How Is God Calling Us?, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 1, 2017

Proper 21

[RCL] Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

In March of 1979, a nonprofit organization by the name of the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network was launched. It is better-known by its acronym: C-SPAN. The organization’s mission is to provide continuous coverage of the goings-on of the US Government. You may have tuned in on occasion to watch as Congress works—or, depending on your perspective, as Congress doesn’t work.

Along with American programming, there are also occasionally programs from other countries, including one from the United Kingdom: Prime Minister’s Questions. The program airs straight from the British House of Commons and features the British Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition party.

The entire program consists of these two figures, along with other members of the House, pummeling each other with rapid-fire and hard-hitting questions, above a cacophony of cheers, jeers, and occasional pleas for “order” from the Speaker of the House. This can go on for hours! One person bounds to his feet and asks a biting rhetorical question, then someone else jumps up with a pithy answer or an even more searing question. It’s the political version of whack-a-mole!

If C-SPAN were around in Jesus’ day, there might have been a show called The Messiah’s Questions! Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is berated with all manner of rapid-fire rhetorical questions.

At the outset of the Gospel, John asks Jesus, “Are you the one we have been waiting for?” Then the Chief Priests—the opposition party if ever there were one—ask Jesus one question after another. They ask why the disciples don’t abide by the tradition of the elders, they ask about divorce, they ask about taxes, they ask about the role of the Ten Commandments, and on and on it goes until even Pilate himself asks Jesus if he is, in fact, the King of the Jews.

In today’s passage in particular, the Chief Priests and the elders ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things?” and “Who gave you this authority?” Then Jesus asks a few questions of his own. The Chief Priests and the elders knew how to play politics, and so they decide not to answer—not because they didn’t have an answer, but because they were afraid of how Jesus might respond to their answer.

And so, Jesus asks yet another question— “What do you think?”—and then launches into a parable about two sons. When their father asks the sons to work in the vineyard, one son says something like, “Sure! I’ll get right on that!” But he doesn’t follow through in the end. Truth be told, most of us can sympathize with this son. How often have we made a promise or a commitment that, for whatever reason, we couldn’t keep?

But the focus of the parable is on the other son—the one who, unlike his brother, initially says he won’t help out but winds up doing so in the end. We might be tempted to ask why he chose to help in the end— “Did he have something else to do first?” “Was his schedule full?” “Was he angry with his father or his brother?” But if we’re not careful, these questions can bog us down in homiletical quicksand and we can lose the larger, more important point: regardless of what initially prevented him, the son eventually accepted his father’s invitation to go to work in the vineyard.

At its core, this parable is the pattern of our life with God. No matter what we’ve done, or what may have initially prevented us, God is always extending an invitation to us. We are constantly being drawn into a new place—to new depths of faith, to a new place of divine discovery.

No matter if this is the first time we’ve ever heard the Gospel, or if we’ve been faithful Christians for decades, this parable lays bare one incontrovertible fact: God isn’t finished with us yet! The baptized life has no emeritus status, and there’s no such thing as a retired or part-time disciple of Jesus!

But here’s the thing: life with God is always forward-looking, always calling us out of the confines of our past and present and into something new. In order to live into God’s invitation, we must be willing to leave the past behind—no matter how comfortable or familiar or profitable—and turn toward the future, complete with all of its uncertainties and questions and anxieties.

And make no mistake: that’s hard!

Consider, for example, the Chief Priests and the elders of Jesus’ day. They had quite a bit invested in the status quo. Leaving the past behind meant forfeiting their claims to power and position, which had become their entire identity. Stepping into life with God meant leaving all of that behind, in favor of a future they couldn’t predict and couldn’t control.

How about in our own day?

How willing are any of us to forfeit our positions, our authority, or our privilege? The truth is that, for most of us, the past is pretty enticing—especially when we enjoy privileges we haven’t earned.

But then there are the tax collectors and prostitutes, whose past was marked by derision and servitude; of being treated as things rather than as persons. For them, God’s future brought new life!

This is the essential question that every single one of us must faithfully discern: How is God calling us out of our past or present circumstances, into something new?

The truth is, sometimes the answer to that question is unsettling. After all, for as hopeful and encouraging as the future might seem, it’s always uncertain. At least we know our past, even if it is limited and dysfunctional.

As people of faith, we are called to hold that tension between the certainty and comfort of our past and the uncertainty and discomfort of God’s future. We’re called to ask ourselves how our past has been allowed to determine our future, how it has restricted our ability to live faithfully, and to consider where it is that we find life and joy and peace, versus where we find resentment and fear and death.

