PROPER 21 A – September 28, 2014

“Saying No and Doing Yes”
Matthew 21:23-32

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ 24Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” 26But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ 27So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

Tonight used to be a particularly challenging night at my house. It is garbage night. I have two sons who, when they still lived at home it was their responsibility is to see to it that the garbage gets out to the curb.

This is particularly important because these young adults stay up much later at night that my wife and I, and they sleep in much later than we do. The garbage man comes at O’ dark ‘thirty in the morning. So putting the trash out the night before is a necessity.

This is what the Sunday night scene used to look like: They would be wanting to begin their evening, going here or there about nine-thirty. PM. The garbage is not at the curb. On their way out the door I say, “do you know tonight is garbage night?” “Oh yea, Dad,” they say, yep, got it. But with frustrating frequency I would get up in the morning, get ready to come here to the office, and as I leave I notice that there aren’t any garbage cans at the curb in front of our house.

I go back into the house, raise them both from their sleep and interrogate them. “Don’t you remember me telling you that last night was garbage night?” “Yes,” they reply. “why didn’t you take it out” I ask? “Oh,” one said, “I thought you were just giving me a ‘heads up.’

Now, I know that none of you have problems like this, that someone tells you they are going to do something and then doesn’t do it. And, my children are only home periodically and so it is I, myself, who occasionally lets myself down. Focusing on the gospel lesson, beginning in verse twenty eight, we find ourselves observing this very scene.

The response to Jesus isn’t always this way. The disciples immediately left their boats and followed Him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the reasoning this way;
“the response of the disciples is an act of obedience; not a confession of faith in Jesus.” They did not consider His claims, make up their minds, and then decide whether to follow – they simply heard and obeyed…disciples are not so much people who follow as those who must follow. (Guiness, Os “The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.” W Publishing Group: Nashville. 1998, p. 65)

Many of you are parents and this status alone qualifies you as an expert in analysis of what is going on here when someone says yes and does no. Yet, I believe that others, without children, also perfectly understand what is happening. The greek word here is actually “children,” not sons. See it is not so much that the ‘Man’ had two biological sons, but that he had two heirs, two whom he claimed, and to them he offered a simple command.

You heard me right, it is a command. My father, when I would respond to his saying something similar would tell me: “That wasn’t a question.” The man is not offering alternatives as if it is equally acceptable that the ‘son’ lolly-gag around the house or ‘hang’ with his buddies over at the mall. No, he tells him to go work in the vineyard.

The young man says yes and does no. Another says no and does yes. And, in one way or another both men insult their father. They insult one who, in reality has authority over them, but who at the same time it is possible to disobey.

We do not know what the consequences were, in that moment. There is no mention of corporal punishment. There is no description of a follow up argument. Based upon my personal experience, this surprises me. But we just don’t know.

What we do know is that one young man had a change in heart. The text says that he changed his mind, but everyone knows that in the times that the gospels were written the idea of mind was not like our idea of mind and was closer to our idea of heart. The word here indicates that he ‘repented,’ literally, that he ‘changed direction.’ This is not so much an altering of how you think about something but is instead a change in what we do. The end of such conversations with my father was often punctuated with the phrase, “it’s just like lima beans, you don’t gotta like them, you just gotta eat them.”

As Christians told and retold this story, it dawned on them that this was more than an attack on the leaders of the synagogue. They began to see that the great danger was no different for them than it was for the Pharisees. See they knew their relationship with God was as heirs, as ones who through Jesus were made inheritors of the promise. They affirmed that Jesus the Christ the King. They also knew it was easy to say “Lord, Lord,” but not so easy to do what the Father asked. So we cannot hold this parable at arm’s length and shake our heads at the bad guys who ran the religious institution. This judgment is directed at all of us who claim the name Christian.

A friend of mine recently moved halfway across the country into the ‘bible belt.’ There are very few UCC churches near his new home, which isn’t necessarily a problem but he is definitely not religiously conservative so he doesn’t fit the local ‘mold.’ While visiting one church, for the fourth or fifth time, he spoke to the coordinator for the Adult Bible study. She asked him what he thought. He said, “I think a lot of people come to worship on Sunday and worship at another Chapel the rest of the week.” She did not understand his allusion. What he meant was that it is as if the fervent faith proclaimed on Sunday has no effect the rest of the week. I suppose he identified this trait because, well, it takes one to know one.

If this dichotomy between faith and practice is real, then no wonder the world turns away from our wordy gospel. What stops those outside of the church in their tracks and grabs their attention are those who have learned to move beyond the words. It isn’t only the Gandhis and the Rosa Parkses and the Mother Teresas who remind us what faith and commitment are all about. It’s those medical practitioners in Doctors Without Borders who travel on their own time and expense to work in out- of-the-way places like Liberia. They’re told that the people they treat are too far gone, the disease in that area is ‘too hot,’ and that ‘we are losing this battle with ebola.’ This doesn’t stop them — they do what they can do.

I admit that these grand illustrations are powerful. But for most of the world, there will be no opportunity for this kind of witness. Most of us are not called to such work. That doesn’t mean that we are not called to make the gospel visible in the world. That does not mean that what we do as a part of our following Jesus is unimportant. In our own daily tasks we can be Jesus’ hands and feet. One author claims that
“The church’s deepest challenge is neither political nor ideological, and certainly it is not military. It is spiritual and theological and comes to a head where behavior expresses belief and deeds express words.” (Guiness, Os “The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.” W Publishing Group: Nashville. 1998, p. 65)

Similarly, St. Paul told the disciples in Corinth: “Be disciples of me as I am of Christ.” Or as Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima said, “What is Christ’s word without an example?” Working in the vineyard is what we are called to do….and I hope that this serves as a reminder that not all ‘church’ happens on Sunday morning. And the good news is that it’s not always the ones who come to Sunday School or sing the hymns and pray the prayers who reflects the will of the Father. Sometimes it is the one who shows up on a Wednesday morning to take food donations to the food pantry. Sometimes it is someone who stops on their walk downtown and puts a dollar or two into someone’s paper cup. It may be one who drops off flowers to a shut-in. It could be, and most often is, simple kindnesses and graces shared with another, people doing what they can do, where they are — making the world a little better for Christ’s sake.

Let us pray:

O Thou that asketh much of him to whom thou givest much, have mercy. Remember me not for the ill I’ve done but for the good I’ve dreamed. Help me to be not just the old and foolish one thou seest now but once again a fool for thee. Help me to pray. Help me whatever way thou canst, dear Christ and Lord. Amen. (Buechner, Frederic, Godric’s prayer)