Based on Matthew 21:23-32
When I graduated from Emory, there were snipers on the roofs of all the buildings around the quad. They were clad in black, but still visible, with their guns at the ready. All around us, security was heavy. As I lined up to march in, there was the most heavily armored civilian vehicle I had ever seen parked in front of the chapel, engine running, ready to whisk away our graduation speaker.
That year, one of Emory’s distinguished guest professors was scheduled to leave and head to NYU to be a distinguished guest professor for a few years there. In light of his departure, Emory asked Salman Rushdie to be the graduation speaker for it’s main ceremony. Rushdie, you may recall, has written books that are hypercritical of religion to the extent that the Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa against him; a religious call to assassinate Rushdie.
Thus the protection for him as he spoke at Emory. Not long after he had begun, his characteristic inflammatory language began as he railed against the religiosity of the southeastern United States, the religious heritage of Emory and it’s status as a United Methodist university, and then deemed that all the theology graduates in attendance that day had committed three years of their lives to worthless degrees. Everyone turned and looked at all of us, distinct in our red hoods.
Rushdie clearly has no place in his life for religion and sees it as problematic, even a source of evil, for the future of the world. Better for the world, Rushdie said that day, that religion ceased to exist.
He’s not alone in his views. We live in a time of questioning, confusion, and outright condemnation of religion. It’s fashionable to be condescending to religion, considering it an outmoded way of thinking. Many have abandoned faith, labelling it for simple minded folks. Those who cling to religious beliefs are condemned for their values, accused of fostering oppression by forcing beliefs about marriage, sex, abortion, or other topics.
And then, to justify these judgments, faith’s cultured despisers point to the way religion inspires violence. Buddhists regularly attack Hindu temples in places like Myanmar. Hindus commit violence against Muslims in Kashmir. Muslims commit violence against Christians in ISIS-controlled territory. Christians commit violence against Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa. And in our own country, we experience the ways that religion inspires violence through things like white supremacy, which is grounded in an insidious variety of Christianity.
All around the world, religion causes violence and suffering. The smaller the world gets through communications, the more we’re aware of this fact and, the more aware we become, the more likely folks are to abandon religion, thinking that it is an outmoded way of believing and being. Better to focus in on what the Dalai Lama, a religious leader no doubt but a hero to many outside of faith, calls “secular ethics,” a way of being in the world that doesn’t require religion to be a decent human being who perpetuates good. Religion has become so passé that even the leader of all Tibetan Buddhists, the one revered by Tibetans as the fourteenth reincarnation of the first Dalai Lama, has declared religion is not essential to life on this earth.
The Dalai Lama and Salman Rushdie have something in common: they both believe that religion is not essential, that one can live life without faith and be a good person, contribute positively to the world. Both of them, one the leader of a major worldwide religion and the other an ardent atheist, give voice to the modern view of faith: religion is irrelevant and a source of suffering, so abandon your faith, forget your doctrine, and embrace secularism.
We in this room believe differently, and believe so ardently. We hold faith close to our hearts; otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. But we know that outside these walls, we face challenges. People in our lives wonder why we believe. We may know people, as I do, who love us but hate our belief. Challenges to being a Christian in our society feel like they’re mounting because Christianity’s dominance over our culture is slipping. Indeed, no particular ideology nor way of being seems to have that dominant position any longer.
And then we know all too well that we are perceived as anti-gay, judgmental, and hypocritical; the top three words people surveyed by the Pew Research Center used when describing Christians. When those who are not Christians look at us, they’re likely to think one of those three words, or think about how religion perpetuates violence around the world, or assume any number of other negative things. There’s much against us, it seems, in our current societal mood.
In light of all this, what are we supposed to do when challenged, when called to account for why we believe, when called to defend our faith? What are we to say in this modern world attuned to secularism? How are we to respond to this high moment of challenge?
The pharisees are challenged, attacked, and defensive. Their way of life is threatened by Romans, radical Jews, and Jesus. And so, for us today, the pharisees know the answer to our questions: We are to discredit those who attack faith and sway crowds to believe as we do.
As the pharisees approach Jesus, the Romans have once again marched a Legion into Jerusalem to keep the peace. The situation is chaotic, tense, and combustable. Zealots, radical terrorist Jews, are actively on the prowl for ways to surreptitiously attack military installations and assassinate officers, all while the city is overcrowded with pilgrims. The Romans don’t trust any Jews and the Jewish leaders don’t trust the Romans nor the pilgrims.
Into this steps the pharisees who move to keep the peace by discrediting Jesus, getting rid of one of the ingredients that threatens to combust Jerusalem. Their desire to keep the peace is not only a political concern, it’s also a religious concern. They believe that a people who behave themselves, who follow Jewish law while also following Roman law to keep the Romans happy, are a people whom God will eventually rescue. For the pharisees, practicing religion rightly will lead to nothing less than the overthrow of Roman rule by God. They just need to follow the law to get God happy enough to release them from Roman bondage and give them political autonomy under a king in the lineage of David again.
