I’m an avid fan of the show Seinfeld. The inside joke, of course shared with all of us, is that Seinfeld is a show about nothing. Actually, it’s a show about everything! I always seem to find a Seinfeld illustration in almost every human situation. The one I want to share with you today I think speaks to our gospel lesson from Matthew where Jesus turns the tables on his inquisitors. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Where do they point a finger without getting into a bit of trouble for their effort?
So, let me set up the scene for you. In this episode of Seinfeld, Kramer has left New York and headed to California. He’s decided he wants to act and so he auditions everywhere for everything. At one audition, he meets an attractive blond; they connect and shortly after, the girl is found dead. “On her person” the detectives assigned to the case find a “head shot”…Hollywood lingo for photo…of Kramer. So, now they believe they have a suspect for the murder and start tracking down the lead. The local news channel picks up the story, shows the viewing audience the photo of Kramer, which is seen by Jerry and George. They too are in California trying to find their friend Kramer. They see the newscast and immediately decide they need to alert the police to the fact that their friend Kramer isn’t capable of murder or at least, they think he isn’t capable. In this scene, they try and find a phone booth so they can call the police. Let’s watch. [Show clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X11gC_IHJQk ]
So, what does this have to do with our morning’s gospel reading? Just prior to this reading, Matthew records the scene in the temple. Jesus comes into town, goes straight to the sacred temple and angrily flips the tables of the greedy money changers. Now having entered the temple a second time, Jesus is confronted by the alarmed and indignant religious authority…the chief priests and elders. This isn’t a private scene. The townsfolk are around; they are listening and watching. For them, this is a showdown between those who have claimed authority as God’s chosen representatives and Jesus, this outrageous interloper. When asked by what authority Jesus did what he did in the temple, Jesus flips the tables again but this time figuratively, tossing the question back at them. By whose authority did John the Baptist offer his redemptive anointing of water…by heaven’s or through human authority?
It’s a brilliant strategy, which redirects the pointing finger back on to the chief priests and elders. The accusers become the accused. Wanting to put Jesus on the spot; they find it is they who are on the spot. How can they answer without incurring the wrath of the common people who admire and respect John and his authority to baptize?
Life and its circumstances never seem as straight up and simple as we might hope. And given the option to accept our responsibility or to lay blame elsewhere, we may find we are, at least, tempted to slide past and let the other guy take the hit.
Jesus because he was human fully understood this very natural tendency. He played the blame card with the authorities so they couldn’t easily display their self-proclaimed authority without facing up to their own uncertainties before God. Just like Jerry and George, faced with the authority of the police, neither wanted to fess up to who made the call and who now would have to explain why the call was made in the first place. Truth, God’s truth isn’t always the easiest to lay claim to especially when our own sense of self protection and place, status, and rights shadow our belief in a higher power. Charles Campbell, Homiletics Professor at Duke University School of Theology puts it this way: “They [that is, the temple religious authorities] are not primarily interested in Jesus’ true identity or in discovering how God would have them respond to Jesus. Rather, they are concerned about maintaining their own privilege and power. They are concerned with keeping the current order intact…”[i]
This might ring true for us too. It’s difficult to imagine we might be holding a bit too tightly to past practices and resting comfortably in the kind of sameness that doesn’t seek out change or embrace newness. We shut down the creative energy of the Holy Spirit because it might make us think, act or respond differently than we do now.
At a recent meeting, I heard someone loudly proclaim, “I hate change.” Well, you know, at times, so do I. At that same meeting, I confessed to this flaw in my personality and leadership style. I hear a new idea and rather than immediately see the possibilities I tend to make a quick mental list of all the reasons it can’t work. Now, fortunately, God doesn’t let me stay there. Before very long, I’m revising my list and changing the problems into hopeful and exciting possibilities and that’s fine, but why can’t I go there first?
I have to agree with Campbell again when he says: “As the chief priests and elders in this Sunday’s lection discover, conversations with Jesus are dangerous. The world rarely remains the same at the end of the conversation. The twists and turns and challenges and interruptions come so fast that we are left with our heads spinning and our lives on the line; we end up both confounded and claimed, all at the same time. It is like trying to engage with a jester who is always ‘melting the solidity of the world,’ disrupting all the things that are ‘written in stone,’ so that people, particularly the powerful, may see and live in the world in new ways.[ii]
Yes! That’s what we are called to do…to live in the world in new ways. As Christians, people of faith, this is our new DNA. When we say, ‘Yes Lord, I will follow’ we are called to embrace the new and to let go of the old. The symbolic cleansing of John’s baptism in the river Jordan followed by the cleansing act of redemption on the cross brings us in line with God’s plan and hope. We now have the freedom to let go and let God. When our world doesn’t seem to make much sense, when we don’t really know where we are or how to get where we’re going, there is room for grace. God points the way; God sent us Jesus to walk with us; and God continues to nurture us through the Holy Spirit. Gratefully we worship a God who welcomes sinners and prostitutes, the Jerry’s, Kramer’s, and Georges of the world. God welcomes even the temple priests and elders when they open their hearts and live into the plan God has for them. And, yes, thank God, God welcomes us to with all our issues, flaws and fears opening a way for us to move into a life of hope rather than run from it. What a gift! Amen.
[i] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, Homiletical Perspective, 119.
[ii] Ibid., 118-119.