The Owners of God’s Word – Sermon at Pilgrim Congregational UCC (10/08/2017)

Let the words of my mouth and
the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

The Owners of God’s Word

Phil 3:4b-14, Matt 21:33-46

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.

We tend to see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear, don’t we? And when I am forced to hear what I wish I didn’t, I try to change the narrative. Particularly, if I have the power to do so.

When Colin Kaapernick a quarterback for San Francisco 49ers, peacefully, silently and with reference, asked us through silent protests to pay attention to racial inequality, and institutionalized violence, many were quick to call him unpatriotic, and demand that he would lose his job, which Mr. Kaapernick ultimately did. The people in power then successfully changed the narrative, they suppressed the story Mr. Kaapernick wanted us to hear, and created a new story about disrespect and dishonor.

Matthew’s Gospel tells repeatedly about similar attempts to change the narrative we read today, by the powers that be. Later in the gospel we can read,

then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.

The Gospel text I read has been used by people in power through the centuries, to create a narrative, of God sanctioned, anti-Semitism. That narrative goes like this. Look, it was the Jews who misused God’s Vineyard, the Jews mistreated Jesus, they don’t deserve anything good. This narrative seems straight forward, and many systems of power through the ages have used the text this way with awful and devastating consequences.

However, the parable is not about hate against Jews. The people of power in Jesus’ time knew it wasn’t about the Jews as people. Jesus’ parables were about abuses by those in power. Allow me read it again:

The chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, and realized that he was speaking about them.

Them, meaning the powerful, the arrogant, the Self-Proclaimed Owners of God’s Word, the chief priests and the Pharisees.

Again, and again, in Matthew’s Gospel, we can hear it. Jesus cares for, loves, shows mercy to, the marginalized. He feels for the widow, the blind man, the children, the hungry, the foreigner, the prisoner. But to those in power, Jesus doesn’t hesitate to speak the truth.

When the chief priests turn the Temple into a profitable enterprise, Jesus turns the tables around, when the Pharisees proclaim their closeness to God through knowledge of the Law, Jesus calls out their arrogance. When people in power claim, they own an exclusive right to the Creator, Jesus takes a clear stand, points to the marginalized as God’s children.

But wait, why am I using this sermon to tell you this. Many of you already agree with it and know this even better than me. We know quite well that Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel stands with the marginalized, speaks truth to power, and some of us might be more than willing to kneel angry aside Jesus and Kaapernick fighting against the institutional violence and injustice.

We recognize how God’s word calls for a better world, and only if the people in power, the movers and shakers of our unjust system could be as inclusive, justice minded, mission focused, Christ Centered, and Worshipful as we are.

Or what?

I hope you know where this is going…

When we are confronted with an unspeakable act of evil, be it in Aurora, Charleston, Oklahoma, Sandy Hook, Littleton, or this last Sunday in Las Vegas, it is easy to point out and focus on the evil out there. Focus on those who use the privileged power of whiteness to do unspeakable acts of evil.

It is easy to see the injustice perpetrated by “the other”. It is relatively simple to call others to become more just. It is almost farcical observing how some of our most powerful people just don’t get it, as we tend to think we do, if it just wasn’t so sad.

But, what about us.

We too are people of power, I am standing here, in a paid position of being a Pharisee, a faith formation specialist, having spent over seven years of my life inside academic institutions studying theology, just like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time.

We are sitting inside a religious institution that has access to millions of dollars, in the 5th most segregated city in the US, a city that killed a 12-year-old playing in a public park. We celebrate a baseball team, that has an awful demeaning mascot, making fun of and denigrating native Americans, and many of us don’t see it, because it’s ours and the team is going to bring us the Commissioner’s Trophy this Fall.

When Jesus speaks truth to the power that be, Jesus speaks not only to “the other”, he speaks to us here, or at least me, the modern Pharisee speaking to you. He speaks to people representing Christendom in a country were Congregational Christianity, our own brand of Christianity has been the religion of privilege longer than this country has existed. Our own brand of Christianity, which was along with other mainline protestant denominations, used as a blue print for some of the underlying structures of our systematically unjust government.

Jesus is not only speaking to “the other” people in power, but to me. We might all feel marginalized at times, maybe a lot of times, I am an immigrant after all, and many of you have experienced oppression and still do. However, at the same time, being here, in the nice cushioned pews, means that we have a stake in the powers that be.

How do I respond to the possibility that Jesus might be speaking to me in today’s Gospel The text might not only be aimed at “the other”, but might accuse me of participating in killing the prophets, not listening to God’s voice? Do I solely point to “the evil other”, or do I confront my own possible misuse of power?

You might ask. What can we do differently? We are doing good here at Pilgrim. We even have an active Text message reminder, so we can go and stand with the marginalized, at the tap of a text.

There are no simple or easy answers. We might start by thinking, who is it I dehumanize. Who are those that I don’t see as deserving of God’s grace. I have quite a list myself, of people that I think are despicable no-good-doers, which should be way beyond God’s welcoming arms. And the first name on that list, …

Well, I probably should not go there.

When I think about it, I sometimes wish God’s grace was limited to those I like. However, I know I am supposed to be thankful for believing in God that is way more graceful than I can ever be, thankful that I believe in God, whose love includes all. Otherwise, it might be me who will be left out.

As people proclaiming Christ, we life in a difficult tension of being called to stand up boldly for justice, and stay humble at the same time. We must strive for justice, but recognizing simultaneously that we are not the Owners and sole interpreters of God’s word. We must remember the comma, God still speaks and God speaks not only to, or through us.

We must remember to ask God for forgiveness when we fall short of our goals, miss the mark, do what the Bible calls, sin.

We are called to live out the conviction that God is graceful, and capable of forgiving all, us and others, even “the other”, yes, even “the evil other”. Even when we ourselves are not capable of going there with God.

As people of faith and power, we might not change Cleveland’s standing as the 5th most segregated city in the US. We might not manage to eliminate Chief Wahoo on our own, and we probably are not going to give away all our money (at once, at least). But we should try to reflect God’s grace towards all, even the despicable other.

We should take to heart Paul´s words in Philippians, read earlier, that we may gain Christ, not through a righteousness of our own, but through righteousness that comes through faith in a righteous and loving God.

Amid the tension between taking a bold stand and stay humble, it is important to trust that God is Here amongst us, God is with us in the nice cushioned pews, reminding us to not only call out the powers that be, but recognizing our own privilege and participation in the injustice and condemnation of the other.

We might and we will fail, we are going to misuse our standing, we will miss the mark from time to time, but if we strive to remember that we are not Owners of God’s Word, but God is, and God is among us, loving, forgiving and caring. God is here, willing to raise us up again, and again, and again, we can feel hopeful.

We can feel hopeful, remembering that we are loved and forgiven God’s children, who are equipped to use our powers and privilege for good, for God. We are called to become people that produces the fruits of the kingdom of God.

May it be so – Amen.

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