Sunday, September 28, 2008

Twentieth Sunday in Pentecost
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not; but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye saw it, did not even repent yourselves afterward, that ye might believe him.

It is a natural human habit to want to put ourselves on the top of the heap. We want to be the best, the highest, the most powerful. We want to be “Number One!” There is value in hard work and pursuing a goal, but it can get out of hand. As we try to be better, we often step on others on the way to the top. I purposely used the phrase “top of the heap” because all too often our quest for greatness is like climbing to the top of a pile of garbage. We are willing to do anything to become ‘king’ without realizing that we are being covered with the muck and mire, stained by the refuse and picking up the odors of sin along the way.

I understand the importance of the political process here in the United States, but with forty or so days to go until the election, I’m worn out. I can’t listen anymore. It is like we are watching one great big game of “King of the Hill.” Only, it isn’t a game.

There are two ways to get to the top; this is true in politics and in every other aspect of our lives. One way is positive. The rising star gets to the top by putting forth a picture of abilities and successes that show how they are the one who should be ‘king.’ The other way is negative as the person takes down everyone and everything in their way, using them as a stepping stone to the top. I suppose the process is not that simple because there is a fine line between defense and offense in most games. A defensive tackle (explaining a misunderstanding) might actually be an offensive move (showing a success that challenges an opponent’s negative comments.) It becomes a confusing mess of information as each side in the game does whatever is necessary to get to the top.

“Politics” happens everywhere. It is in our schools, in our neighborhoods and in our churches. “Politics” in this context is the process by which our lives are ordered. We need leaders and we need followers, even in our homes. I’m also using the word “politics” in a negative sense, in that many people involved in ordering life are not always interested in what is best for everyone. Instead, they want what is best for themselves. They want to be ‘king,’ even if it is of a neighborhood association or a school PTA. They want to be in control. We want to be in control. And this is natural. I don’t know anyone who is completely selfless. If we believe that we have some good ideas for making the world (or our little corner of it) better, then we should try to implement those ideas for the sake of not only our interests, but for others.

The problems come when we think more highly of ourselves than we ought. Things get upset when we think we deserve to be the ‘king’ or to have the control. Things go wrong when we allow our passion to become an entitlement. We lose control when it becomes centered on our selves. That’s when we start climbing the garbage heap, willing to do anything for the sake of the goal. The ends do not always justify the means. Unfortunately, far too many of us live according to that credo, allowing others to be destroyed along the way.

Since Israel was both a nation and a faith, the politics of Jesus’ day occurred in the temple. The chief priests, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were all leaders. They liked the control they had over the temple and over the people. They liked their position and they liked their prosperity. They were not interested in anything that might upset their rise to the top. John the Baptist was upsetting things. Then Jesus came along, upsetting things more. They were determined to stop the rise of these ‘prophets’ amongst them, and so set out to prove themselves better by proving Jesus was not good enough.

They asked Jesus a question. “By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?” Jesus answered with a question. “The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven or from men?” They could not answer this question. If they answered that John's baptism came from heaven, the people would wonder why they did not believe. If they answered from man, then the people who believed John was from God would rebel against them. They answered, “We do not know.” Since they could not answer, Jesus refused to answer their question.

Instead He answered with a parable. He told the story of two sons, one who refused to obey his father and the other that said he would do so. If the story ended there, you would think the second son would be the son that did the will of the father. However, Jesus takes the story to the next step. The one that refused actually went to do it, the one that said he would never did. He asked the leaders, “Which son did what his father wanted?” “The first son,” they answered.

And according to the parable, this first son was obedient. He grumbled, but he did it. He immediately said “No” but ended up completing the work anyway. He didn’t make the promise but eventually changed his mind and his actions.

This parable initially talks about those who believe in Jesus and the kingdom. The second son represents the chief priests and teachers of the law who were religious but who refused to do the work of the Father. They were the ones who initially said “Yes.” The first son represents those who initially said “No way, I like what I’m doing too much!” but who later realized their mistake and obeyed. What is the work of the Father? The work is to believe. The sinners were the ones who would receive the Kingdom because they were the ones who first believed John’s message and then believed in Jesus.

John the Baptist preached a message of repentance and for John that meant more than words. He warned the Pharisees and the Sadducees who were going to where he was baptizing that they must produce fruit in keeping with repentance. He told them that it was not enough to have Abraham as their father because God is able to adopt children from even ‘the stones.’ In this week’s Gospel lesson it seems that God found children in the most unusual place—among the sinners. These were not just your everyday sinners, either. He found children among the publicans and prostitutes.

