Sermon Seeds: Everyone’s a Critic

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 21)


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

Worship resources for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost Year A, 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 21) are at Worship Ways

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Living psalms are here, scroll down:

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Exodus 17:1-7
Additional reflection on Exodus 17:1-7 by Mark J. Suriano
Additional reflection on Philippians 2:1-13 by Kathryn Matthews
Additional reflection on Matthew 21:23-32 by Mark J. Suriano

Focus Theme:
Everyone’s a Critic

by Kathryn Matthews

Bread and water: the basics of life…and in the wilderness, it’s hard to find either one. In last week’s reading from Exodus, when the people of Israel were suffering from hunger and perhaps a touch of sunstroke, they complained to Moses for bringing them out to the wilderness just to die there. If you’re hungry and hot enough, even slavery in Egypt starts to look not so bad, if only for the security, however terrible, it provided.

And God responded to the cry of the people, just as God had heard their groaning in Egypt, which, of course, is why they found themselves out there in the desert, hungry and unhappy–very unhappy. In response, God, faithful and compassionate, gave them bread from heaven, manna to feed them throughout their time of wandering.

Help for Moses and the people

The hunger story is followed immediately by this one about thirst, in the same wilderness, during the same wandering, and it goes very much the same way. When the people complain about having no water, they again question Moses’ leadership for bringing them out to die in the wilderness.

And once again, Moses goes to God and asks for help, but this time there’s a touch of fear as well as a note of frustration in his conversation with God. The great leader senses that he has more than a cranky, thirsty congregation on his hands. It’s potentially an angry, dangerous mob that could rise up and stone him to death.

In providing water, God is saving Moses’ life as much as meeting the needs of the people. We notice that God doesn’t seem to get angry or impatient with this thirsty people, perhaps because water is a reasonable request from people in the middle of a hot desert.

A time of learning and seasoning

However, the Israelites are also in another kind of wilderness, finding their way not just to a Promised Land of milk and honey, but to a new way of living once they receive the Torah on Mount Sinai. “God,” Gary Anderson writes, “is naturally more willing to be lenient toward Israel prior to her moral education in the ways of the Lord” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

This wilderness experience, then, is a time of learning, of seasoning, a time of preparation for what’s ahead, up on that mountain and long afterward. Could it be that God is testing the people, teaching them to live their lives in trust?

What does complaining say about one’s faith?

Much commentary on this text focuses on the complaint of the people: What was really going on when they grumbled and questioned Moses’ leadership? What does it say about them, about their faith, and even about God? In his Theology of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann says that when the people complain, they’re hoping to “mobilize Yahweh to be Yahweh’s best, true self,” because they have a “deep confidence that the God of the core testimony…can prevent and overcome such intolerable life experiences.”

In a sense, then, even complaining to God in frustration and fear expresses some kind of faith, a kind of hope grounded in what one trusts to be true about God, even if one feels a need to remind God about it.

Who’s doing the testing here?

That’s one way to read it. But it’s also possible that the Israelites were the ones doing the testing: “If you really are God, you would….” Or, “If you really loved us, you would….” Gerald Janzen draws our attention to a simple phrase in the first verse, about the people journeying “by stages” through the wilderness, questioning and grumbling about God, as well as their leader, Moses.

Delivering one kind of “ultimatum” after another, they set themselves up as the ones who could judge whether or not God was with them, and whether God was doing what God was supposed to do. Janzen wonders, “[I]f we are the ones to decide what shall count as evidence of God’s good presence and activity among us, does this not make us like God in respect to ‘knowing good and evil’?” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion).

We already know how well that worked out the first time humans tried for such knowledge (see Genesis 3).

When do we notice God at work?

However, a second problem arises for Janzen, for the people seem to focus on God’s need to act when there’s no water, but when it was plentiful in the past, they took it for granted. “Which experiences,” Janzen asks, “the negative or the positive, shall we take as the most reliable evidence concerning God in the world and in our lives?” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion).

