Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
James V. Stockton
I read about a young man from India, back when India was still under the colonial control of England. Educated in England this man, I’ll call him Kamrachand, becomes an attorney. He migrates to South Africa, where he continues to practices law. There, Kamrachand witnesses the evils of apartheid, the official discrimination against certain people simply because they are different from those who rule. Though Hindu by birth and tradition, Kamrachand becomes interested in Christianity. He studies the Bible, particularly the teachings of Jesus. Is it occurring to Kamrachand to ask ‘Am I good enough for God’s Love?’ ‘Am I deserving of God’s Love?’ ‘Am I someone to whom God owes mercy and grace?’
Wandering in the wilderness, the people of Israel do not seem to pause for even a moment to wonder about their relationship with God. “We’re thirsty out here!” they cry to their leader Moses. “What did you do? Bring us out here to die of thirst?” And before we criticize them for a lack of faith in God, let’s remember that they are in fact in the desert. They are desperate, and understandably so. And so their story serves well, I suggest, to demonstrate the human struggle in which all people participate, you and I included: the struggle to come to faith, and the struggle to hold onto it. And perhaps it demonstrates also, God’s own struggle to bring people to God’s own faith in them.Here in the wilderness, the people’s fear and anger are making Moses himself afraid and maybe angry, too. And if he doesn’t know exactly what to do, yet he does know what not to do. He does not abandon the people even though they are turning on him. He does not try to argue with them to assert his authority. He does not try to remind them of all that he’s done for them so they feel guilty about their ingratitude and maybe come around to support him. And he does not try to fix the problem on his own. Worried though he may be, Moses does know that he can and should turn to God. And as he does, it never crosses his mind that his fears and concerns for his own safety and for the safety of his people will disqualify him as someone undeserving of God’s attention, as someone not good enough for God to Love. Moses knows that somehow his passionate honesty with God is equal to trust in God. For Moses, faith in God is passionate or it isn’t faith at all.
As Kamrachand continues his exploration of Christ and Christianity he decides to attend a church service. One Sunday he approaches the steps of a large church. That’s when a South African official of the church stops him at the door. "Where do you think you're going, kaffir?" the man asks. ‘Kaffir’ is a derogatory label used at the time for people of near-eastern decent. Being an Anglo-European man, the South African is a member of the ruling class. "I want to attend worship here," Kamrachand replies. The other man stares at him coldly. "There's no room for you kaffirs in this church,” he says. “Get out of here, now, or I'll have my assistants throw you down the steps."
The other man seems to have asked the questions about Kamrachand and answered them, too. So, if not before, Kamrachand is likely now asking them himself: ‘Who is good enough for God’s Love? Am I?’ If not before, he is desperately asking now: ‘Who is deserving of God’s Love? Am I?’ If not before, he is passionately asking now: ‘To whom does God owe grace and mercy? Perhaps not to me?’ These questions arise for people, don’t they, about themselves, about others? They arise for you and me, and so what to do with them?
“Let each of you look not to your own interests,” writes the Apostle Paul; “but to the interests of others.” And so, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Paul says, “You pay attention to his needs, you pay attention to hers, someone else will pay attention to yours, and soon each of you will be able to quit asking who is good enough, and you will all enter more deeply into the struggles that you all share.” “All of you together,” he says, “notice the cares and worries of the people all around you, and you will quit wondering about who is deserving or not, and you’ll be caring more widely for people who, in the ways that matter, are really just like you.” “Fearfully, tremblingly, passionately,” Paul says, “turn to your relationship with God, and find the questions and the answers that really matter.”
Which then is easier? To say ‘Yes, I’ll do it,’ and then not do it? Or to say, ‘No, I’ll not do it,’ and then do it anyway?’ It a question that Jesus puts to his critics; to those who have no passion, none for God and none for God’s people. And it’s a question that Jesus leaves to the memory of his disciples and the generations of his Church to ask again in their own way.
It’s important to his critics that Jesus knows who holds the authority around here. “So then,” they say to him, “who authorized you?” But rather than answer their demand, Jesus asks them a question. And if their concern is with something more noble and holy than their own prestige, they will answer it. But they do not. And their cowardice reveals that they have no passion for truth, no passion for God, no passion for people all around them who need God’s Love. Jesus knows that it takes only cowardice to pretend to comply with hypocrisy, and sadly, that there are plenty of the merely outwardly faithful cowering nearby.
Jesus knows also that it is the passionate among the people who reject the hypocrisy of those who now try to challenge Jesus. Jesus knows that it takes passion to reject corrupt authority, passion to reject hollow shows of religion, passion to demand to know ‘is God among us or not?’ And Jesus knows that it is exactly this passion that brings people rushing to the Good News of God’s Love for them, to the Good News that sets them free to love one another, free to care about the people around them.
Turned away from the church, Mohandes Karamchand Ghandi decides that he will never again consider becoming a Christian. Yet, often quoting from the sermon on the mount, Ghandi, called Mahatma, or ‘great soul,’ works and prays the rest of his life seeking the freedom and their dignity of every human being. And so a Christian missionary asks him, “Mr. Ghandi, though you quote the words of Christ often, yet you appear adamantly to reject becoming his follower; why is that?” “Oh, I don't reject your Christ,” Ghandi replies. “…It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Perhaps, in his own way, Ghandi asked himself the questions that many before him many and since have asked, and understandably so. Thanks be to God, he and others before him and since, did find in Jesus the freedom to cease asking who is good enough for God to love, who is deserving of the Love of God, to whom does God owe God’s mercy and grace.
These are questions that will arise within us about ourselves or about others, and understandably so. Jesus is passionately asking us to listen for them at work, at home, at school, and always here at church; and Jesus is calling us to claim our freedom from them, passionately; and to help the people around us passionately claim their freedom, too. Said the Hindu lawyer to the Christian missionary, “I don't reject your Christ… I love your Christ.” As it has ever done, God’s Love in Christ moves to passion people seeking rescue from their own wilderness, people just like you and me. It moves to passion people seeking unity with others in the mind and heart of God, people just like you and me. It moves to passion people seeking the presence of Jesus in his people, in people just like you and me.
And so may Almighty God, in whom is sanctified our vocation and ministry grant that we may truly and devoutly serve God, and bring those who are far from them, to the knowledge and love of our Savior Jesus Christ; who with the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, One God, now and for ever. Amen.