Pentecost 17 Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 Philippians 2:1-13 Matthew 21:23-32 Let us pray: Show us your ways, O Lord, and teach us your paths. Grant us grace to receive your truth in faith, hope and love -- that we may be obedient to your will and live always for your glory, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Today we have another short parable of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew and it is a simple one. It comes as Jesus is being questioned by the chief priests and elders and it appears to me Jesus is calling them “Religious Couch Potatoes” as they think they know everything but do nothing. Jesus says there was a father who had two sons. The father asked them to go out and work in the field. One of the sons disrespectfully answers, "No! I won’t go!"
A little later, the father looks up from what he is doing and there is that same son working out in the field.
His other son, when asked to work said respectfully, "Father, nothing would please me more than to go out and work in the field for you." Two hours later, the polite, submissive, obedient son is still lying on the sofa watching TV.
Now think hard, says Jesus, which son do you think pleased the father more? The one who said no, but then went into action or the one who politely said yes but then did nothing?
You would agree with me that there are some things in life that you can’t really get to know unless you do them. You can’t learn how to dance, just by listening to a good speaker on the subject of "How to do the foxtrot," even if it is a very good talk on what steps to take and when to grasp you partner’s hand or waist. That’s fine to know the theory but if you really want to know how to do the Foxtrot then you have to get up and do the dance, perform the moves, and let the rhythm of the music take over.
In my pastoral training I learned all kinds of things from very learned and respected teachers. We sat around tables discussing, talking, being advised by our lecturers, and even outside of classes, we talked about deep and meaningful things. But it was only when I got out into a parish that I really learned what it means to be a pastor. All those words came to life as they were performed.
The Bible is the most important book for every Christian. But the Christian faith is not just words in a book. We can hear those words day after day in our devotions, studies and week after week in a sermon, but we only get to know what those words really mean when we put them into practice. You see it boils down to this. Being a Christian is not simply giving intellectual agreement to the teachings of the Bible. It is not some sort of guiding philosophy for life to which you give your approval.
Jesus didn’t lay down a new system of beliefs and theology. Other people have written thick books what the Christian Church teaches and believes. Jesus didn’t write anything like this. He spoke God's message to all people but more than that he lived what he taught and preached.
He not only spoke fine words about loving God and loving one another; he not only taught about forgiving, and caring for one another, or how to pray – he actually lived those words as he travelled from town to town healing, encouraging, forgiving.
The teachings of Jesus came to life as he carried out his daily ministry to others, as he gave his life out of love, as he rose victorious from the grave. Jesus didn’t ask us simply to agree with him but to follow him. He says to us, "I have given you the example. You should do for each other exactly what I have done for you. You have seen how I have not only spoken God's Word but also done the will of my Father. Go and do the same so that others may know that you are my followers." That’s where the rubber hits the road. It is the doing that really matters. The Christian faith is only known through its performance.
As a preacher, I am in the business of words. I write words, as I did for this sermon. I speak words. I think words. But as a preacher I am also aware, painfully aware, all the things that words cannot do.
A pastor asked a group of parishioners what they thought made up a good sermon. One member said, "I want a sermon which helps me to think about things in a new way."
That sounded pretty good and so he began to mold his sermons in such a way that they challenged people to think about things in a new way. But after a while he began to reassess that comment. He said: "We love to think about things. We love to turn them over in our minds, then go home and have a good lunch. We think, or feel, but never act. A good sermon ought to help my listeners to act on things in a new way."
I have a poster in my workshop that reads, “You can’t plow a field by turning it over in your mind.”
And what of you and me? Sometimes we talk a great story like the second son and yet there's little or no action.
As a preacher, my first task is not to be interesting, informative, engaging, descriptive, or even humorous. (I hope that my sermons are some of those things some of the time.) But none of those characteristics, as important as they may be, are the ultimate test of Christian preaching. The words spoken in worship need to be transformed into doing. Under the power of the Holy Spirit you, the hearer, receive those words as a message from God himself. But that’s not the end of the sermon. It is when you act on what you have heard. Hearers must become doers. The faith inside the church must be performed in the world. That is the final test of our worship and the hearing of my preaching.
A devotional book may be interesting with lots of stories and illustrations. The author may be very good with words and explain the Bible passage in an informative and entertaining way. But the final test of all those words and the brilliance of the author is whether those words are performed in the daily lives of the reader.
And that is where the difficulty rests. We are so much like that second son in Jesus’ parable. We are polite, obliging and co-operative. We hear the words and say: "Yes, Lord, I would be so pleased to do as you ask," but as often happens, we do little or nothing about it.
How many of us have made rash promises and then faltered in keeping our promises? Perhaps we have made an honest attempt but find ourselves falling short. We often miss the mark of the high standards we set for ourselves. In fact, every one of us can easily identify with the son who told his father, "Yes, I'll go and work for you." But, like him, we get distracted, frustrated, or just "weary of well doing." And the next thing we know, all our good intentions, all of our commitment goes down the drain, and we end up never finishing the job. We all know what it is like to say one thing and then find ourselves doing another. We are a bundle of inconsistencies. We are all guilty. Jesus' little story hits us right between the eyes. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
We can be like a rich young man who was taken to the hospital, critically ill. His condition worsened, and his doctor even told him that he wasn't sure if he'd recover, but they would do all they could.
The man was obviously scared to death, and said to the doctor, "Please, doctor, I don't want to die, I have so much to do yet in life. If you can help me get better, I'll donate $100,000 to the hospital building fund." Fortunately, the young man began to improve and recovered, and a few weeks later was released and went home.
Several months later, the doctor happened to see the man at a social function, and after seeing that he was doing very well with no sign of his former illness, the doctor reminded him of his promise. "You remember you said if you got well, you'd like to donate $100,000, and we could really use that now."
The young man replied, "Wow, if I said that, I must have been really sick!" Another way to consider this parable is to ask the question, "Is what I profess on Sunday carried out on Monday?"
We say "Yes" to God on Sunday Morning: Then end up losing our temper before we even get home; or we end up talking negatively or unflatteringly about our neighbor.
We say “Yes” to God on Sunday Morning: Then a friend tells a joke ridiculing someone that really isn't funny, but because they laugh, we laugh; or we see someone act in a way, which we know to be wrong, but we silently look on, too timid to intervene.
Someone once said, “It’s easy to tell if you are a follower of Jesus or just an admirer: Look in the mirror and see what’s moving – your mouth or your feet.”
You and I know all these texts well. We know that our faith consists of more than words and agreeing with them. We know our faith is one of getting up and doing - but we find it easier to be religious couch potatoes. We can be sure God is not content with a couch potato kind of Christianity.
Let us pray: Dear God, help us be "doers" and not just "hearers." You know our problems and our weaknesses better than we ourselves. In your love and by your power help us in our uncertainty and, in spite of our limitations, make us firm in faith; through Your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.