traditional sermon pentecost 17
I was listening to the radio last Saturday and I heard an old episode of Car Talk. Did you ever catch Car Talk–two brothers from Boston solving people’s car problems over the radio waves. And every so often they would do my favorite bit called “stump the chump.” It would be a doozy of a question that was almost impossible to answer. At seminary we loved that bit so much we would play stump the pastor whenever a poor sap…I mean person of the cloth would be willing to sit in front of us young, fine, disrespectful students and we would throw our trickiest, gotcha questions that we could. And watch them squirm.
Yeah, I loved playing stump the pastor…that is until I became a pastor. Now I’m the poor sap. But I kid. I still love questions that you guys can ask, so keep them coming! But sometimes you know and I know that when a question is asked it is only asked to try to trip up someone or trap them in a way. That’s what’s going on in our Gospel message today.
There’s an attempt to trap Jesus in a question and it comes from the leaders of his day. This question doesn’t happen in a vacuum, lots of important and dramatic things are happening where the question takes place. It all happens in the temple at Jerusalem, two days after Jesus makes his triumphant entry (what we call Palm Sunday) and only two days before the betrayal, the arrest, and the crucifixion.
The whole city was buzzing about who this Jesus of Nazareth is. Lauded by the poor and destitute, praised by disciples, and feared by some that his presence was a take-over, a regime change.
And so this first encounter between established leaders and the man from Nazareth begins. And in their own way, the religious leaders are playing a dangerous game of stump the chump. The religious leaders aren’t asking an outlandish or even inappropriate question. In some ways, they really want to know what Jesus’ plan may be. They can’t believe that this guy from the back waters of Nazareth is truly a man of God. And most of all they want him to say it out loud. Jesus knows who he is, and he’s been making claims about it quietly, but the words been spreading like leaves in the wind.
But here’s the trap–if Jesus says “I am the Messiah. I am the Son of God. I am the one who will take away the sins of the world.” Or anything like that…then the religious leaders can spring their trap and arrest Jesus for what they would call blasphemy. If Jesus were to use words that his followers use like “Lord”, then the religious leaders could cry ‘foul’ to the Roman Empire…but that will come later. In fact it will come only a few days later.
So one can say…this isn’t just a conversation, it’s a trap.
And the trap is set by this question. “By what authority are you acting and who gave it to you?”
Jesus promises to answer only if they take a turn at stump the chump. His question: Who gave John the Baptist authority to baptize people. The religious leaders danced around the options and were too concerned about public opinion to answer…they were stumped…and exposed that they were unwilling to do what they know to be right because they were afraid of losing face…or losing authority…in front of the crowds.
There’s that word again. Authority.
It’s thoroughly mixed into our English language—everything from authors who create, to people who can authorize and permit, to authoritarianism that strongly controls and inhibits. They all can be related to the word ‘authority.’
I think we’re asking authority questions all the time. Talk to the babysitter who hears, “You’re not my mom” and they’ll tell you a story of a child acting out and not listening to them. Or go back in time when I was 15 and you may hear me say, “Who died and made you king?” which was my adolescent way of pushing back those who may indeed have authority to tell me what to do.
I wonder if questioning authority is more in our nation’s DNA. Our national identity was born questioning the authority of others, and it’s nothing new.
I believe as a culture today, we long to gather in people we want to be an authority in our lives and very quickly can push them away when they tell us something we don’t like. We may be weary of institutions that tell us what to do, but grieve the days gone by where they were the only authority in our lives.
It’s a tricky topic to ponder…authority… take something as benign as cooking. Back in the day Julia Childs was the authority of all things that could be found in a grocery aisle. She was the go-to authority. Ask her, and no need to ask anyone else. And today…well, there are many voices…and many recipes…and many opinions, and it sometimes leaves a would-be cook a bit confounded. And that’s just cooking. That’s a safe, benign example that won’t get anyone too upset. A few years ago if I wanted a benign example to make a point I may talk about football. I won’t do that today because I want your blood pressures to remain stable.
But the question, “by whose authority do you do these things?” can be applied to many of the areas that we struggle.
So let us return back to Jesus…because I find my friends that when we wander too far away from him we tend to get lost.
And in the parable Jesus offers, there’s a question of authentic response. Another word related to authority. In the parable, a father asks two sons the same question about going out and doing work of the father. One says “sure pop!” but it’s just lip service. The other says “no way dude!” but later on has a change of heart and does the will of the father.
You can say that both kids give an inauthentic response…at first. But it’s the child whose heart is changed that follows the Father’s desires for him. And in the end it’s by their actions that we know what is authentic and fruitful.
A question that I heard a lot when I was growing up was this, “Do you just talk the talk, or do you walk the walk?”
In our faith, do we give lip service…do we talk about keeping someone in our prayers, but don’t take the time to actually pray? Do we say that they will know we are Christians by our love, but keep our love reserved and bound?
Do we talk about the importance of the 10 commandments, but so easily ignore the first commandment “You shall have no other gods before me” or the second commandment “you shall not make for yourself an idol” or the eighth commandment “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
I’m guilty of breaking these commandments all the time! How easy it is for me to lift things around me above my God and to focus on them rather than rely on God’s power and authority in my life. How easy it is for me to raise good things that God has given me–like a spouse, a child, a home, a community, a nation–and to raise them on a pedestal above the authority in our lives–that is the author of our lives–God creator, redeemer and inspirer. How easy it is for me to slander a brother who doesn’t agree with me.
How easy it is for me to question God’s authority in my life. Perhaps this is all an area that we struggle with on a daily basis. Perhaps we’re the chumps that get stumped by our own sins and struggles.
The good news friends is in our parable. Though the children of the father have a tough time with authentic responses, though one gives lip service and the other has a change of heart, they both remain within the family. So too we belong in the family of God. Whether it is a day where you may struggle to be authentic or a day you may have a change of heart, you are part of the family of God. God’s authority and unfathomable love for you will never weaken.
As professor and theologian Thomas G. Long writes, “First, there is human authority. No matter how sophisticatedly it is packaged, human authority is a matter of raw power. If you have enough people behind you or guns with you, you have it, and what you say goes, period. Divine authority, on the other hand, has to do with truth, the truth of God, the truth about who God made us to be. In the short run, human authority can appear to overwhelm divine authority — even to crucify it — but, ultimately, God’s truth prevails.”
God’s authority raises what is good as dead to new life. God’s authority mends our broken ways and builds new paths for us to journey on. God’s authority unites us in a love larger than ourselves. And blessedly under God’s authority we are given a new day to have a change of heart and to be the person God made us to be.
So the question that each of us can ask ourselves is this: how do we live under God’s unchangeable love for us and ultimate authority? When you leave this place–and engage in the workplace, or the school room, when you converse in person or over the ether of media, when you enter into stump the chump moments and try to figure out what Jesus would do, when you go out there and are in the world God made–how will you walk the walk?