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Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 21:23-32 23 When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And chief priests and elders argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.   28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 The son answered, ‘I will not’; but later changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and the second son answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the dominion of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” --------------- Please pray with me this morning, church: Holy One, In a world rife with dichotomies, We beg you, Heal our divisions. Make us one. As you are one. Amen. --------------- I’m someone who always strives to do what I say I’m going to do. I like to think that I’m a person of my word. Especially when I’m asked to do something, and I say I’m going to do it, I aim to be the type of person who does the thing I said I was going to do. Now…we can get into the particulars about when I do the thing I said I was going to do…but it’s still true that I try to always be someone who does what they said they would do. Tiffany would certainly point to the timing aspect of this scenario. “Sure, you say you’re going to do it, but it’d be a heck of a lot nicer if you would do the thing, like, you know, when I ask you.” It’s an often-repeated phrase at our house: “I said I’d do it!” after she’s already doing the thing she asked me to do that I said I would do. I suppose my inadequate defense in these matters is that I tend to operate on a more divine timeline… Whatever, but we ain’t waiting until Jesus comes again for you to do the dishes. Fair enough. You’re right. I’m often wrong in these cases. I’m sorry. See, there it is for posterity. Being a person of your word is important. Doing the thing you said you said you were going to do is important. It’s about you being a person of integrity. Aligning your words and your actions. I want very much to try and make this Gospel reading about aligning one’s words and one’s actions because I feel strongly that that’s a convicting and powerful word for our time—that what you do and what you say…matter…deeply. And aligning what you do and what you say…matters…deeply. And doing what you say you’re going to do…matters…deeply. But I’m just not sure that’s this Gospel reading. I do think Jesus does have something to say about that alignment elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus says, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’, and your ‘No’ be ‘No’. Anything else besides comes from the devil.”—but I just don’t think that’s exactly what Jesus is saying here. A father had 2 sons and asked the first to go out and work in the vineyard. Initially, the son refused but later went out to work. The father asked the second son the same, to go out and work in the vineyard. The second son said that he would go out and work but did not. Which one of these did the will of his father? I think Jesus is talking about words and actions here, but it seems to be more like, “Both words and actions are important, but if you’re going to fault in one, better for your actions to align with the kingdom of God, rather than just your words but not your actions.” In other words, don’t just talk about God’s justice and righteousness…don’t just talk about building up God’s kingdom where all are treated as beloved…actually do the work of building up and bringing about the kingdom. “Well, ok, Pastor Chris…I can get on board with that. But what does this kingdom of God look like?” That’s a great question, church, and I’m glad you asked. If you flip with me in your Bibles forward just a few chapters to Matthew 25, verses 31-46, but really beginning with verse 35…the dominion of God looks like the hungry being given food, the thirsty given something to drink, the stranger and foreigner being welcomed, the naked being clothed, the sick being cared for, the imprisoned visited… Or if Luke is more your speed, flip forward a little more to Luke 4, verses16-30, where Jesus says “The Spirit of Lord is upon me and the Spirit has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and imprisoned, recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In other words, the reign of God doesn’t look much like what we’ve got going on down here right now save for some small examples happening intermittently. We catch glimpses and brief moments of this vision, but I think you’d agree, on a large scale, we’re really quite far off the mark. But the good news, church, is that we don’t have to stay there. You and I are not limited to our present realities. We can participate, we can join our work and our voice to the work already being done to make our world look more like God’s dream. We have the option to help bring God’s justice and God’s righteousness more to bear on our present. That’s work we can do. That’s work we can help with. But it does take some resetting of our values. It does take some realignment on our part. We have to get to a place where we believe that those things Jesus talks about, those conditions and indicators of God’s kingdom, can actually be made real and tangible right here and right now in our midst. We have to believe that those things are possible. And not be resigned to these present realities. I’m talking about aligning our values with Gospel values. Rather than trying to make the Gospel fit our worldview…why don’t we shape our world to look more like the Gospel? God’s vision of justice and peace is often at odds with the way things are in our world. That’s just true. We’ve just spent the past month hearing about God’s forgiveness, and God’s abundance, and God’s extravagant generosity…words like “the first will be last and the last will be first”…hearing how God’s ways are not our ways…and how it sometimes feels like God’s ways are an inverse of our ways…and “It’s not fair!” we protest, like the Israelites to Ezekiel… No……it’s not fair. The kingdom of God is not fair. The kingdom of God is just. The kingdom of God is righteous. “Very truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Very truly I tell you, the swindlers and the sex workers are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. Do you see how offensive this is? Very truly I tell you, the beat down and the cast aside are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. Very truly I tell you, the marginalized and the oppressed are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. Very truly I tell you, the conservatives and the pro-lifers are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. Very truly I tell you, the liberals and the socialists are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. Very truly I tell you, the Boomers and the elders are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. Very truly I tell you, the Millennials and the Gen Z-ers are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. Those that listened…and repented…and changed their ways…they’re entering into God’s dominion before you. Do you see…how offensive this is? The kingdom of God is not fair. The kingdom of God is just. The kingdom of God is righteous. The good news, however, church, is that just because they’re going into God’s kingdom ahead of you, doesn’t mean they’re taking your place. They’re just ahead of you in line. This is the great scandal that I think we sometimes fail to grasp. We take Jesus at his word when it benefits us or confirms our opinions and beliefs, but we set it aside or dismiss it when it doesn’t serve our interests. Like the religious leaders in the gospel, we question where Jesus is coming from. “By what authority are you doing these things?” Where do you get off telling me what to do? Jesus is confronted and challenged by the religious establishment. And you and I have our own beliefs and opinions confronted day in and day out. And usually, where we come down when we’re confronted depends on whether or not the message confirms or denies our beliefs and opinions. Does this person or authority confirm my belief or opinion? Great, I’ll accept their views as confirmation that I’m right. Does this person or authority challenge or pose a perspective different from or countervailing to my own beliefs and opinions? Pfftttt……write ‘em off…fake news… Mostly… You and I struggle with hearing perspectives that are different than the ones we’ve already formed. In general, you and I are not good at changing our thoughts or beliefs, or changing our mind or our habits…which is what John the baptizer was calling out for people to do when he was out in the wilderness. Remember? “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repent—metanoia—literally “change your mind”, move from the direction you were headed over here into a new direction, follow a new way. Repentance isn’t about words. Repentance is about your actions. But when challenged with our beliefs and opinions, you and I likely sound much more like the religious establishment in this story, “By what authority…by whose authority…do you get to tell me how to think and how to act?” With all the false piety and bloated righteous indignation we can muster, “Who made you the boss of me?! Where do you get off telling me what to do?” Another great question I’m glad you asked, Church. Because I think Jesus has something to say here, too. I think Jesus cares very much about our thoughts and our beliefs and our words and our actions. It’s why I chose to also bring in Paul’s word to the community at Philippi to our readings this morning. The great Christ Hymn from Philippians 2: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Again, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,  who, although being in the form of God,   did not regard equality with God   as something to be exploited,  but relinquished it all,   taking the form of a slave,   being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,   Christ humbled himself   and became obedient to the point of death—   even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted Christ   and gave Christ the name   that is above every name… Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Regard others…as better…than yourselves. Don’t look to your own interests…look to the interests of others. Be humble. Serve. Be obedient to God’s will. Die to those selfish ways that draw you away from your neighbor and from God. And therefore also be highly exalted.
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