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Sunday September 26, 1999 ~ Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon Text:  Matthew 21:23-32  (28-32)
Ezekiel 18:1-4   *  Philippians 2:1-13 * Psalm 25:1-9


"Who's On First?"

Do any of you remember the now world famous routine which was done by Abbott and Costello on NBC radio?  It was called, "Who's on first?"  Bud Abbott is trying to tell Lou Costello the names of the baseball players and it so happens that the name of the first baseman is a Mr. Who.  Round and round poor Costello goes as he keeps trying to find out, "Who's on first?" --  and Abbott keeps trying to tell him, "Who's on first!"

There is a delightful encounter between Jesus and the religious officials in our text this morning that reminds me a little bit of Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First" routine.  Jesus' detractors are thrown into perplexity as he asks a kind of a "Who's on first with God?" question.  The question translates to, "Was John from God -- or was he simply a human phenomenon?" 

The chief priests go into a caucus where they debate Jesus question.  They are between a rock and a hard place.  If they say John's baptism was just another temporary human fad, they will be in trouble with the crowd who considers John a prophet.  Yet, if they say the whole movement is from God, Jesus will ask why they didn't believe John.

This is another wonderful coup d'Útat Jesus accomplishes against the religious leaders of the day who were always trying to back him into a corner.  Listen to their answer.  "We do not know."  What is remarkable about this is that we are not talking about the ordinary man on the street here.  These are the chief priests and elders of Israel.  These are the ones who hold sway and give direction about things religious in the nation.  Jesus is an itinerant teacher from a town whose inhabitants get little respect in Jerusalem and environs. ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" - John 1:46)

Don't you just love it?  The officials who came to Jesus questioning his authority to teach publicaly state they don't know whether John was of God or not.  Then they essentially confirm Jesus' teaching that they -- and not the "tax collectors and prostitutes" are the ones who reject that which comes from God.

Who's on first?

Tax collectors and prostitutes!

***

There are some essential lessons about the gospel -- the "Good News" of Christ in our gospel reading for today.  There are teachings about,  1.  False Assumptions,   2.  False Presumptions and  3.  The Meaning of Authentic Faith.

1.  False Assumptions

Alice was an alcoholism counselor trainee at the alcoholism treatment center of the hospital where I was a CPE resident.  She was a recovering alcoholic, a single woman and a grandmother.  Her husband had left her with their three children years before I met her.  Though she was a grandmother, she did not see much of her grandchildren or her children.

Alice was a warm, caring, sensitive woman who was highly recommended by her supervisors as an excellent future counselor.  She was someone I found very easy to talk with about myself.  I would choose her as a counselor without hesitation.

Yet, there was a trail of pain and anguish in her history.  Enough pain and anguish that her children still did not have much of a relationship with her.  When I told her I found that hard to believe, she said, "You didn't know me when..."  I understood.  Yet, I found her to be such a nourishing and warm person.

I invited her to come to church with me and my family.  She acknowledged that she was a person of faith.  [She talked frequently about her "HP" -- Higher Power]  She declined saying,  "Maybe some day I will be able to go to church with you.  But, for now, I still find it hard to think about going.  I've caused so much pain and grief for my family and friends that I can't go right now.  Perhaps when I've been able to get my act together and keep it together for a few years, I will be able to go to church again."

What a horrible assumption!  You can't go to church until you have your "act together."  It's the pharisaic assumption.  The unacceptable people are just that -- unacceptable.  This is a "chief priests and elders of the people" thing.  The assumption is that "we religious and pious folk" are the chosen ones of God.

In the gospel reading the officials assume that Jesus has no authority to come to the temple environs and teach people about God and the kingdom of God.  For one thing, he has associated with all the wrong people -- the people these leaders assume are not acceptable to God.  From one end of Matthew's gospel to the other you hear the dehumanizing assumptions of those who thought of themselves as closest to God. 

*  "And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"  Matt. 9:10-11

* "the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!" Matt. 11:19

It is rather easy to judge all of this 2000 years after it took place.  We're part of the "good guys" -- right?   We side with Jesus here and delight in his subtle - or maybe not so subtle put down of the arrogant assumptions of the "holier than thou."

But, there is cause for pause here.  An opportunity -- no responsibility -- to take a closer look at ourselves.  Do you ever engage in assumptions about people by virtue of their looks, background, ethnicity culture or politics?  Is there ever a hint of self-righteousness in an observation shared with someone else about a person who does not share your attitudes or perceptions?

I have to confess that I catch myself in making assumptions concerning people I have no real personal knowledge of.  I wonder -- if somehow, I wound up in the crowd at the temple that day without any knowledge of the situation or of Jesus himself -- how might my reaction to this situation be different?   What would I think of this teacher who was so cavalier with social graces and careless in his associations?

"Who's on first -- with God?"

