St. Matthew’s Sermon 10-01-2017

St. Matthew’s Sermon 10-01-2017

It’s a Trap!

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God. Amen

… and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me!”

It’s amazing, in my view, that the people of Israel had such a hard time learning to trust God. Moses had already shown them God’s power with the ten plagues that tormented Egypt enough to have Pharaoh let them go; it was displayed again when they were pinched between the sea and Pharaoh’s army; again when bitter water was made drinkable; and yet again in the delivery of quail and manna. Yet every time things looked a little bleak for them they felt as if they had been deceived and led, not into freedom, but into a trap; a trap that would be the death of them all! Every time things got tough, they turned away from God and turned against Moses; the ones that were trying to help them, and lead them into a new life of freedom; the only ones who could lead them into a new life of freedom!

Jump ahead a few thousand years to the time of Christ and we see something similar going on. This time, however, it’s not the common people of God who are doubting and not trusting, but the Temple authorities; the Chief Priests and Elders who are distrusting and ready to stone the deliverer in their midst; the human appointed authorities turning against those authorized by God.

And there’s another connection to be seen between the Exodus story and the Gospel reading. In the Exodus story the people are consistently, in their own thinking, perceiving that they’ve been led into a trap until God comes through with deliverance. Though it takes a while, each time they see God’s power at work through Moses, they learn to trust God a little more, and a little more, until the building of that trust is complete.

Likewise, in the Gospel story, when the people see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears the power of God working through John and Christ they learn to trust God a little more. In contrast, however, it is the Priests and Elders, those who should be the first to recognize the mighty works of God that dig in their heels and, not only refuse to learn, but actively attempt to set a trap against the ones trying to lead them into a new life of freedom; the only ones who could lead them into a new life of freedom!

Now, jump ahead another two thousand years, to our lifetime, and we still see similarities. Today we can see people of the faith, people like myself, trying hard to lead people into a new life of freedom. Yet, like the High Priests and Elders, there are others, claiming authority, who dig in their heels and set traps in opposition. For every time one preaches the love of God for all people, another places an ocean between the people and the love of God. For every time one preaches the beauty of diversity another draws a line of ethnic or racial exclusion. For every time one calls for giving food and drink to the hungry and thirsty another declares the plight of the poor to be the wrath of God in retaliation for their lack of faith and their sinfulness. For every time one preaches a new life of freedom another speaks of bondage with rhetoric about being led astray or being led into a trap.

With all this confusion and conflict, is it any wonder that so many in this day-and-age avoid, even mock, organized religion? And we, ourselves might feel we are being trapped between our beloved traditions and newly revised visions of God’s love.

A part of the problem, as I see it, is the way things are different between ancient times and today yet remain the same.

In the Exodus story, the biggest thing that differs from that time and today is that the Children of God were still learning about God’s loving care as a new idea. Remember, today’s story is before the delivery of the commandments and the speaking of the covenant between God and his people.

By contrast, by the time of Christ God’s Law had not only been well established, it was locked in and certain; that is until Christ came along to challenge the established human understanding of God’s love and Law.

Likewise, 2000 years later, we find the revisions Christ made locked in and certain. The new becomes the old until Christ makes it new again; but even that has become the old. But, in the rest of today’s Gospel reading Jesus shows us that that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

When Jesus tells his story of the father who sends his two sons to work in the vineyard, he is not only talking about their obedience, or lack thereof; he uses the imagery of a vineyard for very good reason. You see, vineyards are living things; they require a lot of care and maintenance to become and remain productive. You don’t just stick plants in the ground and come back to reap your harvest once a year, every year; you need to prune, and weed and feed those plants over and over again to keep them living, vital, and bearing good fruit.

Likewise, the word of God is a living thing; it needs to be tended to constantly if we are to expect good harvests every year. And sometimes that tending requires us to prune away some of the old growth, dig up some weeds, and add something new to freshen the soil.

Perhaps the words of Shane Hipps from his book, Selling water by the River[1], can explain this better than my own words. He writes…

“Some, in an effort to protect and preserve the gospel message, have become like the guards in a museum, fueled by fear that its treasures could be damaged or stolen if they are not vigilant in their watch. They have mistaken the good news for an ancient artifact that needs to be protected. But that is not its nature. This kingdom is a lot more like a tree. God is looking for gardeners, not guards. A guard is trained in a defensive stance of fear and suspicion. A gardener is motivated by love and creativity”.

God raised up Moses as the first gardener; through the ages he brought in Prophets to tend his vineyard; then he sent his Son to tend what had been neglected, and since that time it has been the duty of His Disciples to keep things growing and producing.

God needs gardeners. Even if we once said no, we can change our minds and go and tend to his vineyard. And as we go, the only trap we need to fear is the one we set ourselves when we believe we are to be guards, as the Chief Priests and Elders did in today’s Gospel story did.



Exodus 17:1-7
17:1 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.
17:2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?”
17:3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”
17:4 So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
17:5 The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.
17:6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.
17:7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”


Philippians 2:1-13
2:1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,
2:2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
2:3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
2:4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
2:5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
2:6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
2:7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,
2:8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.
2:9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,
2:10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
2:11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
2:12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
2:13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.


Matthew 21:23-32
21:23 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?”
21:24 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.
21:25 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?’
21:26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”
21:27 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.
21:28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’
21:29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.
21:30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.
21:31 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.
21:32 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.


[1]Shane Hipps, Selling water by the River, Jericho Books, 2012