I wonder what life was like for those sinners who repented. They believed John and I am sure many of them believed then also in Jesus. But this newfound faith would have wreaked havoc on their lives. Jesus preached and was an example of faithful living that was just and right according to God’s Word. God was the center of His life and His ministry. Jesus turned the world upside down. All that is natural for humans was set on edge by the expectations of the kingdom. The purpose in life was no longer to get ahead, but to commit oneself to God. The kingdom, as God intended it to be, was the focus of Jesus’ preaching. He was calling people to a life of repentance, but that repentance was more than an “I’m sorry.” Jesus was calling the people to a change of heart, to a life where God was the center and God’s Word was the foundation of all they did.

God calls us to a life of justice, and the work of the publicans, or tax collectors, was not just. They cheated people out of money to get rich. They were willing to take the last dime of a widow in order to have a new robe and they feasted on the labor of the poor. A person could work as a tax collector and do it justly, but they would not be able to continue living a life of luxury. A tax collector got the job by competing for it against other tax collectors. They made bids, like a construction company might bid for a job with the government. If they won the bid, they were required to pay the taxes up front. They then went to their station and recouped their investment. It could have been a just system, but the tax collectors got greedy. They required higher taxes from the people to pay for their prophets. While a farmer might owe ten measures of flour, the tax collector often charged twenty. What would a tax collector do with this new faith? With a change of heart, they could not longer cheat the people, but how would they live?

Faith means putting God first. Unfortunately, in Roman times there were dozens of gods to be worshipped. The harlots, or prostitutes, were part of the religious system of the day. They often lived in the temples and served the believers as part of the ritual of worship. Our God is a jealous God and demands from those who believe to hold no god above Him. This sounds like a very human emotion, but in the case of God, it is very divine. We can not hold the Creator of everything equal to the gods found in the Roman or Greek temples of the day. He is God. When John the Baptist preached to these prostitutes, they saw a different kind of life for themselves, under the care and protection of a God who can truly make a difference. They could not go back to their temples, to hold up those gods and religions that had stolen their virtue for false promises. And though we can certainly make sex the issue, this is more about a change of heart. The prostitutes, like the tax collectors, believed in God and put Him first. That meant a change in lifestyle. How would they live?

They willingly turned their lives upside down because they believed John and then Jesus. Maybe that was why it was so hard for the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They already believed in God and were doing the work they believed God was calling them to do. Believing John’s message and believing in Jesus would have not changed their lives to any great extent. But they could not believe. They refused to do like those tax collectors and prostitutes and by doing so lost touch with the very God in whom they thought they believed.

When we read lessons like our Gospel for this week, and the other lessons, it is easy for us to assume we are the ones who are doing right. We are the sinners who have turned to Jesus. However, we have to honestly consider whether or not we are living as God called us to live. Are we practicing justice? Is God the center of our lives? Who have we cheated today and what gods do we hold in greater esteem than the Lord? Have we repented, changed our hearts and our minds, or are we continuing to do things as we have always done them because we are like the Pharisees and Sadducees who built their hope on Abraham?

It is easy for us to look at this parable and think that we are indeed like the first son, sinners who have believed. Yet, we can look at this parable from another perspective. Is the work only to believe? We live in a world that desperately needs the love, mercy and grace of God. If all we do is believe, how are we any different than those chief priests and teachers of the law whose faith in God was not manifest in obedience to God? We who believe have made a promise to God. We’ve said “Yes” to living in faith, but do we really live in faith? Is it possible that we might be the second son who said “Yes” but never got around to doing the work in vineyard for his Father?

Our televisions are filled with political ads, the news is filled with reports about the candidates and our neighborhoods are filled with political signs. The politicians, those who are running for small town mayors to those running for president, are working hard to put their words into our heads so that when we approach the voting booth we will remember their name and pull the lever for them. They repeat key words and phrases to convince us that they are the right person for the job. After awhile those key words and phrases become so embedded in our minds that they seem to be common wisdom. They are repeated in everyday conversations until they are accepted truths.

The problem with political slogans and with proverbs is that there is often an equal and opposite slogan or proverb. That’s what makes voting so difficult. Which do you believe? They all make sense. They all seem true. They all point to a measure of wisdom that we need to go into the future. That’s why it is so important to base decisions on more than sound bites. It is important to know more about the candidates, to listen to both sides of the debates, to research the backgrounds and words of all candidates to find the whole truth amongst the slogans.

There are, among the common proverbs of our time, a number of ‘dueling maxims’ which are contrary proverbs. Take, for instance, “The bigger the better” and “Good things come in small packages.” Which present is better, the big one or the small one? “Actions speak louder than words” and “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Is one greater than another? Is it better to write letters to the editor about a problem or face your enemy? I love this pair: “You're never too old to learn” and “You can't teach an old dog new tricks.” If you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, how is he supposed to learn? We often live our lives according to this proverb: “It's better to be safe than sorry.” But we also know “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” So, should we live safe or should be go forward with courage? And finally we know that “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” but also “Out of sight, out of mind.” So, will we remember those we love if they stay away or if they are under our noses?

