Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Monday, October 2, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 18

Pentecost 18, 2023
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today’s first reading ended with this:  He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”     Is the Lord among us or not? 

Maybe you’ve been asking yourself the same question lately.  We look out at a fractured, partisan, bickering, flooding nation and ask ourselves, “Is the Lord among us or not?”  Part of the answer to our question lies in those two names, Massah and Meribah.  Because those words mean temptation and contend.  They don’t mean “you bunch of ingrates,” or even, “haven’t you been paying attention during the last five chapters of Exodus with the passover, and the Red Sea, and the manna from heaven and all that?”  No.  Massah and Meribah mean temptation and contend, which is the cvery place God shows up.

Is the Lord among us or not?  We can’t help but ask that question these days.  I was surprised to read that people’s faith in God actually increased at the height of the pandemic.  I mean, I can see how that may be true.  Because some days I have felt that way, but then, some days I don’t feel that way.  The times I do feel like my faith has increased are when I put my trust in God, and the times I have my biggest doubts are when I put my trust in commentary and arguments and politics.

When I look at our parish life, and ask myself, “What am I going to do about this?”  I tend to panic.  But I definitely feel more at peace when I ask myself, “How is God at work in the midst of this?”  Massah and Meribah: the place where God shows up.  Panic comes when I trust in myself.  Peace comes when I trust in God.  Or, put another way, pounding on a rock with a stick by ourselves to get water is hopeless.  Trusting in God to provide our needs with our neighbors, and for our neighbors, and through our neighbors . . . that is what brings hope.

And speaking of trusting in God, let’s look at today’s Gospel reading.
The first step to understanding this story is to clear away our American Folk Religion understanding of it.  You remember the basic gist of the parable, right?  The one son says he will go into the vineyard and does not go.  And the other son says he will not go into the vineyard, and then he goes.  And I’m afraid our takeaway is, “Actions speak louder than words.”  Right?

You see how that happens to us.  We take a story like this, and we filter it through all our clichés, pithy sayings, and Ben Franklin wisdom, and we just kind of mistranslate it.  But it’s not a story about actions and words.  It’s a story about trusting in Jesus.

So, if this parable doesn’t mean, “Actions speak louder than words,” then what does it mean?  Let’s go back to the set-up for the parable, before Jesus starts talking about sons and vineyards.  As the reading opens, the Chief Priests and elders are working on a way to trap Jesus.  They’re guessing he does not have a good answer to the source of his authority without blaspheming God in some way.  So they ask, “with which kind of authority are you doing these miracles and wonders?”  (They understand that there are many sources of authority, and they’re hoping he’ll pick one of the wrong ones.)

And, of course, Jesus taunts them with a question in return:  Was John’s Baptism from heaven or from earth?  They cannot answer this question without offending the people, or condemning themselves, so they pass.  Jesus says, then I’m going to pass too.  (Clever Jesus.)  But he doesn’t let it rest there; he goes on to tell the parable about the two sons. 

And before we even look at the two sons and the vineyard, we need to back up to last week, with the laborers in the vineyard.  (Autumn is Vineyard season, it seems.)  Remember that story?  Everyone gets the same pay, whether they worked one hour or ten hours.  And then they get paid in reverse, so that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  Point being: the amount of time you spend working has nothing to do with God’s reward.  God’s reward for you is salvation in Jesus, same as for me, and it is not based on what we do between now and then.  It is based on the love of God and the resurrection of Jesus. 

So, back to today’s parable.  The first son says he will NOT go into the vineyard.  He refuses to go.  The other son says he WILL go into the vineyard.  He claims he is going.  And the son who says he WON’T go ends up going, and the son who says he WILL go ends up not going.  Kids today.  Can’t make up their minds, right?  But this is not really a story about the sons of a vineyard owner.  Turns out, this is a story about prostitutes and tax collectors!  Who knew?

