Monday, September 26, 2011

Sunday Sermon - 15 Pentecost, Proper 21A (09/25/11)

September 25, 2011 – 15 Pentecost, Proper 21A
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Philippians 1:2-13; Matthew 21:23-32
© 2011 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon will be available soon.

I grew up in a long, ranch-style house set in the middle of a fairly big yard—a yard that kept most of us busy on Saturday mornings. Often, my dad would ask me to rake or mow in the backyard while he used the weed-eater or hacked away at some bushes in the front. And, more than once, having consented to his request, I snuck around back, walked in the back door, and sat down on the couch in front of the television.

My father was often disappointed with my efforts in the yard, but he was never more disappointed than when he walked around back and peered in the den and found me hiding on the sofa. Sweaty, covered with grass clippings, and wearing a scowl, my father saved his greatest frustration for those times when I had told him I would help out but had skived off instead. Those moments conveyed a real sense of betrayal. Although he probably knew better, my dad had trusted that I would be in the back yard, working away, while he was toiling in the front. In some small manner, I had given him my word and then had broken it.

Jesus’ parable about the two sons in today’s gospel lesson is pretty easy to for us figure out. One son agrees to help his father but then doesn’t. And the other son tells his father, “No,” up front but then changes his mind and goes to work. “Which one of the two did the will of his father?” Jesus asks. His audience, like us, automatically knew the right answer. This is one of those “too-obvious-to-miss” parables with a straightforward message. What makes the parable challenging, therefore, is not its interpretation but its application.

We know that agreeing to follow Jesus but then sitting idly on the couch is not what it means to do God’s will. We know that God wants us to be Christians not just in word but also in deed. We understand that giving lip service to our faith isn’t good enough. But that’s not what this story is supposed to teach us.

The chief priests and elders who came up to Jesus in the temple in order to test him weren’t religious good-for-nothings. They were the elite of the Jewish faith. If anyone knew what it meant to live out one’s relationship with God, it was they. They were the ones who fasted twice a week. They said their prayers multiple times every day. They gave alms to the poor and never missed a holy festival. Yet they were the ones to whom Jesus said, “John came down to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him.” Their problem, you see, wasn’t one of action. It was one of content.

Just as it had been with John the Baptist, the dispute of the chief priests and elders with Jesus wasn’t over how he practiced his faith. They were troubled by those with whom he shared it. Jesus had made his company with tax collectors and sinners. He had eaten at table with prostitutes and the outcast. The religious authorities couldn’t get their minds around the fact that this holy man from Nazareth spent most of his time with the scum of the earth. A real prophet sent by God should be keeping company with them rather than with the dregs of society. Yet this Jesus seemed to be preaching that God’s kingdom was reserved for those very people whom the religious elite preferred to keep out.

And that’s precisely where they missed the point. God’s message of salvation wasn’t reserved only for those who made their living through reputable means. God’s love was offered to everyone. And that was the real challenge. John the Baptist had preached a message of repentance that invited everyone to come to the waters of baptism, but the religious leaders couldn’t buy into it. Jesus had brought that same message to the tax collectors and prostitutes with whom he ate his meals, but the chief priests and elders wouldn’t accept it.

The good news of salvation is a message of universal inclusion that requires only a response of the heart. Those who heard John and were baptized understood that fact. Those who heard Jesus and followed him understood that fact. Naturally, those who couldn’t accept that God was offering salvation to everyone were threatened by the message of John and Jesus. “How could God love these outcasts as much as he loves us?” they asked themselves. Indeed, how could God love those people out there as much as he loves us right here?

It’s easy for you and me, who worship in a place like this, to mistake ourselves for the religious elite. As Episcopalians, it’s easy to think that we have it all figured out and that we are the keepers of God’s truth. But the gospel message in its purest form is that those who think they’re in are usually left out. And those whom the “insiders” would prefer to exclude are the ones whom Jesus has actually invited to the table.

It’s not hard to practice one’s faith, but it’s hard to get that faith right. Saying our prayers isn’t difficult, but praying for our enemies is a real challenge. Loving God isn’t all that demanding, but loving those who hate us is nearly impossible. Inviting the stranger into our Christian community isn’t that tough, but welcoming into our hearts those who stand for everything we reject is likely asking more than we can muster.

The lesson in today’s gospel reading isn’t one of turning our faith into action. It’s that those of us who call ourselves Christians must actually do the will of God. And what is God’s will? That the whole world might be saved and that we, if only through our total humility, might also accept God’s invitation to everlasting life. Amen.

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