Sermon A Pentecost L. 26 2017 King of Kings, New Windsor September 30-October 1, 2017
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalms 25:1-9, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
In today’s gospel lesson, we hear Jesus telling a parable about two sons, one who answers “Yes” and one who answers “No”. The first, who says “Yes”, doesn’t do his father’s bidding, and the second, who answers “No”, later repents and does what he had first refused to do.
When Jesus tells this parable, where is he? In the temple. With whom is he speaking? The chief priests and elders of the people. Now who are these chief priests and elders? Religious leaders. They are the priests and other leaders who have risen to the top of the ranks, the men in the faith community who have earned respect by virtue of their age, wisdom, wealth and power. They think of themselves as important and are treated as important by others. Accustomed to getting their way, they tell other people what to do. Attentive to the religious laws, they think that they can do God’s will better than others, and they are judgmental of those who don’t keep the law.
In today’s parable, when Jesus speaks to these religious leaders, the chief priests and the elders of the people, he speaks against them. Jesus chastises them for saying “Yes” and not doing God’s work, and he blesses the tax collectors and the prostitutes, who, having once said “No” to God, have turned around to say “Yes”.
If Jesus would wander in to King of Kings today, I wonder to whom he would address this parable? To whom would he be speaking? Who are “the chief priests and the elders” here, the religious leaders of our day, here? Who is supposed to listen to this parable?
Well, certainly the pastor. A pastor gets paid to do the work of God, gets paid to answer “Yes” and to follow through on behalf of the faith community; he or she is a “professional Christian”. Of course I’m supposed to listen to this parable. But there are other religious leaders here as well; how about the council members? After all, they get elected to oversee the work of God here; they get elected to answer “Yes” and to follow through on behalf of the faith community. And there are other leaders: the Altar Guild, the musicians, and Team Leaders (for Worship, Christian Education, and Hospitality, for example). Maybe, if you can put a title behind your name, like “member of the Fund-raising Review Team” or “leader of the Audit Team”, you are supposed to listen to this parable, too.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Guess I’m off the hook; I’m not a leader.” You might not have a title behind your name, but maybe you are signed up to tell stories at BING or a be a confirmation volunteer; maybe you stuff envelopes in the office or oversee a potluck or set up or clean up from coffee hour or mow the lawn. If you make any contribution to the work of God in this place you are a leader, a religious leader, and you, too, are supposed to listen to this parable.
Truth be told, Jesus addresses this parable to all of us. God addresses each of us, inviting us to serve in some capacity at church or make a difference in the world with a career or be faithful in a life-long relationship or run for public office or volunteer at a child’s school. Maybe, when you hear God calling, you tend to say “Yes”, or maybe you tend to say “No”. Or maybe there are times when, like me, you say “Yes” but don’t follow through and other times when you say “No” but later come around and do whatever God was calling you to do. Maybe this parable is addressed to you! What, then, does it mean? What does Jesus want you to learn when you listen to this story?
Here’s my interpretation, in eight steps…
- God asks you to do God’s work in the world. God has a job for you.
- No matter what the specifics of God’s job for you, your work for God is to love; your job description is: Love God. Love yourself. Love others. (The first and greatest commandment is to love God, self, and others.)
- You have the choice to say “Yes” or “No” to God’s invitation, to take the job or not—or not to respond to the job offer at all.
- Once you have said “Yes”, you have another choice: to keep your word or not, to do God’s work or not, to fulfill your responsibilities: to love God, yourself, and others—or not. In fact, you have this choice every day, to love—or not.
- Once you have said “Yes” and responded with obedience, God rejoices in your participation in God’s work.
- Once you have said “No”, God’s interest in you as a candidate for the job of loving God, yourself and others does not wane. God is persistent in recruiting you. God doesn’t give up on you. God doesn’t take “No” for an answer. If you say “No”, and later change your mind, you can start over again and say “Yes” to God.
- Once you change your “No” to a “Yes”, you have the choice, as does one who says “Yes” right away, to keep your word or not, to do God’s work or not, to love God, yourself, and others—or not.
- And once you have said “Yes” and responded with obedience, even if you initially said “No”, God rejoices in your participation in God’s work.
To summarize the meaning of the parable, God has a job for you; it’s the job of loving God, yourself, and others. God desires that you take this job, that you say “Yes” to God. If you say “Yes”, then God expects you to do what you have said you will do. If you say “No”, God is disappointed but does not give up on you. If you say “Yes” but don’t do what you have committed to do, then God will hold you accountable—and God will give you another chance to fulfill your commitment, to live into your “Yes”. If you say “No”, but later change your mind, God gives you a chance to change your answer and start over. If you do God’s work, if you say “Yes” and do what God asked you to do in the first place even after you answered “No”, then God is pleased. That’s what I think Jesus is trying to tell you—and me—in this parable.
There’s one more thing; perhaps it’s the most important thing. It’s that God always says “Yes” before you do. God’s “Yes” precedes your “Yes”. Your saying “Yes” to God and following through with loving God, self, and others is not what causes God to say “Yes” to you. Rather, your love of God or self or others comes from God; it reflects God’s love. To put it another way, you have the privilege of saying “Yes” to God’s job offer because God has first said “Yes” to you. God, who created you, said “Yes” to you at your creation and at your baptism, and God continues to say “Yes” to you over and over and over again.
Martin Luther was particularly attentive to the order of love, to the motivation for our loving. Let me offer a quick summary of his theological explanation of how love works: “First, God loves us; then we love God and ourselves and one another.” Let me repeat that: “First, God loves us; only then can we love God and ourselves and one another.” Here are some other ways Luther tries to get the point across. ”Loving our neighbor does not earn our salvation. Rather, loving our neighbor is the way that God’s love is made active in us.” “Loving our neighbor is not something we do to make God love us; rather, we love our neighbor with the love God has first given us.” “You love your neighbor, you do good works for your neighbor not to earn your salvation or the attention of others, but simply because your neighbor needs them.”
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, when you say “Yes” to God and then love God, yourself, and others, God is pleased, but God’s pleasure does not begin with your “Yes”; rather, God’s “Yes” is the origin of your “Yes”—and your follow-through—and of God’s delight in you. From the beginning to the end, God is always saying “Yes, Yes, Yes.” God is always loving you. God is always taking delight in you. And God is always inviting you to respond by loving God, by loving yourself, and by loving others. So what will you say to the job offer? AMEN