October 1, 2017

Pentecost 17 October 1, 2017 (Psalm 25, Deuteronomy 6:1-7, Philippians 2:4-13) Matthew 21:12-17,23-32    One father, two children

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Every morning at breakfast time our family has a prayer we sing together – “Help us to do the things we should – to be to others kind and good – in all we do at work and play, to grow more loving every day. Amen.” Help us to do the right thing, Lord. A simple little prayer. And…

Jesus tells a parable that sounds almost as simple. “…A man has two sons. He says to one, “Son, go, work in the vineyard today.” The son says “I’m not going.” But later, changes his mind and goes. The second son says, “Yes dad, I’m on my way.” But doesn’t go. Which child does the will of the father?”

For context, remember – Jesus has come into town on a donkey, acclaimed by crowds as Son of David. He’s entered the temple courts and chased merchants and money changers out and healed the blind and lame. Children sing his praises–again, naming him Son of David, Israel’s favorite king. Now religious authorities, scribes and chief priests – those who think they have power and authority in the temple – question Jesus: “Where do you get this authority? Who gave it to you?” (It sure wasn’t give by us…)

If Jesus says ‘my authority comes from God’ he will be accused of blasphemy, and probably executed. Jesus will go there very soon. But he still has some teaching to do. So Jesus says “I will ask you a question – and if you answer – I will also tell you where my authority comes from. The baptism of John – where did it come from? From heaven? Or from people?”

Religious leaders huddle together. “If we say ‘from heaven’ he’ll ask, ‘then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say‘from people,’ all the crowds who believe John was a prophet will turn on us…’ So they say, “We don’t know.” And Jesus says, “Neither will I tell you, then, where my authority comes from.”

And he asks, “What do you think?” And tells a parable of two children and two responses to the one Father’s command. Which do you think did the will of the father? And even those who question Jesus have to say “the first one.”

And Jesus concludes by naming the religious authorities as the second son, who says the right words, but doesn’t do what’s asked. While tax collectors and prostitutes who have repented at John the Baptist’s preaching are compared with the first child. ‘They,’ Jesus says, ‘will enter the kingdom of heaven before you leaders who have not repented – even when you see what repentance looks like.”

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In the exodus out from slavery, God tells Israel, I am making you a nation of priests (Exodus 19)… But twelve-hundred-some years later, like in George Orwell’s novel, Animal Farmsome priests are now more priestly and privileged than others. By the time of Jesus, the power elite of Israel have formed an alliance with Rome, the new Egypt, the Empire of the day. Now its hard to tell ‘our’ priests apart from those who oppressed us in the land of slavery.

Last week Jesus told a parable of workers who go into the vineyard to work early in the morning, while others come into the work later in the day, but God, the vineyard owner gives one wage to all workers. This week the same vineyard owner calls two of his own children to come, help in the vineyard. And the first child says I won’t go – but later changes her mind and comes to help. While the other child says, yes, dad, I’m coming… but never shows up.

And those who change their minds and come, Jesus says, are the outcasts, the marginal people – the tax collectors and prostitutes – today it could be drug addicts, gang members, undocumented immigrants, and dissidents – all the people the conventional wisdom thinks least likely to be included in God’s salvation – but who somehow hear about Jesus – come, meet Jesus – and end up following Jesus… While those who were supposed to be first… now are last…

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Here, on one hand, we have a simple lesson about discipleship. It’s better to be honestly disobedient, and say ‘I’m not going’ than to say ‘I’m on my  way,’ but not show up. Far better to honestly repent, eventually… than delusively think we have no need for repentance.

A simple story, except – the longer I stay with the story, the more complicated it  seems… As I see myself in both sons. Like the first son, I too am a sinner who has said no to God many times before finally running to Jesus for rescue.

And like the second son, I too have said yes to God many times… but then not always shown up as promised. I too, have not always taken up my cross and followed Jesus every day.

And as a pastor, I notice, I always seem to be at risk of falling into some of the uglier habits of high priests and scribes. Maybe it’s just an occupational hazard, but I notice, I always have to be on guard against… Thinking I’m somehow better than others. Thinking I’m usually more right than others. Thinking I can just say the right words… and not have to live out all that I say I believe.

And the work of faith for me still starts every day with reminding myself early and often – I am a sinner, saved, and still being saved by grace… Still in need of grace every day. As Martin Luther said 500 years ago (– see our Thought for the Week) – “When our Lord and master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended the entire life of believers to be repentance.” Which is what I hear Jesus saying today also. (Remembering – )

No one gets gospel life right… all the time. No one shows up in the vineyard of the Lord, ready and willing, not complaining about gospel wages and working conditions, on time, every day. And it’s usually not because we don’t understand our job descriptions.

We know our work of faith is to be loyal witnesses for Jesus. We know God calls us to be disciples who help others become disciples. We know God calls us to do, together, what God has told us, all along – to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength – love our neighbor as our self. Show up and follow Jesus every day. Which is sometimes relatively easy…

I love being in church doing worship, I love bible study, I love prayer time. I even love unloading pumpkins…at least when the sun shines and community spirit’s flowing… and we’re all glad to be working together.

But sometimes following Jesus is harder work. It’s still often hard for me to love some people some of the time. Even though I know Jesus says love our enemies all the time… Take up the cross even when it feels heavy and hard to lift. Taking it up and following… can be difficult… sometimes very difficult…

Often I need to pause and pray longer and harder and more persistently… Often I need to ask you to pray for me. (We always need each others’ prayers, for sure.)

And I’ve also learned… it helps to pause, often, and remember – the word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news.’ And in every teaching of Jesus there is always good news… when we stay with his teaching long enough.

And today we can notice…How Jesus leaves the story rather open-ended. The first child in the story changes his mind, and does what he had previously said he would not do. So…

There’s no reason why the second child can’t also have a similar change of heart. Which, I’m pretty sure, is the reason Jesus tells the story. (Elsewhere scripture tells us God’s desires is always for all to be saved… and…)

As Evangelist Joyce Meyer has well said – ‘God tests us and tests us, but God never actually flunks us. God just keeps making us take the same test, over and over and over again – till we finally get it right.’ So –

We keep reading the gospels again and again and again… Till we get the gospel lifestyle right. Remembering – even the harder parts of life and any cross we bear… gets easier… with Jesus… and each other’s help.

We know life together’s no crystal staircase, no magic bullet.

But when we’re lifting hearts together in song and service –

When we’re bringing every challenge, every trouble to God –

When we’re giving God all thanks and praise  –

When we worship God with gladness, offering ourselves and all God’s given us, back to God – together in faith –  We know –

God is with us. God is for us.

God is loving us, perfectly, always…

Calling us to be for others, as God in Jesus Christ is for us.

So together in Christ every day we can say…

Thanks be to God. Amen.