September 28, 2014 “ 16 Pentecost, Proper 21A
Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
A rather cynical seminary mentor told me: There are two kinds of people in this world – liars and pathological liars. It’s the pathological liars you’ve got to watch out for. The liars know they’re lying but the pathological liars actually believe what they’re telling you.
I once had a little problem with a young boy who had broken something at the church. When I spoke with him and his mother, he told us he hadn’t broken anything. His mother told me, I’m not saying my son is an angel but I really can’t believe that he would tell us a lie. I told her, Your son is just like me. If he gets pushed far enough, he will lie.
I’ve done a little prison ministry over the years and spent some time visiting men on death row. And the main thing I learned is that those men on death row didn’t do anything that I am not capable of doing myself.
There are not good people and bad people. There are just people. And generally it’s the ones who think they’re good that you’ve got to watch out for.
Jesus said, What do you think? A man had two sons. One refused to work but later changed his mind and did the work. The second said he would work but never showed up. Which one did the will of his father? Well neither one of them seems too good now do they?
Where’s the son who says, Yes, sir, and then goes out and does what he’s supposed to do? He’s not here. He’s not here in the gospel lesson. He’s not here at St. John’s sitting in the pews. He’s not here at St. John’s standing in the pulpit. Neither of the sons is good, but which one is better? Which one realizes he isn’t good and is open to changing? That’s what Jesus asks.
He’s standing in the temple where just the day before he threw out the moneychangers. Now he’s talking to the chief priests and the elders. And instead of picking them up and throwing them out of the temple, he asks them this question. They answer that the son who actually did the work is better than the one who just talked about doing the work. Jesus has set them up. And very quickly they see that he intends to inform them that they are like the son who talked the talk but never walked the walk. They have professed and promised but they have never delivered. They’ve said they are in the kingdom but they have never acted like they are in the kingdom. And now the prostitutes and tax collectors go into the kingdom before them. You’re not as good as you think you are, Jesus tells them. And thinking you’re good has actually kept you out of the kingdom. It’s not that they have to become good to get in the kingdom. They have to realize that they’re not good in order to get in the kingdom. They have to open their hearts to God’s invitation to them to come in rather than thinking the kingdom is theirs to invite in the people they want in the kingdom.
You’re no good, Jesus says. But that’s not what keeps you out of the kingdom. What keeps you out is thinking you’re good. You’ve got to realize the kingdom belongs to God and he has invited you in, not because your actions have made you good or can make you good. God invites you into the kingdom through the cleansing sacrifice of Christ Jesus. Christ is the good son, not us. And the good son has laid down his life for each of us.
Since we’ve recently observed the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I’ve been remembering my own adventure then. On the Wednesday morning after Katrina hit land, my parents, who were living in the French Quarter, got a ride to Baton Rouge. I jumped in the car to go to Baton Rouge to pick them up. I took a few supplies but I really expected to drive over to Baton Rouge, pick up my parents, turn around and come back to Montgomery in one pretty simple day. But gasoline and electricity were in such short supply that my trip got a little more complicated than I first anticipated. To begin with, by the time I got to Baton Rouge, it was 8:00 at night and it just wasn’t going to work to turn around and drive home. So we spent the night with some friends of my mother.
The next morning we left, again thinking of a pretty simple drive to Montgomery but began to discover that there was no gasoline anywhere in that part of the state. It was apparent we were going to be stranded so we had to figure out where we were going to get stranded. I don’t know much about Jackson but we decided we would just go to the downtown Episcopal Church, St. Andrew’s Cathedral, and figured something good would happen there. And the world being a pretty small place, the woman at the front desk greeted me by saying, Oh sugar, I know who you are. I’ve been in your church before. I’m an old friend of Mary Ward’s parents up in Greenville. The day didn’t go exactly like we had planned it but it turned out to be a very good day. We spent the night with our new best friend Sue, who had greeted us, had a wonderful afternoon and evening of conversation, a great supper, and then Mary Ward’s parents got a friend of theirs to bring us fifteen gallons of gasoline the next morning and we were finally on our way home.
What that little adventure showed us was that we had to be in a receptive mode. Everywhere we went someone was kindly offering us a little something which all came together to be something very big. We couldn’t force the events to turn out as we had planned them. We had to be mindful of our situation and think about the consequences of little decisions. Mainly we had to realize we weren’t going to make it on our own and that we had to figure out where we wanted to get stranded and then trust that someone would save us. If we had forced the events and pushed on willfully, we would have gotten stranded in a pretty awful place. As it was, we got stranded in just the right place and the three days were very pleasant.
What I’m trying to tell you is that you can’t make it on your own. You’re gonna’ get stranded. What you’ve got to figure out is where you’re gonna’ get stranded. You can keep on driving but you’re not going to make it. You get to choose. You don’t get to choose whether or not you’ll be stranded. You just get to choose where you get stranded. And when you choose the arms of the loving savior Jesus Christ you get saved in a delightful way. We can’t be good enough to make it on our own. But we can see we can’t make it and we can go to the foot of the cross. We can receive the gift of Christ. Open your heart, follow the way, find Christ, and allow Christ to find you. You can’t make it into the kingdom. You have to be received into the kingdom. Open your heart to the invitation of Christ Jesus.