St. Paul’s – 17th Sunday after Pentecost – September 27
Watching events unfold, statements being made about everything from racism to Covid-19 to elections…reminded me of something I heard from Wlater Brueggemann: It is about two ways of asking the same question….. What are you thinking?What do you have in mind? The more scolding form might be this, What could you have been thinking? What were you thinking? Either way, the probe is to see what you think, what you imagine, what you entertain, what you ponder in your in your unguarded, uncensored moments. In these moments together, we consider our minds, making up our minds, changing our minds, and refusing to change our minds.
The epistle reading from the letter of Paul to the Philippians is one of the great hallmarks of evangelical faith, often thought to be a hymn in which the church becomes lyrical about Christ. It says of Jesus that he was exalted as God’s own regent; he emptied himself in obedience on the cross, and was raised in Easter glory. He gave himself up as an act of obedient faith.
And then Paul writes to his beloved church, Have the same mind in you that was in Jesus Christ. Think like him! His mind, his intention, his self-understanding was to give himself up in glad faith for the purposes of God in the world. And you, think like him!!!!
Paul writes to his friends about how to think and imagine and act and live in the church…do it the way Christ did. He said, Do not look at your own interests, look to the interest of others. And let your mind be filled with compassion, sympathy, love, humility, without selfish ambition or conceit. He reminds his listeners that the people gathered around Jesus live in the world differently, fully committed to god’s love, fully confident in God’s love, and so not to use energy for winning, or controlling, or having our own way.
And when we do that, we find ourselves filled with joy, a surprising abundance, and gladness. So the question lingers for us, What did you have in mind? and the church answers, What we have in mind is the interest of others toward whom we reach with compassion and empathy.
Now take the harder form of the question…What could you have been thinking? The Bible knows that the people of God are not always thinking noble, generous thoughts and having regard for others. The Bible assumes that the faithful always have in mind the righteousness of God, the will of God for the well being of the world. That is what the agenda is.
Today the ancient prophet, Ezekiel knows that other stuff enters our minds, and so he scolds,What could you have been thinking? The lectionary leaves out all of the particulars that we are not reading. In the verses left out of our reading, we learn what was more likely on the minds of the faithful, more than they would admit. Three things:
- Shrewd exploitative economic maneuvering to take advantage of the poor;
- Abusive sexual relations that dishonor others;
- And idolatry, the treatment of some things with absoluteness even when they are not really that important and do not deserve to be worshipped.
That, says the prophet is a recipe for wickedness, for unrighteousness, and it is quite a list of topics that dominate much of our thinking.The economic dimension of such ignoble thinking is put there for theological liberals who worry that the economic stuff matters the most. And sexual misconduct is put there for theological conservatives who worry most about sex. And idolatry is put there for all of us who get our priorities confused and distorted. And that, says the prophet, is what is typically on our minds:
- how to get ahead with money
- How to have our way with sex
- How to absolutize what we treasure the most.
And then, if that is what sis on your mind, says God through the prophet: Repent and turn from all your transgressions…cast away from you all transgressions…and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit (18: 30b-31).
In other words, change your mind. Get something else on your mind. Get the purpose of God for your life on your mind. And then God says: Why will you die?…For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone…Turn, then, and live (31b-32).
Thus Paul invites to a new mind in Christ. Ezekiel exposes the old mind of death. Paul and Ezekiel invite us to change our minds, to get in sync with the true stuff of our life with God.
And then this story about Jesus. He argues with the authorities, the chief priests and the elders. They are the ones who recognize him as a threat to their power arrangements, so they engage him and try to trick him so that they can deter him and get him off the street where he causes too much trouble for them.
And because he is very clever in his argument, the exchange ends in a stalemate. They cannot get him. Their trickery did not fool him, so the debate winds down. There is a pause. And then Jesus takes the initiative and tells them a story that subverts all of our conventional thinking.
He tells the story of two sons in a family. One of the sons refused to go to work as his father required of him; and after he refused, he changed his mind and obeyed his father. Get it; he changed his mind! The other son said to his father that he would go to work; but he did not go.
The contrast between the two sons is symmetrical. One said no and did yes. The other said yes and did no. And Jesus said to his adversaries, Which one obeyed? And they know and are quick to answer. They got it and said the one who said no and went anyway.
