Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, September 27 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

As one of the participants in our Tuesday Bible study pointed out this week, it’s important to read today’s gospel in context—while it appears out of nowhere here, in the actual sequence of Matthew’s gospel account it takes place immediately after Jesus has overturned the tables of the moneychangers and driven them out of the Temple. So what the chief priests and elders mean to ask is something along the lines of, “Who made you the boss of this Temple anyway?” But they find themselves asking something much greater than they realize — the source from which Jesus derives exousia. Though that Greek word is translated here as “authority”, and that’s not incorrect, it also has much deeper meanings. It is rooted in words which express freedom, capacity, possibility, the ability to choose—and it hints at something to do with identity, with the strength which comes from a profound selfhood. The exousia of Jesus is something which flows from the freedom of the realized self. To say that Jesus is not only fully human but the one fully human person we have known is also to say that he is both God in flesh, and the human creature unimprisoned by the cages which hold us, the one to whom the full range of human possibility is available. The one who chooses freely how he moves through this world, whose authority, whose being, is not about domination but about liberation.

But this authority, this ability to dispel the world’s darkness, is not so effortless as it seems. There is loss, there is cost. The state murder of John the Baptist underlies this argument; and there is more than that on the horizon. Finally, there will be, at the root of this authority—as Jesus has already begun to explain to his disciples—the cross. The strength, the authority, of Jesus comes finally not from anything this world can imagine as strength, but rather from utter weakness, absolute surrender. Jesus has authority over the unclean spirits of the world only because of his acceptance of suffering, of loss, because of his full kenotic self-emptying in death. It is this which Paul speaks of too, quoting what may have been a hymn, perhaps one of the earliest Christian hymns, celebrating the paradox of the voluntary surrender of power and status by the very Word of God. Power, as we understand it, is defeated finally by the Son of Man allowing himself to be tortured to death at the hands of power and refusing to respond in kind, going down into the deep sources of our sin and pain, and bringing God’s own selfhood there. It is this ultimate act of vulnerability and weakness which is the source of all restoration. And to be made, as we are made, part of the exousia that flows from self-offering means the loss, whether gradual or sudden, of all the exousia that flows from the coercive powers of the world.

There are great battles over authority being waged right now in the world—including, unfortunately, over whether one should trust the authority of people who have freely handed over years of their life to training and practice in medical science, or the authority of some guy on the internet with opinions; whether we are answerable to the needs of the money, or “free” to assert our own power by insisting upon our right not to wear a mask or get a flu vaccination. As small as these choices are, they are life and death for some in our communities—and on a continuum with other struggles. As I was working on this homily, I read an article by a young white woman in the United States who has walked away from the evangelical church in which she was raised, and which nourished her for decades, because it became apparent to her that her church has taken a stand against racial justice, and in favour of state power, white violence, and an increasingly authoritarian political leadership. She walked away from the church and towards the crucified Messiah, who, as she says, “told us right from the beginning that he was going to be good news to the poor, the imprisoned, the sick and the oppressed—and that he would be bad news for people who longed to clutch at power and safety and affluence at the expense of their neighbor.”

To say that every knee shall bow at the name of Jesus must not be a call for triumphalism or Christian conquest, but a statement that we are all, finally, going to be judged by the poorest and the most outcast, by the victims of power, that it is to them—to the Word of God expressing itself through them—that our loyalty must be owed. We are not, in fact, rightly the boss of ourselves alone. We kneel to all flesh and its pains, and withdraw our allegiance from the powers, as much as we can, every moment, every day, and live in the exousia of our deep selves, and of the dying, risen Christ.

One son made loud noises about how he was going to carry out the work his father requested—noises as loud, maybe, as the evangelical rally which ended it for that young woman. One son quietly went and did the work. We all need to think about which of these sons we will be; and moments of reckoning are coming, large and small. Unimaginably, the President of the United States is musing openly about a coup, a claim for authority based on power and raw violence. Anti-mask protestors physically attacked our friend Venetia last week, just one block from the church. A second wave of COVID-19 is clearly underway, and our society has done little or nothing to address the structural issues which meant that those already economically and socially disadvantaged suffered the most in the first wave, and the elderly and the disabled are still spoken about as if they are acceptable collateral damage, required for “the economy” to operate full steam. Black people are still being murdered by police with few or no consequences. Indigenous people are still marginalized in almost every measurable way, here on their own land.

We are all of us somehow or other, to a greater or lesser degree, complicit with all this injustice, trying to be aware of the contours of it, trying to get free. When Jesus names the tax collectors and the prostitutes, he chooses those two employment categories for a reason—these were people whose work put them in immediate, undeniable collaboration with the Roman occupation, for Rome always had taxes to collect, and Rome always had soldiers who wanted to hire sex workers. The tax collectors and the prostitutes, doing what they had to do to survive, knew they were involved, knew the wrong and longed for something better. The Temple authorities, no less complicit in their own way, had managed to pretend that they were not, that they were the good people, untouched, though only through cooperation with the occupiers, the compromise symbolized by those people swapping Caesar’s dirty money for “clean” Temple coinage, could they hold onto their considerably greater power.

If we are able to acknowledge that we are not especially good, not innocent, not virtuous, perhaps we can start to see the opportunities we have, in our small lives, to go into the fields and do the work. Find the ways in which we can offer ourselves, freely, truly, to the needs of the sad world. Commit ourselves, flawed and frail as we are, to vocations of care or art or science; commit ourselves to the people around us, wearing masks and washing hands for all their sakes; holding, when we must, the distance which is love. Go into the our own fields, into the fields of this parish with all its pains and beauties, and do such work as the time allows. Be the water which is struck from the rock of these hard days.