Preached at St Anne's Episcopal Church in Walled Lake, MI on the Sixteenth Sunday of Pentecost. Matthew 21:23-32
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
This is the question the chief priests and elders of the people ask Jesus.
It’s a jealous question, when you think about it. It arises from a fear of loss – a loss of privilege, a loss of status. A loss of power and wealth. A loss of glory.
When we have these things, when we are sitting in the seat of privilege and power, basking in the glow of glory, it’s easy to become jealous. It’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to want to keep the status quo in place and make sacred that which has given us this status and this glory. And this authority.
And religion is fraught with this problem. Religious institutions are, quite possibly, the worst when it comes to jealously guarding things like authority and power. Because, after all, it is perhaps the most powerful thing to claim that we’re speaking on behalf of God.
When someone has recognized us as having that power, it’s hard to let go of it and it’s hard to recognize that others may have that power, that others may be speaking on behalf of God. Even if they don’t realize it themselves.
And I’m not speaking about the clergy, although there are many clergy who jealously guard authority. Who feel that they alone should be the mouthpieces of the church. These are often the same clergy whose congregations grow smaller and smaller as they keep a tight grip on the power, never empowering lay people to take their proper place as baptized ministers of the church.
What I’m really talking about is the church itself – the church universal – Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, Roman Catholics… all of us. We all claim to be speaking on behalf of God. We have been claiming this for centuries. We are the voice of God, the presence of God. We are God’s representatives, God’s chosen people. Aren’t we?
But more and more, I have to wonder if we aren’t just hanging on to some sense of power. I have to wonder if we, as the church, are really more interested in maintaining the institution, than we are in truly listening to God’s Holy Spirit to find out what God wants us to be doing in this world. I have to wonder if we, as the church, aren’t the chief priests and the elders who jealously guard the God-seat.
I wonder this because I see all of these people who are doing amazing things to care for God’s creation. I see all of these people who are planting sustainable farms, advocating against the use of fossil fuels, choosing foods from local suppliers, fighting for public transit, composting their scraps, leading recycling efforts. And lobbying government officials and whipping up support for these efforts. Some of them are doing it on behalf of the church, but most are not.
Yet, these are the people who are standing up and saying that we must do a better job of caring for this earth, our island home – this place we call God’s creation. And I see all of these people doing all of these things and I wonder where the church is.
We speak for God, don’t we? It’s our Bible that pronounces creation to be good. Our belief that we have been formed out of its very elements. Our Eucharistic prayers that remind us we are called to be stewards of creation.
So, if we believe that we are God’s chosen, given authority to proclaim these things, then why aren’t we at the forefront of the effort to bring about environmental justice? Why aren’t we the ones who are advocating for the renewal of the earth, teaching the world about the beauty and the preciousness of God’s creation, explaining just how interconnected we actually are with the rest of the life of this planet?
I could talk about our past teachings and how we have conflated the idea of subduing and conquering “the wild” with God’s command that we have dominion over the earth and all its creatures. But we know better. We know better.
Last weekend, in New York City, there was a massive demonstration – the People’s Climate March. It was a part of a global effort that happened in over 150 countries. Nearly ½ million people lined the streets of New York City to draw attention to the ever-growing problem of climate change. This happened immediately before the United Nations Climate Summit started to assist in drawing more attention to the meeting of global leaders.
And I honestly have to wonder, are these the people who are actually speaking on behalf of God now?
Many of the people who attended the march have no religious affiliation. And, although there was a place for faith-based organizations to participate, most of the people who showed up were not there on behalf of their religion.
But, the question is… were they there on behalf of God? Even if they didn’t realize it?
Is God so distraught with those who call themselves God’s church, that He’s chosen others to accomplish his mission of renewing this beloved creation He’s given us? Has God found another way to inspire people, one that doesn’t involve the church? Is God using scientists as Her prophets now? Because the church is too busy worrying about why no one comes to Sunday services anymore?
Have we become too focused on ourselves and our power and our authority as God’s representatives? Have we become too complacent in our God-seat that we cannot hear the call of God’s Holy Spirit unless it fits our preconceived notions of what She’s supposed to be saying to us?
In reading today’s gospel, that’s the interpretation, isn’t it? God has found a new way, in this man named Jesus. The Jewish authorities were upset because Jesus was preaching and teaching the Jews about a new way. He was bold in his speech. He was defiant in his actions. And people were beginning to follow him. This made the chief priests and the elders jealous – fearful that they would lose their power, their influence over the Jews. They were so concerned with their power and the survival of their institution, that they forgot why they were called to follow God in the first place.
