Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 20:1-6*
From the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke, “(They) said to (Jesus), ‘Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things?’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Many Businesses seeking to improve customer satisfaction will often enlist the services of a consultant or, as in the hospitality industry where I spent many years, the services of “Shoppers.” Shoppers were consultants who physically checked into our hotels and made note of the friendliness or unfriendliness of the staff: did they greet customers with a smile, did they provide not just good service, but excellent service? And how about the quality of the food, the quality of products offered for sale, and the cleanliness of guest rooms and meeting areas throughout the hotel? After their stay these consultants would issue a written report on their findings.
And, oh, we enjoyed reviewing those reports. After all, they were a frank assessment of our needs and shortfalls, as well as our successes. Having “fresh eyes” critique our business was a welcome occasion because we usually agreed with their findings and recommendations – well, at least as far as other divisions in the hotel were concerned. But, if their findings slammed our own particular area, our immediate response was usually defensive. We would ask, “Who do they think they are?”
Amid shouts of Hosanna this morning, we have journeyed with Jesus into Jerusalem. In fact, by the time we get to this particular story in today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, Jesus has been preaching and teaching throughout the city for several days. And he has visited the temple and overturned the tables of the money lenders. In so doing, he has disrupted everything and everyone’s routine, and people are upset! It is time for the community leaders to act.
Now, we might think of these community leaders - the Chief priests, the scribes and elders – as somehow having lost any sense of awareness of God. But the truth is that in approaching Jesus and asking him by what authority he was doing all this stuff, these men were simply doing their job. Authorized by birthright and their extensive learning, the Chief priests, scribes and elders of the community were the guardians of tradition. Not in the negative sense of maintaining the status quo at all costs, but rather, to guard against heresy, or blasphemy, or abuse of religious power. So, when a young Rabbi starts throwing things around and shouting, these leaders have every right to investigate the situation, to ask Jesus, “by what or whose authority are you doing these things. Who taught you to do this? Who do you think you are?”
Jesus responds to their questions by redirecting their attention to the authority of John the Baptizer. He asks, Was John’s message of repentance from God or of man? And the leaders realize that they have stepped into a battle of wits here. There is no way to answer Jesus because they had ignored John’s message and actually worked against him. So they reply, “We don’t know.” And suddenly their personal honor is placed in jeopardy. Their power hold in the community is at risk because these men, responsible for the spiritual welfare of the people, have just admitted they are incapable of recognizing when God might be doing something new or unexpected. Scripture is filled with stories of what happens when power or control over others is questioned: When power is challenged scheming and plotting begins, and we see that reality beginning to unfold in today’s Gospel lesson.
The failure of the religious who confronted Jesus was not in raising the question of his authority, but rather, in being more concerned about their position and honor than discerning that God might, indeed, be doing something new in their midst just like God always promises to do. The result is that Jesus has clearly upset not only the political, but the religious right. And soon he will upset the political and religious left as well, and together, - imagine that – both left and right working together! - both right and left will begin to plot and scheme for his removal from their midst. They will even go as far as to push Pilate to question Jesus’ authority, to ask, “Who do you think you are?” and sentence him to death.
Today marks the beginning of our journey through Holy Week. Many of us have heard each of the holy week stories hundreds of times before and might be tempted to look upon these events as simply a rehashing of the past, that there is nothing new to learn or nothing that might bring new meaning to our contemporary lives. And yet, the Prophet Isaiah, in today’s Old Testament lesson, says we can and will hear God’s life-giving words if our ears are open to God’s voice each and every day. St. Paul, in our reading from his letter to the Philippians, says that our minds can and will be continuously challenged and transformed if we open ourselves – open our hearts - to God’s renewing spirit and presence. Such invitation to explore the depths of hearing and transformation is the grace of Holy Week.
You know, one of the amazing things about our Anglican tradition is that in observing the Christian Calendar, we don’t simply remember the past, but rather, the past is brought forward into the present moment so that it transforms us today. We don’t just remember Jesus’ birth we go to Bethlehem and kneel at that manger. We don’t just recall Jesus’ miracles, but rather, we are there to see them happen for ourselves and grasp that God still works in and through every day human beings. We don’t just remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem we shout Hosanna! and wave our palm branches. This week we will wash our feet with Jesus and sit with him at the Last Supper. And on Friday, we will be present at his trial and we will shout, “Crucify him!” And yet, even as we participate in our Lord’s betrayal and death, he will continue to invite us to embrace a more intimate relationship with God through him.
It is my solemn hope that by walking together through this Holy Week, by participating in each worship service, the hearts and minds of every person in this parish, this community of faith, will somehow be touched by the fresh movement of God’s spirit at work within us. Perhaps through the singing of a song, the hearing of a reading, a prayer or sermon, or through some specific gesture or action, God’s redeeming presence will become real to all of us and transform how we think and live as Christ’s own sisters and brothers today. Our scriptures tell us that if we open our hearts, our ears, and our minds, God will, indeed, continue to do new things – unexpected things – in and through us. But, as always, that choice is ours to make.
“They said to Jesus, ‘Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things?’” My beloved, I invite you to join with me this week and discover that authority. Discover the life-changing and redemptive authority of Jesus Christ revealed by walking the way of the cross together, by approaching this week with open hearts and minds, observing with our own “fresh eyes” the transforming work God desires to do within you and within me, not just today or tomorrow, or this week, but always. Amen.
*Note:The Palm Sunday tradition includes a narration of the Passion Story (Luke 23:1-49) often in lieu of a sermon. At Holy Cross, that narration is deferred until the conclusion of the Holy Eucharist. Thus, today’s sermon based upon an additional gospel story and invites us to reflect that much more deeply on the meaning of Holy Week as described in the Passion Story.