From Many Paths, Embracing our Differences, Finding Our Story Together
An Open and Affirming Congregation
"After Sunday worship I feel refreshed and ready to start a new week. Worship calms me and makes me want to be a more giving and forgiving person."
"I am here to share my soul, body, and mind with our bigger family who shares our worship to God and the entire universe. This is my worship experience at church."
Worship at FCC Essex follows a traditional liturgy, but God still speaks to the world today from these ancient words and rituals as if they were new. Music and spirit and art and words and silence center us and inform us. Our style of worship brings comfort, soothes the spirit, challenges the mind, strengthens our love of each other, and empowers us for doing good in the world.
Other special services of worship are celebrated throughout the year during Advent (Christmas) and Lent, as well as ecumenical events with other churches in Essex and within the UCC.
September 27, 2020
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 17:1-7 Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
In her book, The Great Emergence, historical theologian Phyllis Tickle studies the shifts in westernized Christianity that have taken place every five hundred years or so--each of these shifts leading to the reexamining of the core question, "Wherein now lies our authority?" She and others consider our current age to be one of these times where the shifts in Christianity are being reshaped through engagement with that core question.
It seems we are in good company with Jesus in today's gospel. The story takes place just after the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree, both challenging the current religious authority and opening the door to the dialogue we find in verses 23-32. The authorities here react in a way any religious authority--including us--would react given the circumstances, by challenging the question, and the questioner.
How do we interpret God's authority?
It is important to note that both Jesus and his challengers understand God as the ultimate authority; the question posed has to do with the legitimacy of the earthly means of interpreting that authority and ultimately what the effect of all that is on the people whom God has created.
As Kathryn D. Blanchard notes, "The chief priests' first question, 'By what authority are you doing these things?' (v. 23), is reasonable enough. Their own authority in Israel, after all, had been given to them by God in the time of Moses and passed down through generations" (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4).
Jesus' questioning of them, shaped by the actions that precede this section and the parable that forms its conclusion, come as a challenge to that traditionally held authority.
Rabbis in conversation
The dialogue between Jesus and the chief priests and elders follows a typical rabbinic style, questions met with questions, that is intended to invite the readers, or initially the hearers, into their own consideration of an answer. It presents a conundrum for the chief priests and elders who did not recognize John the Baptist and for whom a "yes" or "no" answer each have serious consequences.
They are being challenged by an unanswerable question to confront the fact that they have "refused to recognize messages and people sent by God." (For more, read Lewis R. Donelson's exegesis in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4).
A new authority
The final part of the reading, the parable of the Two Sons, is a metaphorical tale with a moral. Those same leaders are put in the place of providing an answer that undermines their own authority and implicitly recognizes the establishment of a new one.
The two groups are not so much representative of the "haves" and "have nots" as they are of the fact that the chief priest and elders have lost touch with both God and the people while those whom they have identified as outsiders are the very ones who are speaking and living the truth.
We continue the dialogue today
What has this to do with us? As noted above, according to Tickle we are living in the same dialogue; we are in a time when within our churches and across much of the Christian world we are being challenged with the question of authority. This is not a question of denominational structures, or local church structures for that matter, but a question of where we can best hear of, be embraced by, be liberated with, and be responsible to the God who created, redeemed and sanctified us.
We may miss the challenge of this passage if we simply interpret it as a call to go out to the highways and byways to find the "outsiders" of our day (as right as that is to do!) and fail to see its challenge to us as individuals and communities of faith.
How are we like the second son?
Shane Hipps in his excellent book, Selling Water by the River, has a wonderful quote that captures some of what is going on in this passage: "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" (Selling Water by the River).
Perhaps this passage is challenging us to consider the ways we act as the second son. After all these years we may be the ones who are confronted daily by fresh and sometimes strange voices who are calling for a kind of faithfulness that seems foreign to us.
All around us we, inheritors of a rich history, can hear the voice of Jesus in a strange cadence that perks up our ears while at the same time causing us discomfort. We desire a faithful response to God's call but wind up as guards in a museum protecting a treasure.
Read the scriptures and this entire reflection here
First Congregational Church in Essex
United Church of Christ
6 Methodist Hill
Essex, Connecticut 06426