Authority or Unity?


A Sermon about Matthew 21: 23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13

Before I begin, I need to offer two “sermon notes” that are important for how you might hear what I am going to preach today.

The first is about our reading from Philippians: Although this reading is my absolute favorite passage of scripture I know that it has sometimes been interpreted in extremely harmful ways. Along with other passages that call believers to “take up their cross” and to follow Christ’s example of self-sacrifice, this passage has been used to tell oppressed or abused people to accept their lot in life because they are sharing in Christ’s suffering.

Let me be clear: that interpretation is wrong. It is an abuse of the people to whom it is addressed, and it is a twisting of the Word of God. When I talk about this call to follow Christ’s example, I am not talking about passively accepting imposed oppression. I am talking about living an intentional faith where we CHOOSE humility. We can and should follow Christ’s example and also speak out against abuse. There is no contradiction.

My second note is that this sermon is more vulnerable than I usually am from the pulpit. I believe that it is sometimes important for preachers to confess our own struggles with living into the truths we proclaim. But I often hesitate to do that because I don’t want you all to worry about me, or to feel like the responsibility of being a spiritual leader for this community is too heavy. That responsibility is an awesome gift, and I am grateful for it, even though I will sometimes fail at it. There is grace for that, and for all of us. Our faith is all the more beautiful because we have to keep working it out “with fear and trembling” as Paul says. That’s what this sermon is, and my hope is that it will be a source of encouragement and authenticity in our relationship. Deal? Then let us begin.

Grace, Mercy, and Peace are yours from the Triune God. Amen

My seminary class this semester is called “Preaching Across the Divide” and it is HONEST about how deeply divided our nation and our churches are. It also requires the students to be honest about our own divides. My first written assignment was to write a self-reflection about the ways that I experience divides in my own life.

That reflection was painfully illuminating, because it helped me to articulate my own particular challenge in trying to lead a diverse faith community in this moment of deep national division.

You see, as I reflected on my personal history as a child of divorce I realized two deep needs that get triggered for me when I sense a divide.

The first is the need for SAFETY. Division is scary. It can rip apart relationships that seemed solid and that are important for continued well-being. Because of this I have an instinctual move toward peace-keeping at all costs.

On the other hand, I also have a deep need to be RIGHT. When relationships are ripped apart, despite my best efforts, the only really safe place to ground my well-being, feels like myself. If I know that I am right, and I can stand in that self-righteous certainty. No one can take that away from me.

Unfortunately, the only way to meet both of those needs – for safety and for moral certitude – is to isolate myself in an echo chamber community where my vehement assertions of my beliefs will also reaffirm my belonging to the group.

I know I’m not alone in this instinct – lots of people are writing and talking about echo chambers these days – But reflecting on this pattern in the context of a course on preaching has forced me to face what a trap it is for leadership… and how its work against the servant leadership to which Christ calls me.

This awareness was in my mind as I reflected on today’s gospel, and I was horrified to realize that I identify with the temple leaders who confronted Jesus: the status quo authority figures who try to play both sides and protect their position – I totally get them!

In the part of the story that we did NOT read, Jesus had come into their sacred space the day before, and effectively started a one-man riot, smashing up small businesses, driving people out, and wildly quoting prophesy while calling them all “crooks.” THAT scene is why they challenge Jesus to defend his authority.

And that challenge runs deeper than just a matter of personal offense, or even economic disruption. The temple leaders are responsible to the Roman occupiers for maintaining order. If they can’t get control of this powder keg, it will ignite, and then the Roman army will come in and smash the city.

The religious leaders aren’t just protecting their own position and power, they are trying to protect their people.

And so, when Jesus challenges them back, and puts them in a catch-22 position where they either have to foment rebellion themselves by declaring John – who was executed by the State – to have been a prophet of God, or else to incite protest among the crowds by denying it.

There is no safe answer!

And so, these leaders actually subvert their own need to be right – an instinct they undoubtedly had as chief priests and elders – in order to protect their responsibility to maintain order. “We do not know” they said. In other words, this is too dangerous to talk about.

I UNDERSTAND that feeling.

Despite my instinctual need to stand in self-righteous certainty about my own opinion on divisive subjects.

And despite my first career in advocacy, where that was actually my job!

And despite the commitments to loving dialogue hanging in the conference room, which I pushed us to create.

