Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sermon, Proper 21A, Matthew 21:23-32

You may remember a few weeks ago when we heard the gospel passages about church behavior. I said that these passages were there because we were moving from Jesus' Galilean ministry towards his crucifixion. Jesus talked about how we should confront sin in the church and how often we need to forgive those who sin against us. He was prepping us for being on our own. It was the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end.

I bring this up because it's good to be reminded of the context of the passage. Today's passage takes place after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He rode into town on a donkey, the people shouted, "Hosanna!" and he drove the money changers out of the temple and cured the blind and lame there. So things are starting to heat up.

Jesus spends a night in Bethany and then heads back to the temple in the morning where he is confronted by the religious leaders. I am not going to get into that confrontation today. For now, it's enough to say that Jesus understands what they are trying to do and manages to deflect the question.

Instead, I want to focus on the parable of the two sons. What do you think? A man had two sons. The first said no, but did. The second said yes, but didn't. Which son are we?

At first blush, this would seem to be easy. Looking at it from the standpoint of Jesus addressing the religious leaders, it was they who had promised to follow God and yet did not believe John when he prophesied about the coming of the Messiah. And it was they who did not see God in Jesus. Instead, it was the tax collectors and prostitutes who believed John and followed Jesus. The Pharisees promising to follow God, but not; and the sinners making no such promise, yet following when called.

Jesus is basically telling his listeners that they have gotten so caught up in the life of the religion that they fail to see God at work in the world around them. He is saying, "Look, you say you want to do the will of God, but until you actually do it, it's only so much lip service." And as it turns out, it is the outcast, the unclean, the sinner, the person we have deemed unworthy and unfit who are having their eyes opened and doing the will of God.

It's easy for us to look at this story and think, "Oh, those poor, blind, egotistical and misguided Pharisees. If only they would do what they actually professed." There's a reason that the Bible is the living word of God. It simply isn't a collection of old stories that we have elevated to the status of Scripture. As I said in our TEC 101 class this past Wednesday, the Bible is about our relationship with God. That relationship is alive. It changes over time. So if this is the living word, and if we are in a growing and changing relationship with God, then the Bible should speak to us today.

This parable isn't only directed to the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus' time, but it is also directed right at us; because, in reality, we have become the religious leaders of the day. The question is: have we become the second son?

How often do we say we will do what God asks only to neglect it altogether? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul. Do we really put God first in our lives? Love your neighbor as yourself. Do we have a spirit of love, or are we envious or spiteful towards our neighbors? When you've sinned, repent and return to the Lord. Have we worked at getting right with God? Forgive those who sin against you. Do we really work at forgiveness? Feed the hungry. When was the last time we filled up the food basket?

We can't do it all, and I'm not suggesting that we try to do it all. But we can certainly do better. We can be better in our prayer life, in putting God first, in reaching out to others, in helping the less fortunate and in welcoming the outsider.

Being a disciple of Christ, a follower of God, requires more from us than following rules or making sure we worship the right way. It's more than creating some litmus test of acceptance designed to protect us and keep THEM at arm's length. It requires that we take an active role in the spreading of the gospel. It requires that we extend God's love to everyone.

And we certainly have people who do those things. People volunteer to work at the food bank and participate in Operation Christmas Child and help with Shrove Tuesday and Advent programs and the Lenten breakfast. And those are all very good things. But what else and how else can we further participate in this community in a way that expresses the love and will of God?

Being a disciple takes work. It takes discipline. It requires that we not get complacent and satisfied that Sunday mornings are good enough. It requires that we put God first in thought, word and deed. It requires us to listen to the living word of God and ask ourselves, "Have we become the second son?"

And that is a question I will leave you to ponder for yourself: Which son am I?


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