Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Institutional religion?

Matthew 21:23-32
23When he 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?” 24Jesus 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. 25Did 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?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So 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.

28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” 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. 32For 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.”

Philippians 2:1-13
1If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6   who, though he was in the form of God,
          did not regard equality with God
          as something to be exploited,
7   but emptied himself,
          taking the form of a slave,
          being born in human likeness.
     And being found in human form,
8        he humbled himself
          and became obedient to the point of death —
          even death on a cross.
9   Therefore God also highly exalted him
          and gave him the name
          that is above every name,
10  so that at the name of Jesus
          every knee should bend,
          in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11  and every tongue should confess
          that Jesus Christ is Lord,
          to the glory of God the Father.
12Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
One of the things we notice when we read the Bible is that there are different voices in it that often tell the story a little differently. We see this especially in the Gospels: there are four Gospels and each writer has a distinct style and writes with different audiences and issues in mind. The big picture is the same because they are all telling the story about Jesus, but they sometimes tell that story very differently.

Sometimes we feel threatened that the differences in the stories weaken the overall story. We want to know what really happened or try to fit the pieces from each Gospel into an overall history.

It’s more fun and productive to read each story on its own and get to know the different personalities of the Gospels. John is the most different from the others with a beginning at the moment of creation and a mystical writing style. Luke has a special eye for the outsider including women, gentiles and the poor. Mark is the shortest account, crisp and to the point with a keen sense of conflict between Jesus and the leaders right from the beginning.

Matthew is longer with more focus on Jesus’ teaching and on building a church. He seems less concerned with the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders, which is a major theme for Mark and John throughout the Gospel.

In Matthew Jesus spends most of his ministry away from Jerusalem. When he teaches and heals he encounters religious leaders, who Matthew calls Pharisees and “teachers of the law,” occasionally accompanied by Sadducees. These leaders and Jesus argue and sometimes the Pharisees ask Jesus questions “to test him,” but the conflict isn’t the main focus and we don’t hear anything from Matthew about the leaders plotting to kill Jesus.

Along the road, Jesus predicts his death three times before he reaches Jerusalem. In those predictions he says the people who will kill him are the chief priests and elders in Jerusalem, so we know that Jesus expects deadly conflict with the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Once Jesus gets to Jerusalem he encounters those leaders. We don’t hear much about Pharisees anymore; instead Jesus argues with the chief priests and elders and the conflict between them becomes more important and more dangerous.

That doesn’t mean the religious leaders have already made up their mind when Jesus arrives; it just means Jesus knows where the story is going. Knowing that, Jesus goes into the city quite aggressively. His entrance into the city on Palm Sunday is a royal procession where he pretty explicitly claims to be the Messiah. Then he goes right to the temple and starts turning over tables before leaving the city to spend the night in Bethany.

The next day Jesus goes back to the temple to teach. That’s when the chief priests and elders start asking him questions. They ask what gives him the right to turn things upside down in their place of worship.

We know that Jesus is the Messiah, that he is God’s Son and the savior of the world, but the religious leaders don’t know that. Imagine how we would respond if someone came in here and started turning over tables and kicking out people who were carrying things. We would certainly have some questions for the person who caused such a ruckus, or maybe we’d just call the police and try to forget it ever happened.

The religious leaders demand an explanation. Instead of answering or explaining himself, Jesus ask them a question that puts them on the defensive. He follows that up with a couple of parables that are pretty obviously told against them. By the end of the chapter Matthew tells us that the leaders wanted to arrest Jesus but were afraid of the crowd. The conflict Jesus predicted has begun.

That’s the wide angle view of this part of the story. When are look closer at this passage something else comes into focus. As usual, Jesus’ seems simple enough, but it exposes the heart of a deep problem. He asks if John’s baptism came from people or from God. The religious leaders don’t try to figure out what the right answer is; they only try to figure out the politically astute answer. They don’t discuss the truth, but seek to defend their power.

They don’t want to admit that John’s baptism came from God, because, as they figure out right away, the follow up question Jesus will ask is: “Why didn’t you listen if he came from God?” But they also aren’t bold enough to reject John as a phony prophet because they know the people believed John had come from God.

The problem is that somewhere along the way the chief priests and elders had become more concerned with defending their power and maintaining the system they were used to than with helping the people get closer to God.

