Standing on His Shoulders

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | September 27, 2020

Matthew 21: 23-32

My first job ever working for a church was as church custodian. I was in seminary at the time, learning about ministry. I also learned about ministry from cleaning a church. 

The church was in St. Paul. Every summer the church hosted the annual conference of an organization called the WCTU. The letters WCTU stand for “Women’s Christian Temperance Union.” It was an organization founded in the 19th century by women on a crusade against drinking alcohol. While the organization made some notable accomplishments related women’s rights, their primary function was to get people to stop drinking alcohol. 

During the conference, people from the WCTU would come up to me while I was working around the church and say things like, “You won’t find any liquor bottles or cigarette butts from this group.” I could have said, “I never find those things around this church anyway.” I was keeping the place clean; let them think they were keeping the place pure. 

The good thing about working in the church as the custodian was that it gave me a preview of my work as a pastor. Sometimes there are messes that need to be cleaned up. And it also reminded me of my place in the grand scheme of things. One time I was cleaning the toilets when I guy came in and announced, “You know, cleaning the toilets is also a form of ministry.” I nodded like I agreed with him; as if he had said something profound. But I was thinking, “Yeah, we both might be ‘ministers,’ but I’m the one cleaning the toilet.” 

My most important lesson about ministry occurred after I had ordered some light bulbs for the church. One day I was going about my job when a salesman came in. He was selling light bulbs and fluorescent lamps and I tried to tell him I was just the custodian. “I don’t really have the authority to buy things here.” But he wouldn’t go away and finally I said, “Okay, whatever, we’ll take a few,” just to get rid of him. That was the last I thought about it until I got a phone call from the guy who chaired the building committee, which made him my boss. 

“John,” he said, “we’ve got all these light bulbs here and the invoice says you ordered them. In the first place, there’s no way we can use all these light bulbs and in the second place …”

Whenever someone says, “In the first place …” and then “in the second place,” what they really mean is the second thing they say is of the foremost importance. The first place is just a prelude before they hit you with the big number. I knew the best I could do was just to meekly agree with whatever he said. 

“In the second place,” he said, “you had no authority to order those light bulbs. No authority!” 

“You’re right,” I agreed, “I should never have done that.” 

But he was not finished, “I’m telling you John, you had no authority to do something like that. What made you think you had the authority to order light bulbs? You don’t have the authority to order things here. That’s what we have a committee for. No authority, I say.” 

What could I say? “You are correct, sir. Authority is not in my possession at this time.  I am bereft of authority. I am not even in the same room with anyone who has authority. I am completely and unequivocally without the slightest trace of even the dust of authority. While I didn’t say that, I felt it. The best I could do was utter something like, “Uh, well, I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen again.” 

It was a good lesson that served as a preparation for all the others like it that followed. I was raised to question authority. Not to reject it outright, but to question. Sometimes the answer is to go along with authority. Sometimes the answer is to resist it. It’s the right to make that determination that gives us some power over our lives. 

Many people questioned the authority of Jesus. For some it was a loaded question; a question that assumes the answer before it’s asked. We might call them Pharisees. They were keepers of the faith. They were the ones with the power to grant authority. It had always been that way. They could say, “This is the way God made it. No one can argue with God.” 

When Jesus came along, he changed things. He changed the way people viewed God; he changed the way people looked at themselves. He ran into conflict with the religious authorities. No one likes an outsider telling them what to do. The Pharisees and scribes had always been the ones to determine who was right with God and who was wrong with God. 

When Jesus brought God to within reach of the common people, the Pharisees said, “What right have you to do these things? Who gave you this right?” 

Jesus never responded in kind by saying something such as, “I’ll tell you who gave me the right, God did that’s who.” Because the natural response to that is, “Oh yeah?” Jesus knew a loaded question when he heard one. The question wasn’t even about who gave him the right. The real question was about who belongs to God. 

He told a parable about a man who had two sons. He wanted them to go work in the vineyard. The first son said, “Ah gee dad, I don’t want to work today.” But later on he did. The second son said, “Sure thing dad. I’ll get right on it.” But he stayed home. 

One son did the right thing and one son only said the right thing. Jesus said that the Pharisees were like the son who just said the right thing. You can say just about anything, but it’s what you do that reveals your true belief. The prostitutes and the tax collectors who believed and followed the path set forth first by John the Baptist and then Jesus were the ones like the first son. Regardless of how they started out, they ended up on the right path. 

The approach Jesus used was like that described by the poet Edwin Markham who wrote: “He drew a circle that shut me out – Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win; we drew a circle that took him in.” Basically, Jesus redrew the boundaries. The realm of God was bigger than anyone suspected.

That concept is a tough one for people who prefer a more narrow interpretation of God’s realm. The bigger God’s realm is, the harder it is to control. But if ever we draw a line and say, “this is the boundary,” Jesus is likely to come along and say, “I think it needs to be over there. Your circle is too small.” 

That is a challenge, but it’s also good news for people who tend to see themselves as on the outside of what God finds acceptable. “I’m not worthy,” can be a destructive mantra. Worthy or unworthy, it doesn’t matter because Jesus is there alongside us to remind us, “You belong.” 

Jesus gave up his title; he abdicated his throne so that we could see him as one of us. He started out in Bethlehem with nothing and he ended up on the outskirts of Jerusalem with nothing. Whatever authority he had, he gave it up. His message was not to say that God is in control over us. He showed rather that God is with us. There’s a big difference. It’s the difference between law and love. 

A friend of mine was once an associate pastor in a wealthy suburban church in New York. My friend received an invitation to an afternoon tea party at the home of one of the church members. She thought it rather nice that she would be invited to socialize with one of the church members. It showed they were accepting her. 

She arrived at the appointed hour and the hostess greeted her and soon upon her arrival handed her a tray with little sandwiches on it and said, “Here dear, you can serve these.” It dawned on her that she was invited to the party not as a guest, but as a servant. 

But maybe that’s what God said to Jesus. “You’re not their guest, you’re their servant.” 

Jesus always reminds us of our place. As we look back at what were at the time painful experiences, and when we looked to God for help, we might see that Jesus was never above us, certainly not lording it over us. If ever we were lifted up, it was because he went even lower than we could go. We were standing on his shoulders. 

The Pharisees asked Jesus who gave him his authority. The question for us is what authority does he have in our lives? Amen.

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