When (Jesus) 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. (Matthew 21:23-32)
Once upon a time there was a theater. It was fancy, elegant, and beautiful. The people that attended it were beautiful, elegant and fancy too. Many performances were held in this amazing space – plays, operas, and the occasional ballet. The people who went to this theater always felt like the belonged to something special, and indeed they did – each performance was spectacular.
One evening, people began to arrive for that night’s performance, only to find something quite unusual. It was something that was not elegant, or fancy, o the least bit beautiful, it fact it was something rather disturbing. On the floor, in the middle of the main aisle was a man. he was dressed as nicely as the others, but writhing, in pain crying, “Oooo. Ahhhh. Ohhhh.”
People started arriving in the theater in greater numbers and they took notice of this strange event, but did not want to get involved. So they had their tickets ripped by the usher, and found their seats. Some headed down the side aisles to get to their seats even if their seats were closer to the center aisle. Some walked around him. Some walked over him. Still he writhed on the floor, “Oooo. Ahhhh. Ohhhh.”
As the crowd began to fill in, people were getting uncomfortable. Men adjusted their ties. Ladies looked in their purses, trying to find something else to occupy their time. Everyone was too polite to stare, yet it was impossible not to be drawn in and made anxious by this curious fellow and his antics.
An usher was summoned to do something about the man, just to make him stop.. He was becoming more than a distraction and becoming a nuisance. He already was an annoyance. So the usher approached him, and asked him several questions that didn’t matter. “Did the man have his ticket? Could he find his seat? Was he in the right section?” On it went. But the man writhing on the floor only got a little louder, “Oooo. Ahhhh. Ohhhh.” Now the theater was full.
Unsure of what to do next, the usher gathered his team. What could they do with this man, just to get him out of here? Maybe if two of them took his arms, two of them took his legs, and others took him by the middle they could pick him up. Or perhaps they could prop him up and he could move under his own power. Maybe somebody else should come in to help them. Whatever they were going to do, they needed t do it fast, because they were running out of time. The orchestra in the pit was already tuning their instruments. Yet they were overtaken by the man on the floor who was almost now at a scream, “Oooo. Ahhhh. Ohhhh.” The show was almost ready to begin.
The ushers could not stop this man, so they went and found the manager. Managers have a lot to do before a production, and something like this is not normally on their list – but something had to be done. The manager came, and too asked questions that didn’t matter. Now all eyes were on the manager and the man on the floor. The orchestra stopped playing and looked over their instruments in the pit to see what was happening, just as the manager asked the question, the only question that mattered at all, “Where are you from?”
The man stopped. No more ““Oooo.” No more, “Ahhhh.” No more, “Ohhhh.” He picked up his hand slowly and pointed up. And in a slow, raspy, but loud enough voice for all to hear he replied, “The BALCONY!”*
The religious authorities in the Gospel passage today treat Jesus that way. They ask Jesus, “By what authority do you do these things?” But they know the answer. He was an annoyance, a distraction, and he nuisance and they needed to deal with him. Just to set this up for you – this scene comes after Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey and the people declared him king on Palm Sunday – an act of treason. Jesus had just driven the money changers out of the Temple calling it his Father’s house – an act of blasphemy. They knew he has a heretic, a political deviant, and the fact that he had a following only confirmed in their minds that he was a charlatan. They knew he was. They knew they answer. He was from the North Country from some backwater. People called him Rabbi, but he probably didn’t even go to seminary. He probably just downloaded some certificate from the internet to give himself credentials. They knew he needed to go, so they sought to expose him. So they asked him, “By what authority do you do these things?”
What they are really asking him is, “Where are you from?” The balcony.
Then they got it. Just as in the theater the audience was caught dead in their tracks as all was revealed before them, calling them out as the real ones who were fallen, broken, writhing, not the man on the floor, Jesus exposes these religious authorities as the real charlatans, the real heretics, the real political deviants. Now Jesus called them out, calling them the ones from the balcony. He was more than annoyance, a nuisance, and a distraction. He had to go. He had to go now.