Jesus makes the point very clearly with the parable that follows the exchange with the leaders. A man has two sons and asks each to go work in the vineyard. One son says he’s going to go but doesn’t and the other says he’s not going to work but does. The people in charge of Israel’s religious life say they are following God’s will, but in reality they are serving themselves. On the other hand some unlikely people, prostitutes and tax collectors for instance, have left out the outward show of piety but have turned to God in repentance.

So, that’s a great story two thousand years ago, but it also has two questions for us today. The first is personal: are we seeking God’s will in our lives or are we trying to avoid the question? The religious leaders didn’t want to admit that John had come from God because they knew that would mean they had to listen to his call to repentance. I know there are times in my own life that I resist taking a question to God in prayer because I don’t want to hear the answer. There’s part of me that just wants to do things my way and prefers not to get God involved. Usually, when I do submit to God the thing I was scared of becomes less scary and actually turns into a blessing. How can we open ourselves up to God’s transforming presence in our lives?

We could ask the same question a different way: Are we the child who says he’s going to do what his father wants or are we the child who actually does it?

The second question is a question for us as members of Laurelton United Presbyterian Church and the wider Christian family. Unavoidably, Laurelton is a religious organization, an institution, even a corporation. How do we keep from falling into the trap the chief priests fell into of valuing the institution above the message? How do we keep the organization serving God instead of using the “God stamp of approval” to build up the organization?

It’s a tricky balance to strike. Without some kind of structure our efforts for God’s kingdom end up uncoordinated and less effective, but with too much focus on organization we use a lot of our energy to maintain the structure instead of for ministry. Without a youth program, for instance, we miss the chance to minister to young people in our congregation and wider community. With too structured a youth program we spend a lot of time and energy on the program instead of on the youth. Without a little organization to our visiting we risk letting people who need care fall through the cracks. With too much focus on the organization we end up caring for lists instead of people.

            Youth ministry is one example, and one we’re going to talk about after church. I hope you can stay for that conversation. Obviously there are other areas of ministry that are also important. For us as a small congregation we have to be good stewards of our resources. Partly that’s a financial question: we aren’t on as solid ground financially as we’d like to be so we have to consider carefully how we spend our money.

More importantly it’s a question of human resources. We all have limited amounts of time and energy and most of us already feel stretched a little thin. We don’t want people feeling like they have to be doing “more” all the time when what many of us want to do is just unplug a little bit. At the same time we all have things we like to do; we all have activities that give us energy and make us feel truly alive, and God loves to use our passions for ministry.

What if instead of thinking about obligations we think about possibilities? What if instead of taking on more we connect more? What if instead of striving to do more we put our focus on being more available to God in what we are already doing?

Maybe you’ve been wanting to visit a member of our church who has a hard time getting out, but you have child care responsibilities. What if you brought your little one to visit with you? Think how that could brighten up both their days while giving you a change of scene. Maybe you’re looking for a thought provoking movie to get your brain going in a different direction after work. A bunch of Presbyterians are going to be watching…

The church is an institution, but first it is a community. The structure matters only because it supports our commitment to love God and love our neighbors, not the other way around. Jesus was very critical of institutional religious because he saw its tendency to consume people and dry up the vitality of faith. The sorrow is that the religion built around Jesus falls into the same temptations Jesus lamented in his own religion.

It’s easy to be distracted with worries. We worry about the church losing influence in society. We worry about fewer people in worship. We worry about not having enough. When we focus on Jesus we can cut through all the distractions. We remember that Jesus had everything but gave it up to be with us. Jesus is and was God from the beginning of time, but didn’t hold onto his status or privilege. Instead, he poured himself out and became a simple person. He didn’t seek glory or greatness; he sought service and accepted death, even death on a cross.

In that openness to the worst the world had to offer, in that willingness to love all the way to the cross, God raised Jesus up from the dead and glorified him. Jesus did all that for us, so we have more than enough. We follow the one who is Lord of heaven and earth, so nothing the world can throw at us is stronger than God’s love. We follow the one whose power was perfected in weakness; who gave up power for intimacy. Following Jesus means seeing power and success in a very different way. The point isn’t a powerful institution, but a loving community. Following Jesus we have everything we need for ministry, and in his footsteps we find unity, peace and wholeness in all we do.

Thanks be to God.

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