Proper 21 A Sept. 28, 2014
St. David’s Church & St. Paul’s Cathedral
Ps. 78:1-4, 12-16
Our lessons today – from Exodus and from Matthew – give church leadership a bad name. We are whiners, complainers. We change our minds at the drop of a hat. All we want to do is give the right answer and for the life of us, we don’t know what it is. On and on it goes, the conventional readings of these miserable lessons.
Yet, if we turned the gospel lesson on its head, a bit, we might get a different reading about both lessons. So let’s think about authority: what is authority? It is given to us: from above, often, if we are under orders to do something – if our power derives from someone above us who has expectations for what we are to do. In other cases, in democracy, for instance, authority comes from below, from the consent of the governed. In a democratic system, we have to live up to the expectations of the people who have elected us to lead them.
There is another kind of authority, as well. It is the authority of the past. This can be a kind of tyranny, especially if someone in the past has harmed us, or if we are filled with remorse over our own past wrongdoing. That remorse, those regrets, that person who wronged us – all of those things can have tremendous authority over us. Those memories can govern our present behavior, can direct our future, can make us afraid to take another step for fear of harming again, or being harmed in the same way. We can fear what we think we have to lose – that “authority of desire” or fear of losing what we have, can paralyze us. The tyrannical authority of our own past prevents us from living a full life now, and from living fully into the future.
There is something of that tyranny of the past that Jesus brings up in this encounter with the people around him. These people are worried about what they might lose. They are worried about doing the wrong thing. They cannot imagine a future other than one circumscribed by all of their past. They are paralyzed by Jesus’ “trick” questions. They think something might be happening around them, with this John the Baptist and this Jesus, but they cannot get out of the authority of their past long enough to see what it is.
You could make the same observation about the Israelites following Moses out of Egypt. This new life of freedom is hard, in the wilderness, so hard that it is nearly impossible for them to recognize the gifts of freedom and grace, of manna from heaven and water from the rock, that through Moses, God gives them. The authority of their past – their lives as slaves in Egypt – prevents them from this new life of grace, this new identity as the people of God.
I’m sure you recognize yourselves, or people you know, in these stories. I do. It is understandable to get caught up in the authority of our own pasts; after all, our experience is all we know. It is hard to imagine a better future – but that is exactly what God is doing here. God – unlike ourselves – does not count our past misdeeds, our grudges, complaints, mistakes or hurts against us. “God … refuses to define us by what we do (or what has been done to us), but instead regards us always and only as God’s beloved children.”[i]
How do we learn this radical obedience to a joyful and welcoming God? Who are our gospel role