Sermon September 28, 2014
St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church 16th Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: Matthew 21: 28-32
28 “Tell me what you think of this story: A man had two sons. He went up to the first and said, ‘Son, go out for the day and work in the vineyard.’
29 “The son answered, ‘I don’t want to.’ Later on he thought better of it and went.
30 “The father gave the same command to the second son. He answered, ‘Sure, glad to.’ But he never went.
31-32 “Which of the two sons did what the father asked?”
They said, “The first.”
Jesus said, “Yes, and I tell you that crooks and whores are going to precede you into God’s kingdom. John the Baptizer came to you showing you the right road. You priests turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him.
Prayer Speak to us, great God, through these scriptures. Remind us again of your everlasting power. May we know your story and our place within it. May we remember your mighty works and deeds, that we might know that you are the God of all ages. May we claim your promise and share your love. We are listening, God; speak to us today. Amen.
How many of us have made promises we didn’t keep? Our intentions were good. It made sense at the time and then something happened, things changed (our mind, the context, the situation) and we didn’t do what we had intended to do.
What was the last promise you made to someone? ”Yes, honey, I’ll take out the trash after dinner.” Or “I promise we’ll give you a promotion in six months.” Or “I’ll be there. I promise.” Or the promises we make to ourselves: I will start that diet next week. And years of unmet New Year’s resolutions certainly spring to mind!
Most people make commitments to others all the time. The question is how often do we keep our promises? Is it really possible to follow through on every single commitment we make in life? How many pledges do we break and when faced with failure or at least falling short of our own expectations, how well do we handle it?
Just so we are clear, a promise, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is: “a declaration that one will do or refrain from doing something specified; or a legally binding declaration that gives the person to whom it is made a right to expect or to claim the performance or forbearance of a specified act.” This second definition sounds like an Old Testament covenant between God and a well-intentioned Israelite to me.
Unfortunately when we don’t keep a promise to someone, it communicates to that person that we don’t value him or her. We have chosen to put something else ahead of our commitment to them. Even when we break small promises, others learn that they cannot count on us. Tiny fissures develop in relationships marked by broken promises.
We are not only communicating all of this to others, we are telling ourselves that we don’t value our own word. We think it is okay to let someone down, to say something we don’t mean, or to fail to follow through on something we said we would do. Not keeping a promise is the same as disrespecting ourselves. Ultimately it can harm our self-image, our self-esteem, and the quality of our life.
Our Experience Expanded Now, some of us have the ability to make more commitments than we can keep. I wrote this sermon last week while pondering a request from the Stated Clerk of our Synod to serve as the moderator of an Administrative Commission for one of our Korean churches. This is a lot of work and it is a volunteer kind of thing so I found myself in serious prayer and discernment mode for almost 24 hours before deciding. I kept asking myself, why me? What do I bring to this request? These cross –cultural experiences with Korean Presbyterians have a steep learning curve for me! I always have to be very careful because God has imbued me with an abundance of altruism and good intentions. I have a birthday card from a dear friend pinned to the bulletin board in my office that states: “I feel certain that given a cape and a nice tiara, I could save the world.” And, of course, haven’t we all taken on something for what we think we might receive. And are we or are we not above saying “yes” in the hope that someone will like us just a bit more. Has anyone here ever told someone what you believed they wanted to hear so that they’d be happy? Above all else I do believe that it is always important that we be honest with ourselves about why we are committing to something. I have even upon occasion asked myself, “What am I getting out this?” Just responding to that question can clue us in as to whether or not we should make the promise or take on the additional responsibility in the first place. I am not always the best judge of this, particularly if I really want to do something, but I do ask myself, “Am I being realistic?” My life moves some days at the speed of light and I often have to pick and choose how I spend my time. Dayja has just moved back home and although she perceives herself to be totally independent, that isn’t necessarily my experience of living with her. I do have a schedule to consider. Ultimately it always seems to boil down to, “Is this a promise I can keep?” Certainly it is always better to under-commit and over-deliver than over-promise and fall short.
And there is always the question: What would Jesus do? As cliché as it sounds, it is a spot on question. What would Jesus do?
Just before our parable passage this morning Jesus had entered Jerusalem and turned the tables in the temple of the moneychangers. The chief priests don’t like Jesus and constantly question his authority. Jesus flips this question of authority back onto the priests by asking a rhetorical question about the authority of his cousin John to baptize. It seems that John the Baptist was much loved by people and he was seen as a martyr at the hands of Herod’s rule. Now, the priests were far more concerned about their public image than they were about being consistent – a problem not unfamiliar to fundamentalist folks of any faith even to this day! Not wanting to make the crowds angry with them over not believing in John, they couldn’t answer the question Jesus had asked of them, and so Jesus refused to answer their question. So, what does Jesus do? He tells a parable! Imagine! This is the parable of the two sons: We have a child whose change of mind results in following a parent’s request for help on the farm with faithfulness, while the other child who claims he wants to follow the instructions of his parents doesn’t.
Jesus, whom we like to think likes everyone, appears not to like the priests any more than they like him. It is clear to most students of scripture that the hypocrisy of the priests is their ruin. These are the good guys, the keepers of the faith and the holders of tradition; but were they the good guys? It seems that Jesus had a very low tolerance for religious hypocrisy. Jesus’ heart went out to the poor, the widows, the orphaned, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, people who had been left out on the margins of society. The priests were supposed to be serving God by serving the poor and oppressed, but they really served only themselves.
Re-mything Our Tradition The parable of the two sons, is a metaphorical tale with a moral. The priests that Jesus is in dialogue with are put in the place of providing an answer that undermines their own authority and implicitly recognizes the establishment of a new one. Jesus has trapped the Good Guys. If they answer his riddle, his questions, one way then x will happen, if they answer another way then y will happen. Neither answer is to their liking. The two groups are not so much representative of the “haves” and “have not’s” 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. 1
What has this to do with us? 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: ours and that of the church. We see “holy wars” fought diabolically because of someone’s interpretation of the Koran. There are still Christian churches that will not ordain woman based on their understanding of scripture and slavery was the order of the day for centuries in this country based primarily on a half dozen scripture passages from the Bible. As people of faith somewhere, sometime we made a promise. We said, “God, I promise to follow you, to serve you, to share your love your grace and you word with the world.” We became part of a community of faith to help facilitate our promise where we could best hear of, be embraced by, be liberated with, and be responsible to the God who created, redeemed and sanctified us.
Shane Hipps in his excellent book, Selling Water by the River, has a wonderful quote that captures some of what is going on in our passage from Matthew: “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 dominion 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 are still 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 causes us discomfort. We desire a faithful response to God’s call but wind up as guards in a museum protecting a treasure.
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, fearing change 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 life? 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? 2
What are we? We are people who have promised to love and serve God. Promises are important! They speak to who we are, they express our intentions, our good intentions, and the good assurances that come from our hearts, making us the good guys. It is up to us to make good promises and it is up to us to make our promises good. May it be so! Amen.
Great God, help us to go bravely and boldly into this world of confusion and pain, bringing your healing words of love and forgiveness. Help us to keep the promises we make and to be mindful of the power of mercy and grace in our lives because of your amazing love of us. Amen.