a wheelchair helping to clear rubble in Mexico, of the “Cajun Navy” of Louisiana and Texas going into flood waters to rescue people from their houses, of the animal rescuers helping find and save the pets that were left behind when their owners had to abandon their homes too swiftly to make provisions. God is present in all of this because these kinds of catastrophic disasters remind us of what truly matters — that we are all interconnected at the most fundamental level, no matter what other disagreements we may have. The crises of natural disasters — the crises of providing healthcare — the crisis of providing food and housing — the crisis of challenging racism and sexism and able-ism — are all our collective responsibilities.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said: “I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I am not accommodated. I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised, not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.”
Claire and Francis were equally maladjusted. Looking at the gospel today, I kept thinking about them, and about their witness to that way of understanding our being — an understanding that recognizes our collectivity over and above our separateness. An understanding that eschews accommodation to “the way things are.” Instead of accepting and working within the rules that governed their class structure in medieval Italian society, they both chose to step out of the system. They both chose to turn their backs on the wealth and privilege that their families’ positions would have afforded them. They both chose to say that there were certain compromises they were no longer willing to make.
In the first half of Matthew’s text, Jesus called out the chief priests and the elders — asking them to recognize the compromises they had chosen to make. We have to admire how crafty Jesus was in this story. Jesus was in Jerusalem — just before this, he had overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple. It is clear that the chief priests and the elders were worried about him — as well they should have been, because he was upsetting the delicate balance they had struck — the balance between maintaining their power as the religious authorities of the Judean people and placating the occupying Roman forces. In the temple, the Romans were always present, in fact, the priests had to go into the Roman garrison that was on the temple grounds in order to retrieve the garments they needed to wear in order to perform the sacrifices. That’s how tightly controlled they were by their occupiers. So, in order to survive, in order to keep the worship of their God alive, the priests and elders had to collaborate and to compromise.
When he overturned the tables, Jesus called that system out. And the crowds were loving it. Think how dangerous that must have been! The Romans were notoriously brutal about keeping order. The priests and the elders had seen how the people have responded to Jesus — how he had brought hope into their midst. So they sought to discredit him — to find a way to compromise HIM, just as they had been compromised. They wanted to demonstrate that he too was part of the system. And so they asked him to declare where his authority came from.
And Jesus responded with a question about John. Who gave John HIS authority? Was his bap-tism from heaven or from human authority? When Jesus asked that question, they were trapped. If they said it was from heaven, he would have asked why they did not believe John. But if they said it was human, then the crowd would turn against them, because the crowd had already acknowledged John as a prophet. So they equivocated — they were unwilling to take a side. They keep trying to have it both ways — to maintain a foothold that allowed them to “keep their options open” as we would say today. The priests and the elders were dangling — refusing to commit to anything except the right to not make a clear choice. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Matthew’s Jesus goes on in the 2nd part of the passage to call them out as hypocrites by telling the parable of the two sons. It’s clear which son he thinks the priests and the elders resemble. They are the 2nd son in the story, the one who SAYS yes to the father, but then does not actually DO what he promised to do. And Jesus then says 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.
What an indictment that was. The priests and elders were used to thinking that they were better than prostitutes and tax collectors. Because the prostitutes and tax collectors were considered the worst collaborators with the Romans. But in this parable, Matthew likens those tax collectors and prostitutes to the 1st son, the one who does ill at first, but then later repents and has a change of heart. That change of heart involved making a decision to step out of the system — to follow the way of righteousness and work for God’s kingdom instead of the Roman empire. To stop equivocating. To try to see things from God’s perspective — honoring the interconnectedness of all things instead of the differences.
So here’s why I find Jesus’ question to them especially wily — and by the way, especially hopeful for us. His question really is a trick question. It’s a trick question not only because he knows he is setting a trap for the priests and elders. Jesus understands the balancing act they are doing, and how they will try to “spin” their answer. But it is also a trick question because he knows that the answer to the question of authority is not either only God or only human. The correct answer is both/and. John’s authority did come from God — but it also came from the validation brought about in the changed hearts, actions, and lives of the humans he has baptized. And Jesus’ own authority also comes from both — first from God, the creator, who said as John baptizes Jesus, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” but secondly, from the testament of the incarnation itself — from God’s choice to be fully human, to enter our experience in order to become closer to us.
We are never alone. We have each other. And we have Jesus, the God who loved us so dearly that he became as we are. Everything is — as Francis and Claire strove to show us — truly inter-connected. This flesh, this life, this moment in time — all of it matters. All of it is sanctified. All of it is a thin space, if only we open our eyes to see it.
So, if any of you are worried or wondering — is this one of those gospels where I won’t measure up? Am I like the first son or the second son? Am I a sheep or am I a goat? — Please don’t forget how wily Jesus was in asking this question. Because he did so to do more than wake us up — he also did so to reassure us.
In some ways, we are all like the 1st son, and like the priests and the elders. We are all collaborators. We are all complicit in those things which separate ourselves and others from the love of God — from that deep understanding of interconnection.
But ultimately, we are all also like the 2nd son. We are all beneficiaries of God’s grace. And w all have moments of being able to fully live into that reality.
In the end, we are all both sons. There will always be days and times when we fall away from that glory — when we forget that we are not alone. And let’s be honest — I am sure there were times when Frances and Claire did so too. But every day is also a chance to be surprised anew. Every day is a moment to claim our authority to be a blessing in this world. 10 verses later in this chapter that Matthew cites Psalm 118 and tells us: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” We are that cornerstone. We too are amazing in God’s eyes. We too are part of the sacred reality of inter-connectedness. We too are all beloved of God. Amen.
The Rev. Posey Krakowsky
October 1, 2017