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The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson

The Way of Righteousness

The Way of Righteousness

Matthew 21:23-32

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

27 September 2020

            We continue our series exploring the lectionary texts from the Gospel of Matthew.  Today begins a series of moments of Jesus teaching in the Temple.  The setting is that week between his Triumphal Entry that we commemorate on Palm Sunday and his impending arrest and execution at the end of the week.  In those intervening days, the Gospel tells us that Jesus went daily to the Temple in Jerusalem and there debated the religious leaders.  And his words and actions lead to his arrest. 

            In today’s lesson the leaders confront Jesus with questions of authority.  He diverts the conversation by asking his own questions and then telling them a parable.  Hear, now, this ancient story:

Matthew 21:23-32

When Jesus 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.’
The son answered, ‘I will not’; but later changed his mind and went.
The father went to the second son and said the same;
and that son answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.

Which of the two did the will of his father?” [Jesus asked]
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.”

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God within us,

For the Word of God among us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

            Today I want to begin my sermon with a benediction.  Of course, benedictions properly come at the close of a worship service.  They are words of blessings that send us forth for another week of ministry.  Here is today’s blessing:

The One who blesses you is the One from whom you came,

The One who met you on the road,

The One who has sustained you all the days of your life,

and the One to whom we all shall return,

Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

            Almost twenty years ago I heard that benediction almost every week.  Those were the words that the Rev. Dr. Raymond Vickrey used to close Sunday worship.  He’d speak from the back of the sanctuary.  He spoke calmly and assuredly, radiating joy and hope.

            Ray was the Senior Minister of Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas for twenty-seven years, and it was my privilege and honor to work as his Associate Pastor for a couple of years in the early Aughts.  Ray died a little over a week ago, taken by that evil disease Alzheimer’s. 

            Ray grew up in a working class area of Houston, around oil refinery workers.  He attended Baylor University, where he excelled as an athlete and student, and had hoped to compete in the Olympics.  He was a student when Waco's downtown was destroyed by a powerful tornado.  He rushed downtown from the university and helped rescue people, pulling them from the rubble.  His early ministerial career was ended by a divorce, at a time when Southern Baptists still opposed divorce.  His own experience of exclusion helped to shape his approach to others in the decades to come.

Ray became the director of the alumni association at Baylor and in that role cemented relationships throughout the state.  Then, in the late seventies, he was called back to the church, pastoring a large singles ministry at FBC Richardson.  Then, in 1981, Royal Lane called him as pastor, where he served until 2008.

In the 1980's Southern Baptists would undergo a huge battle as the fundamentalists took over the denomination.  Ray was a voice of reason and moderation in those battles, standing on the right side of questions of biblical interpretation and the role of women in the church.  And so he was one of the leaders as new splinter groups of moderates and progressives formed in the 1990's. 

One of Ray's great gifts was his ability to form deep friendships.  His close friend the Rev. Kyle Childress published an article in the magazine The Christian Century in 2004 about Ray and their close group of friends.  They call themselves "The Neighborhood."  Six pastors who for years gathered twice a year for a week at a time to be friends and supporters of each other.  Try as I might, I've never been able to replicate this in my own ministry.  Even beyond this gang, it wasn't unusual for some friend of Ray’s to drive or fly to Dallas to spend time with Ray when they needed wisdom and advice.

On the big issues before the church of women’s roles and leadership and inclusion of LGBT persons, Ray worked gently, holding conversations, and encouraging people.  He used the example of an elephant—You don’t turn an elephant by tugging hard at a rope.  You turn an elephant by applying pressure, slowly, to its side.

            I learned many lessons from Ray, benefiting from his wisdom and years of experience so early in my own ministry. 

            The day he died, the image of Ray that kept playing in my head was of our last time together at the Bavarian Grill, a wonderful German restaurant in Plano that was our habitat while working together where we spent time almost every week eating, drinking, smoking cigars, planning worship, telling stories.  One on of my visits back to Dallas after moving here, I met up with Ray again at the Bavarian Grill and he wanted to hear all about this church and Omaha and our ministry here.  And he smiled his charming smile and laughed and his face radiated with light.  It is this image of him that played in my head on repeat the day he died.

