This is my first sermon that I gave as Vicar at Trinity Lutheran Church. The text is Matthew 21:23-32. Not the easiest text for a first sermon, but I’ll let you be the judge of how I did.
Grace and peace be unto you from God our father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Jesus has done it again! He got into a spat with the chief priests and elders while teaching in the temple. It seems like just about every other week Jesus gets into one of these battles of wits. This time, the chief priests come to Jesus asking a me-me question. Now, you all know what a me-me question is, you just didn’t call it that until I invented the word for it just now. It’s a question that is completely focused in on yourself. No matter what the words of the question, no matter what it seems to ask on the surface, its only real concern is me, me, me, me, me! That’s why I call it a me-me question. You’ve heard these me-me questions: Are we there yet? Do I have to? or Are you gonna eat that? But there are also other more difficult me-me questions like: What’s the point? Am I really worth anything? and How am I going to get through this?
There is one thing all me-me questions have in common: they come from a place of fear and of doubt. Me-me questions are what we ask when we are curved in on ourselves, when we look into the depths of our own abilities and we become afraid that we will not be able to measure up. We want to control the outcome, we want to be there already, we want to amount to something.
And so, the chief priests ask their me-me question, because they are afraid and focused on themselves. They want to control Jesus, to find someone who they can blame so that they can have the power to get rid of him. They ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” The question is a self-serving question. A trap, to see what the chief priests can do about Jesus, who has made them uncomfortable.
Jesus answers this me-me question by calling it out as just that: a self-serving question. He turns the trap the chief priests tried to set for him on its head, and reveals them for the people trapped within themselves that they are. He says, if you can answer my question first, I will tell you the answer to yours. “Did the baptism of John come from Heaven, or was it of human origin?” Jesus question is an outward focused question, the opposite of a me-me question. It points the chief priests and elders away from themselves and what they are trying to control. Jesus points instead toward John the Baptist, and God’s work through him.
Then listen to how inward focused their answers remain! The chief priests and elders redouble in fear. “If we say it is from heaven, then we will look like hypocrites.” If we say it is human, we fear we will lose our popularity because the crowd looks at John the Baptist as a prophet. Jesus makes us hear them going: “me-me-me-me-me!” underneath all their questioning. And so the chief priests and elders answer out of fear, saying that “we do not know where John’s baptism comes from.”
You see, Jesus has already won, the battle of wits before the chief priests even opened their mouths.
Jesus has already won because he points away from himself to God and God’s work. While the chief priests and elders can only point at themselves.
What do you think? Jesus then tells us a parable: there were two children sitting in front of the television. Mom poked her head in and asked the eldest if she would go unload the dishwasher. She complained and said “Mom, my favourite show is about to come on, and I am tired. I just got home from soccer practice. I’m not unloading the dishwasher right now.” But afterwards, she regretted it and went to unload the dishwasher. Mom went and asked the second child if he would unload the dishwasher, and he said “Okay Mom, I guess I can do it” but then he got to a really interesting part of the video game (level 21!) he was playing and never went. Then, Jesus asks the chief priests and elders, which of the two children did the will of their mother? The answer is of course, the first. The one who repented, and did the work of unloading the dishwasher. I think we can all agree that it is never any good to say you are going to do something, and then not do it.
But here again, we can become trapped. Because it is at this point, in reading today’s gospel, that we all want to pick teams. “Oh, I am SO GLAD I am the good kid that actually unloads the dishwasher.” “At least I’M not like those chief priests and elders.” I’m on the good team, I will repent and do God’s work!” “Ugh, I am disgusted by those people who say they are going to unload the dishwasher and then don’t do it.” I’m on the good team! I’m on the good team!
Notice then, when Jesus picks for us the next people on these teams…For the bad team, I pick chief priests and elders! Boo them! We say, I’m glad they went on that team. And now, says Jesus, For the good team, I pick Tax collectors and prostitutes. Wait, WHAT? Did I hear you Jesus? Tax collectors and prostitutes? I thought this was the good team! Why are THEY here? I didn’t sign up for tax collectors and prostitutes, this is a FAMILY church Jesus. Don’t you realize that kids are listening to this sermon?
