Sermon: Who is First?

September 27, 2020
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Ezekiel 17:1-7
Matthew 21:23-32

by Eric Anderson

The ‘apapane mother was near frantic. The ‘apapane father’s face was so red – well, okay, an ‘apapane’s face is always red. Underneath the feathers, though, you know both of them were flushed and frustrated. Why all this parental exasperation?

The chicks. The chicks were fighting.

This was no minor argument. It was so major that the mother started calling it a myna argument, except of course that it was an argument among ‘apapane so it wasn’t a myna argument at all. I have now made this same pun three weeks in a row, which means that it would be firmly driven into the ground if the ‘apapane nest weren’t in a tree, and it also means that I have now ignored my friend Paul Bryant-Smith’s advice not to begin with a pun… at least three weeks in a row.

Back to the ‘apapane nest, which was rocking about in the tree as if a storm wind was blowing. It wasn’t. It was the chicks. They were screaming and hopping about and, as noted earlier, driving their poor parents to distraction.

This was a job for grandmother.

Tutu flew over after a couple of days of this ruckus, which could be heard over half the mountain. Despite all the noise, Tutu didn’t actually know what they were fighting about. By the time the argument got to screaming, they’d stopped using their ‘apapane words. She perched on the branch above the nest, looked down into it, and said, “What is all this?”

I don’t know that every grandmother can do that – just say, “What is all this?” and all the noise in the grandchildren stops. My grandmother could do that. This ‘apapane Tutu could do that. The chicks stopped. For a moment, they were silent, or as silent as you can be when you’re simply gasping for breath.

“What is all this about?” she asked.

It looked for a moment like the screaming was going to begin again all at once, so she quickly pointed her beak at one of the chicks and said, “You.”

“I want to be first to fly!” he said, and his sister chimed in, “I want to be first to fly!” and then the other brother chimed in, “I want to be first to fly!” and they were off again. At least they used words for the first fifteen seconds.

“Stop,” said Tutu, and they stopped. I really want to know how she did that.

“You think going first is going to make you special?” she asked, and they nodded their heads all together. “You think going first is going to make you better?” she asked, and they nodded their heads again. “You think going first is going to give you power over your siblings?” she asked, and they glanced at one another before nodding this time – it was a small, reluctant nod.

“Will the one who goes second be less of a flyer?” she asked. They didn’t nod. “Or the third?” They shrugged and shook their heads. “Will your parents love the third one to fly any less?” They shook their heads again. “Will I love you any less, no matter what order you fly?” They shook their heads hard.

“That’s right,” said Tutu. “I could never love you less, even when I wish you would quiet down and stop fighting. And now, I think it is time for your first flight,” and she glanced over at the parents to see their nod. “All of you hop up here on the branch next to me. Spread out a little bit. That’s good. Are you all ready?”

“But who is going to fly first?” asked one of the chicks, very daring.

“You all are,” said Tutu. “Spread your wings. Now leap! And fly.”

Jesus had been flying high in Jerusalem. On Sunday he had entered the city to the shouts of an adoring crowd, riding over a street cushioned by cloaks and branches. They sang the words of the ancient psalm, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD,” and they cried, “Hosanna to the son of David!”

The son of David. David had been the king. The son of David could only be the heir to the throne. The crowd had announced a threat to the powers that were: the priests, the city government, King Herod (who had executed John the Baptist), and Rome.

Jesus had not ended his Sunday there. He led that procession to the temple, where he drove the money changers and dove sellers out of the portico, calling them thieves in the process. Further, when the priests asked him to quiet the children of the crowd who were calling him the “Son of David,” he quoted a psalm: “Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself.”

The priests, I am sure, did not appreciate this.

As our passage begins, Sunday has turned to Monday. Jesus’ return to the city after spending the night in Bethany had not had the same drama, which meant that the priests could now challenge him. They asked the critical question: What is your authority? That translates to, Are you really claiming to be the Messiah? Are you about to assert royal power?

Are you going to plunge our city and our nation into war with the greatest power we know on Earth (I don’t think they were aware of China)?

Those are, I must say, really good questions.

Jesus refused to answer the authority question, because he knew it was not an honest question. They may have wanted to know, but they would not, could not commit to acknowledge such authority if he asserted it. When Jesus challenged them about the authority of John the Baptist, as Cameron B. R. Howard writes at Working Preacher, “The elders see immediately that they are in a no-win position; they are trapped between their arrogance and their fear. They know the ‘right’ answer, and that giving that answer will expose the vulnerabilities of their own position. But if they give the answer they want, then they will invoke the ire of the crowd. They don’t make a choice or take a stand, nor do they offer a robust third option. Instead, they look for a ‘safe’ way out.”

Jesus’ story, then, put them into a pretty damning pigeonhole. Given the choice between the ones who say the right things and don’t do them, and those who refuse to say “Yes,” but then do what they’re asked, which would you choose? It’s the nay-sayers and yes-doers that God welcomes first, said Jesus, not you yes-sayers and no-doers. “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.”

Ouch. If you used the phrase “kind and gentle Jesus” to the chief priests of the Jerusalem Temple, they would have no idea who you were talking about.

But you know, I read this text, that “the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” and I say, “So what?”

Does it matter what order in which we enter the realm of God? Doesn’t it matter that we live our lives so as to enter it? Doesn’t it matter that we say yes and do yes, or say no and do yes, and if we say yes and do no that we change the do no to do yes and quickly as ever we can? All of these certainly enter the realm of God. Does it matter the order?

Is there a hierarchy in God’s realm?

The priests thought there was. Lots of people thought there was. That’s how the world worked. You’ve got emperors and kings and nobles and chief priests and high priests and middle priests and low priests, and then you’ve got shopkeepers and land-owning famers and the vast number of non-landowning tenant farmers and the beggars and the prostitutes. That’s how the world was, and it’s how the world is. We may not use the same titles, but the power dynamics look much the same.

Human hierarchies, however, are apparently not the way of the realm of God.

Jesus, remember, rejected the idea of being surrounded by an elite set of courtiers when he “came into his kingdom,” much to the disappointment of his disciples James and John. Jesus told his followers that the greatest ones in the realm of God are those who serve the others. When Jesus speaks of those entering first, he speaks of those who recognized this, accepted this, and acted upon this. The ones who come last appear to be those who struggled to recognize, accept, and act. Yet both enter, and they enter a realm where the first and last distinctions cease to matter. Prostitute and priest both enjoy the presence of God.

People keep trying to make the realm of God look like our systems here on Earth, with nicer spots and nice but less nice spots, with greater saints and lesser saints, with rich rewards for some and adequate but less rich rewards for others. I wish we’d stop doing that. I wish we could rejoice in a realm of God that is distinctly unlike the social structures we perpetuate on Earth.

Yes, I wish we could stop trying to make heaven look like Earth. Even more, I’d like to see us work to make Earth look more like heaven. Perhaps, just perhaps, those who enter the realm of God early make Earth look more like heaven. Can we not learn from the ‘apapane, stand together above the nest, and take flight?


Watch the Recorded Sermon

The video above includes the complete worship service of September 27, 2020. Clicking “Play” above will start at the beginning of the sermon.

Are there changes between the prepared text and the sermon as actually delivered? Yes. Change is the way of life.

The image is a mosaic of Jesus cleansing the temple in the Cattedrale di Monreale, Sicily, Monreale, Italy (ca. 1180). Photo by Sibeaster – Own work, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on September 27, 2020

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