Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 27, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

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

Like a broken record, we return to the Israelites wandering in the desert, and they are still grumbling. Last week, it was hunger; this week, they are thirsty. It’s easy to poke fun at this crowd which seems to long for the good old days when they were slaves. But in truth, enslavement is not healthy soil for learning to trust. God has, through Moses, asked a people whose very existence was precarious, dependent on the whims of a tyrant, to trust that they will make it to the Promised Land, that there will be food each day and water in the desert to drink. When you’ve spent your life developing your instincts for suspicion, trust does not come easy.

“What shall I do with this people?” Moses asks God. He’s tired of their complaining, too. He’s afraid the whole multitude will turn on him, and one wonders if his trust in God might be a bit frayed, too.

But God tells him to take his faithful staff – the same one that turned into a snake to demonstrate God’s power and the same one that turned the Nile to blood to try to convince pharaoh of the futility of his cause – God said take that staff and go to Horeb, to Sinai, and strike the rock. I will go ahead of you and will be standing there, on that rock.

And here’s the thing. Moses did it. Moses, who first encountered God on Sinai in a burning bush; Moses who, though fearful of his ability to do it, went to pharaoh to plead for the people of Israel; Moses who led the people through the Red Sea on dry ground; Moses who is afraid the people are going to rise up against him; this Moses trusted God enough to do what was asked of him.

It’s pretty amazing to have that kind of trust, don’t you think? To truly believe that God will provide all that we need even out in the wilderness, maybe even in the midst of a pandemic.

The chief priests and elders are the inheritors of Moses. They are the keepers of the law handed down by God and the ways that law is put into practice in daily life, and they want to know who this Jesus is that he has such authority. It’s a little difficult to tell, but Jesus has already ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, cleared the temple of the moneychangers and then returned the next day to sit down and teach. So the authority they ask about is, “who said you could come into this holy place and turn everything upside down?” Rather than considering that Jesus did this because the moneychangers were getting rich off the backs of the poor people who came to Jerusalem for the Passover, their need to protect their position and power and privilege is their driving motivation.  You see, pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for the festival had to pay in temple currency which they would not have had coming from the countryside, and so the exchange rate and the sale of animals for the sacrifice were a lucrative market. And Jesus was having none of it. It is the one time Jesus resorts to violence, and it is on behalf of the poor and the powerless.

So these elders completely miss the point and are more concerned about answering the riddle about John in a way that doesn’t make their life more difficult. Jesus then poses another question: which son did what was asked of him, the one who said he would go and didn’t or the one who said he would not go, but did?

What Jesus is really asking is whether or not the priests and elders who are charged with upholding the law have completely forgotten that a big part of that is to pursue justice. They said they would, but here they are permitting injustice against the marginalized and getting rich off of that. They said they would go into the vineyard, but they did not.

In all of the reports following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week, the ones that most caught my eye were how her understanding of what justice is was informed by her Jewish faith. In her office, she is said to have had on her wall a framed passage from Deuteronomy (16:20) that reads צדק צדק תרדף (tzedek, tzedek tirdof) meaning “justice, justice you shall pursue.”[1] This is a command that supersedes even the requirement for sacrifice, because how many times does God say, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice?” (Matthew 9:13).

‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
   and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
   with calves a year old? 
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
   with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
   the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ 
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)

In the temple, Jesus is pursuing a justice that the “authorities” seem to have forgotten. His authority comes from God. It comes from the law of Moses. His authority will get him killed.

A month or so ago, news reports surfaced about a priest in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit who had discovered that, when he was baptized 30 years ago, the priest who baptized him used an unauthorized formula, saying “we baptize you” rather than “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”[2] This meant that his baptism was deemed invalid, therefore his priestly ordination was invalid, as was every sacrament in which he had engaged since his ordination three years ago. That’s every baptism, marriage, absolution – all of it was considered invalid, so the archdiocese is busy tracking down those who may be most affected, like those who believe their marriages to be valid in the sight of the Church.

Now, I am not one to criticize about orthodoxy and doing things the right way, because I take such things seriously, and the Episcopal Church, for all its egalitarianism, can be as clerical and hierarchical as they come. However, what does the Church say to the family of the person who received Last Rites or a death that came after a now-invalid baptism? Do we really believe that God cannot make right what we have royally messed up? If that’s the case and it all relies on me as your priest doing and saying the right things, we are all in big trouble, and I might as well hang up my stole right now.

By whose authority do you do these things? You do them because you are called by God to pursue justice. You are called by God to tell Good News. You are called by God to teach, to take care of the poor and the sick and to stand up for those who cannot do so for themselves. You need no other authority than that which is given to you by God.

The grumbling people of Israel probably questioned on whose authority Moses acted, too. At least until their bellies were full and their thirst quenched. Jesus also made sure that the hungry were fed and the thirsty received water. Not just any water but living water. And we who follow in those footsteps must do the same, must pursue justice and mercy. We make those promises in our baptism, and that is the only authority we need.


[1] https://religionnews.com/2020/09/18/how-justice-ruth-bader-ginsburgs-judaism-shaped-her-judicial-approach/

[2] https://www.ncronline.org/news/people/after-learning-his-baptism-was-invalid-priest-finds-blessing-re-ordination

ASEPSermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 27, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas