Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year A – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – October 1, 2017
In June I found myself pulling myself along hand over hand through two wooden barrels strung between trees in the Pyrenees Mountains. Jeff and I were in the tiny country of Andorra between Spain and France. How did we get there? Well, you never know where you’ll end up when you look for outdoor trips in unique places that are not crazy expensive! In addition to this ropes course and zip lining, we mountain biked down switchbacks, went hiking on Alpine trails, white-water rafting, and drove go-karts on an ice rink, which is as amazing as it sounds!
All of this pushed me outside of my comfort zone in major ways and, if I had known how much it would push me, I might not have signed up. But on the second to the last day, a few of us decided to try canyoning which meant putting on wet suits, climbing over boulders, sliding down a river, jumping into pools of water, and repelling down waterfalls. For those of you who don’t know this already, I am an awkward human being. I am not graceful or really athletic, so all of this was so crazy to me I got to a point where in order to get through it, I realized I just had to press on. Standing on top of the rocks and peering into the water below, afraid I’d hit the rocks, I found myself having to trust. I had to trust my guide. I had to trust myself. I had to trust God.
In a physical, visceral way, I found myself having to let go and trust. So often I have struggled with doing this in my every day life, battling perfectionism, a Type A personality, and a desire to be in control. But that physical journey in the canyon forced me to think about how I journey with God. To think about who really has authority, power, and control in my life and whom I trust.
The readings from Ezekiel and Matthew both have this theme of authority and power at their core. In Ezekiel, the people are bound and determined to let what their ancestors did shape their own futures – to have authority and power in their individual lives. However, instead of offering judgment for the sins of their fathers, God offers mercy to all if only they will repent. “Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.” It doesn’t matter whether they have been wicked or righteous in the past because God wants them to live today by acknowledging God as their Lord and judge – one who rules with mercy.
Matthew, writing to Jewish Christians, shows Jesus’ authority to be an extension of God’s. The chief priests and elders want to look good, but they’re negotiating two groups of constituents – the Roman rulers and the people. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem on a donkey and cleansed the Temple in a dramatic fashion, so they want to find out who he is. In modern parlance, “who died and made you Elvis?!” So Jesus instead puts them on the spot, catching them desperately wanting to hold onto their power, prestige with the Romans and their reputation among the people. And he tells what I find to be one of the most relatable parables about two sons – one who grumbles about what he has to do, but does it, and one who says he will and looks good, but doesn’t do the work.
Both sons dishonor the father. In the biblical understanding of the world, a son was an extension of the father, both owing him everything and seeking to do his will. Which makes you really feel for the father in this scenario. Did he know how the sons would respond even as he was asking the question? Jesus’ point in this parable is that the ones who should have walked the walk – the religious and political leaders of the people – were just keeping up appearances. They didn’t actually believe in John the Baptist’s divinely appointed authority or heed his message so that they could turn and live. But the tax collectors, the prostitutes and all of those seen as unworthy misfits did. They encountered God by believing John the Baptist and Jesus’ authority and message. And because of that, they received new spirits and hearts.
Jesus is the only Son who both says, “yes” to the Father and obediently lives out the Father’s will. He does this facing the authorities, both religious and political, head on and claiming God the Father as the only authority that matters. Living in obedience to God’s authority and the rule of love and grace, Jesus has the strength to go to Jerusalem, knowing that there will be no return trip – at least, not this side of the resurrection. He knows that God’s kingdom and sharing the transforming message to turn toward God and live is worth the risk. That it is worth his life. And so he says “your will be done” – and goes.
All too often, we fight tooth and nail the very thing that is most necessary for us to learn, grow, and to follow Christ. Or instead we put on a good show without really relinquishing control to the Lord of Life. If we’re honest, we find that we are both sons, depending on the day, or sometimes even the moment.
We have a choice of whom we give authority in our lives. And whom we give power and control. Jesus’ power came from above and looked so different from worldly authority. We also have a choice as to whether we will hold onto our perceptions of our own authority, or the things we let have power, or if we will instead follow God. Standing in that canyon and looking down mountain switchbacks from the seat of a bike, I realized how often I let fear, doubt, self-righteousness – all these things have power in my life rather than trusting the living God. It’s so much more freeing to let go and to trust. It’s a wild ride, but its way more fun and life-giving than relying on ourselves.
Jesus persists and pursues us, inviting us to relinquish control and power to instead embrace him. To live our lives not so we can cling desperately to our status, prestige, or privilege, but so we can like Jesus live our lives for the sake of the other. And that requires a change in heart. A change in perspective that only the Holy Spirit can work in us. As Paul writes so beautifully in what is thought to be an early hymn, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
It is under his authority that we live and thrive. That we are able to find the courage to face our fears, whether that means the fear of losing control, of rejection, of failed expectations, of disappointment, or simply the fears that come with putting one foot in front of the other each day. We have that courage knowing that Jesus is Lord and that God, the author of grace and mercy, has called us to new life. That our fear, doubt, or lack of trust are not the lords in our life. That we can say yes to God, and by God’s grace, truly live our lives as people trusting in God’s mercy and kingdom.
When I was feeling miserable in the first few days of studying abroad, my mom spoke three words that continue to be good news: “you’re never stuck.” Now, with a few caveats, I’ve found this to be helpful in framing situations I’ve encountered in my life. This is a word for us today because God is always calling us to turn and live. To say “yes” and to believe in and follow Christ’s authority in our lives. That opportunity is always before us, no matter what our past. God will continue to pursue us, invite us, and welcome us with open arms.
And this good news isn’t just for us. It’s for the chief priests and elders, too. For those we think will never change their minds or their hearts. For those we’d like to condemn as unbelieving. For the healthy and the unwell. For polished business people and unkempt homeless people. For those with whom we disagree. For political opponents. For those who take a knee during the anthem and those who stand. How might our perspective on the world change if we opened our minds and our hearts to the thought that maybe even the hard-hearted, stiff-necked, and self-righteous might change? Yes, this good news is for all people “…so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
So what has authority in your life? To whom do you give authority, control, and power? Instead of relying on your own power and authority, might God be inviting you to a deeper trust and relationship? As I took a leap in June that ended up being a leap of faith into actually trusting God more, I pray that you may experience the joy and freedom of growing in your trust of Christ. And I pray that it won’t take adrenaline sports to get you there! Amen.