Year A — The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21)

Commentary for September 25, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 17:1-7
Okay, maybe I’m prone to be a little too hard on the biblical characters sometimes. But, geez, Louise — didn’t God just save their lives (A -GAIN, as Forrest Gump would say) with the whole manna and quail thing. Now, they begin to worry about water to drink?

It’s the same routine as before. “We had PLENTY to drink in EGYPT!” Yeah, and you had taskmasters beating you on the back with whips, too…but who remembers that?

Our human capacity for complaint in the face of the mercy of God seems to be endless. We are all “Massah” — testers of God’s good graces. And we are certainly all “Meribah” — quarreling, whining complainers!

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Psalm 78 reminds and references the miracles we have been reading in Exodus, most notably the deliverance from the water at the Red Sea and the drawing to the water in the wilderness. In both instances, God’s salvation was made known in the midst of God’s people.

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
The prophet gives a “new” saying for God’s people, one that balances corporate sin and deliverance with individual responsibility for repentance.

Psalm 25:1-9
There is a fairly active debate, when it comes to forgiveness, about whether it is right to both forgive and forget. Certainly, the psalmist asks God to do just that! “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!” (v.7)

Philippians 2:1-13
The “Christ Hymn” is always spectacular, not only in its reach from the heights of heaven to the depths of the earth and back again, but for its simple profundity. “Jesus had these kinds of things in his mind — so should you.”

  • no claim to a privileged standing with God
  • never exploiting the grace and goodness of God
  • allowing self-pride to drain away in the face of greater need
  • humble willingness to do the will of God
  • allowing God to exalt in God’s perfect timing

It is, after all, God who works in us…and, perhaps despite us, much of the time!

Matthew 21:23-32
Jesus wins a game of one-upmanship against the temple officials. “You go first.” “No, you go first.” “No, you go ahead, then I’ll give you your answer.” “Okay, you win.”
Interesting, isn’t it, that Jesus never steps into a box of our own construction!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton 
Didn’t you hear me? That’s what my Daddy would say when we failed to obey him quickly enough. Didn’t you hear me? That’s what my Mama would say when she got home from work and found our chores undone. Didn’t you hear me? That’s what the elementary school principal would say when we failed to immediately do whatever it was he told us to do.

I grew up in a world in which it was assumed that children would do what their parents and teachers told them, without grumbling, hesitation or backtalk. Since they could not imagine a child NOT doing as he or she was told, the only excuse they could think of for such failure was not hearing the command, thus, “Didn’t you hear me?”

I heard those words a whole lot more than I care to admit or remember. I was not a terribly obedient child, but I was not outwardly rebellious either. I was a bit of a passive-aggressive slacker. So when a parent or teacher or coach or youth minister said, “Didn’t you hear me?”
I usually responded with something really clever like; “Oh, you meant me?” or “Oh, you meant take out THAT trash can.” No one was ever fooled by this, of course.

One of the distressing things about growing up is that we do indeed become our parents. This has led me to a peculiar and I think unique theory of genetics: I believe that we inherit traits from our parents through our children. I know I didn’t become my father until I had two sons.

But, I was not an exact carbon-copy of my father. While, like him, I equated my giving orders to their immediate obedience (oh silly me); I developed a more modern, ironic, sarcastic approach, as in “exactly what part of “unload the dishwasher” did you not understand?” but the point is the same: to hear is to obey.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus has a conversation with the usual suspects, the “Chief Priests and Elders.” They have questions about Jesus’ authority to teach. They are trying to set a trap for him, hoping he will claim divine authority in such a way that they came accuse him of the crime of blasphemy.

Jesus does two things. First, he shows up their lack of honesty and integrity by asking them about John the Baptist. He shows that they are so afraid of public opinion that they will not dare speak an unpopular word. He then lays out for them a parable about obedience:

He tells a simple tale of two brothers. They were both told by their father to go to the vineyard to work. One says Yes Father, but does not go. The other says no, but later changes his mind and goes. Jesus poses the question: Which of the two did the will of the father?

In this story, Jesus makes it clear that the tax collectors and prostitutes and other sinners may have turned their backs on God at first, but they later repented and turned their lives around.