And so, the pharisees had enacted tough regulations to ensure compliance with the law of God so the people would be rescued. By and large, the people followed, oppressed by the regulations while giving the pharisees a secure power base.
Into that hegemony steps Jesus, the rabble rouser and upender of the pharisees laws and regulations. He regularly breaks their laws and tells the pharisees that, in doing so, he’s not breaking God’s law because the pharisees have misinterpreted and manipulated God’s law for their own power.
This is a message that has deep resonance with the everyday person who, upon hearing Jesus, suddenly realizes their oppression by the pharisees. They flock to Jesus as this folk hero who will save them from suffocation by regulation.
This causes the pharisees to feel insecure. Jesus threatens their power, their dominance over Jewish society. On top of this, they feel the tension of the overcrowded city and presence of the Roman Legion. Their insecurity heightened, they decide this is the moment to try and discredit Jesus. In approaching him at the temple, they offer a question that sounds innocent enough, but is really the question that the pharisees believe will discredit him in front of the people, proving him to be the false prophet they believe he is. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they ask.
They fully expect Jesus to declare that the Father is his source of authority. They fully expect Jesus to say that he is the Son of God, the Messiah. They expect him to at least infer that he is divine. And they expect that, when he does, the people will turn away from him because the people will then perceive Jesus as having crossed the line from prophet to blasphemer.
The pharisees know what to do when their faith, their religion, their way of life, is challenged. They know what to do when called to give an accounting for their beliefs. They know how to act: they launch a plan to discredit the source of the challenge, defending their faith, their beliefs, and their power in the process.
Jesus is onto them and beats them at their own game. Rather than answer their question, declaring by what authority he acts, he asks them a question about the authority of John the Baptist. The pharisees debate amongst themselves, trying to figure out what the best answer will be for the people to hear; what the best defensive answer is that will secure their power, secure their position, and help discredit Jesus. They debate and debate and debate, trying desperately to find not the right answer, the expedient answer; the one that will help further their agenda to discredit Jesus. In the end, they come up empty, returning to Jesus saying that they cannot answer his question.
Jesus declares that he will thus not answer their question and then insults them with the parable. They are the second son who proves to be a hypocrite. The message of the parable is clear: prostitutes and tax collectors are more faithful than you are.
How could that be when they’re trying to defend the faith, when they’re trying to bring about the righteous rule of God through their good behavior and adherence to the law? How could they be less faithful? How could they be outside of God’s will?
The problem is one of authenticity.
In the parable, the pharisees are hypocrites because they say they’re going to do God’s will and then don’t. The tax collectors and prostitutes, on the other hand, recognize their own sin, their own need for God, and they repent.
The difference, then, is a difference of authenticity.
This is what stood out to me as I lived with this scripture. The pharisees are completely fake. They approach Jesus with hidden motives. The pharisees’ question sounds innocent enough, but the motivation behind the question, entrapment into blasphemy for their own political purposes, demonstrates a lack of authenticity.
Then, when challenged, they don’t seek the truth, they seek the expedient answer. How can they address Jesus’s question and keep the crowd on their side? How can they ensure their power base remains, their control over the people remains? Those are the questions that they are really asking as they debate amongst themselves. To say “we do not know” is also fake because they do know; their minds are made up. They think that John the Baptist claimed God but really acted on his own authority. They think the answer to Jesus’s question is “human authority,” but they refuse to be honest because they fear what will happen to their power, their control, over the crowd and society.
We fear the same thing. What will happen to Christianity, what will happen to our faith, if we lose our power over society, the power we once had, the control we once had? What will happen not only to our religion, but what will happen to our country? What will happen to our society?
Jesus, in calling the pharisees hypocrites, reveals something essential about their actions. The pharisees said that God is all powerful, that God has control, that they depend upon God. But their actions are the opposite. Everything they do religiously is to ensure their power, to ensure their control, to ensure they depend upon no one.
Such is often the state of modern Christianity. When we force a particular value, when we exert our voice through politics and elections, whenever we do anything that tries to defend our religion, defend our cultural dominance, defend our societal power, we prove ourselves to be hypocrites, just like the pharisees, because we prove to the world that we don’t really believe that God is all powerful, that God has control, that God is dependable. We rather prove to be just as power hungry as everyone else.
If we really did believe that God is in control, we wouldn’t worry about the future of our faith because we would trust that God knows what God is doing. If we really believed that God is all powerful, we wouldn’t force particular issues or values because we would trust that God would work through our own faithfulness without us having to be forceful. If we really believed that God is dependable, we wouldn’t worry about the future of the church, about church growth, because we would believe that God will come through for the church in God’s own timing.
