Sermon on Matthew 21:28-32 for Pentecost +17 A World Communion Sunday, October 1, 2017
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
The Vision that Compels Us
I just heard that there is a new book out, in the horror fiction category, co-written by Stephen King and his son, Owen, called Sleeping Beauties. In the book, for some reason, that they did not explain in the interview, all of the women in the world go to sleep. So it is, for all practical purposes, a world without any women. Maybe I have seen too many films set in wars or prisons, but that seems to me like a real horror to imagine. All male environments can get pretty brutal.
Anyway, hearing about that book’s plot made me think about imagining our world differently than it is. What would the world be like without any Christians in it? What would the world be like if Jesus never existed?
Christianity in the World
Now, I know you can go in several directions when you think about this. You can think about the Crusades and the Inquisition, and all the ways the church got it wrong throughout the centuries – and we do not wish to deny or underplay any of that.
But think about societies that do not have any, or nearly any Christian witness in them.
Consider primitive societies, in which, to name just one example, women were treated as property. Or think about modern cultures that still have caste systems (even if they are officially outlawed) which enable horrible discrimination. Or consider all of the cultures in which the religions keep people in fear of a capricious or an angry god.
Remarkably, even though there have been so many times and so many places in which Christianity has not been practiced faithfully enough to prevent abuses of every kind, from personal to national, nevertheless, there has been tremendous progress over the years. This is not by accident, I believe.
Christianity has at its core, a vision for humanity that is noble and precious. Based on our roots in Judaism, we believe in a Creator God who made a good physical world in which everyone is created in the image of God with dignity and freedom.
As Christians, because of Jesus, we believe that God is good. In fact, God is best defined by the word Love. And this vision of a good and loving God is not a tribal or local one. We believe God is good and loving to everyone in the world.
Even though there have been so many periods of time in which this vision has been obscured though human failure, nevertheless, we have these texts of scripture that keep calling us back to the central vision, generation after generation, to seek new and more faithful ways of living.
In our generation, right here in our local community, in fact this afternoon, hundreds of us will gather together at the event called Path to Peace for racial and ethnic harmony. Black churches, Latino-Hispanic churches and white churches will lead us in biblical reflections and music, and then we will share a meal of picnic food together. Maybe that’s not quite the sumptuous banquet that Isaiah imagined, but it is a step in that direction.
After all the shootings in our country, after all the history of racial animosity, even here in the deep South, Christians carry the vision that we celebrate on World Communion Sunday, of a reconciled world of shalom, or peace.
The Parable of the Two Sons
Jesus himself knew that there would be times of unfaithfulness to the vision that he proclaimed. That is exactly what this parable is about. There were two sons. The father asked them both to go and work in the vineyard. The first one said “no”, the second said “yes”. But they both did the opposite of what they said. The one who said “no”, changed his mind and did the work. The one who said “yes” did not work at all. Jesus asked the question,
“Which of the two did the will of his father?”
What does it mean to be a faithful Christian? It has nothing to do with what a person says. It has to do with what they do. Anybody can say “yes.” Anybody can say what they believe. Anybody can recite a creed and learn a catechism. Centuries can go by in which people are told that all that matters is saying yes but doing the opposite.
But then someone, somewhere hears the core message and it gets through. It touches their hearts, and they begin to acting, instead of saying. Think of St. Francis or Mother Theresa. Or the countless numbers of people who have left home and family behind to go across the world and start clinics and hospitals, and schools, and universities. Think of what the world might be like today without any of that!
This is our watch
So here we are today. Now this is our generation. This is our watch. This is our moment in the history of the vineyard. This is our time to show our loyalty to the core vision that compels us. This is our time to respond to the call of the Father in both word and deed.
The work of the vineyard starts right here, in this church. We all know that it is not a matter of merely coming on Sundays and saying the right things. It is a matter of doing. And doing includes being fully engaged and fully committed to the work of the vineyard, including financially.
Let is consider this as Jesus did, as scripture says:
“A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
Every church has both kinds of sons in it. Many of us are so captured by the vision of the kingdom that Jesus gave us, that we put our money where our mouths are. We believe that what we have here is precious. It is like treasure hidden in a field, as one of Jesus’ parables says. It is like a pearl of incredible value, worth selling everything for. It is an amazingly hopeful and inspiring vision of shalom, of wellbeing, of justice and peace, of harmony and of care for the weak and vulnerable.
Jesus’ choice of the analogy of the vineyard is worth exploring. Vineyards take a huge amount of work to maintain. I have seen it in Central and Eastern Europe. If you want healthy grapes, you tend and weed and prune and water, all growing season long.
The Work of the Vineyard
No vineyard would be successful if the work was done merely whimsically.
If a vine grower depended on her feelings each day about whether or not to get up and tool up, and head out to the rows, it would be a disaster.
That is why we do not believe our giving should be whimsical. We do not believe our giving to the church should depend on a spur of the moment decision at offering time. We believe that just like a responsible vine grower, so we too decide in advance what needs to be done.
That is part of why we believe in pledging. It is simply a way in which we organize ourselves to be responsible givers. That process of deciding what to give in advance, we believe, is not just financial, it is also spiritual.
Letting go of something as powerful as money really is spiritual. There is always a voice in our heads that tells us to keep it. But money is spiritually powerful, and every decision about spending or giving is spiritual.
Part of how we know we are growing spiritually is how we are dealing with the issue of giving. It is a lot easier to be the brother who says “yes” but doesn’t give, than to be the one who actually does what the father wants.
Fruitfulness: a consequence of commitment
But when the brothers and sisters respond to the father’s request by doing the right thing, then the vineyard flourishes. And it is amazing what can be done. It is beautiful.
Churches can be built with the kind of beauty that inspires worship. Music can be learned and played and sung that moves us profoundly. When the vineyard is flourishing, children are taught the values of the kingdom from an early age, and are nurtured to love the God that gave them this beautiful world.
The whole community benefits. The poor are cared for. The children who need help with school get the help they need. An atmosphere of respect between races is held up as right and good, and affirmed publicly.
And the benefits extend beyond the local community. Victims of floods and hurricanes have people reaching out with help. Even people in other countries where there have been disasters like earthquakes see help pouring in because of our collective saying and doing our “yes” to the father, our work in the vineyard.
Love and Faithfulness
This year our stewardship theme is “Our Love is Here to Stay”. Love is the shorthand word for everything that we are about here. Loving God, being loved by God, loving each other, loving our children and youth, loving our community, loving our planet, loving the next generation.
Our love is here to stay because we are a community that says “yes” to the Father, and then we put our money where our mouth is. We don’t just say it, we do it. We don’t just do it whimsically, we do it responsibly.
And when it is done well, the results are that we get to live in this faith community. We get to give and receive the love. We get to be inspired by the vision that compels us, and we get to see it in action, like we will this afternoon at Path to Peace. That is the boomerang effect of doing good. The good comes back around. And the Father is pleased. The vineyard is fruitful.