Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
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 tothe 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.
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)
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!
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
In commenting on our Gospel Lesson, retired Preaching Professor Fred Craddock says,
“The parable says that responses to God are of two kinds: that of the person who has said no but who repents and whose life says yes; and that of the person who says yes but whose life says no.” (Preaching Through the Christian Year A – p. 458)
In his book, “The Answer to Bad Religion is Not No Religion,” Methodist minister Martin Thielen says he recently saw a letter a neighboring pastor received from a family that had become inactive in the church. After listing a series of familiar reasons for their absence, (summer time at the lake, busy weekends with soccer and basketball and vacation trips at Christmas, etc,) they close their letter with these words, “But one of these days, don’t be surprised when you look up and see us out there in the congregation, because we just love you, and we just love our church.” (Thielen, p. 35) “We just love our church;” we just can’t be bothered with showing up and participating in any noticeable way. That is a pretty clear example of saying yes while living no.
There are others, many others, of course. We’re all very, very capable of hypocrisy. I’ve known ministers who preached tithing while not giving anything to the church themselves. Their excuse?
“Well, I’m seriously underpaid, so I’ll just consider the money they don’t pay me as my contribution,” Right. Saying yes while living no.
Growing up in the sixties, I had Sunday School teachers who taught me to sing “Red and yellow black and white, all are precious in His sight,” whom I heard standing in the church parking lot using the “n” word in a mean and hateful fashion. Saying yes while living no.
Week after week we gather in church and in most denominations sometime in the service we will pray the Lord’s prayer and say, “Forgive us our sins while we forgive those who sin against us.” And yet we go on for years harboring resentments, nursing grudges, withholding grace and forgiveness and reconciliation from others while accepting it for ourselves from God. Saying yes while living no.
More than once I have preached what I considered a very stirring sermon on feeding the hungry or caring for the homeless, only to find myself accosted that very day or the next by someone begging for my help. And more often than I like to admit, I have passed them by or passed them on – too busy with my churchy business to be about my Lord’s business. Only in retrospect did I gain enough self-awareness to be ashamed of saying yes while living no.
In the parable, it is the Chief Priests and Elders who are accused by Jesus of saying yes while living no. As the story opens, they are trying to set a trap for Jesus. They are hoping he will claim to be a God, or a king, something they can take to the Romans to get him out of the way. In response, Jesus first shows up their lack of integrity in his question about John the Baptist.
25 Where did John get his authority to baptize? Did he get it from heaven or from humans?” They argued among themselves, “If we say ‘from heaven,’ he’ll say to us, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But we can’t say ‘from humans’ because we’re afraid of the crowd, since everyone thinks John was a prophet.” 27 Then they replied, “We don’t know.” Matthew 21:25-27Common English Bible (CEB).
Jesus then tells the parable about the two brothers, each of whom was told to go to the vineyard and work. One says no, but later changes his mind goes to work. The other says yes, but never shows up at the vineyard. Then Jesus asked the Chief Priests and Elders: “Which of the two did the will of the father?” They have to say, “The one who went to the field and worked.”
Now, Jesus drives his point home. The tax collectors and prostitutes may have turned their backs on God at one point in their lives, but because they eventually repent and obey and serve God – they are way ahead of the Chief Priests and Elders, who have spent their lives professing their love for and obedience to God – but who have also never done any of the works of love and mercy which God asked them to perform.
Just like the tax collectors and prostitutes, all of us have had times when we have said no to God. Times when we have resisted the burden of the cross, when we have made it clear that we prefer to go our own way rather than God’s way. And just like the Chief Priests and Elders, we have also all said an easy yes to following God. Perhaps we thought it would be easy, but then found out that walking the way of Christ was harder than we thought. Or perhaps we really, really meant to, but got distracted and waylaid by the troubles and trials of life. Either way, we all need help, we all need to find a way to say yes and live yes.
In our lesson from Philippians, Paul reminds us that we are not in this alone. Here we read an early hymn of the church that describes for us how Christ laid aside all the trappings of a Royal Son and after saying yes, lived yes; lived yes all the way to the cross and beyond.
And we are invited to follow. The risen Christ comes to us in the Word, the written word of the Bible and the preached, proclaimed word of the hymns and the sermon; calling us to follow Christ in a mission of serving God by serving the world. Christ invites us to the table where we are fed, nourished, and transformed by Christ living in us. In receiving Christ into ourselves we receive the strength to go into the world, saying yes and living yes, serving God, all our days.
Amen and amen.