When divisive topics threaten to disrupt our community here at church, my first emotional reaction is to say “STOP! We can’t go there. Someone is going to feel attacked, or excluded, and that will break apart our safe community. This is too dangerous to talk about.”

I had a moment like that this week at Bible study when someone raised the inflammatory political topic of the moment – “taking a knee for the national anthem.”

I don’t think that the Take-A-Knee/NFL controversy is the most urgent or important issue facing our nation. The 3.4 million US citizens in Puerto Rico with limited access to power, clean water, and food probably hold that place. But I recognize the powerful emotions triggered by this public protest.

And while I have my own opinions about the process and content of the protest, my instinct as your Vicar when the issue was raised in Bible study was NOT to defend my own position. My instinct was to panic about what might happen if I let that conversation roll. In a room where I was pretty sure we did not all line up on the same side of the issue, it just felt too dangerous to talk about it. The danger might not have been quite as devastating as violent suppression by the Roman army, but I love this church and its people, and I didn’t want anyone to get hurt.

To be clear, it was not wrong to raise the issue – I just got scared.

But I had a problem. Because we were studying my favorite passage of scripture – the second chapter of Philippians. And I know the message of this scripture. And it’s not about avoiding conflict.

It IS a call to unity: “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” But that call to unity is not about political correctness or polite avoidance of touchy subjects – avoidance actually kills the intimacy of real community.

Rather, this passage is a roadmap to how we actually get to genuine unity – by being of the same mind as Christ.

The road Jesus leads us down in the quest for unity is a road of self-emptying.

What is self-emptying?

It is rejecting defensive claims about what is owed to us, and the authority on which we stand – as when Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.

It is humbling ourselves by entering into the perspective of the people to whom we seek to connect -as when Jesus took on our form and was born in human likeness.

It is being willing to feel for ourselves the deepest pain of the other, so that we can understand what is hurting them, maybe even trapping them - as when Jesus was humbled himself, and shared our pain to the point of death.

That’s what Jesus did for us, and we are called to be of the same mind. To follow his example.

At Wednesday night Bible study, I think I pointed the group to this roadmap for unity. but I didn’t let us actually walk the road together. I was too scared.

So, I have a homework assignment for all of you. I want you to listen, to really listen, to someone who does not agree with you. Either on this issue or on any of the other fraught social and political debates of this time.

The point is not that you have to change your mind, just as your agenda should not be to change the other person’s mind.

Nor is the point some kind of moral relativism where all perspectives are equally valid. The Bible calls us to Truth, and to witness. The gospel should be continually transforming us so that we can transform the world. And when we are convinced that there is a right and a wrong that we can impact, we take up our cross and sacrifice on the side of righteousness.

But that work cannot be done from a position of self-righteousness. We cannot reflexively dismiss people who disagree with us. We need to learn from their different experiences, and try to understand the moral foundations that drive them. Our instinct in conflict is to ask each other “by what authority are you saying these things,” but we need to ask ourselves that as well. Is our authority based in our own sense of moral superiority, or do we serve Jesus? Because if we serve Jesus, let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus:

By refusing self-righteousness and the right to demand that others give us the glory (by affirming our worldview)…

And by being willing to actually listen to the pain and the needs of people who see things differently – recognizing their full humanity.

That empathy is the only way we can have unity in talking about serious social crises – and make no mistake, this protest is about a real social crisis. This particular mode of protest is not a matter to which I think scripture speaks directly, but the reality of racial inequality is. The totality of the Bible makes it clear that God is on the side of the oppressed, that God’s justice is restorative, and that the church is tasked with calling and working for that justice.

Reformation has always been the church’s job. We can’t avoid politics. We can’t say “I don’t know” in order to try to keep the peace. To do that is to deny that God has ultimate authority in our lives.

But when we engage in these debates, especially in the context of our deeply divisive culture wars, we need to do so with the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus, with the humility that does not demand power over, but rather enters the other’s pain. Only then can we rise again, UNITED by understanding, even if not by agreement, to the glory of God the Father.

I confess that I am not a leader who is well-suited for that kind of humble, vulnerable, self-emptying effort to find unity through the pain. My instinct is to just keep the peace, or else tell everyone else why I am right.

But I’m not actually the leader on this road anyway. Jesus is. If we can follow him, I believe he offers us a genuine unity that this world is aching for.

Thanks be to God.

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