Proper 22 (October 2-8)
Texts: Matthew 21:33-43;
Phil. 3:4b-14; Ex. 20
BREAKDOWN IN AUTHORITY?
I’ve turned on the TV news this week to find another sports story that has gone far beyond the playing field. I’ve even seen it as the lead story in the local news, even though it’s not a local story. I’m talking about the baseball incident of a player spitting at an umpire. As usual, in this video age, they are able to show us a myriad of angles and even slow motion replays. It is an act that disgusts us and raises our ire. How could someone do that? When our sons have showed their anger by spitting, they learn very quickly by our angry response. We have come down very clearly that spitting in someone’s face is the epitome of disrespect and cannot be tolerated. And then we see a ballplayer like Roberto Alomar and we just throw up our arms and feel like saying, “What’s the use?” Yes, this story has caused quite a stir this week.
And, of course, the story has not ended with the incident itself. An even bigger uproar and controversy has come with the announcement of the punishment: a five-day suspension to be served beginning next year. For the umpire, and for fans, and for other onlookers, this has not seemed enough, nor has it been swift enough. Alomar, whose team made the playoffs, should be suspended immediately, right? The umpires proceeded to threaten going on strike if Alomar is allowed to play. MLB went to court to put an injunction on the umpires, and so the umpires have continued to work. And on the story goes, to be continued.
We might ask: why has this story has drawn the attention of the public at large? Let me make a suggestion: because it seems to illustrate a crisis that many people are concerned about: namely, the so-called “breakdown of authority” in our society. Many claim that we see that breakdown especially among our children, in the home and in the classroom. And so we see it among rich, young ballplayers who think that their fame and wealth puts them above any authority. We see it in an increase in crime and disrespect for the laws of this land. And we see it in a decline in religious involvement, don’t we? People don’t even seem to respect God’s authority. Yes, there is a concern these days about a breakdown in authority. So a common cry this week has gone something like: “What will become of us, if this continues? We need to stop it! We need to take cases like Roberto Alomar’s and be tough, be swift! Throw him out now, so that we can begin to regain some respect for authority!”
Enter today’s gospel lesson. Pastor Mary pointed out last week that this portion of Matthew’s gospel is very much about authority. It begins with the religious authorities of Jesus’ day coming to him and asking, (Mt. 21:23b) “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Pastor Mary recalled for us bumper stickers in the 1960’s that said “Question Authority.” Yes, the 60’s: candidate for many people of when this whole breakdown in authority began. Jesus is coming to restore the authority we’ve lost, right?
Well, hold onto your seats, folks, because I think the answer is “No.” Jesus did not come to restore the lost authority in our society. He came to offer us a completely different kind of authority, God’s authority. And this form of authority is so different and so unexpected that it has always been hard for us to hear, hard for us to understand. That’s why one of the strongest themes in the gospel stories is the lack of understanding. The Jewish authorities come to Jesus questioning his authority, not understanding. But they are not the only ones. Jesus’ own disciples are even shown as not understanding. Basically, if not for the resurrected Jesus appearing to them, they never would have begun to understand. Even then, it was not easy.
Look at the amazing way that St. Paul describes it for himself in today’s second lesson. He starts out by bragging how good he had been as a Pharisee. He had been one of those Jewish leaders with great moral authority, ‘blameless under the law,’ he says. Yet he had to count that all as loss, as garbage. Actually, the word that Paul uses here may even be stronger than “rubbish”; it’s not the kind of word we ordinarily say in church. That’s how much a change it is from our human form of authority to God’s authority, as Paul went from a community leader to apostle. So we have to be very up front that this offer from Jesus of a different kind of authority is not necessarily what we want to hear. We might want to make it into the kind of authority we think we’ve lost in recent years, but that’s not the kind of authority Jesus came to give.
