Saturday, 27 September 2008

Struggling with the text

Readings: Philippians 2 v 1-11
Matthew 21 v 23-32

Who do you think you are?
That’s what’s going on in our gospel reading this morning.
The religious worthies are feeling put out by this upstart, Jesus of Nazareth and they are taunting him: Just who do you think you are?
It seems to be a rite of passage.
The minute anyone shows any talent or skill, the minute they start to get good at what they do, there will always be those standing on the sidelines, ready to watch them fall or, failing that, to bring them down themselves.
I thought that that was a peculiarly Scottish thing.
The “I kent his faither” bit that runs through Scottish psyche and seems to say that no one can ever rise above their station in life – or, at least, excellence cannot be celebrated.
I mean if we go around praising folk, won’t they simply get big headed?
I wonder how my American friends will tackle this week’s text.
Because my experience of friends and of the church in America is of communities that celebrate success. People are praised for what they do, celebrated for what they are.
That’s not to say that there aren’t the usual gripes and politics that afflict all communities, not least religious ones, but I have certainly observed a more positive and affirming attitude, something that builds up and doesn’t tear down.
In fact, a couple of years ago, when I took some extended study leave in the states, our American hosts actually commented on how we Scots seemed to always be putting each other down, how we made light of each others achievements.
And you know this morning exactly what I mean by that, don’t you.
You know how often we slag each other off – not seeing it as cruel, but just a way of keeping folks’ feet on the ground.
And even if we don’t make light of others’ achievements, we almost certainly make light of our own.
Someone offers us a compliment and, instead of accepting it graciously, we laugh it off or say it was nothing, anything other than bask in praise or affirmation.
So this gospel today, might fit well with our Scottish theology.
Jesus has performed miracles, he has exhibited his fine knowledge of Scriptures, he has told very poignant stories.
The religious leaders want to know – Just who does he think he is?
Well, I’ve really had my fill of Scottish theology this week.
I spent two days at the beginning of the week at a national church conference – looking at how church structures might be reformed. Exciting stuff.
I always feel a bit out of things at these gatherings. There are so many learned folk with lots to say and lots of irreconcilable opinions.
In my day to day work in the church, I usually manage to get by by putting my head down and getting on with the huge task that is parish ministry – one relationship at a time.
But somehow, at gatherings such as the one I was at last week, I feel like a fish out of water, as if I operate on a different planet from others in the church.
Thankfully, at this conference, there were a few other folk who were able to laugh at themselves and we had some good debate in the late night after conference session.
But I always come away thinking – does it really matter?
Will all our talking and deliberating really make any difference in the building of God’s kingdom?
Does it matter what we call ourselves – or how many committees we gather around us? If we rewrite the rules and redraw the boundaries, will the kingdom really be any better served?
It all seems so much like whistling in the wind, making priorities of things that restrict us rather than free us to serve.
Jesus was surrounded by people who knew all the rules and whose sole task in life was to ensure that those rules were adhered to, even at the expense of helping one another.
And so, they call into question Jesus authority.
There is a story about a group of military leaders who succeeded in building a super computer that was able to solve any problem--large or small, strategic or tactical. These military leaders assembled in front of the new machine for a demonstration. The engineer conducting the demonstration instructed these officers to feed a difficult tactical problem into it. The military leaders proceeded to describe a hypothetical situation to the computer and then asked the pivotal question: attack or retreat? This enormous super computer hummed away for an hour and then printed out its one-word answer . . . YES.The generals looked at each other, somewhat stupefied. Finally one of them submits a second request to the computer: YES WHAT? Instantly the computer responded: YES, SIR.
The Pharisees, like these generals, were accustomed to people saying "Yes, sir" to them. They were the religious authorities. They were used to being treated as such. But there was a new teacher in town, a teacher who was threatening their authority. The Pharisees feared Jesus' popularity, his ability to heal and to perform miracles. In their eyes, Jesus was preaching heresy and leading people away from the religious traditions that defined the Jews. The Pharisees wanted to expose him as a fraud.
It was in this context that Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, "Son, go and work today in the vineyard."The boy immediately said, "No." Later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to his other son and said the same thing. This one answered, "O.K." but he never got out to the vineyard. Then Jesus asked a simple question: "Which of the two did what his father wanted?""The first," they answered.Then Jesus delivered the punch line, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him." That really was some punch line, and the Pharisees were the ones who were punched.
I’m sure Jesus heard some gasps and "How dare he!" from the crowd that day. It was unthinkable to compare the righteous Pharisees to blatant sinners like the tax-collectors and prostitutes. Didn't he know that the Pharisees were too good to be lumped together with the likes of them? Didn't he know that only those people with the right "credentials," so to speak, would make it into the Kingdom of God? What was Jesus talking about and why was he running down the best people in town?Jesus was teaching that day about what types of people are acceptable to stand before God. And he passes over the religious professionals in favour of the worst of sinners.
Would we accept that kind of teaching any differently today?
Can we accept that our self-righteousness doesn't earn us any points with God? That we cannot earn God's love? That God loves us even when we fail?God's arms are open to everyone, from every race and nation and tribe and tongue, from every walk of life, from every circumstance. We're really missing something extraordinary when we try to put boundaries on God's grace.In the Pharisees minds, God only had regard for folk who were perfect, unblemished, without defect. They had reduced God to the level of human beings who honour only the beautiful people. The Pharisees had no concept of God's grace--God's love for all God's children, even those who were tarnished.Jesus knew that the way to bring hurting people into the kingdom of God was only , is only, by loving and accepting them. Jesus did that by living out God's amazing, startling, absurd grace.
And that’s how we have to live.We have to be full of grace too. We have to value all people as worthy of acceptance.
We have to live as Jesus lived.In God’s kingdom, I’m sure there will be a few righteous souls. But these few righteous are out numbered by the thousands, no, millions of people, like you and I, who have not been all they might have been, or should have been, but who have been healed by the love and acceptance of Jesus.
Our passage in Philippians gives us some idea of how to go about that:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ 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.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ.
I have to confess today to falling far short of that high calling – a calling to humility, a calling to service.
As well as the trauma of a church conference this week, I also had the trauma of being harshly judged by a colleague – a colleague who barely knows me but who is angry at something in which I am involved. A colleague who sent me an email telling me just what he thinks of me. An email that, still when I read it makes me feel as though I have been punched in the stomach. I’m sure you all know that feeling. Haven’t we all been there at some point?
Now I know that the Christian response to this, are the very things I have been preaching about not just this week but for the last few weeks – the Christian response is to be gracious and to be forgiving. To be humble and to keep on loving. But, aside from the hurt, I feel angry at being so harshly dealt with. I feel righteous indignation at being so misjudged. I, too want to ask: Just who does he think he is?
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ.
Let none of us under estimate how difficult that is.
Nor let us underestimate how important it is.
We cannot stand on our past good deeds or our wonderful displays of Christian living.
Jesus didn’t cry privelege. He was obedient, even to death on a cross.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.
I don’t particularly like this passage this week. I’m failing miserably in living up to it.
But, like it or not – that is the gospel for today.
May God be with us as by the grace of God we learn to live the gospel and practise having the mind of Christ.
It is to that that all of us are called.
For the glory of God

1 comment:

Teri said...

good job working the texts together and your story in. Sorry you have a story like that to share....and hope it helps you and others think about good news somehow!