And then, we too are caught in the same way the chief priests and elders are. All of those questions we start asking in response to who’s on our team, are me-me questions. Jesus is pointing us away from ourselves toward the boundaries of society. Toward the other, and the outcast. And we get uncomfortable, and we get me-me questions.
Here is the good news: It is truly not about whether you have unloaded the dishwasher or not. It is not about whether you are on the “good” team with the tax collectors and prostitutes, or the “bad” team with the chief priests and elder. It is not even so much about who is first into the kingdom of God, and who is last. No, what this parable teaches us, is that it is the repentance that really matters. The reason we want to root for the tax collectors and prostitutes, is because they have repented. They heard God’s news through John the Baptist, and they turned their heads. The reason we want to be on the unloading the dishwasher team, is because the girl repented and did her mother’s will. And that is all the worth that the parable shows us: it is repentance that counts.
Now, repentance is not a thing you can do, like for instance unloading the dishwasher. I have to be careful when I talk about repentance, because I do not mean it in the way a lot of people hear the word. The most common idea is that repenting should be feeling really really bad about yourself because you did not unload the dishwasher. It is feeling extremely sorry for your sins, and promising to do better. But that is the opposite of what I mean, and this parable means, when I talk about repentance. Because, what does that kind of repentance do to you? It turns your head down, and inward. Right? That kind of repentance makes you go like this: It makes you focus on yourself and how small you are. That kind of repentance turns all our questions into the worst kind of me-me questions. “why wasn’t I good enough?” “How can I be better?” “How am I not myself?”
No, the whole reason we want to be on the Tax collector’s and prostitute’s team is that they have been curved out! Why would we want repentance to be so curved in?
This parable teaches us to re-frame how we look at repentance. It turns our me-me questions into grace-filled other-filled questions. “How are you doing?” “Do you have enough?” “Peace be with you, will you come over to share supper with me? This kind of repentance is something positive! But moreover, this kind of repentance is passive. It is God working on us, curving us back away from ourselves and out into the world. When the girl repents, it is not because of what she thought (she was tired!) But it was because of what her Mom thought. In this way, repentance is not a thing that YOU do, but more a thing done to you.
I like to say repentance is like when someone with ADD walks by something shiny. The shiny thing turns their head. Oh! Look at that! And it’s a HUGE difference! Repentance like this: (navel gazing) vs. repentance like this: (oh! Look!)
So too, when you repent, it is not something you can do by looking in on yourself. Repenting is when the shiny grace of God turns you away from the place you were walking, and points you in a new direction. Look over here! See the peace and love of God! It is shiny, and now you too can be shiny for others. Mom turns you away from the television and toward the dishwasher so that you too can eat from clean plats. God turns us away from ourselves and toward one another so that we too can live in community. God turns us away from death and toward life! So turn then, and live!
That’s the kind of repentance we celebrate every time we share communion and we say this is Christ’s body broken FOR YOU, and this is Christ’s blood shed FOR YOU. And by that we mean you are not alone. Here, in the last place you would expect to look, on the team with the tax collectors, prostitutes, and yes, EVEN YOU. There is God working to turn our heads toward grace. Christ is here for you. We are all here for you at Trinity. It doesn’t matter what team you are on, or if you did your Mother’s will and unloaded the dishwasher. Here, in the bread and wine we are set free to share grace with one another. Now you are free to ask grace questions “how can I feed my neighbor as I have been fed?” “How can I be a moment of grace in someone’s life, as this bread and wine are a moment of Grace for me?”
Christ died to set us free from ourselves. To give us peace, and comfort in one another. And, in that way, Christ points us ever outward, away from our me-me questions, toward grace and toward the boundaries. Toward the outcast, the tax collectors and the prostitutes. For there, in the place you would last think to look, that is where God’s work of repentance, grace and mercy has already begun.