Who gets in?

Proper 21A (RCL)
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

The authorities ask Jesus by what authority he is doing these things. One might ask, “What things?” Immediately preceding this interchange is the cleansing of the Temple and the cursing of the fig tree, both signs of the judgment of God on the existing order of things (for the fig tree, cf. Isaiah 5 — I looked for fruit but found sour fruit, for justice and heard an outcry). The parable of the vineyard will follow.

Jesus refuses to answer, and instead poses a question: Was John’s baptism from God or from humans? This implies Jesus’ authority will be from the same place — however you answer one question, you will answer the other. Then the parable of the two brothers, again working in the vineyard, God’s community of justice (Isaiah 5). Tax collectors and prostitutes will be lead into the Kingdom of God before you. Notice, not into heaven, but into the Kingdom of God, where justice is done.

Who are the tax collectors and prostitutes? They have been pushed to the edge by the economic circumstance. Tax collecting and prostitution are never vocations of first resort. No one chooses them. They are driven to it. John comes preaching repentance of the sins of the nation, and these marginal ‘get it.’ They are living with the consequences of those sins, foreclosures, dislocation and all the rest.

Those people pushed to the edge might very well ask, like the nation at Rephidim, “Is God with us, or not?” Sure, he has shown us wonderful things in the past, but here we are dying of thirst, pushed to the edge. And God makes water to flow from the rock. God is with us. The first son does his father’s will, even though he had said no, he goes to work in the vineyard. He remains faithful, even after refusing. John preached to those who might question whether God is with us, and they repented. How do we learn to see things from the perspective of those on the edge, the tax collectors and prostitutes? What does God’s justice, God’s vineyard look like to them? Paul encourages us to have the same mind as Christ, who did not count equality with God as a prize, but took the form of a slave. Where is the community that does righteousness? Probably not among the Wall Street executive who earn 275 times what the average worker in their company earns. Who will go into the Kindgom first?

What is the church?

Proper 18A (RCL)
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Psalm 149 has always bothered me. We read it on All Saints’ Day, among other times. “Let the praises of God be in their throat and a two-edged sword in their hand; to wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples; . . . to inflict on them the judgment decreed; this is glory for all God’s faithful people.” Really? Seems odd to sing those lines.

The twelfth chapter of Exodus describes the preparations for the passover meal, before the Hebrews leave Egypt. God will come through Egypt and kill all the first born males, animal and human, except in the houses with blood on the lintel. With that as a foundational story, a group of people would be inclined to see the world in terms of us against them. God save us, but not them.

I noticed a couple of weeks ago, in the reading of Peter’s confession in Matthew’s Gospel, that Matthew’s Jesus seems to be making a distinction between the Christ and the Son of Man: Who do people say the son of man is; who do you say that I am; to which Peter confesses, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” If the Son of Man is the figure who returns at the end of time to wreak God’s vengeance, then Matthew’s Jesus is saying the Christ is some other figure. The very next week, Jesus helps us figure out the distinction: The Christ will suffer and die. Peter of course tempts Jesus not to (get behind me Satan).

And this week, we run into that very rare word again: Church. Jesus tells Simon he is Peter and on that Rock (the rock of Peter’s confession), Jesus will build his church. Now, in the only other occurence of that word anywhere in the Gospels, Jesus tells us that if a brother or sister sins against you, try to work it out between the two. But if not, then eventually lay it before the Church. If things work out, you have re-gained your brother or sister, but if not, then be cut off from them. This follows the teaching about refusing to be a stumbling block for one of these little ones, and the shepherd who leaves the 99 to search for the single sheep.

I believe Matthew intends an inclusio with these two occurences of the word church, and the saying about binding and loosing. It is, after all, Peter who asks how many times I must forgive a brother. The foundational story about the church is not how we are distinguished from them, but how we are to treat one another. If two or three are united in something, then it’s done. Whose sins do we bind to them, and whose sins do we loose for them? In Matthew’s Gospel, and no where else, Jesus, at the last supper, says that the cup is his blood of the new covenant shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins. The blood isn’t about distinguishing the saved from the not-saved, but for the saving of all, the bringing of all inside.

That, I think, is what Matthew means about saving one’s life and losing it. If we think this is about making us special, we’ve got it wrong. The vocation of the church is to loose the sins of all — not that we can just let them go; it has to happen through reconciliation. But we are to be about the work of reconciling each to God and all to all. If two or three . . .