Distractions

Matthew 21:23-32

    Several days ago I was reading on Facebook a very thought-provoking and insightful post from my dear friend and former bishop.  Somewhere in his message he used the phrase, “dear siblings in Christ.”  We’ve been seeing that wording a lot lately in our denomination as we try to use language that’s more expansive and less gender binary. I get it and I support the idea.  Truly, I do.

But I have a problem.  It’s a personal problem and really kind of silly, but it’s still a problem.  For me.  I don’t like the word siblings.  It has a perfectly fine heritage as English words go, Old Germanic to Saxon to Old English to us, and the meaning couldn’t be clearer.  But I just don’t like the sound of it.   It starts with a snaky sibilant, slides into an apologetic little short vowel, butts up against a half-hearted plosive-lingual combo and drowns itself in a swallowed glottal ending.  You would think a word that intends to speak such rich and varied relationships would, itself, be a bit more robust.

Anyway, I broke away from reading my friend’s Facebook post to compose a post of my own: “FWIW and apropos of nothing:
I really dislike the word sibling. The ending “ling” is diminutive for one thing, and I don’t want to diminish those I am embracing as kin, nor do I want to be diminished. I understand the desire to use something more gender expansive than ‘brothers and sisters,’ but siblings sounds squishy to my ear. So… better word? Or is it just me?”

Forty-seven responses later, many of them having to do with the suffix ‘ling’, my friends and cousins and I had arrived at no consensus regarding the word “siblings,” except that we can’t really think of any other single work that does the job, so we’ll all continue using it.  My cousins, the five sisters who grew up in a family of ten siblings, actually like the word siblings and use it frequently.  Cousin Carla (she’s a retired English teacher) and I had quite the discussion on the etymology of the word…which is the kind of thing that passes for sport in our extended family.

And here’s a curious thing at the end of all this:  I completely lost track of what my dear friend and former bishop was writing about in his piece that used the phrase that had sent me down the siblings rabbit hole.  Can’t remember for the life of me and can’t find his post.  

I remember I had been moved by what I had read up to that point.  I remember thinking that I wanted to sit with his words and the feeling he was expressing.  But I let myself get distracted by the triviality of a single word because it sounds odd to my hearing and its suffix triggers my overly picky sense of meaning.  

I guess I’m hearing impaired in more ways than I realized.

It’s amazing how easily we get distracted from the things that really deserve our attention.

Two days after Jesus had overturned the tables of the moneychangers and driven the vendors and animals out of the temple courts, and followed that by healing people in the temple grounds, Jesus returned to the temple to begin teaching and healing again, knowing that he had precious little time left for this work.  Immediately he was confronted by the Pharisees and Sadducees, the sect in charge of the temple and pretty much everything else in Jerusalem. 

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they asked him.  I don’t think that’s the first question I would have asked.  I think I would have wanted to know why Jesus had made such a ruckus with the vendors and the livestock and the currency exchange.  What’s your thinking there, Jesus?  Then again, if I was wearing their robes and turbans, maybe that’s exactly the question I would have asked: By what authority?  What gives you the authority to come in here and turn our world upside down?  Who gives you that authority?

Their question betrays what they’re trying to protect: their authority.  

Jesus is too smart to accept their kerfuffle invitation, so he says, “Let me ask you a question.  If you tell me the answer, then I’ll tell you by what authority I do what I do.  Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it a strictly human thing?”

And just like that, he had them backed into a corner.  For one thing, that’s exactly the kind of question that would keep Pharisees and Sadducees arguing forever simply because of their different views about heaven and how God works in the world.  But they had an even more practical problem.  “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he’ll say, ‘Well thhen why didn’t you believe him?’  But if we say, ‘It’s a human thing,’ we’ll have to deal with the crowd.  They all think John was a prophet.”  So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” So Jesus said to them, “Well then I won’t tell you by what authority I am doing what I do.”

But he doesn’t stop there.  While he has their attention he tells them a cryptic little parable.  I say cryptic because it seems pretty simple and clear on the face of it, but really, there’s a lot more depth than meets the eye.  It’s like a Zen koan.  You need to sit with it awhile.  

“What do you think?,” said Jesus. “A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’  He answered, ‘I don’t feel like it’; but later he changed his mind and went.  The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘Sure, okay’; but he didn’t go.  Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.”

For us to more fully appreciate how the people listening to Jesus were hearing this, it probably helps to understand that the minute they heard the word “vineyard” their ears perked up.  “Vineyard” was the image the prophets and rabbis used to talk about Israel. 

