It is good to be with you again, St. Stephen's.
So, here’s the thing about the Gospel of Matthew:
More than any of the other Gospels—the Gospel of Matthew is written by a Jewish person, for a Jewish community—in a particular historical moment in the life of that community--
the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70AD.
This historical time after the destruction of the Temple is a time of devastating and catastrophic disorientation for the Jewish community.
And, at the same time that the institutional life of the Jewish community—worship in and through the temple—is in ruin—the Christian story and community and practice is emerging.
Enter the Gospel of Matthew— the entirety of the Gospel of Matthew is an attempt to show his peers how, even in the midst of their disorientation and confusion and loss of Temple life the Jewish tradition can be preserved in this emerging Jewish-Christian context.
But there is tension, between what used to be and what might be.
And in times of disorientation and loss, authority is challenged. Outsiders come in with new ideas. Maybe to intentionally sow division to confuse and weaken the community.
Or maybe with a genuine authority to lead a community into a new way of being.
By What Authority—the chief priests and elders demand of Jesus—do you have to teach about God and faith and salvation?
And, Jesus, in good fashion, answers with a parable—and you can almost hear the priests and elders roll their eyes at each other because honestly, by this time in the Gospel, they are growing quite tired of this Jesus of Nazareth. He is disrupter.
He is disrupting the way things are and stirring up ideas about the way things might be—even worse, he’s doing it in the name of God.
The parable we hear in today’s Gospel is a parable about who enters the kingdom--
Who is the keeper of truth and access to God--
Is it John the Baptist? Is it the chief priests and elders? Is it the child who adamantly refuses to cooperate with the parent’s appeal for help? Or the reluctantly cooperative child?
And, I wonder if what Jesus is really doing with this parable is telling the religious authorities: you don’t have to do it the way it’s always been done--
The disobedient child of God has as much a place in the kingdom as the reluctantly obedient.
God isn’t just for the pure, Jesus seems to say. Or the righteous. Or the obedient.
In fact, Jesus says, “Even the prostitutes and tax collectors are going on to the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of YOU: the pure and righteous and obedient.”
And you can almost hear the chief priests and elders cry out, “But that’s not the way we’ve always done it!!”
In Matthew’s gospel, we see a community turned upside down and inside out by the destruction of their temple—their way of knowing and worshipping God, their way of knowing themselves as the people of God is in a deep season of transition.
I wonder, St. Stephen’s, if you find yourself as a community in this kind of topsey turvey place right now, too--
A season of transition, the loss of a rector, the anticipation of new leadership--
I wonder if, like Matthew’s community, you find yourselves called to reconcile the old traditions and old way of doing things with still unknown new ways of being church in the world?
And, I wonder if you relate at all to the question: By What Authority!
By What Authority does this community pray and discern and resolve conflict and call new leadership?
By What Authority does someone from the outside have to come in and teach and preach and lead and give advice about how to do things?!
Our psalmist today says, “I will open my mouth in a parable. I will declare the mysteries of ancient times.”
The psalmist goes on to say: We Will Tell Of God’s Saving Action in the World.
We Will Not Hide This Truth From Our Children.
Somehow, the psalmist writes, the story must continue. The miracle of being passed over by death—walking to freedom from slavery through the troubled waters—of being fed in the wilderness manna from heaven—our thirst quenched with water from a rock--
This. THIS is the central call on a believing community: to tell the story.
To persevere in telling of the miraculous work of God—the salvific presence of God in Christ Jesus—to ensure that our children and our children’s children will hear this story, too.
Like the Jewish community after the destruction of the Temple, the Institutional Christian Church as a whole is reimagining our presence and place in the world.
We aren’t going to be able to keep doing church the way we’ve always done it—things are topsey turvey. Inside out, upside down.
The institutional church may be in decline, St. Stephen’s, but the Kingdom of God is emerging. And we are being called to be church in a new, not quite yet known way.
God is fetching you, St. Stephen’s, in new and unexpected ways to gather God’s people, tell God’s story, and make room at the table for our children and our children’s children and unknown guests to share in the Body of Christ.
And it may look very different from the way we’ve always done it—but the story remains. God remains. Christ in the community—in the bread and the wine—remains.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, I am praying for you as you move through this season of searching and discerning. Be assured: God is with you as you go. Take heart and be of good courage.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
Proper 21, Year A
 Sacre Pagina, Matthew, Daniel Harrington
My Sermons (and other thoughts)
a sampling of sermons preached in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona and a sprinkling of other writings