In fact, in Exodus 15:27, just before the manna story, the Israelites spent time in “Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they camped there by the water.” The spare narrative about that comfortable part of the journey doesn’t mention any conversation about God’s care or Moses’ leadership when things were going well.

Do we focus on the hard times only?

We also note that the lectionary and most of our Bible study time don’t focus on the nice, comfortable time, either. Perhaps the lessons are in the difficult time, or have we not exercised our gratitude and humility enough?

(I’m reminded of the conversation I watched last night, between two well-known “women in comedy,” who were reminding each other–and us– of “parties, visiting, movies, hugging”: the many things we are missing because of the pandemic, the good times we took for granted.)

Sustained by the future

Janzen draws a parallel between the doubts of the people at Rephidim, and our own doubts at different points in our lives, when things get tough. In response, he calls us to remember “oasis points in our past,” when we had everything we needed and it was easy to say that God is good, but also to count on a future that draws us forward, and “give[s] us a foretaste of what lies ahead.”

It’s hard to imagine that the people had any idea of what lay just ahead, up on that mountain, and how it would shape their lives, but Janzen says that when water gushes from that rock at the base of Horeb (another name for Sinai, where they would receive the Torah), “sustaining water comes not from where they are but from where they are headed for” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion).

What would it look like to be sustained by the future more than by what is right before us in the present, or by what we’ve received from our ancestors before us?

Signs of God’s authority

As in the manna story, God acts here through God’s special agent (as God acts through us, today) to meet human need. A curious note is “struck” by Moses’ staff, the one, scholars remind us, that he used to turn the Nile to blood (the filmmakers had so much to work with when they made “The Ten Commandments”: how much more vivid could those “special effects” have been?).

Remember back in Chapter 4, verse 2, when God asked Moses what he had in his hand, and Moses responded, “A staff”? We might wonder if God used the staff, changing it into a snake and back again, to bolster Moses’ confidence in himself as well as his faith in God. That staff would help to convince the people of both Israel and Egypt that this Moses was to be taken seriously.

Several scholars see in the staff a sign of God’s own authority and power; Brueggemann says its purpose this time is “a life-giving wonder for Israel,” but the main point here, as always, is really about God’s own presence and power to deliver the people: “The staff, the rock, the courage of Moses, the witness of the elders, and the guarantee of Yahweh all converge,” he observes (Exodus, New Interpreter’s Bible).

Bringing death as well as life

Beautiful. But we still remember that this staff can bring death as well as life: the Nile River turned into blood, and the Red Sea drowning the Egyptians, while the Israelites crossed the Red Sea safely under Moses’ staff. James Newsome says that God’s life-or-death power is symbolized in that simple walking stick: “The same Yahweh who can banish water from the Nile can produce water from a barren rock” (Texts for Preaching Year A).

We might reflect more deeply on several themes in this reading: first, there’s the wilderness, a powerful symbol, like Moses’ staff, capable of being experienced in more than one way. Throughout the story of the people of faith (right down to today), the “wilderness” can be a lovely (in a rugged and stark way), pristine, holy place where you can draw closer to God, or it can be a lonely, threatening place, symbolizing despair and abandonment.

Times of desolate reflection

Think of the desert fathers or monks in monasteries away from “the world,” think of Jesus preparing for ministry and being tempted by the devil, think of the early settlers in the United States who saw the land not only as theirs (despite the presence of those who had been there for a very long time) but as a place to build an entirely new and holy civilization.

Perhaps as an illustration of the hope and desolation of the wilderness, Gary Anderson reminds us that Israel later would send the scapegoat bearing its sins off into the desert where it would die. As “a spot of uncleanness and death…the wilderness was a natural location for Israel to rise up in rebellion against her Creator” (The Lectionary Commentary: The OT and Acts).