So now they’re listening.  We’re listening.  More carefully.  This is a story about us.  One son says he’ll go work in the vineyard but he doesn’t go.  He sounds obedient but he really isn’t.  The other son says he won’t but then he does.  He sounds disobedient, but in the end he does what he was asked.  Where do we fit in this story?  Where do I fit in this story? 

“Which of the two,” asked Jesus, “did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.  For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Jesus is trying to get these religious leaders, these good, faithful people, to understand that they’ve missed the point of their religion and their faith. 

But they can’t hear him.  They’re distracted by the question of authority.

The Pharisees are deeply vested in their identity as authorities on the law.  Their piety is admirable but burdensome when they try to make others live by their standards.  The Sadducees are deeply vested in their authority as priests  and managers.  They are immersed in all things political and all the power that comes with the temple.  

Jesus is a threat to them.  Would they still have authority in the kin-dom Jesus is proclaiming?  Would they still have status and stature?  Where would they fit in the hierarchy of such a kin-dom?  Would there even be a hierarchy?

For the Pharisees it was their authority as the teachers and religious practitioners that was at stake.  Who would interpret the law?  

These authorities in the temple are so focused on the question of authority that Jesus has to shock them to really be heard.

“Tax collectors and prostitutes,” he says, “the people you despise most, are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  

Do take note:  he says they will be going into the kingdom of God.  Just not at the front of the line.

So much of what they needed to know about God’s vision for the kin-dom was already there for them in their scriptures, in the words of the Torah and prophets.  So much of what Jesus was teaching and sharing was already in their hands, but they had missed it or forgotten it. Instead of working in the vineyard to realize God’s plan for spreading the wealth and prosperity of the land and administering justice and caring for the poor as it was all laid out in Torah and the prophets, they got distracted by other details.  They got lost in the rabbit hole of protecting their positions in life-as-usual and they missed what John and Jesus had been announcing—that the time had come to live life-as-extraordinary, life as envisioned.  They got lost in words and missed the Word.

I can’t help but think that today, in our country, we find ourselves in a similar situation.  We have in our hands all the wisdom we need to make our nation much more healthy and whole and to heal the divides among our people.  We have the soaring language of the Declaration of Independence to tell us we’re all created equal and endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We have our Constitution calling us to form a more perfect union, laying out for us a government of checks and balances and guaranteeing specific rights to us as citizens.  We pledge allegiance to a nation with liberty and justice for all.

But we’ve been distracted by protecting our particular interests.  All has not included all.  Party politics has knocked the checks and balances out of check and out of balance.  And when we try to make a more perfect union, some people oppose the effort, believing that things were more perfect in a more segregated and separated past.

In 1962, James Meredith made civil rights history as the first Black student ever to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Immediately the town of Oxford, home of the university, was torn by riots as white people took to the streets in violent protest.  But Meredith didn’t let it intimidate him. Four years later, hoping to inspire Black citizens in the South to vote, James Meredith set out to walk 220 miles from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi carrying nothing but a walking stick and a Bible. He wanted  to show that a Black man could walk freely through the South.  “I was at war against fear,” he explained.

On the second day of his walk,  James Meredith was ambushed by Aubrey James Norville, a Memphis hardware clerk, who shot him four times and left him to die in the middle of the road. Incredibly, Meredith survived.

And then an astonishing thing happened. While Meredith was recuperating in the hospital, dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of people began to gather to continue his walk from Memphis to Jackson. On June 26, 1966 a recovered James Meredith entered Mississippi’s state capitol accompanied by 12,000 marchers including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael.

It would have been easy for Meredith to surrender in his war against fear.    But he didn’t let a sniper distract him from walking into Jackson with 12,000 friends.

The events in today’s gospel text took place during what we call Holy Week.  The authorities in the temple didn’t like the way Jesus exercised his authority.  They didn’t like it he wasn’t cowed by their authority.  They didn’t like it that they couldn’t distract him from his mission. They didn’t like it that Jesus was distracting the people from life-as-usual and giving them a vision of life-as-extraordinary.  So they crucified him.  

But crucifying him didn’t stop him and it hasn’t stopped his vision of the kin-dom of God.  And today the living Christ is still calling us to walk with him and behind him to make that kin-dom of peace and justice and equity, that kin-dom of liberty and justice for all a reality, and to spread the news that in God’s eyes we are all…siblings.  

In Jesus’ name.

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