Walking the Walk

(Matt 21:23-32)

Characteristic of good leadership, according to Leadership for Dummies (which, I think we can all agree, is about my speed) is a commitment to leading by example. That’s seems like a pretty safe thing to say. Leaders have to know how to tell people what to do; but the really good ones know that showing people you’re willing to do it yourself is even more important.

I mean, how willing are we to follow a leader who sits sipping lemonade on the veranda, telling everyone else what to do—and then criticizes them when they don’t do it quite right—while everyone else is breaking their backs trying to get the job done? That’s just laziness.

And when folks know how to talk the talk, but can’t be bothered to walk the walk, we call them what?

Phonies? Pretenders? Hypocrites?

There aren’t too many things we like less than all talk and now show. Although, admittedly, not all phonies pay a price for their hypocrisy.

Look, I’m in the telling business. I tell people stuff for a living. Here’s how you’re supposed to live. Here’s what you’re supposed to do. Here’s the kind of person you should want to be.

I’ve been to school to learn how to tell people stuff. Lord knows I’ve been to school. I’ve even been told on occasion, “Hey, you’re pretty good at telling people stuff.” And, I do that kind of “aw shucks” thing. But I know that after all these years I’m not half bad at telling people how they’re supposed to live. In fact, I have a vocational interest in letting people think there’ s a big secret to which only the initiated have the answer.

It’s not true that I know all the stuff, and I presume to dole it out a little bit each week. But there are a lot of people out there who think something like that.

And maybe there are times when it’s true that I know some stuff. Things are complicated and a little knowledge sometimes helps tease out the way forward.

Most of the time, though, it’s not a whole lot more complicated than: Show up. Be honest. Try hard. You know what I’m saying?

But there are times when it strikes me that I’m not only in the telling business, I’m also in the showing business. And that’s when I start worrying, because it’s not always easy to know what to do, or how to do it.

And I’ll be honest with you. The showing business is a lot more difficult than the telling business. Any preacher worth her or his salt knows it’s true. Of necessity, you have to preach better than you are. If I had to wait to master something before I could preach on it, it’d be a pretty short service every Sunday.

Even so, it’s difficult to admit that sometimes your words are the best thing about you, that your ability to put them into action always lags behind.

Jesus, of course, knew that. In our Gospel for today Jesus takes on that very issue.

This passage from Matthew doesn’t do us a lot of favors. It starts in the middle. “When Jesus 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?’”

What are they talking about? Why are they sniping at Jesus right off the bat? He’s not even done getting his caramel macchiato in the narthex, when the bigwigs start hectoring him.

Where’d you get the authority to do these things, and who gave it to you?

As a diligent reader, your first question is probably, "Authority to do what?

Well, here’s where a little detective work pays off. If you go back to the beginning of chapter 21, you’ll see just where we are in the larger story of Jesus. As the chapter opens up, we’re thrust right into the middle of Palm Sunday. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem—the seat of political power in Palestine.

Remember that? Jesus comes parading into town in what looks like a military procession—being hailed as the heir of David, the long-awaited Messiah who would throw off Roman oppression.

That he’s on a donkey, however, turns the whole military-messiah trope on its head. Riding a baby donkey is no way to lead the troops into battle, after all . . . at least battle as it’s traditionally construed. Something strange is going on. What happens next?

Jesus heads right to the temple—the seat of religious authority—where he stokes the revolutionary fires even hotter, by turning over the money tables—which, of course, does nothing to make the local religious brahmins want to dig fishing worms with Jesus anytime soon.

Again, Jesus drops an econo-size hint about what kind of a strange messiah he’s going to be by immediately alienating the very religious power-brokers who could help grease the right skids once the time for revolution comes.

But there’s this little throw-away line in verse 14—a line that appears pretty innocuous at first glance—that offers up the key to our text for today.

After calling out the religious stewards of the temple, God’s house on earth, and saying that they’ve made God’s house into a den of robbers, we get this: “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple and he cured them.”

Jesus throws out the religious folks, and let’s in the people who need God most.

And you say, “Um, yeah. Ok. Keep going.”

That’s it. That’s the key to our text for this morning.

“That doesn’t sound like much.”

All right. Let me see if I can line it out. The temple, a house of prayer, the place where God was said to live, has been turned by the religious establishment (the people in the “telling business”) into something it was never intended to be—namely, a place where the folks who’ve needed God most have been prevented from going.