We too are from the balcony. We know what is like to be passed by, stepped around, stepped over, and God forbid, stepped on. We also know what it is like to make those same judgments – to go down the side aisles, to adjust our ties and look in our hand bags and try to look the other way. We have passed by, stepped around, stepped over and stepped on others.
Maybe circumstances put us in that position.
Maybe someone has intentionally hurt us.
Maybe we were hurt by mistake.
Maybe it is because we believe. We know what it is like to follow Jesus, and when people find out about that answer their own question before they even ask it – we are some kind of religious nutcases that need to be discredited and sent away as an annoyance, a distraction and some kind of nuisance.
Whatever it is that places us as people from the balcony – we know what it is like to be writhing on the floor. It hurts.
When I was a younger pastor I used to wear my clerical collar a lot – at least a lot more than I do now. (I didn’t wear it to parties or anything like that, but I did feel like it was good to wear the uniform.) I would wear it on Sundays, always, as an act of hospitality. I figured if a new person came to worship or saw me in the building it would be easy for them to find who the pastor was in a crowd.
I also used to wear it to the hospital. Almost always. At a hospital wearing a clerical collar meant instant access, people knew what I was there for, and assumed I was there to help. Usually people went out of their way I had access to where I needed to go and helped me to get there.
I used to particularly like to visit the Roman Catholic hospital when I lived near Hartford, CT. The people always treated me great there. They would say to me, “Good morning Father.” “Great to see you Father.” “God bless you Father.” I used to respond and say “Good morning.” “Glad to see you.” “God bless you,” and so on. If I was feeling particularly playful I would say, “I didn’t see you at mass last week.” (Which I suppose was true!) One time a man put his hand up to his forehead and responded, “I know Father, I have been meaning to get back to church.” I figured I did they guy a personal service.
Then one day, the symbols changed.
I knew instantly when it did, and that now I was from the balcony.
I was at the hospital having just visited someone and was on my way to the restroom to wash my hands before heading home. Also on the way to the restroom was a mother and a boy about my son’s current age. Rather than the welcome that I had become accustomed to I was met by something else – a look of complete horror. The mom quickly put herself between me and her son and in an instant I realized why. I didn’t know this woman. She didn’t know I had a family and kids at home. I had done absolutely nothing wrong. And yet in the wake of the clergy abuse scandal that had occurred in Boston and was still being litigated in Hartford I could see it in her eyes. She had answered the question before answering.
Wearing that clerical collar, I was from the balcony. Wearing our faith on our sleeves can feel like that. We know that faith doesn’t come from a shirt, or goofy robes, or (as someone I respect says) out of an empty suit. These things do not call us to faith. The Lord calls us to faith. This call comes from Christ, who comes to our balcony to meet us there. People walked around him, side-stepped him, went around him, over him and stepped on him, and yet Jesus does what nobody else does.
Only Jesus brings true healing.
While we are on the ground, writhing in pain from the balcony Jesus bends down beside us and gives us himself.
So that our pain becomes his pain.
Our suffering becomes his suffering.
Our death becomes his death.
So that his resurrection becomes our new life.
Once the already answered question is asked, Jesus tells a short parable.
A man had two sons and he called them both to work in the vineyard.
The first said he would not go, but came later.
The second said he would come and never did.
Jesus says, “It is better to come late than never to come at all.”
The tax collectors and prostitutes – those seen as the worst sinners of the day, received this invitation in faith – while the religious people did not:
They understood that new life is not something we can ever, ever gain for ourselves.
They understood that they were from the balcony, and that Jesus met them there.
You and I are from the balcony too.
From the pain of our lives Jesus gives us –
Fresh eyes to see, new ears to hear, and new hearts to care.
You and I are given new life in Christ from the bottom of the balcony,
so that we might live with changed minds and believe. Amen
*This “balcony” story was adapted from a skit we used to when I was a camp counselor
to open an evening campfire in 1994. I have no idea who wrote it, but it is an ongoing joke among family and friends whenever we meet someone new and the question comes up, “where are you from?” As you can see in this sermon, we are all from the balcony. Thanks be to God – Christ meets us there!