Friday, September 26, 2014
September 28, Proper 21, Transformations 5: Quarreling
Exodus 17:1-17, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
I’m doing this sermon series on Transformations, inspired by the epistle lesson of some weeks ago, Romans 12, which called us to be not conformed to the world but transformed by the renewal of our minds. So are the scripture lessons telling us this week?
We see the Children of Israel quarreling. Last week we saw them complaining. It’s not pretty, but it got results—food last week and water this week. I said that not all complaining is bad, some is allowed, and it depends. I said that the opposite of complaining is not complimenting but silence—not shutting up but the inner composure that you develop in worship and adoration.
Is quarreling always bad? Is it never allowed? Sometimes, when you are suffering, you vent your pain against the guy in charge. Sometimes you offer an opinion and or advance an argument and you end up in a quarrel. It was happening in the church in Philippi. The congregation was taking sides in a quarrel between two good women, Euodia and Syntyche. There are quarrels in our churches in the Classis. In the church I served in Ontario we had a quarrel that I did not handle well.
St. Paul calls the Philippians to be of full accord and of one mind. That is, get past defending your own position. See things from the other’s point of view, and honor their interests as legitimate. Find common ground and reach an understanding broad enough to include you both. No, that’s not what he says. That’s good, but that’s still being conformed to the world. That’s not a transformation.
The transformation is that your common ground is a new reality which is a challenge to you both. The transformation is that the one mind you share is not each other’s common mind but another mind beyond you both. The transformation is when you both renew your minds to share the mind of Christ. That takes regular renewal. You keep renewing it through worship, mostly, and also in private prayer, and in deeds of service to others, the practice of putting others’ needs before your own. You do these things imagining by faith the mind of Christ.
Your imagination of the mind of Christ is not just anything you want but is informed by his story in the gospel. So, let’s see for this week. The Lectionary has jumped forward in Matthew’s narrative to the last week of Jesus’ life. This was the day after Palm Sunday. Jesus had paraded into Jerusalem like he was taking it and then he cleansed the Temple like he owned the place.
So on this Monday morning the authorities of the city and the Temple come to intervene. “Hey, who said you could do all this?” Is it an honest question, like they’re open-minded, or is it a challenge? Do they think they have the right and the power to demand an answer? When a customs officer asks you questions, you’d better answer them, and don’t ask any questions back.
But Jesus is not in their power. He has no need to defend himself. Yes, he knows they are able to get him killed, and he’s not looking forward to the suffering, but he’s not in their power. He is self-determining, and free, and unattached from them, so that he freely can engage them.
Let’s be fair to the chief priests and elders. If somebody showed up at Old First and asked to preach but had no credentials, I wouldn’t let him. If have a preacher friend with a global reputation but for a number of reasons he belongs to no denomination and is an independent agent so I would never let him preach her. It’s a matter of accountability, which on the face of it the chief priests and the scribes are not wrong to expect. Who said you could do this? Who sent you?
But with his question back at them Jesus exposes them. They themselves will not be accountable They will not tell the truth of what they really think. They dissemble. Because of the popularity of John the Baptist they are afraid to say that they really think that John’s baptism did not come from heaven. Jesus knows they aren’t dealing in honest answers to begin with.
Jesus could advance a case for his authority, but he doesn’t advance it. His response is not argumentation but invitation. You see that in his parable. He offers them one last chance. “Many folks have been saying Yes to me, but they’ll soon desert me. You’ve been saying No to me all along, but you still come in. You’d come in behind the publicans and prostitutes, but you’d still come in. But you don’t want to, do you, because you’d have to let go of your position.” Defending your position is the root of quarreling—in other words, refusing transformation.
How Jesus deals with them is how he deals with us. Don’t you find it so, that the questions you ask of Jesus he answers with a question back, and a challenging one at that? He proves himself to you only by means of your own self-examination. You ask, “Is it true?” And he answers, “Do you want this to be true?” You ask, “Is he the Lord?” He answers, “What sort of Lord do you want?”
Jesus never defends himself. Neither does God, for that matter. What Jesus shows us is that God’s interest is not in your conclusion, but in your transformation. He’s renewing your mind. You cannot pay him any mind unless you renew your mind, and to renew your mind is to mind him well.
Religions speak of mindfulness. Usually it’s your own mindfulness, even when it’s reaching out into the world. Christian mindfulness is different. It’s more like a mind-meld, sharing the mind of another. The community of Jesus shares together the mind of Christ.
Now really, this is very strange talk. Your mind is your own. It’s the most private thing about you. It’s virtually impossible to enter someone else’s mind. My wife and I were having an argument (yes, we do quarrel the odd time), and she said to me, “You can’t see into my mind. I don’t care how long we’ve been married, my mind is private from you.” Of course she’s right.
But that’s our metaphor, as strange as it is. I think it means you have to use your God-given imagination to imagine the mind of Christ. Of course the gospel stories help by giving you reliable material. We know what Jesus wouldn’t do. As much as we consider what Jesus did we must consider what he, as a person in his position, did not do. Unlike the chief priests and elders, for example, he did not dissemble in order to protect his position, and he did not calculate what he said in order to preserve his status as the rightful King of the Jews and the legitimate Messiah.
He didn’t do that from the beginning, in his Incarnation, when he emptied himself of the rights and privilege of his divinity. He emptied himself and took the form and status of a slave. Don’t take this wrong. This does not mean he was powerless. Slavery was different then, slaves were often given power and discretion. But the benefit of their power and discretion was never in their own interest. The point about slavery is the absence of self-interest. That’s the mind of Christ. Power without self-interest.
Is this the transformation? Can you imagine it, your own empowerment under the sign of the cross? Can you imagine it, to be a slave and still be free? To be humble without humiliation? Can you imagine being a servant without servility? My basic instinct is to advance my interests and my causes and defend my point of view. Is this really what God wants for us?
You are unable to imagine it being a good thing unless you have your mind renewed. So you have to keep renewing it, and you keep renewing it by means of worship, devotions, seasons of repentance, and deeds of service. These are transformative when your purpose in them is to seek the mind of Christ.
We believe that God does not leave it up to us, but actually shares with us the mind of Christ by giving you the Holy Spirit. God is in you, God is among you. That makes a difference. That should have made a difference to the Children of Israel when they said, “Is the Lord among us or not?” You know how when your mother is standing right there it’s harder to quarrel with your brother? Just out of respect. You know you’re going to be put in your place. And that’s a lesson for all of us to remember when we’re pushing for our position, to respect the Lord who is present among us.
But there is grace in it as well. Renew your mind to receive the Lord among us, and you can leave it to God to empower you and establish your position and to advance your interests, and even, in God’s time and for God’s purposes, to exalt you. The whole issue of quarreling falls away. The transformation you’re after is to share with Jesus his constant God-awareness, the constant presence of God within his mind. A vindicating God. A providing God. A restoring God. A resurrecting God. A God will exalt you because God so loves you.
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.