Saturday, September 27, 2014

We Don't Get to Choose (Version 2.0)

I used the theme "We Don't Get To Choose" before, but this isn't a rehash of an old sermon. It's built from a statement on the "Pulpit Fiction" home pageThe tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of you - note Jesus does not say that they will NOT enter the Kingdom, they will just enter behind the tax collectors and prostitutes... Why is this a problem? Should we celebrate that we are all going to the Kingdom and if not, perhaps that is what is keeping us away...”

Also, the last time I used this theme, the Rev. Dr. Kirk Jeffery posted a quote from Nick Lillo of WaterStone Community Church. I used it in this sermon.

(By the way, Rev. Dr. Jefffery roasts and sells the best coffee in the world. Just sayin'.)

There's a thing comedians and musicians do called "riffing," where you just take a theme and run with it. Maybe today's riff is, "God loves, so just... go with it."

MATTHEW 21:23-32
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?” 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. 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?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 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.
What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 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. 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.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

The road into Jerusalem is strewn with crumpled, dusty palm branches from the day before, and somewhere between there and Bethany, there's a withered fig tree that had been leafy, but barren of fruit, just that morning. The Temple was packed, as always, and though Jesus had overturned tables and run them out the day before, the merchants and moneychangers were back at work. It isn't much of a stretch to imagine that it was one of them who had notified the elders and priests that Jesus was back. “Hey Phil, isn't that the guy from yesterday? The crazy guy with the whip?”

They found Jesus, squatting on the pavement in a corner, a tight knot of people listening as he taught.

Those priests and elders were, in a way, painted into a corner themselves. These days, if someone came busting in the church swinging a whip and turning things over, we would of course call the cops. For all intents and purposes, the priests and the elders, members of the Sanhedrin,
were the cops... they could simply have arrested Jesus, right then and there. But if they did that, the people would very likely riot.

I'm not saying that everyone in all of Judea who wasn't a priest or an elder or a Sadducee or Pharisee believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Most probably accepted that he was a prophet, or didn't care one way or another. But in a tightly packed city like Jerusalem during Passover week, all it took was a few angry people to start a fight, and soon the whole town was rioting, and they wouldn't really have cared why. The Temple elite would have been a good target, what with their sumptuous living and constant demands on the dirt-poor believers for more money and more sacrifices.

And even if the priests weren't torn limb from limb by enraged mobs, the fact remained that Judea was a province of the Roman Empire, under occupation by legions tasked with keeping the peace at any cost. A riot would be violently quashed, and the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, would determine that the Temple leaders were ineffective and have them replaced, perhaps even jailed or killed.

So this question the elders and priests asked Jesus,
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” was truly a loaded question. On the one hand, it may have been a valid question - “Please tell us who empowered you, please help us understand.” Judging by Jesus' reaction, though, it's safe to assume that the priests and elders were struggling to expose Jesus as a fraud and a charlatan, discredit him in front of the people who clung to every word of hope that came from the mouth of this dusty little Rabbi from the middle of nowhere.

In any case, can you imagine the turmoil those religious leaders felt? There was no denying that Jesus was someone special – he spoke prophetically and with absolute authority, and he performed miracles, real miracles! The lame walked, the blind received their sight... and he had even raised a man from the dead. These elders and priests weren't idiots, they had read the Prophets, they knew how God worked to correct Israel over the millenia. Why were they so against Jesus?

Perhaps the simplest, most cynical answer is the true one. They had a good thing going. Wealthy, well-fed, and enjoying what power Pilate allowed them to have, they saw Jesus as a threat to their comfortable lives, and they wouldn't – they couldn't – allow God to send someone, even a Messiah, that they couldn't control.

These priests and elders had responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” when God had called them to the vineyard. Yet for all their piety, all their dedication to the Law of God, they had, in the end, turned away.

And there. right in front of them, in the small crowd gathered around Jesus – fishermen and laborers, tax collectors and prostitutes – were men and women who had said, when the call came, that they would most certainly not serve in the vineyard. And though they had lived apart from the Law of God, had dedicated themselves to being as impious as humanly possible, had, in Jesus Christ, turned back to their loving Creator.

We don't get to choose.

We don't get to choose how God's Word comes in to this world. Born out of wedlock to a teenage girl, in a barn in the middle of nowhere? Sure, we're used to it now, but think about it... it's ridiculous. Laughable. All wrong.

But we just don't get to choose, do we?

Arrested, beaten, stripped naked, whipped bloody and nailed to a cross to die? OK, set aside this idea of God dying in the first place, to have God die in the most humiliating way possible, amongst criminals, then have his corpse shoved in a rush in someone else's tomb? Preposterous! Unimaginable! Repugnant!

We don't get to choose.

And if you are going to rise from the dead, shouldn't you do it in front of everyone? Or at least find some witnesses that people will listen to! In that day and age, the one hundred percent worst kind of person to appear to, to carry your message, would have been a woman. Yet what does every Gospel tell us? Whether one or two or three or a group, it was women, every time! It makes no sense.

But it isn't our script to write. We don't get to choose.

And we also don't get to choose who God saves. Oh, I have my lists – people and groups of people and kinds of people who in my opinion don't deserve to be in the Kingdom of God. I don't know if anyone else has lists, maybe it's just me.

There's something that Jesus says, though, something intriguing. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you...”

I am comfortable with the idea of those tax collectors and prostitutes being members of the Kingdom of God. Not so much, though, the elders and priests, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees...

Here's the thing, though. Jesus didn't say “ the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God
instead of you.” Believe me, I checked, and the Greek word proago, which our reading translates as “ahead,” really does mean “ahead.”

...the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God
>ahead of you.”

I don't think I am talking about Universalism, the idea that everyone gets in the Kingdom no matter what.

What I
do think it means is...

I don't get to choose.

God will call, save, heal, and reconcile with whomever God will call, save, heal, and reconcile. I can't pick the ones I like. I don't get to choose.

I do get to choose how I treat others, though, don't I? I can choose to be like the priests and elders, or like the scribes and Pharisees, comfortable in some imagined theological or moral superiority, looking down on people who, because of birth or choice or whatever, are different than me.

Or... I can understand that, as a beneficiary of the grace and mercy of the living God, I c
an choose to be a conduit of that grace and mercy to others, all others, no matter who they are. I can be a reflection of the Jesus I believe in and try to serve.

Nick Lillo said, “You have never looked into the eyes of someone who did not matter with God.”

We don't get to choose how God acts, we don't get to choose how the wild and ebullient Spirit of God m
oves in the world, we don't get to choose who God loves, or how God saves. But we can choose – we must choose – the part we play as members of the Body of Christ, as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

And that's really the only choice that counts.


  1. Are you sure the idea of Universalism is "everyone gets into the kingdom no matter what"? As someone who hates being put into a category, but has nothing else closer to identify themselves as except a "Universalist", it feels like your rolling your eyes with those words. And it hurts, because it reminds me once again that I can no longer belong to Christianity; simply because I actually believe eventually every knee will bow and all will be restored. It does not mean I believe when a person dies they land in heaven "no matter what" they have done.

    1. That's a combination of not wanting to go down a rabbit trail in my sermon, and laziness. I certainly don't mean to be insulting. I truly hope your view of eternity is true. I'm just not ready to make that leap.