Matthew 21:23-32

The Authority of Jesus Questioned

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

The Parable of the Two Sons

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father[a] went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two 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. 32 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.

As a parent, I sometimes don’t like it when my kids question some things that I’m sharing…and, when I was a teenager, I remember questioning almost everything that my dad would tell!   It sometimes threatens my sense of place, of being, even the identity that I’ve built up.

Nowadays, when I argue with my kids, especially my son, if he doesn’t think I’m right, what does he do?  He Googles it!  Always trying to test his dad!!!  But, I continue to learn a lot from my kids…they are on their own paths now, and I trust what we’ve put into them over the years…and, quite honestly, they are now teaching us many things.  

That’s kind of what’s happening in this morning’s gospel passage…but not quite.  The religious leaders are trying to catch Jesus in a “gotcha” moment to make themselves look better.

These leaders have set up a status quo, they’ve built up a system of power that benefits them and they want to keep it, and their authority and credibility is being threatened by Jesus’ popularity.  So, they ask this question about who’s authority he does the things he’s doing.

He responds with a question, which is brilliant!  It’s also a rabbinic tradition of responding to a question with a question.  Jesus is great at this.  He’s not trying to win an argument, he’s trying to help these religious folks see something different, to dig deeper.  Which is what questions often do.

However, they know they are caught, and instead of taking the moment for genuine growth, they don’t want to change.  They are comfortable with the status quo, but, they do answer honestly.  “We don’t know”.  Of course, they did know that they did not want to answer honestly.  So, Jesus leaves them with this response, if you don’t know, then I won’t tell you who’s authority I do these things…in effect he’s saying, if you aren’t willing to do the work, to engage, to grow and to change, why are we in this conversation.  You aren’t ready.

I do think that Jesus did not cut them off…and he was obviously teaching and meeting with folks every day.  

The second story is coupled with this one to show that change, or conversion, is something that God values…and that action is more important than words.

The story of the two sons, one says yes to the task, but doesn’t do it, the other says no, but has a change of mind and does it.  

Now, I know that we all know which one we think did the right thing…and I know, as a parent, that I value deeply when my kids do what is asked, even if they say no at first…of course, Id rather them say yes and do it!  

Jesus again asks the religious leaders, who did the will of the father, of course the son who changed his mind after saying no and did the task.  

He affirms their answer, but then he goes on to give them some things to chew on…telling them that in God’s view, those who say no to faith, maybe even because they see the injustices of the current religious and political system, folks that are on the margins, like prostitutes and tax collectors, folks who have not followed the rules of society well, but were now coming to faith and seeing themselves and others differently and living in right relationships, were the ones that were jumping the line and entering the Kingdom of God before the religious leaders!

You see the parallel, the religious leaders are the son that says yes to God, but then don’t follow through, the prostitutes and tax collectors, really anyone on the margins that have been left out of the benefits of the system in place, are the son that says no at first, but then have a change of heart, or, as the Greek word in this passage, “metanoia”, is translated as, repentance, and they follow God and do what God asks.  

And, it’s interesting to note, as we did in this past week’s Bible study, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there were Pharisees and Sadducees who were among the disciples…they had changes of heart and mind and became Jesus followers…their “no”, turned into a radical “yes” and they backed it up, which I’m sure caused them much loss in terms of their standing at the time.

When we hear this story today, may we be the folks that take seriously the call of being followers of Jesus…we may say yes, or no, but may we not be afraid to ask questions and to go deep into our lives and not be afraid of change…change can bring growth in our faith and move us towards actions that will not only be good for others, but will help us see things differently and be able to embrace others and situations, even the ones that we find ourselves in now, as Jesus did…and wants to do through us!  

And, we may be asking, what exactly is God asking of us?  Glad you asked!  It’s simple, Micah 6:8 says this:  

God has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

    And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy

    and to walk humbly with your God.

Jesus embodied that requirement.  As Jesus followers, we live in grace, but our actions matter, especially now, in this season of our lives together.  When Jesus was asked in other conversation, what does it mean to follow God’s commands, his response in a nutshell:  Love God, Love Others, Nothing else matters.


Exodus 16:2-15

New Revised Standard Version

2 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” 6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” 8 And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”

9 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’”

13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

Well friends, today is rare!  Why?  I’m talking out of the Old Testament, or the Torah, this am!  If you haven’t noticed the past almost 3 years, I pretty much stick exclusively to sharing stories out of the four gospels, not that I have anything against the other parts of the Bible, just that I love the teachings and life of Jesus…but, today, I’m preaching out of the Exodus passage from the lectionary.  It’s an amazing story of provision and promise in the midst of wandering in the wilderness.