Wilderness memories

If the wilderness itself embodies two very different meanings, the memory of Israel is also starkly divided about its time there. On the one hand, there’s the memory of grumbling, complaining, and unfaithfulness, but it’s also true, Gene Tucker writes, that the people looked back on their time there under “God’s gracious and miraculous care” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

While manna is remembered to this day as God’s gracious response to human need, the water incident is recalled in terms of the grumbling rather than the gift, verse 7 tells us, in the names Moses gives the place, Massah and Meribah.

Grumbling and want

In that wilderness and that want, and in that grumbling, Walter Brueggemann finds a compelling illustration of the way humans and God relate, not in high theological claims but in deep human need, the reality of basic physical human needs, where we are all most vulnerable, those situations that prompt what Brueggemann calls “the God Question concerning the one who ‘leads us beside still waters.'”

In his beautiful sermon on this text, “The Big Yes,” he observes that the Bible understands God as sometimes present, and sometimes absent. That’s what the Israelites were experiencing out there in the desert: the part of the story when it feels like God is absent. (This sermon is found in the wonderful collection, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann.)

What person crushed by depression or deep mourning or pressing need hasn’t asked, “Where is God now?” Such a person doesn’t want to hear church talk or complex theology. While Brueggemann calls the Israelites “exceedingly practical” in their expectations (“Don’t talk of water, show me”), a person in such great need today would undoubtedly say the same thing.

The answer is “yes”

Most importantly, and perhaps most astonishingly, the answer to “Israel’s deep question” (that God Question) comes back as “Yes,” Brueggemann says, and just as important as the “what” is the “how” of God’s care: “Like blood from a turnip, like a purse from the ear of a sow, water from rock, food from hunger, life from death, joy from sorrow, Yes from No, well-being from anxiety” (Inscribing the Text).

The story, then, about “God’s Big Yes” is not only about something that happened long ago and far away: it is about us, too, our own wilderness, our own needs, our own questions, and our own prayers. If Brueggemann is right (and I believe he is) that this story is about “being dazzled beyond every expectation,” we too should expect to be dazzled.

Long living in fear

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the anniversary of which we recently marked by solemn ceremonies, heightened the anxiety we all had become accustomed to, living through a Cold War but also subjected to the fear-mongering of all the powers seeking to profit from our anxiety or to extract our agreement to decisions we might never otherwise support (curtaining our personal freedoms, spending money on armaments while cutting veterans benefits, health care programs or support to foodbanks).

While human needs are devalued (with talk of cuts to, or even eliminating, Social Security and aid to the poor), the powers that be continue to support massive increases in military spending that already far exceeds that of other nations, or to propose even more dramatic tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the rich.

Relentless bad news

Now we are jarred, or perhaps we are numb, by the deluge of bad news each day. While our troubles did not start in 2020 (far from it), it has “become a meme,” if not a joke, about 2020 being relentlessly full of terrible news.

The Covid-19 pandemic rages (far worse in the United States than in the rest of the world), the economy is gutted for many if not all, a long-overdue racial reckoning has emerged as cellphone videos finally awaken the conscience of a critical mass of Americans, and the costs of climate change fall most dramatically on western states engulfed by raging wildfires and southern states facing one powerful hurricane after another.

Doomsday predictors are busy, and we do not know what to do with our fear. Many of us wish that God would deliver us from the consequences of our own actions and neglect and willfulness, or at least from the terrors we cannot blame on anyone, including ourselves.

Fear and violence all around

And that’s where Brueggemann takes his sermon and writings on this text: to us, today, and our own “long season of fear, anxiety, and violence.” The thought strikes me that this phrase seems to work every time this text comes along in the lectionary cycle, alas: we seem mired in one “long season of fear, anxiety, and violence,” all around the world, but close to home as well.

Just yesterday, a few blocks from my neighborhood, an elderly man shot and killed his neighbor’s friend over an argument about his dogs. The women were walking up the driveway, returning from grocery shopping, and he shot one of them four times. The police had been called the day before over his threats, but nothing happened.

