Exodus 17:1-7 – The people quarrel with Moses: Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Moses strikes the rock for water.
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 – You will no longer say, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Cast away all your transgressions, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Turn, then, and live.

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 – God divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap. In the daytime he led them with a cloud, and all night long with a fiery light. He split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.
Psalm 25:1-9 – Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!

Philippians 2:1-13 – Paul’s Christ Hymn: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.

Matthew 21:23-32 – Jesus’ authority questioned and the Parable of the Two Sons (not Prodigal Son, but the one who says he’ll work but doesn’t, and one who says he won’t, but does)

Prayer of the Day
God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. My sheep hear my voice, | says the Lord; I know them and they | follow me. Alleluia. (John 10:27)

St. Michael and All Angels – September 29, September 29, 2011

  • Daniel 10:10-14; 12:1-3 – Michael, one of the chief princes, helps Daniel. Michael arises and many who sleep in the dust of the earth awake.
  • Psalm 103:1-5, 20-22 – Bless the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding.
  • Revelation 12:7-12 – Michael and his angels fight against the dragon as war breaks out in heaven.
  • Luke 10:17-20 – The seventy return. Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning.”

This Sunday is September 28, Pentecost 16A unless you want to use the texts for St. Michael and All Angels (September 29).

The epistle text is the second of four from Philippians:

  • September 21: Philippians 1:21-30
  • September 28: Philippians 2:1-13
  • October 5: Philippians 3:4b-14
  • October 12: Philippians 4:1-9

Philippians 2 is the Christ Hymn. It is worthy of many sermons. I have treated this vitally important text on self-emptying and the theology of the cross extensively here. Commentary on Philippians begins about half way down the post.

If the September 7 was about conflict, September 14 was about forgiveness, and September 21 was about grace, then September 28 is about humility.

For the rest of our year in Matthew, Jesus is in constant controversy with the scribes and the Pharisees. They are critical of him for hanging out with sinners and even eating with them. They criticize him for healing on the Sabbath, and because his disciples don’t fast and follow other laws and traditions.

Jesus, in turn, is critical of the scribes and Pharisees for their legalism. They “strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel.” They follow the letter of the law, even tithing their herbs (mint, dill and cumin), but they neglect “the weightier matters of the law”: justice, compassion.

By the time we get to this point in Matthew’s gospel (chapter 21) the tension has reached a boiling point. My eye naturally rests on the most poignant, edgy thing Jesus has to say in this gospel text:

Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. (Mt. 21:31)

Imagine starting your sermon like this. It would make a great attention getter. Let it hang. Then, if you’re really ready for a new call, change prostitutes to a bawdier synonym and tax collectors to some other group to whom that your audience considers themselves morally superior. Don’t mention that this idea came from me.

Perhaps we should all memorize this passage. The next time someone uses the word “pastoral” as a synonym for “polite” or “Christian” as a synonym for “nice,” quietly rehearse the passage in your head. This is, of course, not an encouragement to be impolite or unkind. That would be no virtue. It is, however, a reminder that a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is (Luther in the Heidelberg Disputation), that the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality (Max DePree, Leadership Jazz), and that systems stay stuck until someone names the truth of the situation (Ed Friedman, A Failure of Nerve).

It’s hard to imagine anything more antagonistic for Jesus to say to these religious leaders, who pride themselves in their righteousness – keeping the law to the nth degree. But it is precisely that pride of their own righteousness that is the problem. The Son of God comes to earth dressed in the garb of our humanity, and is surprised to find prostitutes and tax collectors who have more faith than the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus also finds faith in a Syro-Phoenician woman and a Roman soldier. Jesus finds faith in unexpected places, and a surprising lack of faith in places where one would most expect to find it. To suggest that a Tax Collector has more faith than a Pharisee? Heresy.

To make his point, Jesus one time told a story of a Pharisee and a Tax Collector going to the temple to pray (Luke 18). The Pharisee prayed, “I’m so glad I’m not like others: thieves, evildoers, fornicators, or like this tax collector. I fast. I tithe.” The tax collector’s prayer was a bit different. He stood at a distance and would not even look into heaven. “God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.”

What a different prayer! These two have completely different prayer lives. One is a prayer of pride, and the other a prayer of humility. Jesus follows up this story with a few words on humility. God tends to bring down the haughty, and lift up the lowly. God fills those who are empty, and empties those who are full of only themselves.

Let it not be lost on the reader that the authorship of this gospel is attributed to Matthew, who was… a tax collector. The author has a personal stake in this narrative.

For Jesus, the most dangerous sin is self-righteousness. Of whom is Jesus most critical in the gospels, and why? The Pharisees, because of their self-righteousness. Humble people know they are broken. The humble of heart are not deluded that their own self-righteousness can save them from the power of sin. They understand that the most powerful forces for true righteousness are love and forgiveness. Telling a child she is a horrible person will not inspire or empower them to become. Telling them they are loved with an everlasting love, in spite of their failings will free them to live anew, in spite of past and present failings.

An interpretation we can take from this parable of the Two Sons is this: The first son, who says he will not work in the field, but then does, represents tax collectors and other sinners, who are initially disobedient, but who care about God’s justice. The son who says he’ll go work but doesn’t represents scribes and Pharisees, who talk a good line and are showy in their faith. However, when the chips are down, they are more interested in the letter of the law, than in the bigger issues of justice and compassion.

This story of these two sons is the counterpart to Luke’s story of two sons (The Prodigal Son, Luke 15). In both stories, one son represents scribes and Pharisees, while the other son represents prostitutes, tax collectors and other “sinners.” One appears to be the better son, but isn’t. The other appears to be disinherited, but isn’t.

There’s nothing wrong with the law. We need it to show us our need of God. But the law cannot save. It has no transformational power. Like the erstwhile song:

Do this and live the law commands
   But gives me neither feet nor hands
A better way thy grace, doth bring
   It bids me fly, and gives me wings 

If this is so, then a defining mark of the follower of Christ is humility, not arrogance or judgment. Given Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees, one might even say self-righteousness is anti-Christian. Sadly, too many consider “Christian” to be synonymous with “judgmental.”

Richard Rohr writes:

Christianity worldwide has come to have an often negative public image. The Christian religion no longer naturally connotes people who serve the world, people who care about others, other nations or religions, poverty and injustice, or even people who are very happy. In fact, our common image is often exactly the opposite. How did we get to this impossible place, after placing ourselves in the following of Jesus who described himself as “gentle and humble of heart…”

How far we have come from “by this shall all people know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” They’ll know we are Christians by our love, not our Victorian moral ethics or superior ability to appear appropriate by societal definitions of what is proper, status quo and upstanding.

Paul plays this theme big in the epistle lesson, Philippians 2.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… 

He humbled himself and became obedient… even death on a cross.

To follow Christ’s way is to walk in the way of one humbled. This does not mean becoming a doormat, but rather a joyful servant of Christ in the world. This does not mean we do what anyone tells us, for we are servants of the Servant. Rather, we act in selfless love for the world that God loves. With love for all and malice toward none, we recognize we have our own sin to deal with, so we have little time to point the finger, unless we are protecting those we love. We are under no illusions that self-righteousness is salvific. We are not perfect, only forgiven. Loved in spite of ourselves, we are free to announce God’s grace for all, leaving the sword to God and Caesar.

The word of grace here is that God loves every child, the rebellious and the obedient. The word of challenge here is that we are called to be witnesses to God’s love by reflecting the humility of Christ, by having this mind not to exploit power, but instead to empty ourselves of all that is not of God.