Revised Common Lectionary: Exodus 17:1-7; Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-9; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Matthew 21:23-32; Philippians 2:1-13

Last week, we entered the wilderness of the Exodus story, where the people have begun to complain, to reminisce about being back in Egypt (even though they were slaves) and Moses and Aaron and Miriam have their hands full. Last week it was hunger; this week it is thirst. They complain against Moses that they have no water, that Moses purposefully brought them into the desert so that they and their children would die. Sound familiar? Any leader, any political official, faces irrational criticism such as Moses faced, and it always seems to come after the heroics, the triumph, the elation has died down. Moses turns to God: “What shall I do with these people?” God tells Moses to take some of the elders, go ahead of the people, and strike the rock at Horeb with the same staff that he used to strike the Nile.

The same staff was used, the staff that God used to deliver the people from Egypt would also give them water. As we will learn in the future in Numbers 20, when Moses follows what God has called him to do, the people remember it is God they truly serve and follow, not Moses. But Moses, in his anger in Numbers 20, strikes the rock without God telling him to strike it (God told him to command water to come out, not strike it). The lesson is that it is God that delivers, not Moses, not our leaders. Our leaders will have good and bad days, but often it is the people who overreact, who judge, who complain–but when we remember that we need to trust God, we recognize our own responsibility for the situations we are in, our own call to action and our own responsibility to each other as a community.

The prophet Ezekiel is similar to Jeremiah in that both of them represent a change in theological thought: no longer should the people believe that the hardships of the child are the result of the sins of the parents. Now, we know from reading the Gospels that this thought lives on beyond Jeremiah and Ezekiel; I would argue it lives on today, when we punish children for their parents’ mistakes or problems, such as disallowing health care coverage for children whose parents can’t afford it, or cutting off children from welfare, as recently several states have limited children’s ability to be part of welfare programs to 4 years (I cannot remember if it was Minnesota or Wisconsin that recently voted that). Ezekiel says this way of thinking is no more: “Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die” (vs. 4). In other words, we are all responsible for our own actions. Ezekiel and Jeremiah both stress a personal responsibility to God and to others in the community, that we all have to do our part in following the way of God and we cannot blame a leader or group of people when our own actions convict us of falling short.

Psalm 25 stresses a personal responsibility in following God’s ways “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths” (vs. 4). Psalm 78 recalls the story of God bringing forth water in the desert–and the psalmist makes it clear it is God, not Moses, that is the provider and the deliverer.

Matthew 21:23-32 occurs after Jesus has entered Jerusalem and has turned the tables in the temple of the moneychangers. The chief priests, as one might imagine, don’t really like what Jesus has been doing and they begin to question his authority. Jesus turns the question of authority back on the priests, questioning what authority John the Baptist had. The people loved John the Baptist, a victim of the Herodian rule. The priests were more concerned with their public image than they were with consistency (a problem among certain fundamentalists of any faith to this day) and rather than get the crowds angry with them over their disbelief of John, they couldn’t answer the question, so Jesus refused to answer their question.

Jesus then goes on to tell a parable of two sons as an illustration of how the priests vs. the people have behaved. The son who changes his mind and follows his father’s instructions is more faithful than the one who claims to have followed the father’s instructions but doesn’t. Jesus is clear that the hypocrisy of the priests is their ruin and they refuse to believe. A professor in seminary once told me that more than anything, Jesus spoke out against religious hypocrisy. Jesus was concerned with the poor and the widows, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, people who had been left out on the margins of society, and the priests who were supposed to be serving God were serving only themselves.

Philippians 2 counters the actions of the priests in Matthew by imitating Christ’s humility. Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, comes to earth fully human, broken and dies on a cross. You can’t get much more humble than that. In comparison to the priests who were too good for the poor and the prostitutes, Jesus ate among them and included them as part of his family–his brothers and sisters and mothers.

When we look at the Old Testament and New Testament passages together, we see a theme of both personal responsibility for our own actions and a responsibility to trust in God. We see a theme of hypocrisy, whether it be the people who forgot how God delivered them from slavery and instead complained about having no food or no water and blaming Moses, or the people of Ezekiel’s day who blamed the children for their parent’s mistakes, or the priests of Jesus’ day who turned their backs on the marginalized and were concerned about their own image in public. We are responsible for our beliefs, how they are enacted and how they affect others. James reminds us in 1:27 that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” We have a responsibility to God for our own actions and way of life, and a responsibility to each other to care for the lost and least. If we do any less, we are hypocrites.

Call to Worship:
Leader: Turn away from sin, turn away from despair;
People: Turn away from the ways of the world, and come to Jesus.
Leader: Turn away from selfish ambition and conceit;
People: Turn away from the ways of the world, and come to Jesus.
Leader: Turn to the poor, the homeless, the downtrodden;
People: Turn to the good news of the Gospel of Love.
Leader: Turn to the outcast, the marginalized, the imprisoned;
People: Turn to the good news of the Gospel of Love.
Leader: Turn away from the ways of the world;
People: Turn away, and embrace The Way of Christ.

Prayer of Confession:
God of the Covenant, we confess to You that we have forgotten the Covenant of love. We have failed to love our neighbors as ourselves. We have put our own interests first. We have not wanted to be seen with the homeless or the addict, we have not wanted to be associated with the immigrant or the welfare family. Forgive us, O God, for not remebering the covenant and putting ourselves above You and Your ways, and Your people. Forgive us, O God, for failing to see our brothers and sisters in the world. Forgive us when we are the hypocrites that Jesus cried out against. Forgive us, turn us back to Your ways, and teach us how we might live. In the name of Jesus our Savior we pray. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon:
The New Covenant is written in our hearts and can never be broken or taken away. We are God’s Beloved, and we turn back to God’s ways of hope, healing and justice. We are called to live into this New Covenant in the world. Let us share the Good News. Amen.

Gracious and loving God, we come to You this morning desiring a change in our lives. We want to turn deeper into Your ways. We want to walk more fully in Your path. Turn us away from the distractions of the world to remember our part in Your family, to bring healing and hope, love and forgiveness. Help us to be mindful of Your ways in our daily lives, so that we might not forget the lost and least among us. Call us to Your paths of right-living so that we might take part in Your covenant with the world. In the name of Christ, who journeys with us now and forever, we pray. Amen.

Music suggestions:
“Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” would fit the theme of the day very well, as would a hymn I’ve mentioned a few times lately “Let Your Heart Be Broken For A World In Need.” Music on the theme of social justice or personal responsibility with Christ would be appropriate.

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