I have not been to the Middle East.  Someday I hope to visit Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and many of these places.  But, I have spent time in the wilderness, and in places that may be similar to the land between Egypt and Israel.  

I’ve always loved the mountains, but in the past dozen years or so, I’ve fallen in love with the desert, specifically the high desert. 

Joshua Tree

When we lived in southern California while attending seminary for my M.Div., we started going to Joshua Tree National Park quite a bit.  I fell in love with the barrenness of the high desert, yet also the beauty of the rock formations and those amazing Joshua Trees!  I remember sitting on rocks and simply looking at the surroundings and noticing that in this seemingly barren place, there was so much beauty and an abundance of life when you slowed down to see it.

It was also a place of joy for my family, I remember waking up one morning in the desert and my son, who was about 5 at the time, so excited as he was looking out of our tent to see snow coming down!  It was snowing in the desert and so surreal seeing snowflakes surrounding sand and Joshua Trees.  It was a magical moment!

Our passage in Exodus this morning talks about abundance in a place or season of barrenness.  The Israelites had been enslaved for hundreds of years in Egypt.  Moses comes along, actually at a very old age, probably in his 70’s or 80’s, demanding that the Pharaoh of Egypt let his people leave.  That was a hard thing for the Pharaoh to do, his empire’s wealth had been built on the backs of a people with free labor for generations.  It’s a story that’s been repeated throughout history, exploit and dehumanize a certain group and use their free labor to build wealth for another group…its how empires are made it seems.  

For those that have been enslaved, it literally and generationally beats them down!  The Israelites wanted to be released, yet, they also did not know what that would mean.  

You know the story, after a while, the Israelites were released after all sorts trials and tribulations put upon the Egyptians by God…and they went, and were even chased by the Egyptians after they second-guessed themselves and realized that would no longer have free labor…yet, God delivered them…into the wilderness between enslavement and the promised land.

God had told Moses it would take 40 years of wandered in the wilderness, in the desert, but that God would provide.  After a while, the Israelites forget about the bad things of being enslaved and put a nostalgic twist on being in Egypt, they had food, they weren’t exposed…they complained to Moses and Aaron…and, I love this, Moses and Aaron said don’t complain to us…we are just doing what God said, complain to God.  And, they did…and God answered.  

God gave manna from heaven…just enough for them.  If they hoarded it, it went bad…if they did not collect enough, God still gave them their fill.  The gospel lesson that goes with this passage int the lectionary is the parable of the vineyard workers that work different hours, but still get the same wage.  In other words, God’s economy is not based on how much you work, but how faithful you live…and that faithfulness is wrapped up in God’s fidelity and faith in you, me, all of us together in community and loving relationship.

The Israelites complained, and God, because God is relationship, listened…and gave them abundance in the barren land, abundance for all of them, not just the leaders like Moses and Aaron…and gave them something more, something that they had to work for while wondering in the desert for 40 years, and then 40 more even as they didn’t listen to God…and they had had not finished their work.  Their work was to find new ways of being, away from enslavement and exploitation, away from the luxuries of the promised land…they had to find their identity as Israel.  They became a nation while wandering the wilderness, not by arriving at their destination in the promised land.  

In my doctoral class, I had to write on where I am, and where I think our church is, during this season, here’s what I wrote a couple of months ago:  

My Doctoral Cohort at Pittsburgh Seminary

Our church, and the church universal are in a time of wilderness where we are being emptied so that new things can potentially grow.  I am as well.  It is dry at times, I’m a bit lost, my enneagram “3” persona is activated (to work, to achieve, to move our church forward), but also evolving and I am becoming deeply aware that I am moving towards a new place within me and in life in general in the midst of so much uncertainty.

An image that comes to mind is Moses and the Israelites wandering the desert, the wilderness, on their way to the promised land.  It takes them 40 years, and then 40 more, and finally they get there.  But, even the promised land has its ups and downs and the Israelites forget what they learned in the wilderness.  They forget after a while of being in the promised land that God gave them abundance in food, manna from heaven, birds, water, and gave them an identity as a people as they formed new practices and ways of being.  

In so many ways, I have arrived at a great place, with good people at our church.