Meanwhile, the Chief Priests and Elders have spent their lives professing obedience to God’s will, saying yes to God; but have never done any of the works of love and mercy to which God calls them.

This, Jesus says, makes it clear that the sinners will get into the Kingdom first.

Many of us in the church are like the Chief Priests and Elders; we are guilty of saying yes and living no.

We say yes to the belief that God is the creator of all things, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth,” and yet how do we treat that which God has made?

We say yes to the truth that all that we have and all that we are gifts to us from God, we say yes to the idea that we own nothing but simply take care of it on behalf of God and the Kingdom. We say “Yes, our time, talent and treasure belong to God.”

We say yes to all this; and then worry about whether our percentage of giving is to be calculated on our gross or net earnings. We question whether or not the Christian is really expected to give a tithe. Oh did you mean me? Oh, did you mean those poor people? Oh, you meant for me to sell all I have and give to the poor. We say yes; but find a way to live no.

We say yes, the Gospel calls us to serve the poor and needy of the world, we say yes to the truth that “if we do it for the least of these,” we have done it for Jesus.

We say yes, Christ calls us to die to self and take up a cross. Oh, you meant that scruffy Bum, that homeless alcoholic, that boy with AIDS, that unwed mother. We say yes, but find a way to live nO.

Soren Kierkegaard created a parable about this. It went something like this:

Suppose a King issued an order to his Kingdom to be obeyed by all. But instead of obeying it the people created Schools to teach people to teach this order to the people. And these new Teachers then went out and held weekly study groups so people could study the King’s order and then they also had weekly Celebrations to sing praises to the King for giving the order. And, in the Universities, those who wrote the most interesting interpretations of the King’s order won
prizes and important titles. What if they did all this, but throughout the whole Kingdom, no one actually bothered to obey the order? “How,” Kirkegaard asks, “Do you think the King would react?”

I think the King would thunder, “Didn’t you hear me?”

This story is about us, the church, and our tendency to say yes while living no.

And, you know what? If we were left only with words, directives, orders, from Jesus, I think we would be stuck in this cycle of self-deception and failure forever.

Fortunately for us, the Creator not only invited us to go into the vineyard to work, the Creator also sent us a Savior to show us the way.

This is the point of our Second Lesson, the reading from Philippians.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus:
Who, though he was 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 – –
Even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him,
and gave him the name that is above every name,
So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue confess,
that Jesus Christ is LORD.

Jesus came to the Vineyard to work, fulfilling the will of the Creator. He obeyed, and this obedience led to his death, his death upon a cross.

But Christ’s obedience did not end there; the cross was not the end but the beginning of life, both for Jesus and for us. God’s yes at Easter led Jesus and us out the other side of the tomb.

We are the new and risen Body of Christ in the world, called to obedience, called to shout out and live out a resounding yes to God’s call and promise.

In the early days of the Reformation, Martin Luther wrote an essay in answer to what he called “Poor, confused persons trying to find the true Christian Church in the world.”

In this essay, Luther laid out seven marks of the Church:
1 – Preaching of the Word
2 – Baptism
3 – Communion
4 – Confession and Forgiveness
5 – Ordaining Ministers
6 – Thanksgiving, prayer and praise
7 – “the suffering of the Cross”

We are all more than willing to say yes to the first six of these. The seventh one, “the suffering of the cross” makes us hesitate, gives us pause.

It is this hesitancy to say yes to the suffering of the cross that leads us to the sin of saying yes with our lips while saying no with our lives.

But, the Gospel is, we are incomplete until our yes to God leads us to solidarity with those who suffer. We are incomplete in our yes to God until our yes leads us to suffer with those who suffer. We are incomplete until our yes to God leads us to suffer with Christ for the salvation of the world.

Then, we can rest assured that when our days here on earth are over, God will look at us and say “Well done, good and faithful servant. I see that you heard me.”

Amen and amen.

3 thoughts on “Year A — The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21)

  1. Well done. You've skillfully woven a number of strands into a seamless garment. Plenty of Law and, as always, plenty of Gospel. The pithy contrast of saying yes and living no will make this sermon memorable for its hearers for a long time.

  2. Saying yes, living no. That would make a good sermon title. I might need to use it. And I'll be preaching to a bunch of Lutherans, so the Luther quote might come in handy too!

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