September 27, 2020

Pentecost 17A

To be Faithful as God is Faithful

GOSPEL

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?” 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. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, `From heaven,’ he will say to us, `Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, `Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“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, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 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.”   Matthew 21:23-32

SERMON

In the biblical story, when Israel left Egypt, they wandered in the desert for forty years.  As you recall, at one point in their journey in the wilderness, the Israelites ran out of food.  In response to their hunger the Lord rained down manna from heaven.  At this point in the story, they have run out of water.   

They are so very thirsty that their thirst turns into rage.  They turn against Moses, they hurl accusations against him, and, by his account, they are ready to stone him to death. 

But their quarrel was not only with Moses.  Their disappointment was not just with him, but with the Lord Himself.   Whatever the extent of their faith, they had come to such a desperate place that they wondered as individuals and as a community, in silence and out loud, “Is the Lord among us or not?”  

“Is the Lord among us, is He with us, or not?” And if He is among us and if He is with us, does he care, does he really care?   Our throats are so parched that any evidence of care seems remote to non-existent.  

Several years ago, the British press reported that Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury has his own struggles with doubt.  During a BBC interview, the leader of the world’s 80 million Anglicans admitted that at times, he questions the very existence of God.

He said, “There are moments, sure, where you think “Is there a God?  Where is God?'” Remembering his position, Welby quickly added that this was “probably not what the Archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

The Archbishop and his wife are no strangers to suffering. They experienced a great personal tragedy in 1983, after their seven-month-old daughter was killed in a car crash.

During the interview, Welby referred to a verse from Psalm 88 where the psalmist writes, “I cry to you for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” Welby said the passage seemed “full of doubt.”

He said that his uncertainties once bubbled up during a morning jog.  He said, “I was praying as I was running and I ended up saying to God, ‘Look, this is all very well, but isn’t it about time You did something – if You’re there?’” 

Although he has many unanswered questions, Welby went on to assure the audience that he still has faith that God is real.  “It is not about feelings it is about the fact that God is faithful and the extraordinary thing about being a Christian is our conviction that God is faithful even when we are not.”  Yes, God is faithful, even when we are not. 

The experience of the Israelites and that of the Archbishop are far from uncommon.  Many of us, in times either of great personal difficulty, or confronted with another seemingly hopeless unraveling in the world, wonder in the same way, give voice to the same frustration, and are sorely tempted to jettison our faith, if not in the existence of God, at least in the existence of a God who cares.  

Today the escalating global pandemic;  the apparent unraveling of the mechanisms of governance upon which we rely for some experience of public order and some sense of public decency; the ascendancy of the lie and the tenacious hold of the liar on the minds and hearts of far too many, to inspire confidence on our democratic processes; the civil unrest occasioned by daily revelations of the depth and extent of systemic racism; the renewed threats being made to the equality of women; and the blatant disregard for the safety, health and health care of the poor as the real possibility of affordable health care is being once again placed on the chopping block; the threats to social security and to the elderly who rely upon it, leave more questions than answers about the actual existence of divine providence.  Many have now, too long lived, with seething rage in the face of what often appears and has come to be experienced as intractable and intensifying evil.

So where is God?  When I listen to this morning’s gospel, I hear again the invitation of Jesus to find God where He is to be found.  Jesus says, “Go into the vineyard”.  In the Hebrew Scriptures the vineyard is a metaphor for the community of Israel.  Go into the community, says Jesus.  

In Isaiah we read, The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in.”  In the Gospel this more narrow understanding of the vineyard, as the nation of Israel, is expanded, and moving forward, Jesus identifies the vineyard as the world. It includes within its elastic boundaries all the peoples and all the nations of the earth and, in a scandalously privileged way, those who otherwise always are the first to be excluded for one reason or another.   

If we would ever wonder where God is, Jesus suggests that we seek Him first in the love and labor of bringing forth the Kingdom in the context of this world.  It is in this place without hard boundaries that He reigns in the hearts of those who work for and whose lives are about effecting the kingdom’s priorities of justice, love and peace as God gives meaning to these realities. For God, justice begins and ends with mercy; love is unconditional and radically inclusive; and peace flows from forgiveness and reconciliation.  Jesus says that we are to seek the face of God and know the experience of His presence with us, in hearts that are faithful to the priorities of the Kingdom of God.  

Maybe if God seems illusive and even absent, it has more to do with a preoccupation with whether or not our needs are being met in ways that we want them to be met.  As an alternative to our natural tendency toward the satisfaction of our needs, our second lesson this morning holds up a Christ who came to the fullness of both His humanity and His divinity thru a faithful commitment to an emptying of Himself and a detachment from even the satisfaction of our most legitimate needs and desires.   

That same passage from Isaiah that identifies Israel as the vineyard of the Lord concludes by saying that the Lord came to His vineyard “looking for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”  

In the Parable of the Vineyard recounted last Sunday and in today’s Parable of the Two Sons, Jesus takes on the most religious people, the Pharisees, and excoriates them for obscuring the experience of God in their rigid and exclusive boundaries, their self-righteous arrogance, in their giving short shrift to compassion, mercy and reconciliation, and in their saying yes with their lips and no with their lives.  

He could just as well be speaking to the senate majority that operates with zero integrity, and their mindless supporters that fill the ranks of the equally hypocritical and disingenuous, unauthentically-religious right.  The echo of His warning rings as loudly today as it did two thousand years ago, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.  So, you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

Even what might be believed to be and receive consideration as a noble cause cannot be legitimately served thru failures in integrity.  The end never justifies the means.  Good can only be brought forth thru speaking the truth with love and never thru deceitful manipulation.

If we are faithful, if we say yes with our lives, we will, when it matters most, easily remember that God is faithful. Even when we experience ourselves as dying of thirst, we will trust that He is always ready to cause a wellspring of living water to rise up from within us.  

We remember that, 

“He split open the sea and let them pass through; *

he made the waters stand up like walls.

He led them with a cloud by day, *

and all the night through with a glow of fire.

He split the hard rocks in the wilderness *

and gave them drink as from the great deep.

He brought streams out of the cliff, *

and the waters gushed out like rivers.”

 

Faith invites us to be faithful, to trust and, most importantly, to look back over our lives, and see God’s presence and action on our behalf throughout all our days and over the longer course of human history.  God is bringing forth His kingdom and we can be ardent players in that awesome drama, to the extent that we let go of our fears, leave our comfort zones, put ourselves and even our lives at risk and continue our journey through the wilderness, dancing to the beat of a different drummer.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna

September 27, 2020