September 26, 2011

Actions speak louder than words

Here's my sermon from yesterday.  You can listen here - or read below----
Posts are going to be behind this week - sorry.  I'm just behind already.

I heard a story this week about a guy, let's call him Jason, right here in town, who got a phone call at home one evening. On the other line was a person who lived next door to one of Jason's rental properties. Seems someone had broken into his vacant rental house a block or so from where he lived. He hung up, called the cops, grabbed his pistol, and met the would-be robber on the front porch. As the robber tried to continue on his way out, Jason suggested as kindly as one can with a loaded gun, that he should probably not move. The robber responded by saying, “Did I break into your house? I didn't mean to break into your house, I meant to break into another one.” Obviously neither Jason, nor the police took much solace in the man's story. Actions, it seems, always speak louder than words.

That's the theme of the story Jesus tells the elders and chief priests in this morning's gospel lesson. In case you missed it, which you most likely did since the lectionary skips the details of it all, as our long summer season of Pentecost comes to an end, we join Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem during the final week of Jesus' life. In between the portion of chapter twenty we heard last week and today's lesson, Matthew's gospel tells the stories of the mother of James and John asking Jesus for choice spots at the dinner table for her sons. Chapter twenty-one begins with the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday which brings Jesus into the Temple Court where he turns the tables of the moneychangers and heals the blind and the lame. Monday finds Jesus cursing the fig tree for not bearing fruit and promising his disciples that if they have faith they can tell the mountain to jump into the sea.

AND THEN, we get to our lesson for today. Jesus is back in the Temple after yesterday's tirade. If you look carefully, you can still see the glimmer of a piece of change or two, strewn across the Temple floor, as the men who make their living selling sacrificial animals try to put their businesses back together. The collective breath exits the room as Jesus walks through the door, and order to eliminate any further problems before they start, the elders and chief priests meet Jesus near the Temple gate.

“By whose authority do you do these things? By whose authority did you mess up our well established system? By whose authority are you causing a raucous? Who gave you such authority?” They know that the only valid answer is “from God.” They know that only the anointed one of God could justifiably act like Jesus acted. They also know that if he answers that way, they’ve got him, dead to rights, for blasphemy and treason.

Jesus knows that too. Jesus knows that the trap has been set; it’s been there a long, long time. He can see the writing on the wall, but the time isn’t right. It’s only Monday, there is still a lot to accomplish before it all comes crashing in on him. And so, as a good Rabbi, he answers their question with a question. The long running game of oneupsmanship continues as Jesus looks at the group standing before him and pulls something of a Willy Wonka, “I’ll tell you where my authority comes from... but first, answer me just one, simple question. Where did John the Baptist get his authority? Was if from heaven? Or was it merely of human origin?”

And with that, the hunted-one escapes to fight for at least another day. Matthew spells out for us the catch-twenty-two. If they say that John’s Baptism was from God, then they admit that they didn’t catch on to what God was doing at the time. If they say it was merely human, they risk a mob scene as the vast majority of Jerusalem had heard John, been baptized by him, and believed his message of repentance and the kingdom. Collectively, they look at their sandals, shuffle their feet, and answer in a mealy-mouthed chorus, “we don’t know.”

Jesus won’t be answering their question, at least not directly, but if answering a question with a question was Jesus' favorite activity on earth, then telling a parable must have been a close second. “Tell me what you think about this. A certain man had two sons. He went to the older boy and said, ‘Go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘Nope, not gonna do it,’ but later changed his mind and went to work. Knowing only his elder son’s rejection, the man went to his younger son, ‘Boy, you go and work in the vineyard.’ This son answered, ‘Yes, lord, I’ll go.’ But he didn’t go. Which one did the will of his Father?”

The obvious answer, of course, is the first son because actions speak louder than words. And that’s the answer the religious leaders give, and Jesus seems to tell them they’re right when he responds, “Truly I tell you, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do.” But honestly, this has bothered me all week. Maybe I expect too much from people, but it seems to me that neither son did the will of his father. One son disrespected his father in saying “no,” but felt guilty enough or sorry enough or whatever enough to put down his xbox controller and go to work. The other son heaped politeness upon his dad, calling him “kyrie” (sir or lord), but then goes right back to staring at the new facebook layout trying figure out if he likes it or not, never giving a second thought to his dad’s request for him to work. Both boys ruined their credibility by disrespecting their father. Both boys fell short of the ideal Jesus sets forth in the Sermon on the Mount, “let your yes be yes, and your no be no. Anything else,” Jesus says, “is of the devil.” The one who did the will of his Father is the one who says yes, follows through, and does it.

John the Baptist said yes to God and followed through.

Jesus said yes to God and followed through.

These men had the authority that comes from authentically living into the will of the Father. It brought them both to early ends, but that seems to be what happens in this world when your “yes” is yes and your “no” is no and your goal in life is to seek after the Kingdom.

Going to work in the vineyard is hard. It’s hot, dirty, back-breaking work. And it is the ultimate privilege to be called. This conversation that Matthew lets us overhear is between Jesus and the religious leadership of his time, but the call to work in the vineyard is not exclusively the purview of guys and gals who wear collars and get paychecks from churches. By virtue of your baptism, you too are employees of the Kingdom pursuant to all rights, privileges, and obligations thereof.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

The answer, in case you’ve forgotten, is “I will, with God’s help.” Roughly translated, that means “Yes Lord, I’ll work with you.” Many of us have answered “yes” to these questions more times than we can remember. Most of us are actively doing that work on an ongoing basis. All of us, from time to time, fall short, get distracted, or otherwise shirk our duties. But the LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness, and despite our shortcomings, he allows prostitutes, tax collectors, priests, sinner, saints, and all the rest into his Kingdom. Let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no. But when you fall short, remember that actions speak louder than words. Repent, return to the Lord, and get back to work. The vineyard, and the Father are waiting. Amen.

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