The proliferation of guns in our society (for which we also stand out, in lamentable distinction among nations) is yielding a poisoned political season as well, with multiple news stories of advisors and functionaries calling for armed rebellion if they don’t like the results of the election. A long season of fear, anxiety and violence, indeed.

Dealing with God questions

In our fear of elusive terrorists hiding in vast mountain wildernesses, comfortable villas next to military camps, or right next door, and in our anxiety about scarcity and our inevitable confrontation with our limitations, Brueggemann describes us vividly as right back out there in the wilderness, dealing with those “God Questions”–about whether we can “trust God in the thin places where there are no other resources for life.”

(This is a different way of seeing “thin places” than the Celtic spirituality approach, where God seems especially near. Or perhaps not; perhaps when supplies and hope seem thin, God is even nearer.)

Water as metaphor for need

Water is quite literally a challenge in the world today, but it’s also a metaphor for all of our needs–and, we must admit, our wants as well. While we’re being forced to come to grips with “a new awareness” of our limited resources (limited perhaps because of our wasteful and destructive ways), we have turned to the wrong things to meet our reasonable needs as well as the unreasonable ones.

Walter Brueggemann describes these things as “mirages that look like remembered water, but are not really water that can quench” (Inscribing the Text).

What satisfies our needs?

In his commentary on the Book of Exodus, Brueggemann constructs a powerful analogy between these stories in the Bible and the way our television commercials typically work. In the biblical narrative of faith, there’s a problem presented, a need voiced, and then God provides a happy resolution.

However, in the world of television (the world we live in way too much), the solution comes not from God but from “the product” they want us to buy: “The problem may be loneliness, stress, or bad odor. When the ‘product’ is used, life is powerfully transformed to one of companionship, calmness, popularity, peace, joy, and well-being.”

The trouble is that it just isn’t true, Brueggemann says. Whatever the products deliver, they can’t provide what a faithful God provides, our lives “moved from hunger to fullness, from thirst to water, from blindness to sight, from leprosy to cleanness, from poverty to well-being, and in the end, from death to life.” We can turn only to God, Brueggemann says: “There are no other miracle workers” (Exodus, The New Interpreter’s Bible). Indeed.


The Reverend Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, 20th century
“Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”

William Langewiesche, 20th century
“So much of who we are is where we have been.”
“You should not see the desert simply as some faraway place of little rain. There are many forms of thirst.”

Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces, 21st century
“To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness–especially in the wilderness–you shall love [God].”

Francis of Assisi, 12th century mystic
“Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.”

Catherine of Siena, 14th century
“Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring.”

Annie Dillard, 21st century
“I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.”
“I alternate between thinking of the planet as home–dear and familiar stone hearth and garden–and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners.”

Additional reflection on Exodus 17:1-7:
by Mark J. Suriano

This passage can also be seen as a study on the authority question but from a very different perspective. The Hebrews have been enslaved since “a pharaoh who knew not Joseph” (Ex. 1:8) came to power. Disconnected from Joseph’s relationship to Egypt, the new pharaoh and those who followed him enslaved the Hebrews, pressing them into hard service in the building of the city. Life became hard and these formerly free people relied on the benevolence of a capricious god-emperor for their lives and their livelihood.

In short, the exercise of the authority of Pharaoh shaped how the Hebrews understood themselves. They began to see themselves as slaves even as they groaned under the weight of their oppression. In modern times we would recognize this as a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome,” where the oppressed begin to identify with the oppressors, relying on them for everything. No longer are they called slaves by another, they have become slaves in their minds and hearts.

Still acting like slaves

In several places in the Book of Exodus, these Hebrews–no longer called slaves–are still acting as slaves longing “for the fleshpots of Egypt” (Ex. 16:3) and complaining against Moses and Yahweh. The circumstances of their liberation were a comfort as long as it was obvious that Yahweh had their backs–literally–as they crossed the Red Sea, but now, in the waste places, they are pining for the security they had under Pharaoh in Egypt!