And because we are followers of Jesus, we read this story as Jesus being the one who truly heard God’s call. Jesus is the one who demonstrated to the authorities that they were off the mark, missing God’s call. That, perhaps, God was leaving them behind as the vehicle through which God’s mission was accomplished.
Well, what if this is happening again?
What if these people who are so passionate about what we call God’s creation, are God’s prophets in our midst and we, the church universal, are the chief priests and the elders who jealously guard our perceived God-given authority to speak for God? And because of that, we refuse to listen to God’s Holy Spirit, calling us to a new way. We are jealously guarding God’s glory.
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Jesus offers us this parable.
That there are two kinds of children – those who, even though defiant, will do God’s will. And those who claim to follow God’s will but really don’t.
And to further make his point, Jesus says, even the tax collectors and prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God first. Even the most despicable members of society will go ahead of the chief priests and the elders. Because they listen and they believe.
Jesus is telling us, it’s one thing to say you believe. But if that doesn’t mean you’re following God’s will, if that proclamation of belief is just for show, just the password to get into the club… if that belief is not something that leads you into the way of righteousness, then it means nothing.
There is a cost to following God’s will. There is a cost to being a disciple of Jesus. And that cost is one that compels us to move beyond faith as a convenience, beyond religion as a club we join to feel like we belong. The cost of discipleship calls us into deep engagement with the world around us. It reminds us that we are God’s children and we are obliged to care for one another and care for this creation we were given – this Eden that we have systematically destroyed in the name of production and economic progress.
Because the truth is that environmental justice is intimately tied to economic justice. Low-income communities, people of color, indigenous communities are those who are most dramatically affected right now. There is a country called Tuvalu, a Polynesian nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean midway between Australia and Hawaii, where right now the water is rising over their sands so rapidly that scientists expect the entire country to be washed away within 50 years. 50 years.
And so what? So what if Tuvalu is swallowed up by the Pacific?
Well, here’s the so-what: we are all connected. God made us that way. We are all tied to this earth because we are made of this earth. We all need to breathe the air, to drink the water, to have a dry place to sleep at night, to eat food from this soil.
These are our basic needs, us – the human race, these are our basic needs. And, our culture is so consumed with consuming that we have tipped the balance and are now denying the basic needs to our brothers and sisters by virtue of our demanding lifestyle. And we will do everything in our power to jealously guard our lifestyle, our power. And then we have the audacity to claim the God-seat.
But what if we’re truly interested in hearing the call? What can we do? You and me, what can we do? After all, we are just caught in a system that is so much bigger than any of us. Most of the time, I’m so concerned with making ends meet and trying to pay attention to all my duties that I struggle, even with recycling.
So, how do we start? What can we do?
Here are 4 simple things:
- Eat organic. Chose organic produce as much as possible instead of conventional produce because most conventional produce is grown on industrial farms. Organic produce is not only better for you, but organic farms use 30-50% less fossil fuel energy than industrial farms. And if organic isn’t an option, choose locally grown produce to reduce the transportation and support local farmers.
- Stop throwing food away. Did you know that Americans threw out about 35 million tons of food in 2012? That’s double the amount that was tossed in 1990. There are organizations that will go to stores and restaurants to redistribute this food to people in need – like Food Gatherers in Washtenaw County.
- Compost. What if your congregation had a compost pile? Or what if your neighborhoods had compost piles? Using organic scraps and turning them into soil for local gardens. Developing an awareness of sustainable practices instead of just adding to the landfills that are so plentiful in this area of the country.
- Advocacy. Contact your local representatives and let them know how important climate action is to you, the person they serve in making public policy. Don’t be afraid to be political. And while you’re at it, be sure to push hard on the members of House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Because if they are not choosing to be woefully ignorant on purpose, then most of them desperately need remedial science classes.
There are more ways to follow this call. But these are simple, focused ways to start.
Because I honestly don’t know how much more God needs to scream at us before we’re going to choose to do something. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with stories about how God’s people didn’t listen, even when the prophets gave them plenty of warning. Are we going to listen? Or is God going to leave the church behind and use others to accomplish this mission?
God is calling us to hear the Holy Spirit through the efforts of those who are working towards environmental justice. So, let’s not challenge their authority. Instead, let’s live in the fullness of God’s love for us. Let us follow this call to care for and live in the abundant creation as God’s children.