Open-Ended Possibilities

Matthew 21:23-32

I was in the church office last Sunday facilitating a wedding planning meeting when one of the children from the church burst in the room. He politely stopped in the doorway, though, and asked me a question:

Is there a door that leads to outside?

doors.jpegLet me explain how the office is set up. I was sitting at my desk facing the doorway through which this kid entered. Behind me [and to the left of the desk] is another door that does indeed lead outside.

That door was closed.

The kid was actually staring at that particular door that leads outside when he asked me the question.
Is there a door that leads outside?

Now listen–he could have just entered the office and then, without hesitation, he could have gone to that other door and opened it.

But he didn’t. Why?

Two reasons, I think.
First, the door was closed. He wasn’t sure that this door would lead to where he wanted to go. So he hesitated.

And second, he gave authority to me. Even though he already saw a possible “way out” he wanted to check with me first. He knows me; I think he trusts me as someone who will not hurt him or lead him astray; and, quite possibly another adult may have told him that I have some sort of authority. Whatever the case, he wanted to ask me first if this door was the right one.

He gave me authority.

We need to talk about authority.

Authority is power, but…

Power itself is something someone or something can have.

A great white shark’s bite is powerful.
The rays of the sun are powerful.
Chia seed is powerful in its nutrition. Other foods are powerful antioxidants.

But authority is something totally different.

Authority is not something you have.

Authority is power given to you or given by you.

If someone has authority over you, that is because you gave him/her that authority.
Likewise if you have authority over someone or something, it is not innate; it was given to you.

We often associate authority with someone “above” us.
But authority can also be given by those who are considered “below.”

This is important to understand because Jesus and the chief priests of the temple were discussing authority. The priests wanted Jesus to explain himself. What he was teaching and doing did not fit into their dogma or temple system. So they tried to make him look bad.

By what authority are you doing these things; who gave you this authority?
It was a trap question.

If Jesus said that God gave him the authority, then that would be blasphemy.
If Jesus said that certain people gave him the authority, then the priests would be able to negate that with their temple authority.
Of course, Jesus sensed the trap and didn’t answer. He asked them a question.

Where did John get his authority?
After all, John and Jesus were inextricably connected.
John the prophet prepared the way for Jesus.
There was no way the chief priests would recognize John’s authority as being from God.
Neither would the priests acknowledge John as having authority among the people.
That would take away the chief priests’ authority.

They weren’t going to give that up!

And so they copped out. They avoided the question to save face.
We don’t know.

And then Jesus tells a parable.
One son says: Sure, dad, I’ll help out!
And then he didn’t help.

Another son says: No thanks dad, I won’t help.
But in the end, he does.

So this connects nicely with the questions about authority.
The son who says I won’t help but then does help is like all those people considered to be outside the temple, not religious enough, incapable of obeying the law.
The son who says I’ll help but then does not is like all those so-called religious people who claim authority and holiness and then continually break the religious laws they claim to follow.

I cannot tell you how many people I have met who look uber-religious on the outside and present themselves that way, as church insiders. They have no trouble criticizing others for their lack of faith or how they live their lives. But they don’t follow through on their religious commitments any more than others do. They treat people badly. They are not seeking spiritual growth. It’s hypocrisy.

And I’ve known lots of people who are non-religious and considered “outside” the church. They don’t present themselves as Christians—or at least are not in your face about it. But they follow through on their commitments; they are helpful, caring, actively growing in their spirituality.

Once again, with the questions about authority and in this Matthew parable, Jesus is inviting us to consider that things are not as they seem.

And the book is not written.
The future is open.
There are endless possibilities to change your mind and your life.
All the pointless arguments of the past about who is more religious can go away if we let them.

If we stop giving authority to them.

The invitation is to let go of the past and to embrace an open future.
And don’t assume for one moment that if you identify as a Christian or go to church that you are not in the shoes of the stubborn chief priests. Many times, those who clearly identify themselves as religious struggle the most with letting go of the past or letting go of dogmas that claim authority.

But to Jesus, this is all a waste of time and a supreme limitation on our lives.

For we allow so many people to have authority over us.
We allow them to hurt us; to tell us we don’t matter; to make us feel that our lifestyle is wrong; we allow them to make us feel guilty if we don’t pray or think or believe like they do; we allow them to lord over us and keep us from healing, reconciliation, and an open future.

This is why Jesus mentions “tax collectors” and “prostitutes”—not because they are somehow “worse” people—but because society considered them “outside” of God’s grace and yet somehow they were the ones so eager to embrace that grace and walk forward into a promising future.

So whatever shoes you find yourselves filling today—the shoes of the chief priests, or the prostitutes, or the tax collectors—you are all invited to move.

To change your mind about your past so that it does not cement your future.
All the things that people have said to you.
All the ways you’ve been conditioned to believe this or that.
All the hurt, the suffering, abuse, the deceit, the manipulation.

You are invited to not give these things or these people authority.

Not anymore!

Look, it’s not easy to do this and to let go of the past. It’s comfortable to stay there.
But the Jesus of scripture is not as concerned with the past and certainly does not give it any authority—so why should we?

There’s no period at the end of our sentence; it is a comma.
We can change our minds.
We can change our perspectives.
We can change our experience of life.
We can be refreshed, healed, and strengthened.

So friends, ask yourselves:
To whom and to what do you give authority?

If the authority you have given to people and to things has made you feel heavy, or controlled, or limited, or lesser—it’s time to rethink it.

Instead, take this with you:

Wherever we are in life, whoever we are—we are invited to see our lives as open.
We are invited to reconcile, heal, and restore.

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Josh grew up in the Midwest before completing a B.A. in Theatre at Northwestern College [IA] and a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ [UCC], Josh has lived and worked in the Midwest, East Coast, Hawai’i, and Mexico. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Project PA, host of the Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, and he is Pastor of Love In Action UCC, an open and affirming congregation featured in a Vox Media episode of Divided States of Women with Liz Plank and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Josh has 20+ years of nonprofit experience, including leading workshops and training in corporate, medical, and academic settings, focused on diversity & inclusion, grant writing, fund raising, and program management. Josh is a fellow of Interfaith Philadelphia, and designs and coordinates HS and University student groups for interfaith immersion service-learning weeks. Josh also co-facilitates Ally trainings for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and interfaith cooperation. He is a founding member of The Society for Faith & Justice, and a Collaborator for Nurturing Justice, and a member of the Driving PA Forward team via New Sanctuary Movement. He also performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, and has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in religious and secular settings. Josh also enjoys running, singing, traveling, learning languages, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philly.

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