In our passage we hear an earlier grumbling about the need for water. Unable to completely trust either Yahweh or Moses, the people complain about the lack of water and are frightful of dying in the desert. A weary Moses, in fear of being stoned to death, complains to Yahweh who responds by instructing him to strike a rock so that water would come forth.

We have read this passage so many times that it is easy to forget that both Moses and the Hebrews are still figuring out this Yahweh character. When I read this passage I want to stop here and imagine Moses cocking his head, forming a silent thought along the lines of “Really? A rock? That’s all you’ve got?”

Rocks and stones

But this is a passage about the ability of Moses, who was in fear of being stoned to death by rocks, and the Hebrews who have undoubtedly spent nights with rocks as pillows and stubbed their toes on them during the days, to trust their new god Yahweh. What better way to encourage trust than to transform the very rock into springs of water?

What better reassurance than to know that Yahweh would not only lead them but also provide for them, hear them in their need right where they are, and use the very stuff of the desert to do so?

It will take the Hebrews and Moses several generations to unlearn the lessons of slavery and to see themselves no longer as slaves but as Yahweh’s chosen people. It takes them that long to transfer authority from a Pharaoh who treated them harshly and made a desert for them out of abundance (remember the story of Joseph?) to Yahweh who would lead them through a desert so that they can live in a land flowing with milk and honey.

From slavery to freedom

One of the arcs in the biblical story is that of slavery to freedom. It shapes a large part of the Old Testament narrative and is picked up by Jesus in miraculous ways as he liberates people from various self-defining enslavements. It is also a constant rhythm underneath the confrontations with power–Roman and religious–that occur throughout the Gospels.

What authority holds sway over our lives? Better yet, what authority do we give our lives over to? Have we become so comfortable by our fleshpots that we cannot see liberation when it comes for us as much as for others?

An internal journey as well

If the journey of the Hebrews was as much an internal one as an external one, is there ever a need for us to engage in the fearful act of self-reflection leading to our own liberation as well as promoting the liberation of others?

The word metanoia carries the connotation of change of heart and “doing a 180”; what kind of desert journey are we on wherein Yahweh will bring forth water from the very stones of our wandering teaching us that we are still being led to a land of milk and honey?


The Rev. Mark J. Suriano serves as Pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Park Ridge, New Jersey.

Additional reflection on Philippians 2:1-13:
by Kathryn Matthews

“That they may all be one”: the United Church of Christ holds before us the words, the prayer, of Jesus who longed for the unity of those who were his followers, and Paul, long ago, shared this same vision. In his letter from prison to the church at Philippi, he preaches a beautiful sermon on how they should live out their unity in Christ and with Christ, who emptied himself rather than elevating and promoting himself above others.

Such a model of humility may seem counter to our culture, and we might experience a kind of theological whiplash when we go from our everyday pursuits and immersion in this culture to hearing the words of Paul and contemplating the example of Jesus.

Paul’s words are indeed a kind of contemplation on Jesus, who embodied the paradox of surrender that leads not only to resurrection but exaltation. And yet, much of modern Christian faith life seems to strive toward skipping over the surrender and holding on to the exaltation.

Consolation and compassion

As you look around your church and your community, who are the quiet ones who “empty” themselves rather than grasping at high places or recognition for what they are doing? Where, in the life of your congregation, are the places of “consolation from love,” of “compassion and sympathy”?

When are the moments and times of “sharing the Spirit” and “encouragement in Christ”? What does it look like in your congregation to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”?

Fear and trembling

If God is the one who saves us and we cannot earn that salvation, it’s no wonder that “fear and trembling” are part of our life of faith, and yet we find many ways to deny or suppress that experience. What do those words mean to you?

