Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost

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.

  

-Repeat Minus the Lather-

As if it were bricklaying or
an onion we could dice and
caramelize with olive oil

we imagine it facebook-eventable
but peace is a memory problem.
It fades. We repeat it to ourselves,
we repeat it charbroiled.

Already it slipped my mind
how my stomach goes
hydroelectric at the top of a swing
chainrust squeezed into my palms
rubber seat arching.
Zoom in on sky, ground

pans out.
And I have to hear peace
again when later I’m impaling
at my keyboard. That cursor
blinks, like a crow molting.
Blankness in its feathers.

I go off to smite against a wall.
Come back incorporeal,
and peace is whispering
something slow and tree sap
and I miss it. Preoccupied by
the branches and rootwars

the concrete on the curb
cracking upward.
Peace, even carved lavishly in
constipated rage
on a bathroom wall
is forgettable.

  

-Word Choice and Meaning-

She said he had an infectious smile
as if the take-over
were the only importance.
Sure, we all turned up our maws,
but did we fester? Invade?
Did we swell and pustulate?
I wonder if he really
had a six courses antibiotics smile.

I don’t tell her how
leavened bread
might not corrode her face.
It wouldn’t hurt to have
a jingle you hum
to the widening fog while
washing the dishes smile.
He might be more

worth her while if his
grin was a chocolate craving.
You could say his
simpers open a six pack
and put briquets on the grill.

It’s the headwaters of a spring
burbling away a swelter in August.
Or simply a woosh.

But she has already moved on
to jumping about pancakes
and hair follicles.
The infectious smile creepnumbing
my heels for amputation.

  

-Community-

These doughnuts are spelled with an “ugh!”
and were mine. But they are
are pinkening Sara’s fingers,
and I suspect the cinnamon twist
of Ben-shaped treason.

Last Tuesday, dishes began
their own grazing
and I’m pretty sure it is not
my turn to wrangle them from pasture.

I do not know how oregano
sprouted from our ceiling.
In a few weeks, when it hangs low
enough, I will ask if it belongs
to anyone. Then

clip some for eggs.
The best is when we’re all
postured as if we had a sofa.
Legs comfortably skewing.
Our palms taking charcoal rubbings
of the carpet. Overstiff elbows.

Once Ben had the idea
that all windowsills were Baptist
Preachers…the first steps
toward the light.
Sara said he was

transcendental. And I just
swallowed my bagel
where it sponged uncomfortably
in my esophagus.

  

-Sunny Vignettes-

The sun plays
doubles on a clay court,
while I open.

Condensation
marches an upheaval-
sun closes blinds.

Thumbs on
antipasto plate scraping
crumbs into trash.

Sun rafters
support only dust,
contractors worry.

Place the eggs
next to the watermelon.
Wait, leave them in the basket.

Wary of its reflection,
sun shatters ocean
in disgust. Orders tequila.

She wears plaid
and is not afraid
of overalls.

A flat tire
and we are baffled
by the carjack.

Sun dry is
tamer than the sundry
it sunders.

Can’t carry
a sun with only
crash cymbals.

Oak branches
crease and fold
effulgent origami.

Coffee is
sun’s shadowself
only warming inward.

His galoshes
and duckprint
boxers.

  

-Tangle of Ivy-

When did formicating vines,
their unrelenting hugs
and suckerroots
pall in our imaginations

to price cuts
and overlit mall floors?
A plastic mold
with five pushbutton
pow!action movements

may be a choking hazard
to tall children
under the age of hypnosis.
It only costs something
that ends in nine and looks small
like millions of chemicals
and the livelihood of
faraway folk
cents.

But it will never be as fun
as letting a slug beslime
Kelly’s arm when she’s
distracted and

the following guffaw-shrieking.
Somewhere we lost it,
the hours worth dirt digging.
And we switched to
touchscreens.

We no longer mind the vines,
what they strangle.
It actually looks kind of nice
there against the brick,
corroding.

There isn’t a victory.
General Tzo marching
and the toppling of a Wal.
No one has

decided. We only quiet.
Settle our bloodwort
in disinfectant.
And we go shopping.

The vines dream of us instead.

  

-Just Outside for a Breath of Fresh Air-

Our memories take out
their kazoos. A buzz,
maybe it went humm humm.
But the tune is in there,
this tin membranophone.
I lean back and let the
chipped paint railing
bend under my hands.
And someone can’t make
it go, puffing their cheeks.
I tell them it uses your voice;
a synapse connects,
they relax and go timbral.
We were figuring if
we poured enough foam
down our throats,
something would burble
up. Make a claxon. And be free.
But the string section
has lapsed. Horsehair
bows tangled with splinter
and misdirection. There is
half a violin
vibrating no more.
And just edging the proscenium
there’s a fuzzy…it could have been
clarinet, but it shouldn’t bend that way
when headlights flash past
and a red metal squeaks around.
I am now thinking it’s just a ketchup bottle;
some tomato harmony stuck inside
refusing to cover my fries.
And then trumpets, but they
drown out whatever started us
thrumming.
Then we drop the orchestra,
leave it to collect with oil
and muckwater in the parking lot.
A neon sign singing,
and the asphalt claps and thinks it
may have heard that one before
once on the radio.