October 1, 2017 – 17 Pentecost A, Proper 21
Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
What do you think? There were two football players. One scored a touchdown, spiked the ball in the end zone and did an elaborate dance. The other scored a touchdown and raised his index finger up to heaven. Which of the football players did the will of his Father? Neither one! God likes baseball.
In the 2nd Book of Samuel the story is told of King David falling in love with Bathsheba. A major problem for David is that Bathsheba is married to Uriah who is one of the soldiers fighting in King David’s army. In a disgusting show of power and narcissism King David arranges for Uriah to be killed in battle, so that David can then take Bathsheba as his own wife. It’s not really the way you want the leader of your nation behaving and God is justly displeased.
God sends the prophet Nathan to David. Nathan tells David a story. “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.” The rich man had very many flocks and herds but the poor man had nothing but one little lamb. He had brought up the lamb and loved the lamb as did his children. The lamb was dear to this family. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, the story goes on. And the rich man was unwilling to take one of his own flock to prepare a meal for the guest so he took the poor man’s lamb and cooked it for the meal.
David hears the story and becomes irate. “That rich man deserves to die,” David shouts. Nathan pauses, looks at David, and says, “You schmuck. That’s what you just did to Uriah.” David is stunned, seemingly never having thought about the great offense of stealing someone else’s wife and having her husband killed. He is immediately repentant and wants to change his heart. Psalm 51 is said to have been written by David after this visit from Nathan. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” We recite that psalm on Ash Wednesday. The priest when she washes her hands right before communion recites part of that psalm. “Create in me a clean heart O, God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
There are times in life when our sinfulness is ever before us, times when we suddenly realize that what we have done and left undone is downright shameful. And in those times a new spirit is often renewed within us and we make a brand new start. Our sinfulness and shortcomings make us all the more aware of God’s mercy and grace and we seek to turn our lives around.
In the gospel lesson, Jesus uses this tactic of Nathan the prophet on the Pharisees. “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them: “You schmucks. You keep talking about following God but the tax collectors and prostitutes are the ones who have changed and are following God. You’re still just talking about how great you are. You haven’t changed a bit. You don’t even think you need to change.”
We don’t get to see if any of the Pharisees got the message but we do get to see the challenge from Jesus and the invitation to look deeply into our own lives and see what changes might be needed to live into the kingdom right now. The point is not for us to hear these stories and only judge who is right and who is wrong. The point is to hear and then ask how we ourselves are doing, how we need to change, how our lives could reflect God’s kingdom more fully. When we hear a story and get defensive and start thinking about how good we are and how well we are doing, we might be the schmucks God is trying to transform with his love.
If we see athletes taking a knee during our national anthem, or hear reports about devastation in Puerto Rico, we might keep those events out there and just argue about who is right or wrong. The better response to both these current events is to ask ourselves how we may be encouraging racism, how we might be selfishly focused on our own lives, how we might need to change. Just to say, “I didn’t have slaves; I’m nice to black people; Why can’t we just move on?” is not kingdom work. Just to say, “I’ve got my hands full with my own life. Somebody else needs to take care of that problem” is not kingdom work. Kingdom work is wanting to change, wanting to be more just and merciful, wanting our institutions to treat all people as children of God wanting to show compassion to those near and far.
Today we baptize a new member of the church. What will he learn right here as he grows? Will he learn about the love of God for all people? Will he learn that all people share inalienable rights? Will he hear just a glorified version of our past which glosses over ills that have been committed? Will he watch us just take care of ourselves and ignore the needs of others? Or will he witness in us a desire to change and live in tune with the gospel?
If you’re new and haven’t seen it yet, or if you’ve been here a long time but have forgotten it, this is a most remarkable parish, truly gifted, truly holy, truly loving and generous, and truly able to accomplish things very few other parishes could even dream of doing. We don’t need to sit back and say that we can’t do anything about the racial divisions in our community and country. We don’t need to only take care of ourselves. We don’t need to get defensive and say we’ve done all we can and now it’s just up to others to let go of the hurt, or fix their own problems. We don’t need to ignore our faults and hide from the hard challenges. We can listen to the gospel and ask if we are living into it well enough. We can be open to change and growth. We can take responsibility for our own actions and lack of actions. We can be the people of God for a sinful and broken world. We can repent for sins known and unknown. We can ask God to cleanse our hearts and renew a right spirit within us.
Are we the man that David saw had acted so unjustly? Are we the son who says he will but never does? Are we ones who justify ourselves defensively? Or are we ones who are willing to repent, willing to learn and grow, willing to be faithful followers of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We don’t have to change to get into in the kingdom. But refusing to see that we need to change always keeps us out.