I would add, that we are not in the promised land, yet, but that great place is a journey together and that we are present with one another.  

Friends, I know, I am listening, we are in a wild season culturally and in our personal lives.  Yet, we are not alone, God is listening, God is answering, God is providing abundance in what seems like a barren land or season.  And, God is not through with us, we have work to do.  Moses was in his 70’s or 80’s (maybe even 90’s) when he led his people out of captivity and into the wilderness…he never made it to the promised land, he accepted it and took on leadership and legacy and had faith that God would lead his people home.  It’s my prayer that we see the abundance around us and that we do the work of building up faith and our identity while we wander together in the wilderness…and, in the meantime, what wonders we will see!  Manna from heaven, maybe?  Snowflakes in the desert, possibly?  Who knows…let’s just keep our eyes, and our hearts, open to ourselves, to others, to possibility, and to God!  

Let’s end with these words from Isaiah:  

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. – Isaiah 43:19 NRSV

Thoughts on Wilderness.

For a doctoral assignment, I had to think through this as well, where am I these days?  I have been spending time in meditation in our church’s sanctuary.  There aren’t really others in the building, especially now during this time of Covid-19 pandemic.  Of course, the building wasn’t used much before Covid-19 either…but, hoping that changes as we continue to find ways to show hospitality to the neighborhood around us.  

As I wrestled with the question of who am I during this season and my relationship with our church structure in terms of community engagement, I find that my time in this space that the issue of community engagement is becoming secondary.  There is a reoccurring theme that has actually been present in my life for a few years now, but especially true in this season, that theme is “wilderness”..  

Our church, and the church universal are in a time of wilderness where we are being emptied so that new things can potentially grow.  I am as well.  It is dry at times, I’m a bit lost, my enneagram “3” persona is activated, but also evolving and I am becoming deeply aware that I am moving towards a new place within me and in life in general in the midst of so much uncertainty.

An image that comes to mind is Moses and the Israelites wandering the desert, the wilderness, on their way to the promised land.  It takes them 40 years, and then 40 more, and finally they get there.  But, even the promised land has its ups and downs and the Israelites forget what they learned in the wilderness.  They forget after a while of being in the promised land that God gave them abundance in food, manna from heaven, birds, water, and gave them an identity as a people as they formed new practices and ways of being.  

But, being here, I can see and sense a deeper trust from the congregation and from me emerging.  We are forming new patterns and in the wilderness of this pandemic, we are forming these new behaviors together.  

Staying in the wilderness, embracing being in the wilderness is important.  I will not be able to leave this wilderness until God opens up some new channels of growth and I evolve, along with God, towards this new place.  

My spiritual director is an 80 something “retired” Jesuit priest. We have talked about this wilderness in terms of death, dying and being lost to whatever is happening in and around us.  It is in this space where we can find growth and new direction or meaning in the midst of hardship.  He has told me to “not rush towards resurrection just yet, to embrace being lost in the wilderness”.  I have found meaning and joy and growth in this time.  It’s been hard and being in the sanctuary doing this practice did not give me clarity, but it is giving me a sense that I am in the right place with the right people for this season.  I do not want to “rush” out of the wilderness, I want to be planted in this season, even as I wander around.  I want to be able to grow, and knowing that the “promised land” is not really about a destination, but a process.  I am finding new ways of being and faith, and an identity built on suffering and struggle that leads to passion and growth…which is good for me and for others.  

This conversation with Fr. Bollman, along with so many others with him, continues to give me moments of deeper “shalom”, of presence and of an active peace that is growing within me.  Being able to recognize glimpses of where I am with others helps me to know that I’m not wandering alone. 

This church is in my neighborhood and they have been very gracious with me.  I love these folks and we are growing in this wilderness.  Some, like me and a handful of others, recognize our personal and corporate wilderness, others do not, but we are all still here.  I do not know where our structure as a church will continue to evolve, we have some “visioning together” happening, a process with outside voices beyond Covid-19 that are actually intentional in helping us to see who we are.  I have found myself this week not being pessimistic or optimistic, which is healthy as I allowing faith and trust grow.  I am trusting the relational fidelity in our church, and even within me, and with God.  Not sure if I have found “new” freedoms, but a continued sense of embracing and recognizing the freedom that I have in Christ that is universal and connects me to myself, others, and God’s flow.  

