The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Exodus 17.1-7; Matthew 21.23-32

 


Imagine you are watching television and a commercial comes on. The camera pans out over a tranquil beach scene where a family is enjoying the sun and the water. One parent is helping a smiling child build a sandcastle, while the other child runs in the surf, throwing a stick for a bounding, energetic golden retriever. The other parent is sitting in a beach chair under an umbrella with a picnic basket and a drink, waving to the rest of the family. Finally, at the end, the product is advertised. But that’s not all, right? What was really advertised was not just a drink or an item of clothing or sunscreen or life insurance – the marketers were cleverer than that. They were advertising salvation – buy our product and it will save you from your harried, over-scheduled existence and lead you to this “perfect” life.

Sometimes, we are so harried, we are so tired, we are so over-scheduled, and perhaps are so short-sighted and feel so self-centered in our everyday existence that we buy into this false salvation. We grumble at our church leaders, “Is the Lord among us or not? We aren’t getting what we want. God’s not leading us to salvation as we imagined it, so maybe we need to look elsewhere.”

Like the Israelites in Exodus, we are wandering through the wilderness of Sin – both a geographical place and a play on words that reminds us of our imperfection and unfaithfulness.

Yet, God remains faithful. God is still at work in our lives, no matter what befalls us, no matter what we believe, no matter what we do as we move through the wilderness.

We made promises to God in our Baptismal Covenant:
“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

Always, the answer is, “I will, with God’s help.”

We cannot separate our belief in God from the action it demands. We cannot immerse ourselves “in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers” without being stirred to embodying this knowledge and love of God through our actions in the world. Together, they create faith or at least make a place for God to gift that to us. We can do a whole lot of prayer or a whole lot of serving in a soup kitchen, but an imbalance of one or the other does not exemplify what Jesus is asking. God is faithful in word and deed, and that is the faith and the work we are called to.

Take this modern parable for example:
There once was a man who came to know Jesus and wanted to be baptized. The whole community supported him and he was baptized along with several others on a Sunday morning. Things seemed to be going smoothly with his newly minted faith. Prayer flowed easily from his lips and heart. He never went by the homeless person who was on the corner of the street where he worked without speaking to him and giving change when he could. He came to church every Sunday, sang in the choir, and went to adult formation classes.

After a while, things started to feel . . . well, like a suit that was becoming too small, too tight. What he once did with joy was now starting to feel like an obligation. He didn’t know what to do. When someone asked him to pray for them, he said, “Of course!” with enthusiasm and then forgot to. He began to avoid the homeless person near his work by going through another entrance. He attended church and church events less frequently. He considered his life outside of church as separate from his faith, and it was getting busy. He got a promotion at work, started dating someone seriously, and was getting involved in some philanthropic activities through his workplace. He still believed in God and felt love for God, but didn’t know how to integrate these pieces into the rest of his life. It all seemed like it was too hard, too much. Eventually, his church community who witnessed his baptism and vowed to do all in their power to support him in his life in Christ never saw him again.

How many of us have made church attendance—being in church every Sunday—less than a priority in our lives. How many of us have told someone we would pray for him or her and then got distracted and didn’t? How many of us have thought or talked a lot about helping the marginalized in our community, but haven’t? How many of us have been puzzled when people who were once zealous about their faith faded away, and we intended to contact them but never have?

We all have good intentions. But as Jesus teaches us in our gospel reading today, our intentions don’t really matter. It’s our actions that are grounded in and flow from our relationship with God that count – individually and as a community.

The man in the parable was not the only one who fell short of his promises – the community did, too. All these everyday actions – worshiping God faithfully, ministry to others in the name of God – are outward and visible signs of our inward and spiritual grace. These are all acts of faith, acts of love: the love that God has for us and that we have for God.

Jesus preached and taught and touched and healed people throughout his ministry, until, finally, he was crucified, and died, and was resurrected for us all. It was the ultimate example of love, of sacrifice, of ministry to and for the world. But it doesn’t stop there. Over and over again, God’s actions prove God’s love for us. We were given an advocate, the Holy Spirit to come and assist us in continuing Christ’s work in the world. We get to become part of God’s action. The same action that was in Jesus.

If we take an honest examination of how God has touched each of our lives, we can be thankful and joyful in God’s presence with us, in all of it. Think back on your life, the ways that the tapestry of threads have been woven to get you to where you are today. Those times where just the right thing happened, those unexpected moments, some good, some bad; some happy, some sad; some that changed your life, and all the spaces in between, but in all of those, God was with you, caring for you, celebrating with you, crying with you. Sometimes God was with you alone, and sometimes God was there in the form and ministry of another person or persons. The community of faith. The point is God was present with you and for you, every step of the way. Even though sometimes it didn’t feel like it, in hindsight, we can usually see God’s presence in those moments. So how do we respond to this?

Jesus gives a telling example of response to God’s love in his parable today about the two sons being asked to work in the vineyard. The first son tells his father outright that he won’t do it, but then has a change of heart and goes and does it anyway. Whereas the second son tells his father he will and then never does.

We often do similar things in our own lives. We say we are Christians, but often don’t follow through with our commitments as followers of Christ. So, how do we know? How do others know? God has given us the gift of our lives, and we are called to respond by how we live. We are to be good stewards of the lives we are given, spreading the love of God to others.

We aren’t perfect, but we are definitely called to be different. As political comedian Stephen Colbert put it, “Either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition; and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

If we claim the name of Christian, and if we choose to only talk the talk but not to walk the walk, then we are just as bad as the son who said he would tend the vineyard but did not.

But there is hope for us! We can be like the first son and have a change of heart. We can choose to be obedient to God and in so doing live in a wide, loving margin of grace (for when we fall short of God’s expectations of us).

As we grow deeper in our relationship with Jesus and each other, may we seek be the people God call us to be. And may God gift us with his presence and the grace and courage and will to accomplish the work he has given us to do.

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