In our culture, our work is supposed to lead to success and rewards. If we read the right do-it-yourself and self-help books and practice the right number of “habits” (however many they are), we’re supposed to be able to get things right and achieve what we want to achieve, even our peace of mind and, it would seem, the salvation of our souls.

God at work in us

Such confidence in our own abilities is not the message of this passage or the model of Jesus, for “it is God who is at work in you.” It is God who works on us and in us and through us, and in doing so, effects the salvation of the world.

We play a role, but it is God who is at work. What is the Stillspeaking God doing in the life of your church, and in what ways are you all working out your own salvation with fear and trembling, together?

For further reflection:

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“A great man is always willing to be little.”

J.M. Barrie, The Little Minister, 19th century
“Life is a long lesson in humility.”

H. Jackson Brown Jr., 20th century
“Every person that you meet knows something you don’t; learn from them.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Wild Years, 20th century
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, 20th century
“In a very real sense not one of us is qualified, but it seems that God continually chooses the most unqualified to do his work, to bear his glory. If we are qualified, we tend to think that we have done the job ourselves. If we are forced to accept our evident lack of qualification, then there’s no danger that we will confuse God’s work with our own, or God’s glory with our own.”

Reflection on Matthew 21:23-32:
by Mark J. Suriano

In her book, The Great Emergence, historical theologian Phyllis Tickle studies the shifts in westernized Christianity that have taken place every five hundred years or so–each of these shifts leading to the reexamining of the core question, “Wherein now lies our authority?” She and others consider our current age to be one of these times where the shifts in Christianity are being reshaped through engagement with that core question.

It seems we are in good company with Jesus in today’s gospel. The story takes place just after the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree, both challenging the current religious authority and opening the door to the dialogue we find in verses 23-32. The authorities here react in a way any religious authority–including us–would react given the circumstances, by challenging the question, and the questioner.

How do we interpret God’s authority?

It is important to note that both Jesus and his challengers understand God as the ultimate authority; the question posed has to do with the legitimacy of the earthly means of interpreting that authority and ultimately what the effect of all that is on the people whom God has created.

As Kathryn D. Blanchard notes, “The chief priests’ first question, ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ (v. 23), is reasonable enough. Their own authority in Israel, after all, had been given to them by God in the time of Moses and passed down through generations” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4).

Jesus’ questioning of them, shaped by the actions that precede this section and the parable that forms its conclusion, come as a challenge to that traditionally held authority.

Rabbis in conversation

The dialogue between Jesus and the chief priests and elders follows a typical rabbinic style, questions met with questions, that is intended to invite the readers, or initially the hearers, into their own consideration of an answer. It presents a conundrum for the chief priests and elders who did not recognize John the Baptist and for whom a “yes” or “no” answer each have serious consequences.

They are being challenged by an unanswerable question to confront the fact that they have “refused to recognize messages and people sent by God.” (For more, read Lewis R. Donelson’s exegesis in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4).

A new authority

The final part of the reading, the parable of the Two Sons, is a metaphorical tale with a moral. Those same leaders are put in the place of providing an answer that undermines their own authority and implicitly recognizes the establishment of a new one.

The two groups are not so much representative of the “haves” and “have nots” as they are of the fact that the chief priest and elders have lost touch with both God and the people while those whom they have identified as outsiders are the very ones who are speaking and living the truth.

We continue the dialogue today

What has this to do with us? As noted above, according to Tickle we are living in the same dialogue; we are in a time when within our churches and across much of the Christian world we are being challenged with the question of authority. This is not a question of denominational structures, or local church structures for that matter, but a question of where we can best hear of, be embraced by, be liberated with, and be responsible to the God who created, redeemed and sanctified us.

We may miss the challenge of this passage if we simply interpret it as a call to go out to the highways and byways to find the “outsiders” of our day (as right as that is to do!) and fail to see its challenge to us as individuals and communities of faith.

How are we like the second son?

