Word, will, work

A sermon for September 27, 2020, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio.

This week Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lay in state at the Capitol. The US passed a grim milestone with 200,000 deaths from COVID-19. One former Louisville police officer was indicted for wanton endangerment over stray bullets that pierced a neighbouring apartment during the hail of gunfire that killed Breonna Taylor as she was in her bed. No other indictments were issued.

In the Gospel for today, Jesus compares the words and actions of two brothers as he tells the chief priests and elders that the “tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

The word of God and the will of God are the same. When God said, “Let there be light,” there was light. When Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, entered into our history, when he lived and died and lived again for us and for our salvation, he saved us. When he preached repentance, saying the kingdom of God is at hand, he meant it.

As sayings of Jesus go, today’s story is pretty straightforward. Faced with the animosity of the elders, Jesus accuses and admonishes them. Throughout his teaching and the preaching of John before him, the charge of hypocrisy has been high on the list of crimes and misdemeanours carried out by the elite of the people of God. “You pay lip service, claiming to follow the will of God, but you shirk the work that goes with the inheritance of the kingdom of God: to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. You hypocrites! The tax collectors and the prostitutes know the way better than do you.”

The tax collectors and the prostitutes; they heard the word of God, the Word of God and they knew it for joy and for freedom. They were not threatened by the idea of repentance and refreshment. They were not afraid for their own status. They knew that the world could be better. They went to John by the truckload and were baptized. They embraced Jesus, the Messiah, shouting Hosanna.

The leaders of the people, meanwhile, stood on the banks and deplored the whole spectacle. They stood by the banks that held their money and prestige and worried about a breach. They stood by their titles and their trinkets of office and pretended that these were the keys to the kingdom.

Their king, Herod, had John beheaded. Their police and the soldiers grabbed Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane where he was at prayer, and handed him over to be crucified.

Meanwhile the crowd, the people, raised on the prophets, knew a prophet when they saw one. They recognized John and they rallied around Jesus. They knew that only the court prophets, the ones who bore false witness whispered “Peace, peace,” where there is no peace. A true prophet is a sign of God’s revolution. There is no need for a prophet where there is no need for change, for the revelation of something necessary to the realization of the kingdom of God.

Look, the prophet might say, you have people who call themselves leaders, of the people and in the churches. You have preachers who know that “Jesus himself did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself … humbled himself,” for the sake of God’s children; you have preachers who refuse to humble themselves even enough to wear a mask to protect those with whom they speak. You have leaders who are so afraid of losing face that they flout the science and the basic kindness and community spirit that would save lives. And 200,000 people have died in this country alone of COVID-19. We have one-twentieth, 5% of the world’s population, but one-fifth, 20% of the world’s deaths by COVID-19. Where is the repentance? Where is the kingdom of God?

Which of these, asks Jesus, is doing God’s will?

This is not a hoax. One of our cousin churches in this community, a similar size to ours, has lost five lives so far to this disease alone. They haven’t even gathered for Sunday services yet; how can they, when they know what is at stake? Five lives from a single, small congregation like ours.

Which of these is doing the will of the Father?

In the meantime, the prophet might say, you have people who call for law and order, who balk at blaming, at holding quite accountable, those who shoot blindly into the dark, and a woman is dead, killed in her bed, and those who are angry and aggrieved are the ones who are called criminals. Violence will not heal the wounds that violence has inflicted; but neither will treating those wounds lightly, saying “Peace, peace,” where there is no peace, denying the justice of God’s love for Breonna Taylor, for every hair on her head, and the grief that flows from the throne of God when a sparrow is shot out of the sky.

Where is the repentance? Where is the kingdom of God? Who among us is doing the will of God?

There should be a third child in the parable. The second spins a good line but fails to follow through. The first is surly but sees what needs to be done and in the end is good for it. But where is the charmed third child who speaks the truth and acts on it, whose words and deeds are a match for the will of the Beloved?

John the Baptist came preaching repentance of sin to prepare the way for the coming Lamb of God. Jesus came preaching repentance for the kingdom of God could be, is, at hand. Neither prophet nor Messiah came to tell us that all is well in the world, nor that the status quo is the best that we can do, nor that their kings nor their chief priests and emperors were all that, nor to preach “Peace, peace,” where there is no peace, nor that lip service is enough to do the will of God, which is the humble and sometimes hard, just and ever merciful work of love.

Jesus has shown us the way of love. If we say that we will follow, will we indeed follow through? Or who will we usher ahead of us, saying with false humility and fear, “You first”?

The kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus told us. It is a revelation, and a revolution, and all it requires of us is our heart, body, soul, and strength.

The Word and the will of God are the same. They will save us. “Turn then, and live.” “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Illustration: Christ in the synagogue, by Gustav Dore

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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