How do we know that? Because of the cross. The cross represents our typical human display of authority. The Jewish authorities who came to question Jesus that day, worked our human form of authority by bringing Jesus to trial and convicting him. Then, they brought him to the Roman authorities, and they both ratified the judgment and carried out the punishment. Jesus was condemned as a law-breaker, folks! Hanged with a criminal on his right and on his left! We can try to write it off as a particular instance of a miscarriage of justice. But in lifting up the cross as a universal truth I think that the Christian faith means to say more than that. In raising Jesus from the dead, I think that God means to say more than that. I think that God invites us to see that our whole, entire approach to authority is flawed. It results in things like the cross.
Or let’s quickly take a look at this morning’s parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard. Have you ever wondered why the owner of the vineyard sent his son at all? He had two groups of servants abused and even killed. Why risk your son? I would have sent an army! Wouldn’t you? Throw those bums out! Give ’em what’s coming to them! Jesus even gets the Jewish authorities to say that. He asks them what the owner of the vineyard should so, and they give the answer that all of us would give, based on our usual way of handling authority. “He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” they say. Right! You don’t pussy-foot around with petty dictators. You throw them out! You give them a taste of their own medicine! But notice that Jesus never gives this answer, nor supports it. Rather, he quotes psalm 118: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.’ Yes, Lord, it is amazing. You didn’t send an army to crush the infidels; instead, you sent your son to die, and then raised him. You raised him up to new life to offer us the same new life. Help us to understand this kind of authority and power, one which gives life instead of taking it. Help us to live it.
Or, we need to honestly ask ourselves, “Is this what we want?” Do we want to live this totally new kind of authority and power? Or would we rather have our usual kind of authority restored, shored up a little, like the good ‘ol days? This is the choice before us, folks. Either a return to the good ‘ol days, or a newer version of the same ol’ thing, or take the step into a whole new way. That’s the choice with Jesus Christ. Either we try to build things as we have always done so, or we join with God in building something new out of the stone we rejected.
Perhaps it’s time to take a quick “reality check.” People often say that my sermons made them think. Well, I want to know how you feel. How do you feel right now? Unsettled? Afraid? That would be appropriate. Because what I’m saying is that Jesus didn’t come with that way of restoring order that we usually crave. He didn’t come to address our breakdown of authority with any quick fixes. No, the increase in crime, the lack of respect, the things that make us afraid for ourselves and our children, Jesus didn’t come with any instant solutions. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that there is a sense in which Jesus is behind these things. Oh, it’s not his desire for us to see anyone hurt or suffering from breakdowns in our human authority. His desire is for all of us to finally take his offer of an authority and power that only loves, and that only gives life. But as that new power and authority has come into the world through his death and resurrection, I think that it is slowly whittling at our human forms of authority. Yes, the gradual breakdown of our authority is because his authority has come into this world on the cross, and it will not leave until his love and life is all in all. But, first, things may get worse before they get better. That’s why there is so much of that apocalyptic language in the New Testament that predicts things getting worse before they get better, because we still want to cling to our old way of doing things, even as God’s new of doing things make that less and less possible.
Or perhaps that makes you angry. Perhaps you’re angry right now, listening to this. And that would be appropriate. Frankly, I’d much prefer anger to apathy. Let’s get riled up about this! “God, we need your help! Things are going to pot. Our authority is breaking down; things are in disorder. Too many people are dying. Too many people are suffering! We’re going crazy down here, Lord! Help us! You got to stop this! You got to turn this around! You’ve got to send your army of angels and put a stop to the madness!” But, of course, God did already do something, and it wasn’t to send an army. It was to send his son to die for us and to raise him up. God planted the seeds for a new power of life and love and it’s taking time for those seeds to fully blossom. And sometimes it’s just too hard to wait. We get angry.
But in between the times of fear and anger, perhaps we can begin to start feeling something else, too. Forgiven, for one. Wholly and completely forgiven that we are so slow to let go of our deadly authority and so slow to embrace God’s invigorating authority. Yes, God continues to forgive us and continues to call us to be part of something new. In fact, let’s close this morning with the same words of call and promise that Matthew closes his gospel with, as the resurrected Jesus says to his disciples of every time and age, (Mt. 28:18-20) “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, October 5-6, 1996