Shane Hipps in his excellent book, Selling Water by the River, has a wonderful quote that captures some of what is going on in this passage: “Some, in an effort to protect and preserve the gospel message, have become like the guards in a museum, fueled by fear that its treasures could be damaged or stolen if they are not vigilant in their watch. They have mistaken the good news for an ancient artifact that needs to be protected. But that is not its nature. This kingdom is a lot more like a tree. God is looking for gardeners, not guards. A guard is trained in a defensive stance of fear and suspicion. A gardener is motivated by love and creativity” (Selling Water by the River).

Perhaps this passage is challenging us to consider the ways we act as the second son. After all these years we may be the ones who are confronted daily by fresh and sometimes strange voices who are calling for a kind of faithfulness that seems foreign to us.

All around us we, inheritors of a rich history, can hear the voice of Jesus in a strange cadence that perks up our ears while at the same time causing us discomfort. We desire a faithful response to God’s call but wind up as guards in a museum protecting a treasure.

Master gardeners in a growing garden

But there is also the possibility that we, as followers in the way of Jesus and as members of the church, may wind up like the first son; resisting the voice of God and refusing to follow, but eventually working as master gardeners in an ever-growing garden.

Are we in need of fresh eyes and changed hearts in order to be faithful to the God revealed to us in Jesus? Should it be a constant challenge for us to follow a person who regularly confronted calcified authorities in order to bring about new birth?

Given the age of Christianity and its identification with so much of society in the western world, are we now in the position of the chief priests and elders? Have we become guards of an ancient treasure or are we gardeners growing both heirloom plants and sturdy hybrids, and adapting as the garden grows?

For further reflection:

Richard Wright, Black Boy, 20th century
“Ought one to surrender to authority even if one believed that that authority was wrong? If the answer was yes, then I knew that I would always be wrong, because I could never do it. Then how could one live in a world in which one’s mind and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition meant everything? There were no answers.”

Alexander Pope, 18th century
“A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.”

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 20th century
“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Rudyard Kipling, Complete Verse, 19th century
“Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ and sitting in the shade.”

Lectionary texts

Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

Give ear, O my people,
   to my teaching;
incline your ears
   to the words of my mouth.

I will open my mouth
   in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings
   from of old,
things that we have heard
   and known,
that our ancestors have told us.

We will not hide them
   from their children;
we will tell
   to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of God,
   we will tell of God’s might,
and the wonders that God has done.

In the sight of their ancestors
   God worked marvels
in the land of Egypt,
   in the fields of Zoan.

God divided the sea
   and let them pass through it,
and made the waters stand
   like a heap.

In the daytime God led them
   with a cloud,
and all night long
   with a fiery light.

God split rocks open
   in the wilderness,
and gave them drink abundantly
   as from the deep.

God made streams come out
   of the rock,
and caused waters to flow down
   like rivers.


Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 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.

Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.


Psalm 25:1-9

To you, O God, I lift up my soul.

O my God,
   in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
   do not let my enemies exult
over me.

Do not let those who wait for you
   be put to shame;
let them be ashamed
   who are wantonly treacherous.

Make me to know your ways,
   O God;
teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth,
   and teach me,
for you are the God
   of my salvation;
for you I wait
   all day long.

Be mindful of your mercy,
   O God,
and of your steadfast love,
   for they have been from of old.

Do not remember the sins
   of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love
   remember me,
for your goodness’ sake,
   O God!

Good and upright is God;
   therefore God instructs sinners
in the way.

God leads the humble
   in what is right,
and teaches the humble
   God’s way.

Philippians 2:1-13

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
     though he was in the form of God,
        did not regard equality with God
     as something to be exploited,
        but emptied himself,
     taking the form of a slave,
        being born in human likeness.
   And being found in human form,
     he humbled himself
        and became obedient to the point of death—
     even death on a cross.

  Therefore God also highly exalted him
     and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
     so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
     in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
   and every tongue should confess
     that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Matthew 21:23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 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.”

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.

Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”