Sunday, September 27, 2020
Lectionary 26, Year A
Prayer of the Day
God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Readings and Psalm
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 The fairness of God’s way
Philippians 2:1-13 Christ humbled to the point of death on a cross
Matthew 21:23-32 A parable of doing God’s will
Title: God’s Work? Our Salvation
Join me in taking a look back over the past three Sundays, and let’s remind ourselves what Jesus has been saying to his followers, to us. There has been some teaching about community building, about reconciliation and forgiveness, about God’s gracious economy, and about the equity we all share in the perfect reign of God. If we all could just embrace these teachings and truly live by them, God’s justice would truly flow like waters over our divided land, God’s abundance would touch every corner of this troubled world, and there would be peace, shalom, for all creation. But clearly that is not going to happen – I’m talking about our embrace of these teachings. We know it. Jesus knows it. And so, there is a shift in the stories that Jesus begins to tell. Theologian of the parables Robert Capon categorizes these upcoming parables that we will be hearing as Parables of Judgement (as opposed to those that are parables of Grace, and parables of the Kingdom.)
And, before we go forward into these wrestle-required parables, there is a significant event that happened between last week’s gospel reading and the one we have heard and are exploring this morning. Something major happened that has caused Jesus to change his tone and his focus and redirect our attention. What was it? Well, the day before the religious leaders started questioning Jesus’ authority, all of Jerusalem was a buzz. Because Jesus made a triumphant, yet muted, entry into the Holy City riding on a donkey. And the people were singing his praises and praises to God while waving tree branches and throwing coats down on the ground to carpet his way. Sound familiar? Yes, the events that we remember and reenact on Palm Sunday have just occurred before today’s reading, along with the shocking un-Jesus-like clearing of the temple that followed the parade. (Coincidently, today’s second reading from Philippians is also read each year on Palm Sunday. Back to the gospel reading.) So, it is the next day, shall we say Monday of Holy Week, and Jesus is back in the temple teaching. But the memories of yesterday are still causing the leaders to be a bit, shall we say, unsettled.
By whose authority are you doing these things? They ask Jesus. These things being marching into Jerusalem like he owns the place. Clearing the temple as if it is his. Healing people as if he had power over all things. Teaching as if people could gain a new understanding of the grace, mercy, and love of God. Who gave you this authority? Ask the ones who want to think that they are the final authority about such matters – God, the law, and how to be faithful.
Authority. There is a hot topic for today, yes? Probably would get myself into trouble if I started looking at how those in authority today who are brazenly ignoring their own words and dictates so to work the current situation to their advantage. Do we dare look at authorities who are blatantly treating segments of the population differently, unjustly, and refusing to take responsibility or admit that something needs to change for the health, wellbeing, and equal treatment under the law for all, regardless of race, religion, gender, or expressions of love? We are having a hard time with questions of authority these days. Just like those leaders back in Jesus’ time. Those holding the power just don’t like competition. Don’t like anyone questioning their authority. Can’t tolerate what they perceive as a threat to their authority. White America is certainly echoing those leaders in Jerusalem with questions of: By what authority are you protesting, seeking police reform, demanding political leaders play fair? Names and entities have changed, but we just keep seeing that people have not changed in 2,000 years.
While those in our time who are being questioned fill the air with excuses, denials, and refuses to face the truth; Jesus, who knows that his questioners (in the words of Jack Nicholson) can’t handle the truth about him, Jesus tries to help them discover a more important truth about themselves.
First a question: What did you think about John the baptizer? And we all saw how they fumbled with that simple question. So, then a story. Let the listener judge themselves, right?
Now, before we get into this story, a warning. Last week we had laborers being hired to go work in the vineyard. This week we have sons being told to go work in the vineyard, and the one who finally does go and work is seen as “doing the will of his father.” Between hearing these two stories, living in our capitalistic society, and buying into the myth of the protestant work ethic, one could easily make the mistake of thinking that Jesus is teaching us that by doing work that makes God happy, we are “working out our salvation.” But as Lutherans, we know from the earliest founding principles that fueled the reformation, our confidence is in the fact that we are saved by grace through faith, not through works. So, when Jesus asks “Which one did the will of the father” we must, with eyes of faith, tuned by the grace of God, ask “what does it mean to do the will of God?” Well, back to the beloved Philippians passage, and we see that God desires that “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” – Jesus the Christ: the embodiment of God’s grace and mercy that welcomes all and calls us to believe. And this work is being done how? Paul writes: it is God who is at work in you. The work is faith. And faith is a gift from God, revealed by grace in Jesus, ours through the work of the Holy Spirit.
So, what about those two kids? Perhaps examining Jesus’ application at the end of the story first, will help in understanding who these kids are and what we are to learn from their actions.
At the end of the story, Jesus seems to be connecting the first son with the tax collectors and prostitutes who believed what John was saying. Before they heard John, they had said NO. Lived their lives as if there was nothing for them in this faith, grace, mercy from God. But then, upon hearing John, they changed their points of view. Jesus says of them “they believed John.” Not, they put in time as missionaries, opened soup kitchens, or became monks and nuns. No, simply, they believed.
Meanwhile, those religious leaders, who lived their lives filled with words and actions that led anyone watching to believe that they had said a big YES to God when called to “do God’s work,” these folks had really said NO to faith and were busy with their own wills and their own works with no reliance on God’s grace, mercy and love through faith. And their own NO had caused them to be blind to the witness of those outcasts (the tax collectors and the prostitutes) who were dying to self and rising to new life through faith. The self-righteous, judgmental leaders didn’t understand God’s work enough to join in the celebration for the lost sheep that were found. (Again, looking back, that was the story Jesus told at the beginning of all this kingdom building talk.)
The church has continued to show much too often that this Yes-then-No of the second child seems to be an occupational hazard of religious leaders and insiders. For too many in the church have continued to judge those that they think, that they judge have said NO to faith in God because of who they are or what they have done or how they live, all the while these church authorities go on fooling themselves with their YESES and their “We do and we ask God to help and guide us,” only to not do God’s will as we depend on ourselves and our works.
There is one authority in this place. An authority to which we all are wise to give over all that we are. For the authority is our God of grace, mercy, and love, who calls us to believe through Jesus and trust that all is at work through the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is the will of God. We are forgiven. We are reconciled. We are raised to new life, through Christ who humbled himself for our sake. Do the will of the Father – believe, believe, believe. And with any authority that we might hold – perhaps we could try to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus who emptied himself, humbled himself, became obedient even to the point of death. For God has highly exalt us, even to raising us to new life, eternal life.
The Rev. Mark Erson,