The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 21, Year A
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Matthew 21:23-32
September 27, 2020
“Turn, then, and live”
When I was a kid, there was a particular group in the community who we were suspicious of. As kids, we went to school with some of them, and some were even our teachers. Some of them owned and operated businesses where we would go, but we always considered them separate from ourselves. Some of their social behaviors were a bit lax, and the way they spoke, the language they used, and the way they viewed the world caused us to want to keep our distance from them. They were called Methodists.
I honestly laugh now, but at the time, from our particular perspective, it was a big deal. They seemed to have an entirely different understanding of the world–who God was and how one “was saved.” They “sprinkled” their babies, and it made no sense to us that such a strange act could accomplish anything when anyone with good sense knew that you had to make a conscious decision on your own in order to get salvation.
I had made my conscious choice at seven years old, and since I understood completely the full meaning of salvation at that age, I had no doubt that I held the correct theological position while they were flawed. Everyone in my family agreed with me–indeed had taught me well about everything I needed to know when it came to religious life. We were right, and they were wrong. Our camp had the truth and theirs, obviously, did not.
Have you guessed now that I’m not really talking about Methodists?
I’m talking about human nature and the persistent tendency we have to believe that our particular camp or tribe or denomination or religious tradition holds all the answers to the question of existence. It is so seductive to begin believing that our particular perspective really is the only lens on life, and it is so easy–especially in a climate of anxiety and fear when leaders manipulate our worst suspicions rather than helping us heal and look beneath them–to grasp onto our narrative as the only story that can be told. Or should be told.
I remember the first time, as a kid, that I spent the night with my friend Andrew, whose father was actually the new Methodist pastor in town. I remember going to sleep that night in the little twin bed across the room from him, thinking back on how we had dinner together with his mom, dad, and sister; brushed our teeth before bed; and watched fun shows on the tv. It was the first time I had experienced family life with someone who wasn’t from my particular tradition, and the well-laid markers that made my world make sense were stretched to make room for new information that challenged my understanding. They brushed their teeth too! I realized, even as a kid, that the world around me extended far beyond the borders of the map I had been given.
It was a disturbing feeling, to be honest, because the next time I saw my grandparents, in particular, I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “one of two things has to be true: either they don’t know what is beyond the borders laid out on the map, or they do know and, out of fear, they are choosing not to tell me.” Perhaps such a stretching would not have really registered with others, but it did with me. Seeds were planted, and something of a spirit of curiosity took root that, honestly, led me to where I am now–and keeps leading deeper and deeper…to somewhere.
Now that Lisa and I have a child of our own, I see the need for healthy boundaries, especially at key moments in childhood. Certain stories need to be told, certain boundaries need to be maintained in order to give room for one’s soul to catch up with one’s inquisitive mind–and also to recognize the inability to grasp the complexity of a situation.
But at some point, as St. Paul says, we put away childish things. Or we should.
All this came swirling back as I sat with these two texts from the prophet Ezekiel and the Gospel of Matthew.
“What do you mean by repeating this proverb?” the Lord asks in the first lesson. Why do you keep telling yourself this story? “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” It was a way to make sense of one’s hardship in life, the way things were. The parents make certain choices that dictate how a child’s life proceeds further–or doesn’t. Yet God challenges the old narratives and calls the people to see that each person is held in God’s embrace with respect to their own being–not with respect to any shortsightedness or struggle of their parents. Why do you keep repeating that narrative? God asks.
The prophet Ezekiel goes further to challenge the narrative the people held that questioned God’s actions. “The way of the Lord is unfair,” they were saying. To which the Lord asks, “Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?”
You have lived your life thinking this is the only way this can be, that your perspective is the only one that makes sense. And is that really true? Where did you get that information? Is that really reality, or just a convenient version of the story that helps you maintain the agenda you want held up?
But I’m not going to talk about where we are as a nation right now.
“I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways” says the Lord. Those who turn from their wickedness and iniquity shall live, but those who do not shall perish. So many people continue to live with such injustice and a lack of righteousness, yet you think my ways are unfair? “O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?” asks the Lord again.
God’s challenge is clear: “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” And what a powerful image: Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Here, all these images from so many other stories are unleashed: images of moving from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, images of having one’s heart filled with compassion, with a regard for one’s neighbor. For the poor, the immigrant, the widow, the orphan. The weakest among us. The most vulnerable. Those who challenge the narratives we hold about who should have power. Those who are mirrors for those of us who worship wealth and will do whatever we can to hold onto it.
For all those moments in our lives when we have clinged to a convenient narrative, the challenge we hear in Ezekiel’s writing is clear: “Turn, then, and live.”
But such turning is deep, inner work, and, as an institution, the church has not taught folks how to engage on this level of inner work. Rather, we have taught folks how to be good church people, how to follow along with whatever particular perspective one might have on this or that angle of doctrine. We have been focused too much on the performative rather than the transformative, to put it that way. Thus, why we were so suspect of the Methodists. We were convinced that not being a Methodist mattered much more than actually seeking to follow Jesus. Or put another way, we had become convinced that following Jesus meant not acting or thinking like the Methodists did. Without really knowing what the Methodists thought about anything, truth be told. We were taught to follow the party line.
But I’m not going to talk about what is going on in our nation right now.
This inner work is so hard, my friends, because it is a painful moment to realize that the world extends far beyond the penciled-in boundaries of your map.
Look at what happened between Jesus and the chief priests and elders whom he encountered in the Gospel. They want to know what rulebook he is playing by to do what he is doing. “Who gave you this authority?” they ask. Let’s not focus on the fact that so many people have experienced healing and wholeness, peace and grace. How can you do this and be outside of our particular camp?
And don’t you love Jesus here, as he tells them “I’ll ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things?” And, pay close attention that the chief priests and elders want to frame the question in terms of maintaining their authority–of power, order, stability, etc.
But like I said, I’m not going to talk about what is going on in our nation right now.
Jesus asks them how they understood John the Baptizer. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And the elders show their cards. They start arguing with one another, framing their response in terms of how much power they fear they will lose. “If we say “from heaven,” he will say “then why didn’t you believe him” But if we say, “of human origin,” we are afraid of the crowd because they all regard John as a prophet.”
They show their hand, because it is perfectly clear that they do not want to honestly get to where the truth leads them. They are not concerned about the actual facts of the situation; they want to preserve their power.
But I’m not going to talk about what is going on in our nation right now.
Jesus tells them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. Because, of course, they already know. They just can’t bring themselves to look beyond the penciled-in boundaries of their map.
I think the prophet Ezekiel describes it best when he imagines the Lord saying “Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” Of course, that is always what God is saying to each of us. And what does that look like, this new heart and new spirit?
In a profound way, a transformation of heart takes the same form across time, because the human tendency toward greed, power, control, and fear keeps being so persistent. A new heart and new spirit looks like a deep trust in God’s grace, and a willingness to be open to the Gospel’s call. It looks like doing our inner work and recognizing those places in us that want to grasp and control. There is a reason that people have always looked to fear and suspicion as tools to use: it works. The inner work we are called to do faces this fixation on fear head on.
Yes fear works, but fear is not all that works: God’s grace and compassion “work” too, and we are always being called to open our hearts to that vulnerable place where we realize our dependence on grace and our absolute interconnection with one another.