2.  False Presumptions

As the religious folk of Jesus' day made false assumptions about others, they made false presumptions about their own relationship with God.  There was a definite, "We're the good guys"  mentality that presumed they were "tight" with God.

The problem with these people is that they don't so much see themselves in relationship with God because of who they are -- but because of who others are not.  They are the "faithful" because they see others as "unfaithful."  They are "righteous" because others are "sinners."  They are those who pray, as in Luke, "The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, 'God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer.' " (18:11)

The real danger with false presumption is that of presuming upon the grace of God.  Presuming I am "in" with God makes grace no grace at all.  It is no longer the "gift" of God, but a reward for "work done".

There's a very simple reality check for presumptions.  Finish the sentence...  "I am okay with God because   _________________________ ."

If you answer something along the line of, "... because I'm not such a bad person."  -- that's depending on behavior or the Pharisaic way.  The presumption is that God is somehow grading on a bell curve and I have confidence that I will come out on the good part of the curve.  (After all -- look at all those tax collectors and sinners!)

On the other hand if the answer is something like, "... because I practice the 'right' religion -- or -- believe in the right 'belief system' " -- that's depending  on the correct religion or the chief priests and elders way.

A colleague told of calling on an older couple who had not attended church in years, but considered themselves "an integral" part of the church.  During the visit, the husband remarked, "I don't know if you are aware of this pastor, but my grandfather was one of the sixteen founding members of our church." Somehow, this covered all the bases.  They would be okay with God because the grandfather helped begin the church.

Who's on first?   Grandfather and all his descendants!

And so also, the Pharisees and chief priests of Jesus' day presumed upon the grace of God because they were ancestors of Abraham. The fact is -- if our grandfather's actions could secure a spot for us in the kingdom of God... there would never have been a need for the cross and Messiah would never have had to suffer.  Abraham's faithfulness would have secured the destiny of all his children and their children's children.

But of course, there's more to it than that.

3.  The Meaning of Authentic Faith.

Who's on first?

Jesus tells a story that turns all the assumptions and presumptions inside out.  It is not the one who says but the one who does.  It is our walk and not our talk that counts with God.  All those rejects -- the tax collectors and sinners -- who turned their hearts to God were the ones who got on first with God.

Paul says it this way,  "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God's sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified."  (Rom. 2:13)  The letter of James says, "But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves."  (James 1:22)

Jesus told his hearers that John had come in the way of righteousness and that those who believed him and acted on his words gained a place in the kingdom of God.  John's call (way of righteousness) was relatively simple. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."  (Matt. 3:2)   John called people to turn away from self to God.  They were to line their lives and their actions up with what God made known to them.  John particularly warned them that they should not start talking about how it was that their great-great-great (etc.) grandfather Abraham had begun the whole Jewish nation.  "Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham."  (Matt. 3:9)

"It is your heart God wants -- not your grandfathers' heart!"  That was the core of John's message and it is the core of Jesus' continuing message to us today.  Authentic faith is a relationship of trust and love between you and God.  The old saying is indeed true.  "God has no grandchildren -- only children."

Who's on first?"

Anyone  (hear this clearly people)   Anyone who chooses to trust in God and will make the commitment to live according to the light God gives.

*****

[Just for fun]  You can find the complete text of this whole routine at:    http://www.cob.ohio-state.edu/~tomassin/whotext.html   -- For real Abbott and Costello fans, there is a collection of their routines and sound files for many of them at: http://www.city-net.com/abbottandcostellofc/    (For real fans, there is a complete .wav clip of the "Who's on First" routine on this site -- if you really want to have some fun, download one of the clips available on the site -- record it -- then play it after the introductory paragraph when you do your message.  You will need Real Player for this.   Download free at www.realplayer.com


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Texts

The Hebrew scripture, the gospel and the epistle all have to do with the general theme of doing God's will.  The gospel has Jesus in conflict with the religious officials who are quite confident that they are in the will of God -- they assume so because they are officials of the temple and the temple is of God.   The assumption is in error.  The will of God, Jesus' parable points out, is in our actions and not in our words.  There is a real discussion available here with respect to outward religious behavior and inward spiritual commitment.  They are not the same.  The chief priests and temple official are centered in the temple and its life -- they are "religious".  Jesus' life is centered in doing the will of God (fulfilling God's desires for his life).  "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work." [John 4:34] -- His is a "spiritual" commitment. In the gospel, the religious and the spiritual are on a collision course that will result in the crucifixion of Jesus and the virtual end of "religion" as the curtain in the temple is torn in two. [Matt. 27:51

The brief text in Ezekiel is a word of correction to the exiles.  As the temple authorities, they do not want to look at their inward life and relationship to God.  They blame their exile on the misdeeds of their "fathers".  Because the fathers sinned, they are now paying the price.  (The principle is set forth in Deut. 5:9)  Through Ezekiel, God tells exiled Israel that each individual is responsible for his or her relationship with God.   The will of God is a matter of individual spiritual commitment.

