October 1

What to do?

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 21:23–32

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Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Good morning, Marsh Chapel! It’s a pleasure to preach on this World Communion Sunday. It’s been a very busy start to the school year around here. All of the ministry staff have been working hard to reach out to students, offer our weekly fellowship groups, and establish the kind of care and compassion that religious life offers to the BU campus. Annually, we have two events that take place around this time of year. One is apple picking, which took place yesterday. We shuttle about 40 students to Westward Orchards out in Harvard, MA for a few hours of apple picking, some shopping in the small country store, and of course, fresh apple cider donuts. I heard this year was fantastic – unfortunately I couldn’t make it because I had a little thing called a sermon I needed to finish. 

The second event is something you’ve probably heard mentioned many times if you’ve been attending worship here for a while. The event is Spiritual Paint Night. We hold at least one each semester, welcoming students from across the campus for an evening of unstructured creativity. Started by my predecessor and friend, Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, Spiritual Paint Night isn’t like one of those sip and paints or painting classes that you can do at a restaurant or a bar. There isn’t instruction on what to paint. Instead, students are given a canvas and brushes, a palette and paint. They’re told to paint what they want. They’re told to focus on the process of creation rather than the outcome. No “mine isn’t good enough” no expectation that that it has to replicate anyone else’s work. Just time to meet new people, eat some snacks, get creative, and support each other in admiring one another’s efforts. 

The unofficial patron saint of these evenings is perhaps the most well-known American artist of the 20th century. It’s estimated that he painted well over 10,000 paintings. Even though his popularity started 40 years ago, most people in the United States, including young people who weren’t born yet when he was alive, can identify him and know what he’s most famous for. His iconic permed hair and denim outfits have been parodied over the years, but not without a profound sense of respect. If you guessed that this artist who has reached sainthood in our eyes is Bob Ross, then you’d be correct. We know Bob Ross for his gentle instructions on the PBS show “The Joy of Painting” which aired from 1983-1994. Each time he’d tell his viewers, who may or may not be completing that week’s painting with him, what tools and paints they would need to have their own creation at the end of each 30 minute episode. He’d then go on to instruct, reminding viewers that the canvas was their own little world in which they got to make the decisions, he would just provide suggestions and instruction on how to make elements. Perhaps most memorable were his “happy little trees” and also his statement that “there are no mistakes, only happy accidents.” His calm demeanor and encouraging words are why, perhaps, he has become an icon of ASMR, autonomous sensory meridian response, a sensory and emotional reaction to certain stimuli. People find pleasure in the calming nature of each episode, sprinkled with his witty “Bob Ross-isms.” He even has his own Twitch channel, an interactive livestreaming service, which plays episodes of The Joy of Painting continuously all day long. 

But, did you know that before Bob Ross became America’s gentle painting instructor, he was in the Air Force for 20 years? Not only that, but that one of his main positions in that time was as a drill sergeant. You know, a drill sergeant as in the super mean authority figures within the military who routinely “break down” new recruits, forcing them to do demeaning tasks and constantly yelling? Yes, Bob Ross was one of those. Reflecting on his time in the military, he was quoted as saying: 

“I was the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work,” Ross later said. “The job requires you to be a mean, tough person, and I was fed up with it. I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, it wasn’t going to be that way anymore.” 

Bob Ross had a change of mind and heart. It was the military which would introduce him to painting. The backdrop of Alaska, where he was posted, took center stage in many of the paintings he would later create on his TV show. The authority that the position of drill sergeant afforded him, the power he had over others, didn’t mean much to him. In fact, he knew that it wasn’t what he was truly called to being and doing. The military was an occupation, but painting became his life. While the position of drill sergeant offered him authority in a systematic way, he actually gained his authoritative position (as in someone who demonstrates authority) through his painting. That’s why he’s so well known. That’s why people flock to him and his general positive outlook. His change from ordering commands to gentle suggestions, the structured efficiency of military obedience to an opening of creativity for others doesn’t mean that he lost his power or influence, he just modified it to a way that would serve others in a more practical manner. 

Authority is a central message in today’s gospel from Matthew. The context for this reading is important in understanding why Jesus’ statements about authority are so jarring for the religious leaders to hear. Jesus has entered into Jerusalem. The people, having heard of his healings and teachings, including embracing the poor and the marginalized, are excited to welcome him. The religious leaders, however, are wary. Today’s story takes place just after Jesus has overturned the moneychangers tables in the temple, showing his disdain for how the religious leaders have allowed this space to become a center for politics and economics rather than a space for prayer and worship. Jesus continues his time in Jerusalem by teaching in the temple, much to the ire of the religious leaders. 

