Sermon for 18 Pentecost, Year A
Based on Phil. 2:1-11 & Matt. 21:28-32
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
We human beings are complex creatures. The older I grow, the more aware I've become of this reality. Today, our second lesson and gospel address one common thread of our complex lives. Some people today call it an "attitude adjustment," or "cleaning up one's act." In biblical language, it's called repentance ~ getting ourselves a new heart and a new spirit ~ having a Christ-like mind and a Christ-like attitude. So complex are human beings in relation to repentance, that there are at least five different possibilities.
There is the person who begins their faith journey by saying Yes to God and Yes to repentance. However, somewhere along the way, they derail off the track ~ they wander off the straight and narrow path and that's how their life ends. Their life ends by saying No to God.
Biblical scholar, Peter Craigie, once summed up the life of such a person, by citing the following example: "Consider, the case of John Doe. For sixty-five years, he has led a totally blameless life. But suddenly, for whatever reason, he turns bad. And for his last few years on this earth, he abdicates responsibility and pursues evil. Surely that sixty-five years of good and honest living are not wiped out by a little weakness at the end? But it seems that that may be the case."
When, in our gospel, the father told his second son to work in the vineyard, the son seemed willing enough to say Yes to his father. But, unfortunately, the son's words ~ for one reason or another ~ did not match his actions, he failed to go. To make matters worse, the second son in this parable applies to religious folk ~ people like many of us. For who among us haven't made promises that we've failed to live up to? Who among us begin something with the best of intentions, only to end it without a sense of completion ~ or worse yet, without even having gotten started?
There is another kind of person who begins as a rebel, by firmly saying No to God, yet ends by saying Yes. This is the person who has ignored or resisted God. Who has exploited and hurt other people ~ sometimes deliberately because of their faith convictions. But somewhere along the way, God gets through to them and they repent of their evil ways, saying Yes to God.
One of the classic cases of this kind of person is the Apostle Paul. When Paul first learned of Christ, his gospel and his followers; he resisted them with all of his might. Paul went to great lengths to say No; to reject, persecute, even destroy Christ, his gospel and his Church. However, this was all in vain. One day, Christ got through to Paul by way of his Damascus road experience. Paul repented and had a new heart, a new spirit, a Christ-like mind, a Christ-like attitude. He spent the remainder of his days saying Yes to God and living out that Yes with great commitment.
In a similar way, our gospel points out that when the father told his first son to go out and work in the vineyard, he said No but ended up repenting and saying Yes. Then Jesus takes this No-Yes pattern further ~ indeed, he takes it to the extreme ~ by telling the so-called righteous religious folk that the tax collectors and harlots would go into the kingdom of God before them!
Now that would certainly be enough to shock and get the religious folk all worked up! This is not an easy word for us either, because there are times when we too need an attitude adjustment.
There is yet another kind of person who No to God first and last. This person spends their life resisting and saying No to God. They deny that God even exists. As Michael Sherer has observed: "It is said of Albert Camus, the great atheistic philosopher, that Christian thinkers who admired him tried to picture him to others as a "secret Christian." Camus let it be known that he wasn't keeping any secrets; he simply wasn't at all enthused about the Christian Faith."
"Camus wasn't lacking in an understanding of the Christian Faith. He knew what Christianity made bold to promise people, and he'd struggled long and hard, with heart and soul and intellect, to come to a conclusion as to whether there could be a god at all. After all was said and done, he came to the conclusion that he didn't want to make an affirmation in a god of any sort."
Then there is yet another kind of person who begins and ends by saying Maybe to God. The one thing that this person cannot or will not do is make a commitment ~ "let someone else do it" becomes their life-long creed.
Richard Andersen and Donald Deffner tell following story: "Once upon a time, a man had everything his heart desired. His family was healthy; and, lo, good fortune smiled upon him. As was his custom ~ when he was in town, when the fish weren't biting, when he could manage to squeeze time in, when he was not too tired ~ he regularly went to church."
"And so vacation, camping weekends, and days off came and went until much time had passed. The man's health began to fail, and lo, one day he noticed something strange: they did not come from the church to see him anymore. They did not even visit him while he was in the hospital. Being great of heart, he decided later even to go to church to see how they were doing in his absence."
"But, lo, when he arrived, there was no church; a shopping centre had been built where the church once stood."
Too many people are guilty of saying Maybe. The result is that people fail to take enough personal responsibility. In the case of our story, the consequence was tragic. The church died because everyone had a similar attitude as the man in this story.
There is yet another possibility ~ the Person who says Yes to God first and last. This kind of Person is the One who gives the most glory and delight to God. This Person is our perfect Role Model ~ our Perfect Example. He is best described in the wonderful passage from Philippians. He is Jesus Christ, who is God yet, at the same time, incarnate. In the form of a human being like us, which he willing chose; he is our perfect Role Model ~ showing us in his words and actions what it really means to be humble, obedient to God even unto death on a cross. Jesus is the greatest Servant of humanity. In perfect freedom and love he serves others.
This really hit home to me some time ago, when I was talking with someone about the general state of our world. This chap said that the only way there could be peace in the world was to consider look after the needs and interests of others. Then he added: "to live like Christ." Now this really surprised me because the person is not a Christian ~ yet even for him, Christ is the perfect Role Model.
Both our second lesson and gospel today underline the need for taking individual responsibility for the consequences of our words and actions. When our lives are rooted firmly in a relationship with God; we are then able to be responsible individuals. When we realize how free and loving Jesus is towards us; then we too shall be equipped and empowered to serve others in freedom and love.
May we be granted a new heart, a new spirit in order that repentance is possible for us ~ resulting in Christ-like minds and Christ-like attitudes. May our lives speak ~ in both words and actions ~ a resounding Yes to God.
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