Philippians is absolutely the central text in the New Testament concerning the will of God in action.  The way up with God is down!

Matthew 21:23-32

An examination of the questions Jesus asks his critics throughout the gospels makes a wonderful study of his ability to penetrate superficial argument and get to the heart of an issue.  His detractors are frequently left with nothing but a public display of their petty prejudices.

Some of Jesus great questions:

* "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?" [Mark 3:4]
*  "And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? [Matt. 15:3]
*  "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." [Matt. 22:18-19]
*  "Why do you raise such questions in your hearts?"  [Mk. 2:8]
*  "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?"  [ Mk. 2:25]

In this text, Jesus applies the teaching of the parable directly to his questioners.  "...into the kingdom of God ahead of you.   For John came to you..."  This begins a series of three parables (the text for this week and the next two weeks) where Jesus points the finger at the religious officials of Israel.  The final conflict is fully engaged with these parables.  It is significant that the beginning words of today's text are, "When he entered the temple..."   signifying the final days and hours of his ministry.  It is the officials of the temple that will finally reject the One who comes to save -- the One who came to give his life as a "...ransom for many."

Ezekiel 18:1-4

This brief text is addressed to the Exiles who find themselves in a foreign land -- their homeland lying in ruins.  "Whose fault is this?"  This question connects humanity from every age.  When something dreadful happens, we begin to look for the "fault" -- and the "fault" is always without and not within -- right?

"Wrong!"  God says through Ezekiel.  The principle of individual responsibility is spelled out here and dispels any notion that there was no such thing as individual responsibility in Israel.   There may be application here and there in our congregations -- the need for people to understand...  "You are responsible for your own spiritual life.  It does not matter that your uncle was a bishop or that your grandfather started the church or that your wife and children attend weekly -- you are responsible for your own spiritual life!  So...  how is it with you and God?"

Philippians 2:1-13

This text contains the famous kenosis passage (2:7) in which Christ "emptied himself".  The word comes from the Greek kenaow - "to empty out".  There is no greater definition of the will of God in action than this passage.  The beginning verses enjoin Christians to maintain healthy Christian community and unity and then says that they must have the mind of Christ with respect to their relationships with each other.  What follows from verse 5 on is absolutely counter cultural and revolutionary!

The will of God is defined in the life of Jesus who chose the characteristics of humility, service and obedience.  The phrase "he emptied himself" is instructive.   You have heard the phrase, "He is full of himself..." or "She is full of herself..."  For our purposes, the point is that there is no room for the will of God in a life that is full of self.  Thus, Christ is the model of one who, having every reason to retain self, gives self up and chooses the characteristics of humility, servanthood and obedience."

Will the world reward such an attitude?   Absolutely not!  But...  God exalts the one who for the sake of the will of God, empties self that the counter cultural, revolutionary desires of God can live within.  Then...  it is God who is at work within us accomplishing the Divine will.  (V.13)


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship  (Adapted from Psalm 25)

Leader:   We open our hearts to you this day, O Lord
People:  We place our hope and trust in you.
Leader:   O Lord, teach us and give us guidance today,
People:  For your truth is our salvation.
Leader:   May we discover love, acceptance and forgiveness, 
People:  In the embrace of your steadfast love!  Amen!
              

A Prayer of Dedication

O gracious Lord of life, we come before you today with these gifts.
Your Son gave up absolutely everything to save us.  He poured out
his very life that we might have life with you.  These gifts seems so
small in the light of his great gift.  And yet, O Lord, you honor us with
joy in your heart, because these gifts make you glad.  We praise and
thank you for such a love!  Amen.

A Pastoral Prayer

Lord save us from the deadly spiritual sin of presuming upon your grace.
Keep us ever centered on the fact that you have lavished your love upon us
when we did not deserve it.
And O dear Lord, how we give thanks that we
do not have to earn that love.  How could we ever be worthy of the love which
was bestowed upon us by your Son Jesus Christ?

We give thanks and praise you for receiving us as your children.

Now, O gracious God, we plead for the strength of your Holy Spirit to become
witnesses of this transforming love. We can not do this on our own.  We are
too quick to judge and too prone to reject those who do not measure up to our
standards. Having received your grace freely, we can be less than gracious when
others are in great need of grace. Having received your love without cost,
we are sometimes less than giving with our love.

And the world is in such need of your free flowing, transforming love.  Jesus came
to love anyone and everyone who would simply turn to you with open heart and
empty hands... those who knew they had nothing to offer but a broken spirit and
a contrite heart.

May we accept the bold commission to go from this place as those who live and
share the love of Christ. May all those who meet us meet your love and grace in us.
Then shall we truly be the church and the name of Christ be truly lifted up.   Amen.