"Standing in the Gap"

Matthew 21:23-32, Exodus 17:1-7
Rev. Sue Joiner

Do you ever wonder who is answering those questions in the polls? The news will report that a certain percent of people are happy with the President or a certain percent are going to vote for a particular candidate. When I hear the numbers, I wonder who are they talking to? I have never been polled and it makes me curious about where they come up with the figures. Do the numbers we hear reflect reality? I became skeptical after hearing that the response to the question about how many people went to church last Sunday appears to be skewed. For several decades, the number was self-reported at 40% give or take a few points. Again, I wonder who they are asking to get that number? But what is even more interesting is that it seems that those who are answering the questions are not actually telling the truth. The answers are distorted by a phenomenon called “social desirability bias”. Those who are polled answer questions according to what they think they should be doing, rather than what they are actually doing. An example is a poll by Barna Research where 17% report that they tithe. Only 3% actually do. The gap between what they do and what they say they do is closer in the case of religious attendance. It is only about 2 to 1. (https://www.barna.org)

Researchers “Hadaway, Marler, and Mark Chaves actually counted the number of people attending four Protestant churches in Ashtabula County, OH, and in 18 Roman Catholic dioceses throughout the U.S. In their 1993 report they stated that actual attendance was only about half of the level reported in public opinion surveys: 20% vs. 40% for Protestants, and 28% vs. 50% for Roman Catholics. They later returned to Ashtabula County to measure attendance by Roman Catholics. They physically counted the number of attendees at each mass over several months. They concluded that 24% of Catholics in the county actually attended mass. They then polled residents of the county by telephone. 51% of Roman Catholic respondents said that they had attended church during the previous week. Apparently, most were lying.” (http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=237)

I find this phenomenon fascinating. The gospel lesson describes the difference between one person who says he will do something and does not and the other who says he won’t do something and does. The story comes after a tense set of events in Matthew. Chapter 21 begins with Jesus coming into town on a donkey. From there he cleanses the temple in a fit of anger. He spends the night and curses a fig tree that is not producing fruit. The tension is mounting and the chief priests are threatened by his rising popularity. In the reading this morning, they want to know where Jesus gets his authority. Be warned: there is no right answer to that question. Jesus knows that so rather than answer, he asks them a question: “Where did John get his authority – heaven or humans? The chief priests and elders begin to squirm. They are not prepared to have the tables turned. They intended to trap Jesus and find that now they are trapped in this line of questions.  When they tell him, they have no idea; Jesus tells them the story we just heard.
We have just come through several weeks of readings that seem to say, “have you looked in the mirror lately?” Before you start to criticize this person or that situation, you should probably take a look at yourself. I’m guessing we are all a little tired of these stories that don’t let us off the hook. Is it just me or is it a little warm in here? We have had to consider what we do when someone wrongs us and whether we will take the high road. We have had to ask how many times we will forgive. We are still looking for the pass on that one. We have had to acknowledge that God is simply not fair and stop waiting on everyone to get what they deserve. I should probably be honest and tell you that it’s not over yet. We’ve got more of these hard stories in the coming weeks. Jesus doesn’t mind making us squirm. It has been said many times that the gospel exists to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I would say it is succeeding quite well at that!

If we don’t have enough discomfort in the gospel lesson, we have the poor Israelites dying of thirst and complaining. The Exodus theme seems to be: the people complain and God provides. We witness that over and over again. No matter how terrible it gets, they cry out and God comes in to bring relief. Relief doesn’t come in the way they desire, but it is relief nonetheless. Last week, they were starving and wanted food. They didn’t find themselves at the door of a large buffet restaurant, but found quail and white dew on the ground called manna… not exactly what they had in mind, but it was food. Today, they are thirsty and rather than getting their own monogramed water bottles, they get to drink from a rock when the water pours out. Not so glamorous, but they no longer thirst.

These religious leaders are complaining to Jesus that he’s healing people and taking charge and they want to know just who he thinks he is. He responds with a question that asks instead who they are? It is almost as if he is asking, “Can God count on you?” You say you are God’s, but do you come through or do you just talk big and do little? In other words, are you saying you go to church and you really don’t? Are you saying you tithe and you really don’t?

We all stand in the gap between who we want to believe we are, who we say we are, and who we really are. God is not so interested in what we say about ourselves, but who we are and how we act. Perhaps our task then, is to close the gap between what we say and what we actually do. It is sad that one of our adages is, “Do as I say, not as I do.” There is something here about being the person we were created to be. Jesus’ anger in the temple and at the fig tree was that neither was doing what it was created for… the temple had become a place where people were selling things to make a profit rather than serving those in need. The tree wasn’t producing any fruit. And now, Jesus looks at these leaders and says, “are you doing what you were created to do? Are you true to your word? Are you producing fruit?”

It is a life’s work to close that gap. It is a life’s work to be the person we were created to be - the person we profess to be. It is hard work and it is work to be done whether someone is watching or not. St. Francis is reported to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” One of the reasons we have a faith community is to close the gap together. It really isn’t so we can be part of the 40% who say they were in church last week, but so we can become who God calls us to be. That isn’t done in a vacuum. It happens in relationship and it often happens when relationships are challenging. As a community our lives can become a living gospel.
Isak Dinesen wrote a beautiful memoir called Out of Africa. She tells of Kitau who showed up at her door in Nairobi one day asking for work. She hired him and discovered that he did great work. After three months, he came to ask her for a recommendation letter for him to work for a Muslim in Mombasa. She was really unhappy to lose him and tried offering him a raise to convince him to stay. Kitau told her that he had decided he would either become a Christian or a Muslim and his whole purpose of coming to work for her had been to see the habits of Christians up close. Next he would see how Muslims behaved and then he would make up his mind. Dinesen was stunned and said, “I believe that even an Archbishop, when he had had these facts laid before him, would have said, or at least thought, as I said, ‘Good God, Kitau, you might have told me that when you came here.’”

We feel her pain. If someone is watching us to decide about whether to live this life of faith, we would like a head’s up. We don’t want to find ourselves falling short. While it’s important to take care with our words, there seems to be a stronger invitation in the text today to focus our attention on our actions. Are we living in a way that reflects God’s goodness? If our lives were a book, could others read it and find the traits God calls for in us: love, compassion, hope, kindness, mercy, generosity, and justice? We may find ourselves somewhere in the gap between where we would like to be and where we actually are. Every action from here on out is an opportunity to close that gap… even if it is just a bit. Moving closer to the person God created us to be moves us closer to God. Every step counts