Well, it’s also a story about the people standing in front of Jesus:  The Chief Priests and the elders.  Because remember what Jesus says after the parable?  The first son, the one who said he would NOT go into the vineyard, is like the prostitutes and the tax collectors.  And the second son, the one who said he WOULD go but does not, he is like the Chief Priests and elders.  And now, if you’re paying attention at all, you’re saying, “Can’t we just go back to actions speak louder than words?”

Here’s what Jesus is saying to us:  The so-called “good people” will enter the kingdom last, and the so-called “bad people” will enter the kingdom first.  And that is scandalous to us, isn’t it?  And why is that?  Because the good people, the ones who have it all together, who go to church every week, who follow the rules, and rescue kittens from trees, these “good people” might just be relying on their good deeds to earn them a place in the kingdom. The biggest scandal of the Gospel is that the undeserving get rewarded; but that’s only a scandal if you think YOU are among the deserving. 

You probably have heard someone say, “I’ve lived a pretty good life, so when I die I think God is going to take me to heaven.”  Wrong.  And you’ve probably heard other people say, “I have lived a horrible life, and God is never going to accept me into the kingdom.”  Also wrong.  It is not about what we say or do; it’s about who we are, because of whose we are.  God has claimed us in the waters of baptism by the authority of Jesus, and that is what makes everything different.

If you think your good behavior is going to make everything alright, well . . . you are like the second son:  You’re saying you’ll go into the vineyard, but you do not go.  You still need Jesus.  As Paul writes, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Our good deeds are certainly commendable and important, but they are not enough to restore the brokenness between us and God, and between us and our neighbor, no matter how hard we try.  That sounds like bad news, I know.

But in truth, accepting that we are broken and in need of Jesus is good news!  Because we have admitted that our valuable good deeds are never going to make everything alright, no matter how hard we try.  Once we see that we cannot earn our way into heaven, once we see that we have no right to expect God’s mercy . . . well, then we are the ones who say no . . . I will not go into the vineyard today.  When I truly admit that I am who I know myself to be, I am not worthy of going into this vineyard.  I am the one who says no to God.  I will not go into the vineyard.

Jesus said, “What do you think?  A man had two sons . . . which of the two did the will of the father?”  Which indeed . . .
One says, “I will surely go,” and does not.
One says, “I cannot possibly go,” and does.
One trusts in himself; the other trusts the father.

This story today is about authority and—more importantly—trust.  The authority of Jesus is certainly central, yes.  But you and I are probably not questioning the authority of Jesus.  The authority of Jesus is the part of the story we get, I’m guessing.  But the part of the story we need to hear clearly today is the trusting part.  Where this story speaks to you and me is in trust.  Trusting that Jesus is enough to reconcile us to God and to one another. 

Let me put it another way:  There is nothing you can do to make God love you any more than God does.  And there is nothing you can do to make God stop loving you.  Your relationship with God is not dependent on you.  Not dependent on whether you say yes, or no.  

Going back to the parable we heard, saying yes or no does not matter.  The will of the father is that you go into the vineyard.  The will of the father is that you rise from the grave when your name is called, and go into the vineyard.  Whether or not you say you are going is not the point.  You notice that didn’t seem to matter in the parable.  What mattered was that the one son went into the vineyard.  And that son is compared to the tax collectors and prostitutes, not the people Jesus was talking to: the Chief priests and the elders. 

So, how is that about trust?  It is trusting that Jesus has the authority to do the things that only Jesus can do.  We trust in Jesus’ authority, and that trust leads us to a most crucial spot:
The empty tomb on Easter morning.

When you and I are no longer walking around, taking up space and saying yes or no, we will be waiting for Jesus to call us up out of death.  We will be waiting to go into the vineyard, whether we spent our lives saying yes, or saying no.  We trust that Jesus will meet us in that most crucial place, and raise each of us to new life.  We know he has the authority; we just need to trust.  May God give us that trust, even when we have doubts.  Especially when we have doubts.  Because Massah and Meribah are the very places where God shows up.


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