The verse that comes to mind as I contemplated in the sanctuary is:  “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” – Isaiah 43:19 (NRSV)

Finally, a phrase that my spouse has been contemplating on and that we have used before in our church is the African proverb of “ubuntu”, which means “I am because we are.”  I think that can sum up where I am with my church and our leadership and it’s structure.  Learning again to trust God and the people that I am with, and as we are, I am.  In this season, I am evolving and allowing others to evolve…as I let go and, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, letting my “wish dreams” for this church (and for me) to die and allowing God’s dreams to emerge and shape us together.  


Mark 9:30-37

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

I love to run, it’s therapy.  But, a week or so ago, on a muggy day, I had to stop a few times in my run…and even end it a bit early.  The weather was heavy, but so was my heart.  All that’s going on around us in culture was simply weighing me down.  I even joked with Pat last week after a sermon on “bearing your cross”, that at times I’d simply like to put the cross down.  It was hard to breathe…and running is a sport where you can’t hide, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.  All runners experience something similar, we are constantly humbled. 

In this sport, the only way you get better is by running daily, running workouts that make you suffer and experience some pain…not to the point of injury, but pain nonetheless.  It’s hard.  Yet, something emerges within, you begin to appreciate others, you experience a shared deep connection with other runners, yourself, and the universe really, as you put yourself out there.  

Running can be a great parallel to life, and to this morning’s gospel lesson.  

We will experience heartache and pain, but we still put ourselves out there, take risks, be vulnerable, learn, grow, and become better.

Jesus has been with his disciples, he wanted to simply teach his disciples something meaningful, so he went through Galilee in secret as it says.  He was teaching them that he would suffer, die, and be raised from the dead.  This was hard for them to hear and understand, but he kept on saying it, teaching it.  It was important to Jesus because he was called into this world as the representation of all humanity.  He was not only telling the disciples that he would suffer, die, and rise again, but that they would be participating in that suffering, death, and resurrection through him.  

The disciples were probably keenly interested in the new life part, the resurrection part, but in order to experience that resurrection, before we can truly understand what it means to live life as God intended, we have to experience suffering, we have to die.  This isn’t a cruel  joke on God’s part, it’s a reality that we, as created beings, don’t always see or experience life as beautiful as it was meant to be.  We have to go through experiences in life that push to ask some of the hard questions and uncomfortable conversations.

Yet, the disciples, like us, were distracted easily and asked some different questions:  which one of us is greater?  What is our image to God?  Where will we stand with God at the end of time?  What’s our status?

In the midst of those conversations, it seems like the disciples were focused on the resurrection part.  Which I get, don’t we all want to run to the ending of a story, we want to feel good and triumphant.  The passage even says that the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus what he meant.  Could that have been because they were afraid to confront the hard realities of suffering, of pain?  

When Jesus asked them what they were arguing about, they grew silent.  They knew that Jesus had caught them in a “sin”.  We don’t talk much about the word “sin”, but it is an archery term actually, it means missing the mark.  When you don’t hit the bullseye with an arrow.  

It in this context, sin is a relational term.  The disciples were missing the mark, they were focused on themselves…

What does Jesus do?  Well, he doesn’t send down thunder on them, he doesn’t condemn them.  He does the opposite, he treats them with respect and simply calls them together, sits with them, and brings a child into their circle.  He encourages them to serve others, to be last, to put others before them.  

The example of a child is important to note.  Children in the first century were considered non-persons.  They were often slaves, they were of no value.  They were truly on the margins.  I tell my kids all of the time how amazing they are and how loved they are, but this wasn’t even close to the reality in Jesus’ time.

By doing this, by bringing in a child, Jesus is saying that children are the stand-in for himself, for the Son of God.  We should welcome children, those on the margins as we would God, the creator of the universe.  It’s not about becoming childish so we can enter the kingdom, it says much more about maturity, about being bigger than our selfish desires or our protected self-image and welcoming others in.

Friends, we are saved by God’s grace, all of us live in God’s love whether we recognize it or not.  In the UCC, we believe that God’s love, God’s salvation action has more to do with Jesus’ actions on our behalf than our actions.  We can’t evoke God’s salvation, he gives it to us, all of us, even those who have felt left out.  Yet, we all have a part to play, and that starts with welcoming others, welcoming ourselves, and welcoming God’s work that we are called to participate in.  

May we welcome life as it comes to us:  suffering, death, resurrection, and new life…even as we welcome others in our communities who walk through these doors or that we meet in the neighborhood, welcoming them as we would welcome Jesus.