We’re called to ask these questions of our communities of faith, too. How have our churches become entrenched in the structures and strictures of the past? How does doing the same old thing because we’ve always done it that way cut us off from new and life-giving possibilities? What parts of our common life together need holding onto, and what needs letting go?

One final word of caution: when we ask these questions from a place of fear and anxiety—wringing our hands over what our future or our church’s future will be—these questions bear little transformative power. But if we ask them from a place of discernment and faithfulness, we can be sure that as we do this hard and holy work, God will be with us on the journey.

And in the end, we will find life more abundant!

Amen.

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He studied at Transylvania University and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where he is currently completing doctoral work. He is the editor of Modern Metanoia—a lectionary-based preaching resource authored exclusively by Millennial clergy, lay leaders, and teachers. Marshall is also an amateur runner, a voracious reader, and a budding chef. Most important and life-giving of all, he’s Elizabeth’s husband.

Download the sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Round one goes to Jesus of Nazareth, Pentecost 15, Proper 21 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 17:1-7 and Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 (Track 2: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Psalm 25: 1-8); Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Ding, ding, ding! Round one goes to Jesus of Nazareth.

That’s how we’re tempted to see exchanges between Jesus and the religious champions of his day – as theological boxing matches. In today’s gospel passage, the chief priests and elders throw out a cunning challenge, and Jesus sidesteps the attack and lands a one-two, question-dilemma combination that leaves them stunned. Then while they’re staggering, he backs them against the ropes with a parable and pummels them with an insult to their social standing.

We in the crowd may be going wild, but likely we’ve missed the point as entirely as the scribes and Pharisees did before us. Jesus seldom asks questions, poses parables, or challenges the status quo merely to win arguments or to defend himself from accusations. Rather, he does all these things as an extension of the rest of his work – teaching, healing, and saving.

In fact, it’s just this work that the chief priests are challenging. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” What Jesus has been doing is teaching in the temple; before that, healing; before that, cleansing the temple; before that, accepting cries for saving help – “Hosanna!” – as he entered Jerusalem.

But in answering the chief priests’ challenge with a question of his own, Jesus is doing more than deflecting their attack. He is teaching by exposing the assumptions that lie under the priests’ challenge. He asks them whether the baptism of John was from heaven, or of human origin. The priests and elders aren’t happy with either option – and that’s precisely Jesus’ point.

If John’s teaching or the teaching of Jesus or of the priests themselves were solely and unambiguously a matter of channeling God’s will, everyone would recognize its divine origin. The human teacher would be nothing but a mouthpiece for God, but would become less human for being so. On the other hand, if John or Jesus or the priests were acting only from their own human understanding, their teaching about God would lack any special authority.

By leaving his own question unanswered, Jesus suggests that doing God’s will requires a human being in relationship with the divine. If our work is based on an arrogant claim of our own authority, it can’t long remain true to God’s will. But neither does God require that we minimize our own humanity in order to do God’s work in the world. We are fallible creatures trying to teach and heal and love other fallible creatures, and perhaps our humility in teaching, healing, and loving is a more essential ingredient than our authority ever could be.

Paul writes that Jesus, though infallible and in the form of God, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.”

By taking our form, Jesus also humbled himself by setting aside obvious signs of his divinity and divine authority, and instead doing the slow and hard and uncertain work of teaching and healing as a human among humans. His entire life became a great teaching for us – the example of a person wholly in relationship with God.

Jesus’ obedience, even to death on a cross, also shows that he understood completely the role of God’s authority over us as human beings. When Jesus refused to declare to the chief priests and elders “by what authority I am doing these things,” it was because they were asking him about the wrong sort of authority.

In questioning “by what authority” Jesus did his works, and who gave him “this authority” the priests seemed to be concerned with a human hierarchy, a granting of licenses and diplomas and societal roles. “Show us your credentials,” they seemed to be asking him. Instead, Jesus gave them a parable to suggest that the only credentials needed were the works themselves.

The two sons in the parable contrast the saying versus the doing of God’s will. As even the priests and elders could see, it was the son who went and worked who was doing his father’s will. Despite having been rebellious and lippy and arrogant, he changed his mind and went. In doing so, he demonstrated the only authority that mattered – the authority of the one who gave him the assignment. The newly faithful son didn’t get authority of his own for obeying; all he got was work.

That son went into the fields as a flawed and a humbled person, and did his father’s will. Paul encourages the Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” That is, to follow Jesus’ example of complete humility and obedience. Fear and respect for God’s authority, trembling in the recognition that we’re mere humans doing God’s own work.

We can only do God’s own work because it is God who is at work in us, enabling us “both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God’s authority keeps us on track; our humility in accepting God’s grace keeps us from acting in pride by which we might seek our own authority over others in God’s name.

