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Saying “Yes” and Living It

September 25, 2011

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

on the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, September 25, 2011


Matthew 21: 23-32

We are at a turning point in our year-long reading of Matthew’s gospel. Long past are the gentle parables about God’s paradoxical presence in history. First delivered to a people sitting on the seashore, while Jesus stood a little distance away in a borrowed boat, the parables of the sower, the mustard seed, the yeast and the treasure announce how the Kingdom of Heaven, God’s life-giving reign, is present now, and is coming in its fullness. It is hidden, yes, and it works mysteriously; but it is nevertheless real, active and making a difference in our lives and in the world.  These parables invite us to see the quiet, gentle work of grace that extends to all, is patient with all, that can potentially transform all, so that in the end there will be gardens of grain, mountains of bread, and children of God who live with justice, grace and peace.

Finished too, at this point in Matthew’s gospel, are the parables of grace, those surprising stories in which the first shall be  last and the last shall be first, where sinners and tax-collectors enter the kingdom of heaven before the teachers of the law, where enormous debt is forgiven, and everyone gets what they most need, in abundance. These parables were both spoken but lived, as Jesus healed not only Jews but gentiles, welcomed not only zealots but sinners, and placed the outcast and marginal at the very center of his community.

We come now, and for the next several weeks, to the parables of judgment delivered by Jesus in the shadow of Jerusalem. For the remainder of our liturgical time with Matthew, from now until the beginning of Advent, the last weekend of November, Jesus will be involved in an “intense, growing, and [ultimately] violent controversy” with the temple leadership.[1] In the previous chapter, Jesus entered Jerusalem for the final time to the shouts of “Hosanna, Hosanna. Blessed in the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” He entered the Temple district and drove out the moneychangers, overturned the tables, shut down the market, and confronted the chief priests. From now on, all of the parables will be about how they (the chief priests), and how we, respond not only to the news of God’s transformative kingdom, but of how they, and we, respond to Jesus himself.

Have you ever been put on the spot to answer a question? Or [to] take a position on a question on which you know there is divided opinion? Have you experienced that uncertainty when you know you are being set up, and you calculate your response? I put a couple of questions in the bulletin this morning, and helpfully labeled them ‘tricky questions’ to put your mind on guard. Would anyone like to try and answer the first question?  Or shall I call on someone? (There, right there, is the feeling I was after.  You can have fun with the questions later.)

In our story today, the temple leaders try to place Jesus on the spot. They ask him about his authority. “Where does it come from: from yourself, or from God?  The things you do: healing broken bodies; forgiving the debts of sinners; widening the boundaries of Israel until they include, well, everyone; disrupting the marketplace and challenging the leadership of the temple, all under the watching eyes of Rome; by what right do you do these things?”

The question is obviously a trap. If he claims authority for himself, he sets himself outside the tradition of his elders, and thus alone. He risks losing the crowd, who are learning to see God again through Jesus’ eyes. But if he says that God is doing this through him, then he can be accused of blasphemy.

So he turned the question back to them. “Remember when you went out to see John the Baptist by the Jordan River, back in Matthew chapter three? You went to be baptized, many of you were. And John told you how to live justly, and to show kindness, and to guard yourself against all pride. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be torn down, he said. So now, where did John’s authority come from? Answer my question and I will answer yours.

The temple leaders are trapped, and it is their identity which is revealed. For if they say John spoke from God, then they are guilty before God of not doing God will. But if they say of human origin, they show themselves not to believe in one whom “all believe” God sent.

“We do not know,” they say. And so neither does Jesus answer. They, like we, have to decide for ourselves based on what we see Jesus doing.

Jesus then tells a parable of two sons.  But our story today is really less of a parable than it is a trick question.

Which did the will of his father, Jesus asks, the son who said no but later repented and went to work, or the son who said yes but then would not follow through. The temple leaders say “the first” and so Jesus condemns them by their own words.[2]

Now on one level, and it is the most obvious, Jesus does mean to compare the temple leaders, the chief priest, scribes and even the Pharisees, to the second son – for they have given verbal assent to God but do not bear the fruit of justice, mercy and humility. These leaders are to be contrasted with the crowds around Jesus, full of sinners whose former lives reflected a complete rejection of Moses’ teaching, but who now lead lives in the Jesus community that bear witness to God’s reign among us.

But we would do well not to trust the temple leaders. For though they have ears to hear their own judgment, the do not yet have eyes to see the God who judges them; the love of the one speaking to them; the wideness of God’s mercy that has room even for them.

Which son did the will of his father?

Very few people say the second son, the one who said yes but then did not follow through. Most, like the religious leaders, are ready to see the first son, the one who initially refused but then got busy with the task at hand, as the son who did the will of his father.

But this reveals our distance from Jesus day.  We put a premium on the task – getting things done, accomplishing things. But in Jesus day, as in many cultures today, giving honor and avoiding shame was a priority. The second son honored his father with his words, the first with his deeds.

