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The Reverend Kathleen Killian

Proper 21A 2020

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; 

Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21: 23-32

By Stages

What a treasure trove of scriptures we are provided with this morning, each reading worthy of a sermon unto itself. However, let us “journey by stages” through their ancient landscapes, as did the Israelites through the wilderness, Paul through the Mediterranean, and Jesus throughout Israel.

Whether then or now, journeying by stages is indeed largely how we move through life, and faith: by stages and in phases, with glimpses and glimmers, and the occasional leap or bound. By stages and in phases, the whole community of the world has been journeying through the wilderness of the pandemic; from lockdown and quarantine, to mandates and masks, to re-opening through phases one, two, three, and four, to the race for a vaccine and its promise.

Our collect of the day urges us to race, but that running we obtain the promises of God. Are we running toward the Word, and body and blood of Jesus, that we may become partakers of God’s new life? Or are we adrift in a desert of quarrel and complaint, as were the Israelites?

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. But where they camped there was no water. And so the people quarreled and complained because they thirsted for water.

The wilderness of Sin is geographical place somewhere in the Sinai, mentioned in the Old Testament four times (Exodus 16:1; 17:1; Numbers 33:11,12). But we could also consider this place to be a metaphorical one of “sin” or turning away from God; for though the Israelites had been delivered from slavery, they were looking back longingly to their captivity in Egypt. Turning their backs on their faith, the people quarreled and complained: Is the Lord among us or not?

Jesus writes in Luke: no one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God (9:62). And yet, I think it’s fair to say that the whole congregation of the church has looked back longingly to before Covid, hungering for the Eucharist, for singing and fellowship, wondering at times, is the Lord among us or not? Journeying through these tumultuous times, by stages and in phases, we quarrel and complain, and then lament and grieve; grieving for a lost way of life, for all of the souls who have died, and for the very groaning of the world and creation.

Our passage from Exodus tells us that it was the Lord who commanded the Israelites to journey by stages from place to place; to Rephidim or resting place; to Massah and Meribah, the place of quarreling and testing, which was also the place where their thirst was miraculously quenched. All of these stops along the way are part of a sacred geography, in that God walks alongside—sometimes guiding, sometimes following, sometimes letting us wander—but presence-ing our very footfalls through trial and temptation to rest and renewal.

But we must also ask ourselves: where do we pitch our tent? Rephidim, Massah, or Meribah? And what is it that we truly thirst for?

Our psalmist sings: O my people, hear my teaching and incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will declare the mysteries of ancient times.

Let us remember that we belong to these ancient mysteries. Let us seek to understand what cannot and will never return a quick or easy answer, and yet be encouraged to recount to generations to come the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, and the wonderful works he has done.

From quarrel and complaint, trial and temptation, to praise and thanksgiving: what marvels has God worked in your life? When have you been led by the Spirit from a hard dry place to a well of deep water, from thirst to refreshment?

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes to another congregation in conflict. From his prison cell in Rome, he exhorts them to be of the same mind and of the same love, sharing in the same Spirit as they do, and urging them to humility: do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Paul goes on to recite the great poetic hymn of Christ’s kenosis or emptying of self, which the Philippians would have recognized from their own worship or baptismal liturgy. The message of Paul to the church is quite straightforward: if Christ can humble himself, so can you, because you are, we are, the body of Christ.

At last, we have arrived to the gospel from Matthew, which opens with a question. The chief priests and elders of the temple ask Jesus: By what authority are you doing these things? To which we must ask: what things?

Our passage takes place on the Monday of what we now call Holy Week (synopsis from Matthew 21:1-20). Jesus has already entered Jerusalem to the shouts and praises of a great crowd—Hosanna to the son the David!—the whole city in turmoil as the people also wondered: who is this? Jesus then goes straight to the temple and overturns the tables of the moneylenders, driving out of the house of prayer all of the sellers and buyers. He heals the blind and the lame who had come to him, and with that, left the city to spend the night in the country.

On his way back to Jerusalem the next morning, scripture tells us that Jesus felt hungry. He came across a fig tree, but that had no fruit, only leaves. So Jesus curses the tree, which withers instantly, a kind of complaint and quarrel Jesus style.

Still hungry, and seemingly cranky, Jesus arrives back at the temple, and we to our gospel: by what authority are you doing these things? ask the chief priests and elders. Good question, I would submit. But as a sharp-witted rabbi, Jesus answers their question with one of his own, turning the tables once again: if you answer my question, I’ll answer yours: Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?

The temple authorities argue and strategize among themselves because they have been caught: if they agree that John the Baptist was a prophet sent by God, why did they reject John’s teaching and call to repentance and baptism. But if they answer that John was nothing more than a wild-man on the margins, the crowds—of whom they are afraid, and who love John—will turn on them. Opting for willful ignorance they answer: we do not know.

Jesus presses them further with the Parable of the Two Sons, and an easier question, the answer to which is: like the first son in the story, it is better to sin and repent, than to toe the line of righteousness with empty and meaningless words. St. Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians: the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power (4:20). We have the power or agency to repent and turn back to God—as many times as we need and so choose—thereby revealing the kingdom of God.

Power is demonstrated authority, but by definition, it is also the “capacity for being acted upon or undergoing an effect.” Implicit in  this meaning is humility and humbleness, for without it, we would never allow ourselves to be acted upon by the will of the Father, as Jesus most certainly embodied.

The religious authorities of the temple were interested in Jesus’ demonstrated power, but lacked the humility to be acted upon by it. Jesus points out that the prostitutes and tax collectors, those with little to no explicit power—humbled as they were by life circumstances—will enter the kingdom first; precisely because they were sinners who allowed John the Baptist, and Jesus, to act upon them, their hearts and minds undergoing change and thus redemption.

What causes us to change our minds? Or allows our hearts to yield and turn? What blocks us from allowing ourselves to be acted upon by our powerful and almighty God?

Like the Israelites, the Philippians, and the whole host of humanity, we are simultaneously broken and blessed. But if the forgiven do not forgive, and the loved do not love, then our salvation—the gift of new and eternal life in Christ— is not, to use Paul’s phrase, “worked out.”

As we journey by stages through life and faith, let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus. This is power incarnate, from which deep and lasting transformation is made possible. Fear not; for God is with us in the flame, that we may rise, more pure, more wise, more true (paraphrase of hymn 574).

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