September 27, 2020

The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

From the Book of Exodus, “Is the Lord among us or not?” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Given all that has transpired in our nation and communities these past six months, I find today’s question from Exodus, “Is the Lord among us or not?” timely.

     When over 200,000 people have lost their lives as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic not to mention the 100’s of thousands infected by the same, when the blatant lies and hypocrisy of elected leaders are not only obvious but championed and praised, when years of frustration at the lack of justice and dignity for people of color spills over into our streets causing mayhem and destruction, when members of this parish die suddenly, and when more and more often faith communities are split apart not because of an interpretation of scripture but because of whom one might support in the elections this November, I think it pretty darn easy to wonder, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

     Our scripture lessons this morning offer an answer to that question, just as they also offer a challenge – a challenge that, well, I don’t about you – cuts me to the quick. See, my answer to the question, “Is the Lord among us or not” is, “Of course the Lord is among us. God has promised again and again that God will never abandon God’s creation.” And yet, I must admit that it is becoming more and more difficult to prove to others that the presence of God is real and present right now. It is difficult to offer proof when the actions of so many of God’s own people suggest God is absent.

     As we touched upon in last week’s Old Testament reading from Exodus, the ancient people of Israel saw firsthand, time and again, the marvelous and miraculous works of God – works described so succinctly in this morning’s Psalm. And yet, as we heard in today’s reading from Exodus, the people still whined and complained. Moses was exasperated. After all, God had repeatedly intervened in their lives, provided food and drink and shelter and safety, and yet, the people still wondered, “Is the Lord among us or not?” And once again, God answers profoundly and deliberately as water suddenly gushes forth and slakes their thirst. And yet, as we will discover in later readings, the people still wonder, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

     Throughout the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus has repeatedly asked his followers, “Who do you say that I am?” That is a loaded question because the answer has life challenging ramifications. The chief priests and elders in today’s reading from Matthew knew this. So, when Jesus asked them if John the Baptizer’s teaching was from heaven, was it of God, or of human origin, these leaders knew they were in a spot. They knew that if they answered John’s message simply came out of his human desire they risked being beaten by the crowd who believed him to be a Prophet. If they answered “of God, of heaven” then Jesus would ask why didn’t they listen to John, why didn’t they amend their lives?

And so, the chief priests and elders offer an answer that transcends one’s religion, race, gender, national origin, economic status, ethnicity or any other difference. When confronted with something we should have or should nothave done, it is a human characteristic to think we can be absolved from all responsibility by simply saying, “I didn’t know” or “we don’t know.” Now claiming “we don’t know” can be a viable answer on occasion. After all, we are finite human beings who do not fully understand the universe, or science, or everything about God. But the law tells us that to claim ignorance of a law or ethical standard is no excuse. We are still accountable not only for our answer, but for our actions as well.      

     Who do you say that I am? Was John’s call to baptism and repentance of heaven or of human origin? Be careful now, because how one answers, Jesus reveals, must make a difference in one’s life. Jesus’ point is rather simple, and he uses a parable about two sons to illustrate that it is one thing to know right from wrong, to know what God expects of God’s people, and quite another to do it, to follow it.  

See, I think that one of the great tragedies of the modern Christian age is that when confronted with the question who is Jesus of Nazareth, many Christians jump to their feet and exclaim, “He is the Christ, the Messiah. He is our Redeemer and Savior. He is our hope and salvation.” Really? Then why do so many not listen to him? As illustrated in the parable, why is it so difficult to do what Jesus asks of his followers? Our gospel lesson offers that learned religious leaders were incapable of identifying even John the Baptizer, they couldn’t recognize God at work in their midst and yet, the outcasts of society knew exactly who John was, who Jesus was, and allowed that knowledge to change their lives. They inherited the kingdom of God while the religious were left wondering is the Lord among us or not?

      Sometime ago, I saw an editorial cartoon that pictured an exasperated Jesus – his hand on his forehead in bewilderment - saying, “So, let me get this straight. You take the Bible literally enough to condemn all sorts of people and conduct but, not literally enough to feed the poor.” Our gospel lesson this morning challenges us to grasp that if we believe Jesus is the Christ, if we believe John’s call to repentance and amendment of life is of God, then it should make a difference in every aspect of our lives: from standing up and speaking against hypocrisy, lying, and injustice, to confronting our own secret thoughts, those faults hardest to acknowledge let alone change; things like speaking ill or gossiping about others; and not being willing to forgive and forgive again and again and again. It is all or nothing with Jesus. Is the Lord among us or not?

      See, with all that is happening right now I believe people are asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?  And the answer they seek goes beyond signs and wonders; goes beyond one’s words of assurance. The answer they seek, the only answer that will offer lasting proof, is when the changed hearts and minds of God’s people, the changed lives and priorities that mirror the words of scripture, when changed people choose to make a positive and lasting difference in this world.

     St Paul, writing to the Philippian Church, made it clear that it is impossible to turn and embrace God without turning to Jesus Christ and such requires a decision to what? Amend one’s life and embrace and embody everything Jesus taught. This was the problem the chief priests and elders faced in Matthew’s gospel and it is the problem Christians still face every day, that I face every day: we cannot acknowledge who Jesus was and is, who John was, without acknowledging our need to amend our lives, to allow God to change our hearts – our very minds and deepest thoughts – to practice an authentic faith that truly honors God and seeks to do God’s will, and to walk in God’s ways - all of God’s ways.  

     Paul offers what is perhaps the most succinct answer to the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Paul says that if someone is seeking a living and true answer to that question, they should need to look no further than to the person who claims to be a follower of Christ. Paul says that Christ’s followers, “in humility regard others as better than themselves. They look not to their own interests, but to the interests of others. They have the same mindset that was in Christ Jesus, who,  … emptied himself, took the form of a slave … humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross.”

     Is the Lord among us or not? Paul says that answer can only be found in each of us – in how we speak, how we act, how we respond to the needy and how we hold those who lead us accountable.

     See, scripture has laid out very clearly not only what God expects of God’s people, but what people need to see alive in us if our faith and belief in God is to have any positive and lasting impact in contemporary life. The Prophet Micah said it best “… and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

     Is the Lord among us or not? Only our lives can answer that question. And by God’s grace, beloved, may our lives answer, “Yes.” Amen.