The son who said “Yes” upheld his father’s public face, refused to shame him with his words. He is simply a disappointment to his dad. The first son, on the other hand, caused great and perhaps irreparable offence by refusing his father. He brought shame upon his dad, and his home. His getting busy was perhaps a first step, but only a first step, toward repentance.

Which son did the will of his father? [look out, it’s a trick question]

The answer is … neither one!

Rather, what God wants is for us to say “Yes” and then do it. To make our words and our actions seamless. To enjoy, in the words of our ordination standards, a life of “joyful obedience.” God loves cheerful givers, hearers and doers of the Word. God desires those who hear the call to work in the harvest and who say “Hear I am, send me.” Jesus needs disciples who take up their cross and follow him.

Or as I recently heard it put: God does not need our lip service, but our life-service, where worship and work are one.

But we, as individuals and as a society, fall short, and so judgment falls on us. I particularly felt God’s judgment this past week. Last Sunday, Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14 year old boy from Buffalo, New York, committed suicide after years of harassment and bullying because he was gay. When Jamie came out to his family and friends last year, he submitted a ‘message of hope’ to the “It Gets Better Project” an online forum that allows gay and lesbian teens to offer support for one another. He spoke about the loving community around him, including his parents, who, as he put it, “don’t want me to die” despite the friends who told him he was going to hell. But two weeks ago Jamey wrote on his blog “I always say how bullied I am. But no one listens. What do I have to do so people will listen?”[3] Are we listening now?

On Wednesday, twenty of us gathered here on the steps of the chancel to pray for peace and talk about forgiveness. For the past thirty years, to mark the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations in September, faith communities throughout the world have united in prayer to mark the International Day of Peace, offering intercessions for the world leaders gathered in New York City. The world was watching this week as the Palestinian Authority weighed their bid to seek UN recognition of an independent state of Palestine. We all have much to answer for in this war-torn, occupied, part of our world. And still, most of us, like the temple leaders in our story, answer the question, “What should be done” with a quiet “We do not know.” And judgment falls. Again.

That same evening, on Wednesday, Troy Davis, a black man convicted for the 1989 killing an off-duty white police officer was executed by the State of Georgia, despite the fact that there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and most of the original witnesses had recanted their testimony, citing police intimidation. Amnesty International, Jimmy Carter, the NAACP, even the pope, called for a stay of execution. But at 10:53, after four appeals and a 20 year campaign, Troy Davis was killed by the state of Georgia for a crime he probably didn’t commit.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), while recognizing  that “life itself is not sacred, but demands the greatest possible respect,” supports the abolition of the death penalty because of the great number of questionable convictions, of those killed but later deemed innocent, and widespread racism in the criminal justice system. A majority of the nations of the world have abolished the death penalty, but the United States remains, along with among others Iran, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Somolia, Egypt and the Koreas, among those countries that still practice capital punishment.

Before he died, Troy wrote that though his life would not be saved, “the movement [to end the death penalty] would continue. Will it? And will it include you?

My friends, we continually fall short, and our world is tragically broken, and God’s love continually reaches out to it, and so judgment falls on us.

But we are not yet finished reading this parable. We are never finished reading the parables. Though the temple leaders stand condemned by their own words, Jesus words hold out hope. The tax-collectors and sinners will enter the kingdom of God first, but they will not enter alone. Even as he speaks the words of judgment, Jesus points to the transforming grace of God that makes a change of heart, an act of repentance, and a new beginning possible.

In the words of our next hymn

There is a wideness in God’s mercy, Like the wideness of the sea;

There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty.

There is no place where earth’s sorrow are more felt than up in heaven;

There is no place where earth’s failings, have such kindly judgment given.


For the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind;

And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

If our love were but more faithful, we would gladly trust God’s word;

And our lives reflect thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.


My friends, even in judgment there is grace, and invitation, and the possibility of transformation. So, the next time God calls us to ‘get to work, let’s say “Yes” and live it.



Take Action

Take the pledge against bullying and register your name with the “It Get’s Better Project.”

Everyone deserves to be respected for who they are. I pledge to spread this message to my friends, family and neighbors. I’ll speak up against hate and intolerance whenever I see it, at school and at work. I’ll provide hope for lesbian, gay, bi, trans and other bullied teens by letting them know that “It Gets Better.”

Add your name to Amnesty International’s  “Not in My Name” Campaign and join the movement to abolish the death penalty.


[1] Feasting on the Word. The Commentary. Year A, Volume 4.

[2] We have seen something like this already, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Though the King forgets all about bookkeeping and accounting of debt, the servant still imagines himself in debt, and acts accordingly to collect from other. He is judged by his own actions and limited apprehension of grace.

[3]Anderson Cooper invited us to listen to Jamey, in his own words, as he speaks to his peers on “It Get’s Better.”

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