A sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr Daniel Dries
Pentecost 17 Christ Church St Laurence – 1 October 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight: O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
From the 21st Chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew:
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?”
Some years ago, by sheer coincidence, my family and I lived across the road from a suburban Anglican Church. At the front of this suburban parish church was a positively enormous car park (although, anything would seem vast compared with our four highly sought-after parking spaces). At the gate of this commodious parking area was a rather weathered sign that simply said, “No skateboarding allowed in this car park, by authority of the Parish Council.” As thousands of teenagers skateboarded around this sign, it occurred to me that they may not have fully respected the authority of the Parish Council. The sight of teenagers skateboarding in a largely abandoned car park had an element of humour to it, although it also seemed like a rather sad metaphor for the church—an institution that continues to claim great moral influence and power, while the wider society seems to be completely deaf to this voice of authority.
[The chief priests and the elders said to Jesus], “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
In Matthew Chapter 21 Christ enters the Temple courts. The tense power struggle in this passage is not the first uncomfortable encounter to occur in the Temple. Just one chapter earlier, Christ overturned the tables of the money changers and ruffled the feathers of those who were selling doves. We might have expected that he would not return to such a den on inequity. However, Christ’s return in Matthew Chapter 21, today’s Gospel, is indeed his last visit to the Temple; perhaps his final attempt to worship in God’s dwelling place on earth.
Like so many other encounters with the Pharisees and Sadducees, their criticism of Christ is not focussed on his miraculous healing powers or his ability to love the unlovable, but rather they attack his inability to follow the rules. More importantly, he dares to challenge their authority. The only hope they have in maintaining their power and influence is to question his authority. To question the authority, and to ridicule or criticise the leadership of others continues to be the dominate form of leadership in our world. Why are there so few courageous and visionary leaders in our current world? We would have to wonder where American civil rights would be today if Martin Luther King Jr. had begun his “I have a dream speech” with the words, “I have a complaint”.
The first century Christian church also found itself in something of a leadership vacuum. Again, we must remember that Matthew is writing for a largely Jewish community struggling to remain faithful immediately following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, and all of the social and religious structures that were centred around it. Who were the religious experts in Matthew’s new church? Who would have claimed authority in this largely Jewish community in which the Pharisees and Sadducees were suddenly absent?
When his authority is questioned, Christ responds with yet another parable. Again, it’s not a happy-ending and inspiring little parable that we might find in Luke, although it has been argued that The Parable of The Two Sons formed the nucleus or inspiration for The Prodigal Son. However, Matthew’s Parable of The Two Sons is rather more cutting and direct in its criticism of religious authority. One son refuses to work in his father’s vineyard, but then changes his mind; while the second initially responds with great enthusiasm, only to give up before he even starts. In case the religious authorities haven’t worked which character relates to them, Christ says, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Suddenly, their religious authority seems even more pointless than a faded church sign prohibiting skateboarding.
The first readers of Matthew’s Gospel were being challenged to step out of the safety and security of a very black and white understanding of faith and mission. Suddenly they were being called to undertake a mission to the gentiles; to the entire world. This community of faith was being called to abandon many of the rules and regulations that had been faithfully observed for centuries. They were being called to minister and to meet the basic human needs of all people, regardless of their race and even their faith tradition.
In John’s Gospel, we encounter a broken human being stripped bare in excruciating pain, who entrusts his mother to the loving care of another; a final gift of love from one who had nothing else to give. As Matthew’s community had witnessed the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and all that went with it, they were also stripped of all power and authority. They had lost all possessions and control. Despite this utter devastation, they were still being called to love. In fact, it’s all that they had left. In the end, the power to share love was the only authority and influence they had.
Most of us here today would lament the decline of the church in our society, and throughout most of the western world. However, before we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed with a sense of sadness and defeat, we should seriously reflect on what we are lamenting. In previous generations, the Christian Church was largely responsible for the education of children; the Christian Church was largely responsible for the care of the sick; the Christians Church was largely responsible for the care of the poor and the outcast. This was a reflection of the early church; it was this mutual and selfless love that distinguished the early Christians from the rest of their society. The early Jesus movement would have never survived without it.
There are still many people who devote their lives to the education of the young, and to the care of the sick, the poor and the marginalised. But we have handed many of these tasks over to the secular society, and yet we still dare to preach love with great authority. As the church bickers about rules and regulations, and as the church increasingly displays real and metaphorical signs that often exclude, judge and alienate, it is as though society were teaching us about love, mercy and compassion. There can be no doubt that it was always meant to be the other way around.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.