September 27, 2020 Chapel by the Sea Worship via Zoom

Lectionary Text: Matthew 21:23-32
A sermon by The Rev. Dr. Flatley

We continue our journey with Matthew’s gospel in Chapter 21:23-32. This chapter begins with Jesus entering the city on a donkey (familiar to us as Palm Sunday which we celebrated at home waving our eco-friendly palm fronds on computer screens). Jesus then entered the temple and overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple in righteous indignation. He quotes from Isaiah 56, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer but you are making it a den of robbers”. The next day after cursing a fig tree for bearing no fruit, Jesus is back in the temple teaching. The chief priests and scribes confront him and ask, “By what authority are you doing these things?” These things refer to the overturned tables, healings and teachings. Jesus doesn’t say, “Crucify me now…” his time had not yet come. He cleverly answered them. He answered their question with a question aware that they were trying to trap him. It’s not exactly a riddle that Jesus poses, not even a trick question, simply put, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin? Checkmate! To avoid angering the crowd, and avoid admitting Jesus is Messiah the religious leaders give a lame answer, “we don’t know”. Well, isn’t it their job to know? Instead they give the safe answer.

It is so often what those in authority do to avoid the truth and preserve their power. They give the safe answer. This week in the “wanton endangerment” ruling against the officer in Brionna Taylor’s death in Louisville, KY, the people were given the safe answer. This has led to more protests, unrest, another shooting. The safe answer has added insult to injury after a million dollar pay-out to the family.

On Thursday Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson III, preached to our presbytery. He had just come from the Louisville downtown area and arrived late to our meeting wearing his “good trouble” T-shirt and not a little preoccupied with the protests in his city and the distractions of his homemade makeshift pulpit. Nevertheless, his message on our call to action as a Matthew 25 was on point. I’m quoting some of his words here: Matthew 25 is not just about the things that make us feel good as Christians, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, those in prison, welcoming the stranger and clothing the naked. We can all rally around those basic human needs and feel good about doing something but the same people we are helping will be back at our door next time… because we have not rallied around the structures and systemic ways we keep the poor in positions of oppression, systemic poverty and racism.

Last year the Chapel by the Sea accepted the challenge to be a Matthew 25 church with the bold vision of the PCUSA going forward and specifically decided to focus on Congregational Vitality because it fit with our work on the Vital Congregations Initiative. Matthew 25 calls us to more than Congregation Vitality and now more than ever all three areas (vitality, systemic poverty and systemic racism) must be addressed. We cannot rest on a one-legged stool, we need all three legs. Our world has been overturned, we cannot turn away from these issues which are dividing our nation and the world. We can no longer give safe answers.

Dr. Nelson exhorted us to “tarry with our sins” because Matthew 25 begins with the judgement of the nations

which calls us to repentance. The previous day he had commemorated Native American Day and took up the charge of our General Assembly to raise awareness of the Doctrine of Discovery. For this nation it begins with indigenous peoples. “Indigenous peoples are the original sin of this nation even before slavery and racism”.

These are harsh words of indictment for us to hear. As God’s called out ones to build a kin-dom of peace and justice we must lend our support and prayers to the leaders of our church who are working with the Kentucky council of churches to overturn the tables of power and unmask those who prefer to give the safe answer instead of the truthful answer!

Dr. Nelson called us to a lifestyle like the early followers of Jesus who were called People of the Way. They went where no-one else was willing to go. That’s Jesus’ way Jesus is the way the truth and the life.

When Jesus presented this first parable of this set of three to those in power who should have known better, they were able to give the right answer. In the parable of the two sons, there is only one son who chose the better way. The obedient, righteous way that honored his father and did as his father had asked. Although the son had originally said “no” to his father, the son had a change of heart and changed his mind overturning his original decision. It’s okay to change our minds on issues or direction if we are choosing the better way: Jesus’ way. As Matthew calls it, the higher righteousness. Matthew through these words of Jesus is calling the church to be a way of higher righteousness and to live that out in lifestyle changes as we heed this call to repentance.

Sources: Presbytery of Olympia called meeting, September 24, 2020.