And then Jesus, the master teacher that he is, moves the story to a didactic point. The two sons are stand-ins for the people in front of Jesus. The obedient son represents in the story (this might surprise us!) the tax collectors, the prostitutes and other riff-raff who lack control of their lives and so are open to the leading of Jesus. And they are just a foil in the story for the second group, namely, the good powerful people who keep to social convention and manage everything well and keep control. In the story they are the ones who say yes and do no. They are the ones who settle for a thin righteousness of social convention and conformity to the ordinary, and never get around to the radical alternative of Jesus. They finally do not believe in or accept Jesus and prefer to continue their life uninterrupted by him. The losers, the tax collectors and prostitutes, embrace his alternative life, because they were not hooked on convention and power. That is, they emptied themselves, while the leading people were so full of themselves that they could not turn or trust. Jesus delivers the punch line by saying, surely to shock, that they were the ones who could enter the kingdom of God first, because they were open to his possibility and could stand alongside of him.
And then comes the point to rebuke the power people: Even when you were shown the new way of righteousness in the world, you did not change your minds and believe him ( 21:32).
John taught you the new righteousness, but you would not embrace it. Jesus invited you to another way that looked to the interest of others and you could not accept it.
In Philippians there is a bid to get a new mind in Christ;
In Ezekiel there is an offer of a new heart and a new spirit;
In the story of Jesus, there is an expose of hard hearts that dare not change to receive the good news of Jesus.
So, what’s on your mind?
So, what were you thinking of?
So, you did not change your mind!
It is not easy to change our minds, especially toward Jesus. Robert Lifton, a Jewish psychiatrist at Yale has spent his life studying social extremity, the suffering at Hiroshima, the nuclear threat in the US, the savagery of Auschwitz, the abandonment in Viet Nam. He finds a common pattern in all of these extremities that he calls totalism, the embrace of an idea, an ideology, a conviction that is totally comprehensive of all reality that explains everything, and excludes everything and everyone that does not fit. Such totality that tilts toward totalitarianism is often linked to religious passion and is ready to enact violence to sustain itself. Thus, Lifton comes to see that the force of totalism produces unbearable menace, all understood as being morally justifiable. And what Lifton is saying is that people caught in a totalism cannot change their minds.
- Paul exposes the force of those who look only at their own interests.
- Ezekiel identifies the totalism of wickedness that majors in economic and sexual exploitation, legitimated by ideology.
- Jesus confronts the entitled people of his society who are enmeshed in a totalism of their own thin nrighteousness who could not receive the newness that God is giving.
All these texts invite the question:
In a soft form: What did you have in mind?
In a harsh form: What could you have been thinking?
And the news that comes to us this morning is this: In the Gospel we are invited to a new mind, a new heart, a new spirit, a new engagement with the world, a fresh sense of our role in it.
Jesus, and the God who dispatches Jesus, moves against every totalism of the right and of the left, of morality, of technology, of economics, of sexuality, of communism, of socialism, of capitalism, of militarism, of racism. Totalism is the refuge of those who find the world too dangerous, who must create little packages of certitude and control. And Jesus came otherwise. He came among tax collectors and invited them out of their greed. He came among prostitutes and invited them out of their despair. He came among those in authority and invited them out of their power. He came among chief priests and invited them out of their certitude. He himself understood the power of giving one’s self away. And he invited others to be of the same mind, ready to let go.
At the end he declares: You did not change your mind.
So, what did you have in mind?
So, what could you have been thinking?
Or what will you have on your mind now that is fresh and life-giving, and beyond the ordinary?
Through this offering,
we pool together the resources
of every person gathered here,
in the name of Jesus, who gives
and saves and shows us the way.
Let us give and save and show
others Christ’s way.
Prayer of Dedication/Offering
Great God, your liberating power opened a way through the waters
and guided your people through the wilderness.
Guide the use of these gifts by that same power.
Free us from the need to determine and control your grace,
and turn us into servants of your boundless love,
poured out for us in Jesus Christ. AMEN+
The sweet Spirit of God has blessed us!
Let us give thanks.
The great Spirit of God will guide us!
Let us give thanks.
The humble Spirit of God is with us.
Let us give thanks.
And may the blessing of God Almighty,
eternal Trinity +
grant you and those who you love and pray for
the peace the world cannot give, now and forever.