Rev. Sarah Buteux

October 1, 2017
Matthew 21:23-32
Proper 21, Year A


I was invited to a banquet recently, and I really didn’t want to go. My sister Christin was being inducted into the Rockland County Softball Hall of Fame on a Friday night at the Doubletree Motel in Mahwah, N.J.. Yeah. Would you want to go to that? I did not want to go to that. I am not particularly fond of sports and motels in general, or of Mahwah in particular. Nor was I eager to give up precious sabbath time with my family, $37.00 for a buffet dinner, or six hours in the car at the end of a long week. But the real reason I didn’t want to go to this banquet was because it had been 6 weeks since I’d talked to my sister, and our last exchange had not gone well.

Like so many people in America, my sister and I find ourselves on opposite sides of the political spectrum and communication isn’t just hard, it can feel toxic. I was so hurt and angry with her by the end of our last conversation that I was planning to avoid her until Christmas. But then the invitation arrived for this banquet, and not going felt like a nail in the coffin we’ve been trying for years not to build.

So I packed the kids in the car and on the way down I told them how amazing their aunt was at softball. How my Dad, her coach, had spent countless hours building up a program around her talent. How they had traveled all over the country to play. And I left out the part about how softball had completely dominated our family’s life for years whether we cared about it or not.

“What sport were you good at Mama?” asked Genevieve.
“Reading,” I said.

Because the truth is that I didn’t really do sports at all.

And I’ll tell you that the event as a whole was exactly what I expected; like being trapped at the longest wedding reception ever for people you don’t know. And I was hardly the only one who felt that way. Over 50 people came out to honor Christin, many of whom attend the church where her husband is pastor. They weren’t exactly there for love of the game either. But then my sister got up to accept her award and her speech was amazing. It was full of gratitude and faith and grace.

At one point she even called out her two sisters and thanked us for all we gave up so she could play. She looked right at us and said, “I didn’t realize when I was younger that all the time Dad spent with me was time he wasn’t spending with you.” Which was true for both of us. “He missed all your games to be at mine,” said Christin. Now that was true for my sister Heather, who played lacrosse. I can honesty say Dad never missed any of my games, unless you consider Dungeons & Dragons a real sport. But that’s beside the point.

The point is, I’m really glad I was there. Her husband Will made a toast later in the evening where he said, “We’re not really here tonight because Christin was a great softball player. We’re all here because Christin is such a great person; a person who pours herself out for others so generously that we would all be willing to come to this event out of sheer love for her.”

I’m glad I was there because I needed to hear those words. It was really good to be reminded that however much we might disagree, my sister is a beautiful, loving, giving human being. She is a woman who is more than the sum of her ideologies; a person who is beloved by the people in her community and her family. I needed to see that again, because at the end of the day if I lose that thread in our story, I am in danger of losing not just our relationship, but my integrity as a person and as a Christian.

But it is hard…

It is so hard right now to talk to people on the other side of the political divide. Can I get an amen? In fact, all the data indicates that it has never been harder. We are polarized along state lines, cyber lines, and familial ones. A recent study found that 50% of Republicans and nearly a third of Democrats would not want their child to marry outside their party. Think about that for a moment because as absurd as that sounds, I suspect those numbers are actually low. We’ve become a nation of Montagues and Capulets…and I don’t think I need to remind you that “Romeo and Juliet” did not end well.

“Partisanship has been revealed as the strongest force in U.S. public life,” writes David Roberts in Vox, “stronger than any norms, independent of any facts.” Which is where I get really hung up in my disagreements with people on the other side and begin to despair, because I don’t know about you, but I liked facts. I miss them.

Do you remember facts… those things we used to agree on? Like if there are more people in the first picture than the second picture it means the crowd was bigger in the first picture than the second picture. I thought facts were really important, but they are not driving the bus anymore. They simply don’t have the authority they once did.

Julie Beck, in a piece called, “This Article Won’t Change your Mind,” acknowledges that in highly charged times like these, “people often don’t engage with information as information (with facts as facts) but as a marker of identity. Information becomes tribal.” Reality becomes relational.

Meaning that whether or not we believe things has less to do with our grasp of the evidence and much more to do with what our tribe believes. And to some extent this is true on all sides. For instance, most of us don’t believe in climate change or the first amendment or that football causes CTE because we fully understand the science or law or medicine behind these theories. Some of you do, but most of us don’t. More often than not, we believe what we believe because the people we believe in believe it. So for some people, if Trump says it, or Rachel Maddow says it, or Oprah says it, than it must be true.

Case in point. How many of you, by a show of hands, do believe that Football causes CTE? And how many of you can tell me what CTE stands for? Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. I can barely pronounce it, let alone tell you how it works. Now, it makes sense to me that getting hit in the head over and over could cause lasting neurological damage, but I’m not a brain surgeon. The real reason I believe that CTE effects football players at a disproportionate rate, is because I trust in the integrity of the doctors who have dedicated their lives to understanding and treating people who are suffering from it.

I believe in the integrity of scientists and journalists and people like Bill McKibben, which you would think would put me on strong ground in, say, a debate about climate change. But it doesn’t. Because in our current environment, everything has become so politicized that the questions before us aren’t even about the questions themselves anymore. Whether we’re talking about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd or health care or whether it’s disrespectful to kneel during the national anthem, it’s not about the facts. It’s about whose side you’re on, and people are loath to break ranks with their tribe regardless of the evidence before them.

Facts are simply not going to change people’s minds anymore, which is so infuriating to me that I’d be happy to throw in the towel and give up on all efforts at trying to talk sense into the people I disagree with, were it not for the fact that the stakes are so high. In the interest of self -preservation, we simply can’t give up our fight for the environment or healthcare or immigrants, any more than we can give up our fight against nuclear warfare or racism. We can’t abandon these conversations. We can’t give up trying to find a bridge across the divide. And I think today’s reading can help.

