October 1, 2023

The Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

October 1, 2023

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

From the Gospel according to Matthew, “(The chief priests and elders) answered Jesus (saying), ‘We do not know.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Occasionally, our Sunday morning scripture lessons pose not just one, but several questions and while the answers may appear simple, how we choose to answer warrants deep thought. Today is such an occasion. On the one hand, our Old Testament lesson asks, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” and on the other hand, Jesus, earlier in our Gospel lesson asks, “Who do you say that I am? And now asks about John the Baptizer. ” On the surface, these are easy questions to answer. Of course, the Lord is among us, and we know, we believe, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. And yet both questions and for that matter, our answers urge us to be very careful because how we respond goes beyond words. Our answers must be demonstrated in our lives – every choice we make, every word we speak, every thought we harbor.

     So the answers to the questions posed in today’s scripture lessons are actually a challenge to us and the Church today. Now, I don’t know about you, but those questions cut me to the quick because I realize that my answer should make a difference in how I choose to live. See, my answer to the question, “Is the Lord among us or not” is, “Of course the Lord is among us. God has promised again and again to never abandon God’s creation.” And yet, I must admit that with the increasing violence and hatred in our communities and the vitriol spewing from the mouths of leaders and even some preachers, it is becoming more and more difficult to prove to others that the presence of God is real. It is difficult to offer proof when the actions of so many who claim to be God’s people suggest God is absent or at the very least, God’s presence makes no difference in how they see others especially those different from themselves, different from us.

     As we touched upon in last week’s Old Testament reading from Exodus, the ancient people of Israel saw firsthand, over and again, the miraculous works of God – works described succinctly in this morning’s Psalm. And yet, as we heard in today’s reading from Exodus, when things didn’t go exactly as they expected or when their needs seemed to go unmet, people were quick to whine and complain, and that infuriated Moses. After all, God had repeatedly intervened in their lives, provided food and drink and shelter and safety, and yet, people still wondered, “Is the Lord among us or not?” And once again, God answers profoundly and deliberately as water suddenly gushes forth and slakes their thirst. And yet, as we will discover in later readings, the people still wondered, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

     Throughout the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” And, frankly, it is a loaded question because the answer has life-transforming consequences. The chief priests and elders in today’s reading from Matthew knew that. So, when Jesus asked them if John the Baptizer’s teaching was from heaven, was it of God, or of human origin, these leaders knew they were in a real bind. See, if they answered John’s message came out of his human desires they risked being beaten by the crowd who believed John was a Prophet. If they answered “of God, of heaven” then Jesus would ask why didn’t they listen to John, why didn’t they amend their lives?

And so, these leaders offered an answer that I find transcends one’s religion, race, gender, national origin, economic status, ethnicity or any other difference. When confronted with something we should have or should not have done, humans tend to think we can be absolved from all responsibility by simply saying, “I didn’t know” or “we don’t know.” Now claiming “we don’t know” can be a viable answer on occasion. After all, we are finite human beings who do not fully understand the universe, or science, or everything about God. But the law tells us that to claim ignorance of a law or ethical standard is no excuse. We are accountable not only for our answer, but perhaps more importantly, accountable for our actions as well.     

     Who do you say that I am? Was John’s call to baptism and repentance of heaven or of human origin? Be careful now, because how one answers, Jesus reveals, should make a difference in one’s life. Jesus’ point is simple, and he uses a parable about two sons to illustrate that it is one thing to know right from wrong, to know what God expects of us, and quite another to do it, to follow it. 

I believe that one of the great tragedies of the modern Christian era is that when confronted with the question “Who is Jesus of Nazareth?” most Christians will jump to their feet and exclaim, “He is the Christ, the Messiah. He is our Redeemer and Savior. He is our hope and salvation.” And yet, if that is true, then why do so many of his followers not listen to him? As illustrated in the parable, why is it so difficult to do what Jesus asks of us? Our gospel lesson offers that while learned religious leaders were incapable of identifying even John the Baptizer and couldn’t recognize God at work in their midst, the outcasts of society knew exactly who John was, who Jesus was, and allowed that knowledge to change their lives. They inherited the kingdom of God while the religious were left wondering and debating is the Lord among us or not?

A recent editorial cartoon gave me pause. It pictured an exasperated Jesus – his hand on his forehead in bewilderment - saying, “So, let me get this straight. You take the Bible literally enough to condemn all sorts of people and their conduct but, not literally enough to feed the poor.” Our gospel reading challenges us, challenges the Church, to grasp that if we believe Jesus is the Christ, if we believe John’s call to repentance and amendment of life is of God, then it should make a difference in every aspect of our lives: from standing up and speaking against hypocrisy, lying, and injustice, to confronting our own secret thoughts that are so often hard to acknowledge let alone change; things like speaking ill about others; or not being willing to forgive and forgive again and again and again. It is all or nothing with Jesus. Is the Lord among us or not?

     St Paul, writing to the Philippian Church, made it clear that it is impossible to turn and embrace God without turning to Jesus Christ and such turning requires a decision to what? Amend one’s life and embrace and embody everything Jesus taught. This was the problem the chief priests and elders faced in our gospel reading and it is the problem Christians still face every day, that I face every day: we cannot acknowledge who Jesus was and is, who John was, without acknowledging our need to amend our lives, to allow God to change our hearts – our very minds and deepest thoughts – so that we practice an authentic faith that truly honors God and seeks to do God’s will, and to walk in God’s ways - all of God’s ways.  

     Paul goes on to offer what is perhaps the most succinct answer to the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Paul says that if someone is seeking a living and true answer to that question, they should need to look no further than to the person who claims to be a follower of Christ. Paul says that Christ’s followers, “in humility regard others as better than themselves. They look not to their own interests, but to the interests of others. They have the same mindset that was in Christ Jesus, who,  … emptied himself, took the form of a slave … humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- on a cross.”

     Is the Lord among us or not? Who do you say that I am? Paul suggests God’s people are incapable of responding, “We do not know” because the answers to both questions go way beyond words. The answers and, frankly, the only proof of our answers, can and will only be found in each of us – in how we speak, how we act, how we respond to the needy, and truly seek to uphold the dignity of every human being - found in how every aspect of our lives mirrors everything Jesus said and taught, and lived.

     Friends, scripture has laid out very clearly not only what God expects of God’s people, but what people - our neighbors - need to see alive in us if our faith and belief in God is to have any positive and lasting impact in our homes, our churches, our communities, our state and nation. When it comes to God’s expectations and the answers to the questions posed by our lessons this morning, I believe the Prophet Micah said it best “… and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). Micah’s answer has nothing to do with words. And therein lies our challenge and the challenge to and for all people of God today.

     Who do you say that I am? Is the Lord among us or not? Only our lives can answer those questions. And by the grace and mercy of God, beloved, may our lives answer, “Yes!” Amen.