In other words, the people who are supposed to be on the front lines in pursuing God’s justice, who’ve made a living telling everybody else how to live . . . in denying justice . . . have failed themselves to show people how to live. So, when they come to Jesus in our text today, asking him by what and whose authority he’s kicking people out of their temple, they believe that they still hold the moral high ground.

They’re the ones who’re supposed to be in charge, after all. Caesar’s governor in Judea appointed them, after all. Just who does this guy think he is, waltzing into their place and busting up the good china—calling the powerbrokers thugs?

And if that’s not enough, he’s letting in those people. You know, the riffraff—the people the folks in charge have so assiduously excluded to this point. The people that all the insiders agree deserve to be denied access.

Jesus turns the whole thing back on the religious leaders by asking them a question about John the Baptist, a question that holds no good answer for them: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

Immediately, they see they’ve been had. “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”

So they gave Jesus the only answer they could give: “We don’t know.”

And Jesus says, “Doggone right, you don’t know! Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Then Jesus launches into this weird parable about two sons. The father goes to the first son and tells him to go work in the vineyard. And the first son says, “No. I don’t think so. I’m not doing it.” Later, though, he changes his mind and goes out to do his chores.

The father then goes to the second son and tells him to go work in the vineyard. And the second son is much more of a kiss-up, saying, “Sure thing, pop. I’ll go.” But he doesn’t wind up doing his chores, doing what he said he’d do.

Jesus turns to the chief priests and the elders and asks them a question: “Which of the two did the will of his father?”

They don’t hesitate. “Why, of course, the first son.”

Jesus says, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going to enter the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

Interesting that Jesus once again lets in the folks whom the people in power have constructed so many institutional barriers to keep out. The blind, the lame, the tax collectors, the prostitutes. Jesus restores access to God, and in the process restores justice.

The problem, though, is that Jesus shouldn’t have to restore justice. Justice should already be present. God has left people in charge, stewards whose responsibility it is to see that justice gets done. The religious leaders aren’t just supposed to talk the talk about justice; they’re supposed to walk the walk of justice. And they’ve failed miserably.

That’s the key. They’ve talked about justice. They’ve acted the part—said all the right words. But sometimes words aren’t enough. The most powerful sermon the chief priest and the elders preach is the one that indicts their inaction. God says, “Go to the vineyard. I’m putting you in charge of caring for it, tending to it.”

And they say, “Of course. We’ll go. You can count on us.”

But they don’t go, do they? They don’t care for the vineyard, except insofar as it allows them to exercise power in guarding the gate to the vineyard. They’re good at telling other people about what’s supposed to happen in the vineyard, but when it comes time to pull weeds and dress the vines, they’re out on the golf course, worried only about themselves.

This passage is scary for people like me, people with privilege and power, people who’ve been given the job of showing, and not just telling, about the reign of God.

Because, you see, the reign of God does not exist where some are not welcome . . . where the lame and the blind, where the tax collectors and prostitutes, where the hungry and the poor stand on the outside looking in.

The reign of God does not exist where people are barred entrance because of sexual orientation or gender identity, because of race or immigration status. There doesn’t have to be a sign on the door that says, “You’re not welcome here.”

The reign of God does not exist where African Americans have to cry out against the state sanctioned violence against them, where immigrants cower in fear that they’ll be shoved into a dark van and sent to a facility without anyone knowing where they’ve gone, where people without power and status are ignored . . . until somebody starts raising a fuss, taking a knee.

The reign of God does not exist where people huddle in the oppressive night, wondering where they will find food and water for their children, medical care for their seniors, while the people who are supposed to be looking out for them while away an early autumn day at the country club.

People will know they’re welcome in God’s house—not just because we tell them (as important as that is)—but because we show them . . . we keep throwing open the doors and inviting people to come in and sit at this table.

We keep working on behalf of those who’ve been turned away by the very people who are supposed to be tending the vineyard—but who’ve proven themselves inadequate to the task by their continued failure to actually pull the weeds and dress the vines.

Sometimes words aren’t enough, in large part, because those words have to bear at least a passing resemblance to the lives we live.

Show up. Be honest. Try hard. You and I, we may never get it all right . . . but we can never forsake working in the vineyard just because it’s easier to talk about it.

Because doing the right thing, walking the walk is the most powerful sermon any of us will ever preach.