What we need, as a religion in America today, is to live into the example of the prostitutes and tax collectors. We need to repent, confessing our hypocrisy as a faith: that we have said we believe that God is powerful, that God is in control, and that God is dependable, and then acted in opposite ways.
We are too much like the pharisees and not enough like prostitutes and tax collectors. What Jesus asks of us is not defense, not bullying people into values, not securing our power base, but rather repentance and authenticity.
This morning, the task before us is authenticity in our faith. When we encounter people who believe differently than us or who even despise what we believe, Jesus doesn’t call us to defend him, nor our faith, nor our religion. Jesus is plenty capable of doing that himself.
Rather, Jesus calls us to authentically witness to the faith we know: the faith that took us from being tax collectors and prostitutes to beloved of God, a daughter of the Father, a brother of Christ. We have experienced the resurrection of our lives because we know Christ, because the Holy Spirit came to live in us. An authentic faith is one that witnesses to that reality: that we are a sinner, saved by grace, now beloved of God, and our lives are better for that love. Such witnessing is a tool God can use to spread our faith and our religion, to cause lives to be changed. Defensive posturing can’t do that; only the spreading of love can.
Authenticity means not only witnessing to the faith that has saved us, but it’s also to freely confess that, as a religion, we’ve been wrong to be forceful, wrong to bully others with our agenda, wrong to utilize violence, wrong to condemn others for political gain, wrong to collude so closely with politics, wrong to seek power through elections. Yes, we may not have done any of that ourselves, yes we may not even support those Christians who do those things, but if we claim the name of Christ, we represent to others Christianity. The question before us is, when we encounter someone who thinks of us as anti-gay, judgmental, and hypocritical just because we are a Christian, will we prove them right by defending our faith, or will we prove them wrong by being repentant for our religion’s sins, even if they’re not our own sins?
I was once one of those that believed Christians were, by and large, anti-gay, judgmental, and hypocritical. I made fast and loose assumptions about every Christian I met. Many tried to force their beliefs on me, tried push values, condemned me to my face or in their actions. But a few that I encountered loved me, empathized with my plight, and through them, I was saved. The former, those who rushed to defend Christianity against my feelings, were the pharisees. The latter were prostitutes and tax collectors, people who first recognized their own sinfulness and then, out of that recognition, empathized with the sin in my life.
That’s the power of choosing authenticity over defense. That’s the power of witnessing to the faith we know instead of giving the expedient answer. That’s the power of giving up seeking after power bases, of giving up worrying about the loss of cultural hegemony, of giving up thinking that if we can force righteousness on this country, that we will somehow be saved and blessed. The power of simply witnessing to the faith we know, to how God has saved us from our sins and raised us to new life, will do far more than we could ever force on our own.
When we repent and live out an authentic faith, God will move through us in powerful ways in our sphere of influence: Dodge County. The beginning of revival in this county will come not because we have successfully defended Christianity, Jesus, or the church, but because we have born witness to this simple fact: we are sinners, saved by grace; that through Christ, and because of the church, we have experienced new life and life abundant. I have encountered this church as full of people who know the love of God and desire to give that love to others. We know personally, and can bear witness to, the powerful love of God. That’s the love to which we are called to witness with authenticity.
When that love causes us to go where others won’t to simply share life together with people others reject;
when that love causes us to embrace the spouse who cheated,
causes us to love on the drug addict,
causes us to cross racial boundaries,
causes us to feed the poor even if we think they’re at fault for their poverty,
causes us to open the church to people society rejects,
causes us to open the church to people other churches reject,
causes us to stand up against Christians who are bullying or otherwise being forceful with their values and beliefs;
We witness to the redemptive power of relationship with Christ that transforms who we are from tax collectors and sinners to beloved of God. When we do these kinds of things, we witness to the powerful love of God in our lives which will cause more transformation than we could ask or imagine. Rather than ardent defense, rather than pushing values, rather than trying to bully others into faith, these small actions of love, these radical ordinary acts, will set this county on fire for Christ.
That’s what happens when we’re authentic in our faith; when our stance as a Christian begins not with self-righteousness that proves us to be hypocrites, but with the recognition that we’re sinners, saved by grace; that we were once in league with tax collectors and prostitutes, but that God has raised us to new life. Choose this day to be authentic. Resist the temptation to defend the faith. For Christ will defend Christianity, the church will never die. So bear witness, rather than defend. Admit our powerlessness, rather than secure power bases. Cede control to follow the call of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Forego self-righteousness for humility.
Set the county on fire. Love radically, trusting that God knows what God is doing, that God is all powerful, and that God is in control. Live an authentic life, repent for our religion’s sins, witness to your faith, and watch God transform our county.