Lectionary blog for Sept. 28, 2014
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-8;
Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
By Delmer Chilton
In commenting on our Gospel lesson, Fred Craddock, a retired preaching professor, says, “The parable says that responses to God are of two kinds: that of the person who has said no but who repents and whose life says yes; and that of the person who says yes but whose life says no.” (“Preaching Through the Christian Year A” p. 458)
In his book, “The Answer to Bad Religion is Not No Religion,” Methodist minister Martin Thielen says he recently saw a letter a neighboring pastor received from a family that had become inactive in the church. After listing a series of familiar reasons for their absence, (summer time at the lake, busy weekends with soccer and basketball and vacation trips at Christmas, etc.,) they close their letter with these words, “But one of these days, don’t be surprised when you look up and see us out there in the congregation, because we just love you, and we just love our church.” (Thielen, p. 35) “We just love our church;” we just can’t be bothered with showing up and participating in any noticeable way. That is a pretty clear example of saying “yes’ while living “no.”
There are others, many others, of course. We’re all very, very capable of hypocrisy. I’ve known ministers who preached tithing while not giving anything to the church themselves. Their excuse? “Well, I’m seriously underpaid, so I’ll just consider the money they don’t pay me as my contribution,” Right. Saying “yes” while living “no.”
Growing up in the ’60s, I had Sunday School teachers who taught me to sing “Red and yellow black and white, all are precious in his sight,” whom I heard standing in the church parking lot using the “n” word in a mean and hateful fashion. Saying “yes” while living “no.”
Week after week we gather in church and in most denominations at some point in the service we will pray the Lord’s Prayer and say, “Forgive us our sins while we forgive those who sin against us.” And yet we go on for years harboring resentments, nursing grudges, withholding grace and forgiveness and reconciliation from others while accepting it for ourselves from God. Saying “yes” while living “no.”
More than once I have preached what I considered a very stirring sermon on feeding the hungry or caring for the homeless, only to find myself accosted that very day or the next by someone begging for my help. And more often than I like to admit, I have passed them by or passed them on – too busy with my churchy business to be about my Lord’s business. Only in retrospect did I gain enough self-awareness to be ashamed of saying “yes” while living “no.”
In the parable, it is the chief priests and elders who are accused by Jesus of saying “yes” while living “no.” As the story opens, they are trying to set a trap for Jesus. They are hoping he will claim to be a God, or a king, something they can take to the Romans to get him out of the way. In response, Jesus first reveals their lack of integrity in his question about John the Baptist.
“Where did John get his authority to baptize? Did he get it from heaven or from humans?” They argued among themselves, “If we say ‘from heaven,’ he’ll say to us, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But we can’t say ‘from humans’ because we’re afraid of the crowd, since everyone thinks John was a prophet.” Then they replied, “We don’t know.” (Matthew 21:25-27, Common English Bible)
Jesus then tells the parable about the two brothers, each of whom was told to go to the vineyard and work. One says no, but later changes his mind and goes to work. The other says yes, but never shows up at the vineyard. Then Jesus asked the chief priests and elders: “Which of the two did the will of the father?” They have to say, “The one who went to the field and worked.”
Now, Jesus drives his point home. The tax collectors and prostitutes may have turned their backs on God at one point in their lives, but because they eventually repented and obeyed and served God, they are way ahead of the chief priests and elders, who have spent their lives professing their love for and obedience to God but have never done any of the works of love and mercy that God asked them to perform.
Just like the tax collectors and prostitutes, all of us have had times when we have said “no” to God. Times when we have resisted the burden of the cross, when we have made it clear that we prefer to go our own way rather than God’s way. And just like the chief priests and elders, we have also all said an easy “yes” to following God. Perhaps we thought it would be easy but then found out that walking the way of Christ was harder than we thought. Or perhaps we really, really meant to but got distracted and waylaid by the troubles and trials of life. Either way, we all need help, we all need to find a way to say “yes” and live “yes.”
In our lesson from Philippians, Paul reminds us that we are not in this alone. Here we read an early hymn of the church that describes for us how Christ laid aside all the trappings of a royal son and after saying “yes,” lived “yes” – lived “yes” all the way to the cross and beyond.
And we are invited to follow. The risen Christ comes to us in the word – the written word of the Bible and the preached, proclaimed word of the hymns and the sermon – calling us to follow Christ in a mission of serving God by serving the world. Christ invites us to the table where we are fed, nourished and transformed by Christ living in us. In receiving Christ into ourselves we receive the strength to go into the world, saying “yes” and living “yes,” serving God, all our days.
Amen and amen.
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.