The One who blesses you is the One from whom you came,

The One who met you on the road,

The One who has sustained you all the days of your life,

and the One to whom we all shall return,

Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

            The religious leaders wanted to know by what authority Jesus operated.  They wanted to know who he claimed to be.  But Jesus doesn’t answer directly.  Instead, he tries to get them to think about John the Baptist and where his authority came from.  The religious leaders perceive the question as a trap, according to the way Matthew tells the story.  But Jesus might just as easily have been trying to tease their imaginations to think outside the box.  Our hint that this might be the case is that he next tells a parable, and he almost always uses a parable to tease the imagination into considering other possibilities.

            And this one is no different.  There’s a rather straightforward reading, that, in the end, it is better to do the right thing.  Matthew even takes that straightforward reading in a radically inclusive direction—our human hierarchies will be overturned and those so often excluded will be included and those who think they are doing everything right will learn they have made a mistake. 

            Brandon Scott, scholar of the parables, invites us to consider how this parable would have been heard by the original audience, living in a patriarchal society shaped significantly by the concepts of honor and shame.  The first son has publicly shamed the father by disobeying him, but has privately honored him by doing the work anyway.  The second son has publicly honored the son by saying yes, but has privately shamed him by failing to do the work.  Neither has really done the will of the father.  When Jesus asks his listeners which is better, the truth is that neither is a very good option, given the social context. 

            Which teases the imagination into considering new possibilities.  Maybe the social system is wrong—the hierarchy, the patriarchy, the overwhelming role of honor and shame.  Maybe the way of righteousness is to get away from those completely.  Maybe that goes back to the earlier question about authority.  Does Jesus need an authority?  Does he refuse the question because that tries to frame his ministry in a way that is inauthentic to what he’s trying to do?

            Theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes:

Attempts to answer the question as posed inevitably result in diverse forms of Christian heresy, for the attempt to establish grounds more determinative than Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection for why we should believe in him results in idolatry.  If one needs a standard of truth to insure that Jesus is the Messiah, then one ought to worship that standard of truth, not Jesus.

Hauerwas writes that we only know Jesus by participating in the way of life that he models.  Jesus seems to be saying to the authorities—just try living this kind of life and see if it isn’t a better way of being human, of being faithful to God.

            Jesus’ way of righteousness is a rejection of our normal systems of authority.  My friend Tripp Fuller recently published a book on Christology (the academic study of Jesus) and in it he writes that we misunderstand the incarnation and God’s presence and work through Jesus if we understand that as divine intervention into the world.  Instead, Jesus models “divine fidelity, patience, and loving investment in the world.”  God doesn’t invade the world with great power to compel obedience.  God is present in the ordinary, suffering alongside us, encouraging and inspiring us in the work.  Jesus wants his listeners to rethink divine power and agency, to rethink authority, and to rethink what it means for us to be faithful.  What it means for us to follow the way of righteousness.

            We have been reminded this week, in the case of Breonna Taylor, that systems often fail to bring about the justice we desire.  I find cynicism tempting in a way I never have before.  Yet Jesus taught us long ago that human systems will often fail us, and that we must dare to imagine new possibilities.

            The Christian way is very difficult.  Patience, fidelity, love, friendship, service—these so often work slowly.  And we can’t judge their effectiveness by the normal human standards.  We have chosen this way of life because our participation in it has revealed to us that this is the better way of being human, of being faithful to God. 

            I point to my friend and mentor as an example of a life that followed the way of righteousness, working slowly and deliberately over many decades, gently teaching and pastoring so many.

            And so Jesus doesn’t appeal to an authority, but invites us into a new way of life.

The One who blesses you is the One from whom you came,

The One who met you on the road,

The One who has sustained you all the days of your life,

and the One to whom we all shall return,

Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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