Proper 21 (26), Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
1 October 2023
Willy Brandt was a German politician and chancellor of West Germany. In 1970 he travelled to communist Poland on a state visit. He visited the Warsaw Ghetto where he fell to his knees at the memorial for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.1 On that same visit he signed a treaty that recognized the borders of Poland. Both of these things were controversial in West Germany at the time, falling to his knees was controversial because it was a gesture of humility and repentance, the recognition of the borders was controversial because it meant that any potential future re-unification of Germany would have to occur within the post-war borders of Germany and it thus meant the surrender of any territorial claims. And there were plenty of people living in Germany then who claimed today’s Western Poland as their ancestral home. Of course, it was Germany that had started the war.
Many years later, after German unification, when Brandt was the eldest member of the newly elected German parliament, he said – referring to the Berlin Wall – that the wall inside our heads can outlast any wall build of concrete.2 He was speaking about the stereotypes East and West had about each other which were a barrier to growing together as one nation.
The word about the wall in our heads rings true. Our minds can be much more static than the world around us. Ephesians two speaks of Jesus having broken down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles and united us in one body through the cross.
We know walls, not just the one in Berlin, but the ones in our head.
In our reading from Matthew we witness an encounter between Jesus and the religious establishment. The religious establishment feels threatened by Jesus, they do not believe that God can be present in ways not sanctioned by them. They are the gatekeepers and they want it to remain that way. They are rigid and inflexible, as evident by opposition to Jesus’ healings.3 Today’s encounter occurs near the end of Matthew’s Gospel and as Jesus comes closer to his death, the conflict comes more into the open. The establishment questions Jesus’ authority and they are not interested in the answer, their question is a trap. It is expression of their solidified minds, of the walls in their head. Of course, Jesus’ authority is the very thing that drew people to Jesus and it is the root of their envy.4
Jesus avoids their question by asking a question himself. His question also is about authority. He asks about John the Baptist. Then he tells a parable. At the conclusion of the parable Jesus addresses his opponents. He says, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
Their sin is not that they were wrong but that they choose to remain wrong, that they did not change their minds and believe. That the wall in their heads remained.
The parable of the Two Sons illustrates this point and Jesus opponents had said as much. Who did the will of his father? ‘The first one,’ they say.
He is the one who changed his mind.
If your faith is primarily constituted by rules and propositions, it is hard to discern the Holy Spirit. If entering new territory feels frightening, you will want to cling to a rigid structure. If you want to preserve power, you will want to maintain those walls, in your head and elsewhere.
And, as we said last Sunday, in a time of change the church is tempted to do two things, either to batten down the hatches or to go with the flow. Both of these options are easier than to listen for the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit.
On a Saturday afternoon many years ago I received a call from a family in distress. The call related to their daughter. If I could come over.
When I arrived at the house the daughter was not home. However, her parents and her brother were. This is a good family. They deeply love each other. The daughter is the younger child and was in second year university.
The parents were worried about her, and in their worry they had come upon pictures of their daughter with her girlfriend. They did not know their daughter’s friend was her girlfriend but now they knew. It was this discovery that at that moment had turned their world upside down.
The parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, part of a German diaspora community. And for a diaspora community to survive, it needs to hold on to its language, culture, and faith as it is handed down to it, for if it does not, it will assimilate. There is enormous strength in any community able to do that. At the same time, these communities are necessarily tight, and if you deviate from accepted norms you cease to be part of the community. This is because culture, language, and religion form such a community’s identity, and preserving culture, language, and religion are essential to the community’s survival.
I could not change any of the facts. As their universe had collapsed, it was not the time to speak about when it is no longer appropriate seek to control one’s child, or about the fact that any attempt to do so will drive a child that is seeking independence away from you and thus diminish any potential influence the trust of your child may afford you.
I listened and I felt their pain, and I prayed with them.
A number of years later the daughter married her partner, a year or so after that the family reconciled. I bumped into the mother sometime after that. I said that I remembered the visit at their house and that I had held them in my prayers, but that I was wondering whether there was anything I had said that had proved to be helpful. I did not think that I had. The mother answered, “You said to me, ‘She will always be your daughter.’”
I am telling this story not as a statement about sexual orientation. We have had that conversation many years ago. I am telling this as a story about reconciliation. Reconciliation became possible because the family had come to the place where they had learned to navigate what they had learned about life in the German diaspora of the Soviet Union on the one hand, and the world in which they and their children now lived on the other hand. They had come to realize that their relationship with their daughter was more important than rigid adherence to certain convictions. In fact, loving their daughter unconditionally was part of their convictions but had been buried by a strict moral code, you may say by the wall in our heads. Perhaps they continued to hold on to this moral code, at least for a time, but regardless, they realized that they could not live without their daughter, and they had learned that their moral code was not going to change their daughter, but only cut them off from her.
It is difficult to change one’s mind, and the more we’ve dug ourselves in, and the more bridges we have broken, the harder it becomes for us to reach beyond ourselves. It turns out that the problem with Jesus’ opponents was not that they were too virtuous, or too observant in their faith, the problem was that their faith had been reduced to a structure that served to keep them safe from changes and to maintain their power.
Many years ago, the youngest member of a church I served said to me that everything in the world was changing and therefore he did not want to see the church change. That is understandable, even though I was surprised. Yet the longer one maintains such rigidity, the greater the chance to lose any connection between what we do here and what happens in the rest of our lives. And we are not talking about worship bands.
The congregation I grew up in entrusted me with many gifts, but it also sailed pretty close to biblical literalism. It was after I had moved away that I learned that we do not believe in the Bible but that we believe in God, and that being able to tell the difference is important. The Bible is witness to God’s self-revelation in Jesus but it is not God. Knowing this did not destroy my faith, or my loyalty to God. Rather, it freed me to plumb the depth of God’s love and truth. And it did not mean that everything was up for grabs.
Changing one’s mind requires a commitment to one another, a commitment to community. It requires us to say that we want to be part of this community even when it is difficult. It is an emptying of ourselves, following the example of Christ Jesus. And when that happens, we place the community above our personal comfort. That is the moment we may begin to take others as seriously as we take ourselves. It is the moment the wall is taken down, the moment isolation is broken, and we can meet God in the world. It is the moment God is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:13)
3 Cf Matthew 12:9ff
4 Cf Matthew 7:29; 9:6