Hello, everyone. This is just a quick post (though maybe not to read!!!) from me. Hopefully I’ll have time to post tomorrow, but there’s no promises – completing my bills for September took longer than anticipated today, so I didn’t have time for the other things I had to do, so they’ve been shunted to Monday, which means Monday is fuller than I wanted it to be!!
Anyway, I thought I’d cheat a bit by posting the sermon that I preached today. If it’s not your cup of tea, no problem. I hope that tomorrow’s (possible) post might be more your “thing”!
But, for those who might be interested, here it is.
All mouth and no trousers?
Readings: Exodus 17:1-7/ Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16/ Philippians 2:1-13/ Matthew 21:23-32
There’s a saying where I come from: “He’s all mouth and no trousers” – that is, he is someone who is very willing to voice his opinion, or say what should be done, or promise the earth, but, when it comes down to it, is less than willing to back up those opinions with action, or deliver on those promises. I suppose it’s the equivalent of saying that someone “walks the walk, but doesn’t talk the talk”.
And throughout the readings we have heard, we are given examples of people who have plenty of mouth, but not so much on the trouser front. The people of Israel had already seen God at work in their lives: he had brought Moses to them as their leader, he had led them out of Egypt, parting the Red Sea, so they could escape the pursuing army, showing the way with the pillars of cloud and fire, providing food in the wilderness…All of these things revealing the fact that God was on their side. When everything was going their way, they were more than happy to proclaim God as their deliverer, to praise him for what he had done for them. But it seems that, as soon as there is a tiny grain of doubt, all the previous evidence of God’s providence and care was not enough for them: when faced with another challenge – the lack of water – they showed no trust in YHWH, their God, but rather started grumbling, and threatening to stone Moses, their appointed leader. “Is the Lord with us, or not?” they demanded – clearly having already decided that no, the Lord wasn’t with them.
Within the hearts of the Israelites there was a distinct lack of humility. During their wandering in the desert, God tested the Israelites in various ways, putting them in a position where they must declare their true allegiance. Will the people allow YHWH to be their God by trusting that he will feed and rule them.? All through the testing the people fail again and again, by grumbling, by a lack of trust, yet God still provides. In this story too, the Israelites still did not trust God. When faced with another challenge, they didn’t hold onto what they had learned about their God, or what they had previously proclaimed, but rather looked for someone to blame for this most recent test, lighting on Moses. But then, as he pointed out, their quarrel was not with him, but with God: in not believing that God can, and will, provide for them, they are declaring that their allegiance lies elsewhere.
We see another reaction to God’s challenges illustrated in the Gospel reading: the Scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus and questioned him about who gave him the authority to act as he did. This comes in the midst of Jesus’ last days – he had already entered Jerusalem as a King, welcomed by the people, he had already cleansed the Temple courts of thieves – and the chief priests were getting edgy. They wanted Jesus dealt with. They couldn’t – or didn’t want to – recognise where his authority came from, they couldn’t – or didn’t want to – see that Jesus was doing the work of God. They had seen him healing the sick, they had seen him working miracles, they had heard him preaching of forgiveness, of the end to oppression, the endless love of God but, rather like the Israelites in the wilderness, despite being shown over and over the God that is working for them, they disputed the authority behind Jesus’ actions and words. Perhaps they themselves felt uncomfortable in the face of what Jesus was saying and doing, because their reaction had not been as it should have been. They talked the talk of desiring the Kingdom of God, of caring for others, but when challenged, we can see that they did not walk that walk.
And perhaps Jesus picked up on this, as he went on to tell the story of the two sons in the vineyard – the son who initially refused to help his father, but then had a change of heart, and the other son, who agreed readily, but didn’t follow through on his promise. Which one, asks Jesus, did his Father’s will? The first, the scribes answer – I can almost hear them thinking “Well, der – obviously the one who did the work!”
And then Jesus deals the killer blow – which are you? He challenges. And then replies, you have heard the word of God, both in the scriptures, and revealed in me, and yet – despite your fine words about following the Law – you do not repent, and truly do as God would have you do. You are like the second son, who promises much, but delivers nothing.
In their quarrelling, and demanding of answers, the Scribes and the other leaders of the Temple reveal themselves to be lacking in humility. They try to trick Jesus, but bicker among themselves about how to answer his questions without showing themselves in a bad light; in refusing to recognise the authority of God in what Jesus is doing and saying, they reveal their lack of allegiance to that God. They are not concerned with following the Word of God for any other reason than because it makes them look good.
And so, throughout the readings we see the thread of how time and again, people react to God’s challenge with a lack of humility, with a concern to look good or to find someone else to blame – but not with a real thirst to do God’s will, and bring his Kingdom about on earth.
We have been challenged in these readings, for the question that was implied in Jesus’ demand “which one of these did his father’s will?” is a question that is put to us: which are you? What do you do when faced with a challenge from God? Sitting here in Christ Church each Sunday, we say, and sing, and pray so many things. But the challenge is: what exactly do we do when we leave church and go into the world?
Are you – am I? – like the son who says “Yes, Father, I love you and want to do as you ask” but then actually does nothing to back up his promises? Saying all the right words, but never quite following up on them.