Doing God’s will doesn’t require status in the church hierarchy, or authority gained from years of study – thanks be to God! All that is required is that we change our minds and believe, and that we then go and work in the vineyard – work as human beings, for God’s good pleasure.

Written by the Rev. G. Cole Gruberth

The Rev. G. Cole Gruberth is priest-in-charge of the Allegany County Episcopal Ministry, a community of four houses of worship and welcome, within the Diocese of Rochester, New York.

What do you believe?, Pentecost 20, Proper 21 – 2008

[RCL] Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25: 1-8; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

What do you believe? This question may seem very simple to answer at first. But if we are being truthful, it is not an easy question to answer unless, of course, we have memorized the answer from catechism or intentionally discerned the answer and have practiced articulating it to others.
The gospel today demonstrates why it is important to know the answer to this question. Without knowing exactly what you believe, you are sure to be caught in the situation that the priests and elders are in as they are confronted by Jesus. It would have served them well if they had been prepared and could answer confidently. But more importantly, they would have brought together the community if their interests were not self-serving, selfish, and without integrity.

Based on where we are in our corporate lives in the church, articulating our beliefs has become essential. But before we can be building blocks for growing a larger community of faith, we must know what it is in our hearts and souls. This is not to say that our focus should remain there, only that it must begin there. In the end, we are still called into a corporate life in Christ where, together with our sister and brother believers, we continue the work of building up the Kingdom of God in our world.

If Paul’s letter to the Philippians has any ring of truth for us today, then there cannot be community without unity in a corporate belief. Paul tells us that we must be of the same mind as Jesus, and the only way to accomplish that is through love, humility, and reconciliation – not through conceit or selfishness.

It is very difficult to be a community in our world today. Yet it is essential for a holistic, healthy, and happy life. The world we live in today causes us to struggle for balance between the individualism that is encouraged by society and our desperate need to belong. We struggle to reconcile ourselves and be at peace in a world that is connected by technology but knows little about anyone outside our circles.

Let us not trivialize Paul’s message – love, humility, and reconciliation are not just buzz words. They are deeply connecting words that speak through our hearts and souls. They are foundational words used throughout the gospels as Jesus models love, humility, and reconciliation for us.

These characteristics are evident in the parable we heard in today’s gospel. The father, who is the owner of a vineyard, has two sons, and he asks them both to come to work with him. The first son refuses to honor his father’s request but he changes his mind, repents, and then goes to work in the vineyard. The son has a change of heart that he acknowledges through his repentance – a sign of humility, love, and his willingness to discern and reflect reconciliation. The second son says he will go to work but he does not. His actions are an example of selfishness and lack of integrity.

Jesus does not just tell the story about the father and his two sons, but further describes community-building to the elders and chief priests in the temple through their own attitudes about John the Baptist. Jesus tells them that they had a chance to hear what John had to say about justice and righteousness, but they chose to remain fixed on their laws and those things that secured their power. He confronted their selfishness and lack of integrity directly while simultaneously demonstrating that this did not build up the community of faith.

Jesus uses the faith of the tax collectors and prostitutes who heard John’s message and changed their ways to show community-building at its best. They model the personal responsibility we each have to change, seek justice, listen, and hear the truth in differences. The prophetic words of Ezekiel say clearly that those who have considered and turned toward a change for justice and willingness to hear truth in difference will live. They will find a new heart and a new spirit.

As we listen to these readings and discern our own hearts and souls, we begin the process of answering the question, “What do you believe?”

Listening and hearing our readings in the context of celebrating our corporate lives is another step. The next step requires that we share our hearts with each other and then with everyone we encounter in our lives. This doesn’t mean that we “evangelize” to everyone everywhere. But as St. Francis is attributed as saying, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

What do you believe? It needs to be evident in the way we live and relate. Living with integrity means that there is no break between our words, actions, and faith. Living with integrity means that we can discerns God’s voice in those expected and unexpected places and that we not only listen but are willing to change as we grow in our personal and corporate faith.

We want to be people who, when asked who we are, can reply with confidence because we know our hearts and souls and live accordingly. We want to be a people who dismantle injustice and practice humility as we listen to the Spirit’s call on our lives. In short, we want to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. We just need to begin with knowing what we believe.

Written by the Rev. Debbie Royals
The Rev. Debbie Royals is a regional missioner for Native Ministry Development, based in the Diocese of Los Angeles. She is the Province VIII Indigenous People’s Network chair and a CREDO health faculty member. E-mail: debbieroyals@sbcglobal.net.