They question Jesus. Where does his authority to teach in the temple come from? Jesus, being Jesus, doesn’t simply answer their question. He questions them back and then proceeds to tell them the parable of the two sons. A parable about words and action. A parable about doing the will of the father and merely saying you will do the will of the father. While the religious leaders seem to understand doing the will of God is what should be favored over mere lip-service, they do not fully understand the point that Jesus is trying to make in this story. 

What is confusing for the religious leaders is that they consider themselves to be authorities because of their place within society. Their authority derives from human sources, from a title and a position. Because of this, they use their power to affect society. They have influence over the ways things are done. They serve their own self-interests, rather than those who are suffering. While they might be good teachers of religious tenets and laws, they fail to see those teachings through with action. The religious leaders may be in positions of authority within the community, but they lack authoritative action in accordance with the will of God that would confirm that authority. They may say what is right and wrong behavior, but they are not open to any ideas that would challenge their access to maintaining the power they possess. The religious leaders are hypocrites. They say one thing and do another in order to maintain power. 

Jesus is not an authority figure that the religious leaders recognize. They don’t understand why he has so much popularity among the people. They don’t understand the way he goes about teaching and healing, reaching out to the poor, sick, and marginalized. If he truly were “the one who comes in the name of the Lord” as the people claimed when he entered Jerusalem, he wouldn’t have shown up on a donkey and he certainly would not be associating himself with prostitutes and tax collectors. 

The critical piece that Jesus is trying to teach the religious leaders is not that works are more important than faith (Martin Luther would be rolling over in his grave if I said that) but that the will of God makes itself known through a steady process of revelation and transformation. In fact, Matthew uses the term metamelomai, to change one’s mind, twice in this passage, emphasizing its importance in the parable Jesus uses for instruction. Actually, this term might be more accurately translated “to change what one cares about” or “to change one’s heart.” The first son changes what he cares about and goes into the field to work. The tax collectors and prostitutes changed what they cared about and understood John’s righteousness. For God to be at work in the world, people must maintain an openness, to have their minds changed, in order to discern what life in the kingdom of God calls them to be. Jesus points out that the prostitutes and the tax collectors will enter into the kingdom of heaven sooner than the religious leaders because they have left their minds to be opened to John’s righteousness. That openness in changing one’s mind also changes how they act with others.  

Allowing oneself to be open to the will of God requires humility. It requires us to go beyond what we want, what we’re comfortable with, to accept how God can create transformational power in our lives. In our current world, many expressions of belief have become about knowing, not seeking. What I mean by that is that belief has become more about certainty than an openness to new ideas and approaches. The same could be said about the religious authorities and heads of state in Jesus’ time. They were more concerned with maintaining the status quo, in which they held the power, than being challenged into a way of life of mutual support and humility. We see Paul imploring the community in Philippi to be “of a certain mind” together, willing to give up what each of them might be entitled to in the aid of another. They are to find a cruciform way of living, connecting their patterns of thinking with their patterns of living to enable the work of God to be done in the world. 

What today’s gospel and the other readings from today point us toward is that we do not have to be perfect in knowing. Instead, we have to be open to seeking God. We should allow God’s presence in our lives transform us, instead of asserting our own way. Jesus’ authority is not human authority, which focuses on the acquisition and maintenance of raw power. Rather Jesus’ authority derives out of humility, taking those who are abandoned by society and restoring them to wholeness through his healing. Jesus’ authority demonstrates a way of life for us that is open to God’s power and truth. If we fail, if we falter, if we don’t get it right on the first try, God will not abandon us. We can explore faith with the knowledge that God will be there for us even if our attempts in understanding are flawed. As Bob Ross would say, “There are no mistakes, only happy accidents.” 

How wonderful it is, then, that we find ourselves located in a place of inquiry. A university campus is, perhaps, one of the best places for those who seek. Marsh Chapel stands as a place dedicated to the exploration of religious inquiry, not certainty. Here, we encourage you to ask questions, to be unsure, to be willing to explore. That’s honestly what I love most about my job. Working with young adults provides so many opportunities for openness, a willingness to learn and grow. We aim at providing a safe place to land, as well as a safe place to ask the existential questions – who am I? what is meaningful to me? Where and to what is God calling me? Just as Bob Ross encourages his audience to accept mistakes and be open to their own way of approaching painting, we too provide a place where people can change their minds, explore further, and be creative in their relationship with the Divine. Not because we say they must, but because we provide the support to allow such inquiry to occur.  

If we can maintain this openness, a willingness to have our mind’s changed, we may experience the radical transformation that comes in relationship with God. It requires us to get out of our comfort zones and accept that the way we’ve always done things may not always be the only or best way to do them. Authority doesn’t necessarily mean anything if it isn’t connected to action. In fact, authority is best exhibited through action rather than the external imposition of that status. As they say, “Actions speak louder than words.” Let us be active seekers of Divine transformation. 


-The Rev. Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students 

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