Perhaps proverbs change with the changing world, although I think we can all think of times when both sides of those dueling maxims were true. I’ve received big presents that were great as well as small boxes filled with jewelry. The pen is mighty, but there are times when action will do more to relieve the problems. Long held habits are hard to break, but you do learn something new everyday. We have to be courageous and careful. Separation can build a relationship, but temptations fulfilled can destroy.

The proverb in today’s passage may have seemed true to the people of Israel in the day of Ezekiel. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge?” In so much of God’s relationship with His people, the blessings and the consequences seemed absolutely determined by the actions and words of their forefathers. They are a people dependent on national identity and relationship to the past. Yet, we also see in the lives of those forefathers that God is interested in a personal relationship with individuals. God cares about each of us and we will experience His mercy and justice as individuals because He loves each of us as individuals. There may be some truth to the proverbs of our day, and in the proverb in today’s passage, but when it comes to the things of God, human wisdom will never stand.

John the Baptist, and later Jesus, was calling the people of Israel to a more personal relationship. They could not blame suffering on the past or receive blessing through heritage. The Kingdom of God was given to those who believe, who had a change of heart and made God be the center of their lives. God loves us and He wants us to reach out to Him, to seek Him, to follow Him. He wants us to raise our hands in worship and in prayer. He longs to receive us as His own.

I remember when my children were small there were times when I was, perhaps, a bit too busy. They would come looking for attention. They would hold up their hands, wanting to be picked up for a little snuggle. They usually wanted this attention when I was busy in the kitchen cooking dinner or on the telephone. It was almost as if those were the moments when the children felt as though I had forgotten them, so they reached out for my love.

It is amazing sometimes to see how much like children we are when it comes to our relationship with God our Father. We have moments when we feel as though He has forgotten us, as if He is too busy to take care of our needs. In today’s Psalm the psalmist asks God to forget the sins of his youth, but also to remember him. We not only want to be forgiven, we want to know that God remembers us. We reach out to Him with our beings, lifting our hands and our souls up to Him, as a child might lift his or her hands to a mother.

The trouble is, we are always trying to get to the top of that garbage heap, most concerned about ourselves and unwilling to become humble. So, we miss out on the opportunity to be loved by God and to receive His blessings on our lives.

Actors often follow someone who is like the person they are going to play in a movie or television show to learn and experience life from that point of view. They do this so that they can play the role with more credibility. Actors who are going to be cops often go on ride-alongs with real cops. Actresses will sit in classrooms to learn how to be a teacher and to see how the students react to different aspects of the job. It makes their characters more realistic and believable for those watching the movie or television show. I wonder how often those actors and actresses take on the personality of the person they are following, becoming that person instead of just learning to be like that person.

When we think about our Christian life, we often think that we are to become like Jesus, as an actor might become like a cop or a teacher for a movie. Yet, in today’s passage, Paul suggests something even deeper. He says that we should take on the mind of Christ. The difference may seem miniscule, but it is very different. I would not trust an actor to carry a gun or to teach my children. Though they could very well be trained to be great cops and teachers, as actors they are only playing a role. To take on the mind of those jobs means putting the people whom they serve first. An actor playing a role won’t be concerned with the outcome of their work. They are only concerned about getting the role or being believable. A cop or a teacher does what is necessary to ensure that they have done the job well, protecting the public and teaching the children. They believe in the people they serve instead of trying to make others believe in themselves.

So, we are to do more than just be like Jesus and making others believe that we are like Him. We are to have the same mind as Christ. Paul talks about that mindset, which is one that does not try to be great, but humbles himself for the sake of others. We are to serve others for their sake, concerning ourselves not with our own interests, but with the interests of others. Jesus had it all, but He gave it up for our sake. Having the same mind means giving up everything we have for the sake of others. It means humbling ourselves so that others might be raised. It means letting go of our own needs and desires so that God can work through us in the world. It means becoming more than “like Him.” It means letting go so that God who dwells within the heart of a believer can shine His light and grace on the world.

Jesus turned the world upside down. He not only called for repentance like John the Baptist, who called people to change their ways. Jesus called for a change of heart. Instead of trying to climb to the top of a garbage heap, we are called to believe. This life of faith is not one of self-righteousness based on the past or the work we might accomplish, but on the grace of God. It is life centered in His love and mercy, taking on the mind of Christ and dwelling in the kingdom He has given to all those who believe.

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