It’s interesting that the big question in our scripture this morning is one of authority, because that’s one of the big questions behind our division as well. Who determines what is true or false? Who defines what is right or wrong?

This exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees takes place the day after Palm Sunday. You’ll remember that on that day, Jesus had marched into Jerusalem and made a mockery of the Romans with his little processional. He had overturned the tables of the money changers outside the temple and caused so much chaos that a whole lot of people who technically weren’t even allowed into the courtyard were able to sneak in. Children were running around crying out that Jesus, not Caesar, was their salvation. People who were sick and infirm and therefore ritually unclean managed to amble in as well. And Jesus welcomed them all. He spent the rest of the day teaching and healing all the wrong kind of people and this upset the scribes and Pharisees to no end. So when he shows up the next day ready to do more of the same they ask:

“By what authority are you doing these things…?”

And Jesus, never one to give a direct answer asks them a question instead.

“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

Now I know that sounds like the mother of all non-sequiturs, but hang in here with me and watch how this all plays out.

Notice that the Pharisees can’t answer his question. They are trapped, because if they say John’s baptism was from God, they’re not only going to get themselves in trouble with the powers that be who had executed John, they’d also call their whole institution into question. After all, the temple was the place where people were supposed to come and buy animals to sacrifice so their sins could be forgiven. But John had gone outside the system and offered people forgiveness out in the wilderness for free. Much more of that kind of behavior and the temple was going to be looking at a hefty budget deficit, if nothing else. So they really didn’t want to say that John’s baptism came from heaven.

But the people loved John and everyone knew how his ministry had transformed the lives of those who went out to him, including people who were thought to be so far gone that no one could save them. The Scribes and Pharisees don’t want to have anything to do with those kind of people and they don’t think God does either. But those are precisely the type of people Jesus persists in bringing into the fold, because Jesus knows that God is in the business of loving and saving all of us, not just some of us. They were supposed to be in the same business as God, but somewhere along the way they lost the thread.

So Jesus tells them the parable about the two sons as a way to remind them that it doesn’t matter how much we talk about the power of God’s love and forgiveness if we fail, at the end of the day, to go out in the world and extend that same love and forgiveness to others. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Listen guys. You need to open your minds and see that God is at work in the lives of people you’d just as soon avoid as surely as God is at work in you.”

Which probably didn’t sit that well with the Pharisees, and frankly doesn’t sit all that well with me either. Because just like them, there are plenty of people I want to avoid right now. I don’t want to waste my time talking with people who deny climate change or think football players who kneel are being disrespectful. I don’t want to hang with them or worship with them and I certainly don’t want to try and save them. I mean how can I? What’s the point if nothing I say can change their minds? I’d really be fine with giving up on them and just hanging out here and talking with people like you about how God loves everybody and leave it at that.

I’m just so sick of arguing.

But you know what else I see in this passage? Jesus didn’t argue… with anyone. He didn’t debate. He didn’t establish his right to do what he wanted to do by claiming scriptural authority or divine authority or any other kind of authority. Instead, he pointed to the results of his work and he let that work speak for itself. He pointed to the lives John had transformed by freely extending God’s love and forgiveness to all who came down to the river and then Jesus went back to doing his own work of welcoming, healing, and teaching all those who were willing to come to him.

He didn’t try to convince anyone of anything with his words. Instead, he let all the lives he and John had transformed for the better serve as their witness, their evidence, their authority.

And that makes me think: if facts aren’t going to persuade people, if people’s understanding of reality has less to do with the evidence before them and more to do with the people they relate to, then perhaps the most powerful thing we can do right now is keep working on our relationships.

If the President is bent on causing as much division as possible, and it certainly seems that he is, than the most revolutionary act we can commit is to keep humanizing rather than demonizing each other.

If we want to turn the tide of discord than the most counterculture things we can do is invite people with whom we disagree into our lives and let them see for themselves the good we do because of what we believe.

I sat next to one of my cousins at that Hall of Fame banquet I didn’t want to go to. I’m pretty sure she’s a Republican, though she might be a libertarian or an independent. I’m not really sure because I was committed to not talking about anything of substance with anyone at that dinner. But she saw a picture of me on Facebook standing with an undocumented man who is in danger of being deported and she wanted to know more about what I was up to. So I told her. And strangely enough, we didn’t argue about immigration policies neither one of us fully understands. I just told her the man’s story, a story I knew because I had shown up for him. She was saddened to hear how the administration’s efforts at reform are tearing this man’s family apart. And by the end of our talk, all she really wanted to know was what she could do to help.

Dear ones, we need all the help we can get right now. There is a lot of work that needs to be done out there and if we’re going to get it done we’re going to need to work together. And in order to find the strength to do that work we are invited to come here, to this banquet… a banquet that has been laid not just for some of us, but for all of us. We might not want to come here either, especially if it means breaking bread and sharing wine with people we don’t understand or agree with, but this is where it all begins. The beloved community isn’t just for some of us, the one’s who get it, the ones who like me because they are like me…but for every last one of us, whether we like each other or not.

You know, Jesus didn’t tell the Pharisees that the tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the kingdom instead of them. He just said “before” them. I think we’re all going to the same place. We’re all heading back to the God from which we came. So we might as well start working on getting along with each other now…and that starts here, around this table, in this church where we count Republicans and Democrats among our members, in this place where we have found a way to agreeably disagree about so many things because we know that what divides us – though important- is less than what unites us.

So may God grant us the grace to keep seeing the good in one another and the good we do for each other, because our lives are our strongest witness. Whether those lives transform the world around us for the good is all the authority we have and I pray all that we will need to do the healing work God is calling us to go out and do. Amen.