Or maybe you haven’t said “Yes” yet? Maybe you are like the first son who has said “No, thank you, it’s not for me.” In telling how this son changed his mind, and finally decided to do as his Father asked, Jesus reminds us that the future is open for you. Like the first son, and like the prostitutes and tax collectors that Jesus referred to, the way to changing your mind and joining the workers is there. Those who work for the Kingdom are welcomed by God, whenever they accept the challenge.
Or are we like the third son? The son who says, “Yes father, of course,” and goes off, happily whistling, to labour in his father’s vineyards until the end of the day.
Hang on, I hear you say, there isn’t a third son! Well, no, not in the story that Jesus told in this situation there isn’t. But in the story that Jesus told in his life, there is. In Jesus’ life we see the Son that is described in Philippians: Jesus, the Son of God. The Son, who doesn’t consider his own status, the Son who was obedient, the Son who did his father’s will and put others before himself.
The Son who showed us the way to true humility: the humility of service. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul entreats them to show the same attitude as Christ, as he says, “each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others” For Paul, these are the actions that reveal Christ in the world. In these verses Paul outlines how this humility of service, this willingness to serve others, can have a truly restorative effect both within the Church and beyond. One commentator states “true Christian love flows from the disposition to unseat concern for self as the driving force of life and replace it with a practical concern for others”.
If we have this true humility, as revealed by Christ, and celebrated in the hymn of Philippians, then there will be true and genuine unity within the church and among believers as we work together to serve God in our community and in the world beyond. Then what a powerhouse for change could the church become. The upper echelons of the Jewish temple who came to Jesus with their challenge, weren’t really interested in doing God’s work, and in genuinely understanding Jesus, but rather in looking good in front of the people. And being so involved in bickering amongst themselves, they failed to uphold the weak and oppressed, the sinners and searchers, in their community.
Christ was willing to sacrifice himself for others, even if it meant dying; in the hymn of praise in Philippians we read “He humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross”. He calls on us to do the same: to put others first, to fight for the Kingdom here on earth.
You may know of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980. He stood up for the poor and oppressed of El Salvador, preaching, serving, working tirelessly for the rights of others. Even when he received death threats he refused to stop highlighting the injustices in his community. We may not be called to sacrifice ourselves to the extent that Romero did, but we are called on to put ourselves last, to put others first, just as Romero did, whatever the cost to ourselves might be.
Romero once said: “A church that does not provoke any crisis, preach a gospel that does not unsettle, proclaim a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin or a word of God that does not touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed: what kind of gospel is that?”
Christ preached a gospel that unsettled, because it offered a future to the untouchables, the prostitutes, the tax collectors. Christ proclaimed a word of God that got under peoples’ skins, because it told them -and us – that injustice and oppression were not to be tolerated, that the sin of mouthing words of love for God and neighbour but not revealing that love in action was not acceptable. And this the Gospel we are called to preach. This is the love we are called to act on.
And we can only reveal that same revolutionary love in action if we are willing to put others before ourselves, if we are willing to acknowledge that what we have is through the grace of God, to declare that our allegiance is with him, because we have seen the goodness and provision and love of God in what he has done for us. And in that humility before God and before those we serve we can answer the challenge that he sets before us.
It’s a bit scary, isn’t it? It’s a big thing.
And how many of us (and, I promise you, I am including myself in this question) are sitting here, listening, and saying “Yes, I will do it.” – but, actually, probably won’t.
And how many are sitting here, already knowing that it’s beyond us, saying “Nope. Sorry, God, I won’t.”
Wherever you are, just remember, the way is open, the future isn’t over. With God’s grace, we can always change. The future is open for all. In the story of the two sons, we know that the first had a change of heart, and, having initially refused, delighted his father by doing his will. We know too that the second son showed willing, but finally did nothing – but we don’t know if, the next day, he too apologised, changed his mind, and did as his father asked. The story is left open.
Our story is left open.
But with humility we can follow the example of the true son, the Son who emptied himself for others, who served his Father, and brought the Kingdom of God to the earth.
I have spoken of Oscar Romero, a man of the Church, who lived his life for the poor and oppressed, who served his God with humility and love. I would like to finish with a prayer written by another man of God, who worked with the poor of his time, bringing the word of God to a society where the rich amassed more wealth at the cost of those who worked below them. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote that that greed and self-interest is ‘destructive of that faith which is of the operation of God; of that hope which is full of immortality; of love of God and of our neighbour, and of every good word and work.’ He recognised that if we are only concerned about ourselves, our possessions, our self-worth then we cannot truly love God, we cannot truly serve others.
And in recognition of this, he wrote a beautiful prayer, which is part of the yearly Covenant service in Methodist churches. And for me it echoes the words of that hymn in Philippians, which reminds us what Christ did for us. This prayer reminds us of what we can do for God and for others.
It is actually a very scary prayer. I read it at my baptism, and every time I have read it since , I know that I am a bit like the second son, saying the words that his father wants to hear, but not following through. But I so want to mean them. And so, I hope that finally I may be like the first son who changes his mind, who changes direction and finally takes the road that is open to him to do what his father asks:
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.