A sermon for Year A Proper 21, delivered at St Peter’s Episcopal Church, Lakewood, OH on September 25, 2011
Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Over the summer, while I was visiting with someone, he began to talk about his prayer life. He told me that he always included in his prayers the hope that when it comes, his death will be painless. “Isn’t that a bit selfish, though?” he asked me. He was afraid that his prayer was inappropriate, that the prayer for an easy passage was the wrong thing to ask for, the wrong thing to say to God.
In this morning’s gospel reading there is a whole group of people looking for the right words to say, hoping not to say the wrong thing, because they are afraid of losing face. They are afraid that losing face will lose them power, and authority. So they lie. “I don’t know” can be a perfectly acceptable answer to any question, if it’s the truth, but the evangelist makes it perfectly clear here that when the chief priests and the elders of the people tell Jesus that they do not know how to answer his question about the authority of John the Baptist, they don’t even care about the truth of their answer. They do not care to know where John’s authority came from. They are concerned only for their own.
Jesus, as usual, sees right through them. He tells them a story, “What do you think?” he asks them. A father has two sons. He asks them to work the family vineyard. This, mind you, is to their own advantage. This is the crop on which their family’s business rests. This is the land which they will inherit.
One son wants to tell his father what his father wants to hear, so he says yes. We don’t know if he knows at the time that he is lying. Perhaps he thought he had every intention of going into the vineyard later, but the weather changed, or something good came on tv, or he ate too big a lunch and no longer felt up to it. However it came about, because he was more concerned with telling his father what he wanted to hear than telling it like it is, he ended up making his words into a false promise.
The other son said no. He didn’t want to go into the vineyard. Perhaps he didn’t like the heat of the day, which might give him a headache. Maybe he was afraid of the wild animals that competed for food. At any rate, “No,” he said, “I don’t want to do it.” But having let out his “no,” his frustration, anger, tiredness, whatever – he saw that the vineyard really did need tending, and he went. Because that was, after all, his job as a son of the family that owned the vineyard.
As a parent of teenagers, I have met both of these children. And I love them both. Sometimes, I do wish that just for once, one of them would both say yes and do it – just get on with the work! But I think that this story suggests that God would rather hear an honest, “no,” from one who loves God than a servile “yes” from one who loves herself a whole lot more.
We hear in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we are to have in ourselves the same mind that is in Christ, and that we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, and we might be frightened by such a tall order into thinking that it means that we need to present ourselves perfectly, always saying and doing the right thing, in the right words, so as not to lose face as Christians.
That has not been easy just lately. We have been given some challenges. Forgiveness has been demanded of us on a day when we would rather think about our own grief. Generous justice has been described, and we do not really know how to respond. When love for our enemies is been commanded, we are speechless.
When Jesus was faced with the ultimate challenge that his life’s work offered him, when God asked him to continue working in the vineyard, no matter what it might cost him, as he looked toward his own betrayal and death, Jesus prayed “no”.
Jesus went away by himself to a quiet place, and he prayed as hard as he had ever prayed in his life that this would not be what was asked of him, that there could be some other way, that he would not have to drink the cup of sorrows that was being offered him.
He poured out his “no” to God in sweat and tears and prayers beating with the blood of his heart.
He was open with God, honest to God.
The problem for the chief priests and the elders was that they were afraid to be honest to God. They were afraid to answer honestly what they thought of John the Baptist, because they knew in their hearts that when he proclaimed repentance, he was talking to them.
Jesus, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, all humbled themselves, meanwhile, and submitted to John’s baptism of repentance.
The ones whom one might have expected to say “no” – because they lived outside of the margins of agreeable society, because they were above it or below it – they were very the ones who were touched by John’s message and did the work of salvation anyway, working it out in fear and trembling.
Those of us whose hearts are broken open will be most ready to see salvation when it is offered. Those of us who think that we know it all, and can work it out for ourselves, will be less able to see the opportunity to repent, to reach out, to be humble and wait upon God.
If we are to have this mind which is in Christ, we need to be open to God, honest to God. We can tell God what we are hungry and thirsty for. We can tell God what we need. God knows it already. We can tell God the work that we find the hardest to face, the forgiveness that we don’t want to seek, or to offer; the gift we would rather receive than give; the pride that we hold on to for dear life. We can confess to God that we are afraid of the pain of dying. Jesus did.
When we open ourselves to God, when we let God into the centre of our being, that protected place, that walled-off, secure unit where we keep our secret fears and failings – that is when we will find that we are, as St Paul advises, beginning to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, and that God is at work in us and through us. As Frederick Beuchner puts it, salvation “is an experience first, and a doctrine second.”1 When we love God enough to be honest to God, then we begin to conform ourselves to the mind that was in Christ. We find ourselves willing and eager despite ourselves to tend the vineyard of the kingdom of God which is, after all, our work to do, our inheritance. When we are humble enough to allow God a place at the centre of our lives, at the centre of our life as a church, we find ourselves free to serve God’s people, to take care of our community, to build accord and peace with our neighbours. When we are honest about our own fears and failings, hungers and pain, the things that make us want to say “no”, we can hear our neighbours’ – even our enemies – fears and hunger, too.
When we are honest to God, and we ask God for strength, for courage, for perseverance, we will hear God’s honest “Yes.”
“Yes, I will help you. Yes, I will stay with you and work in you. Yes, I love you.” Beyond the cross, there is resurrection. Thanks be to God.