Words and Actions

17th Sunday after Pentecost
Blessing of the Animals for the Commemoration of St. Francis
Sunday, October 1, 2017

Listen to today’s gospel reading and sermon here:

23When [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?” 24Jesus 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. 25Did 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?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So 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.
28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which 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. 32For 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

Sometimes I wonder that our furry, feathery, and scaly friends don’t have it a little easier than we do, especially when it comes to being honest and true about who we are and what we intend. They may not always obey our commands, they may not always do the things we want them to do, but they tend not to be two-faced about it. Not that they can’t ever, but certainly less often than we humans do.

When Jesus tells this parable about two sons, I think we are to find ourselves present in both of the sons. Sometimes we find ourselves having been both of the sons before we’ve even had our morning cup of coffee. One son who says he won’t but does, and another son who says he will and doesn’t. Neither of them is actually obedient strictly speaking. Neither of them has words that match their actions. Neither of them is an ideal child. Neither of them follows the law. We know what it is like to be both of them. On the one hand we sometimes grumble about what it is we have to do, complain about and delay tasks to serve our neighbor, but in the end realize how life-giving those can be when we show up and do them. But I think we particularly know what it is like to talk a good game, to say the right things, and fail to ever lift a finger.

As I was talking with some of the other religious advisers at UMass this week, I was struck that it was mostly evangelical Christian groups who were actively engaged in relief efforts for Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico, both now and planning for later. I don’t always agree theologically with some of our evangelical partners in the faith, but I am struck by the ways they so often just jump in and help when there is a clear need. It’s not that Lutherans don’t ever do that – we have a long history of social services in America – and it’s not that the financial donations to Lutheran Disaster Response aren’t just as much an action in the sense we’re talking about here. But there’s a raw and real sense that I hear in many of the evangelical churches that God is asking them to jump in feet first, and they do in ways I’m not sure that we mainline protestants always do. It challenged me to remember that while words are important, actions have something to do with our faith, too.

Similarly, as I wring my hands about the disturbing way in which immigrants and people of color are being targeted in our nation and in our own community, I sometimes talk a good game and then struggle to put my words into action. I have excuses. It’s hard to figure out where and how to get engaged. I am already committed to some other really important things in the community. I’m still trying to do my own internal work to transform decades of learned xenophonia. But at the end of the day, have we as a community transformed the lives of the people who live with this every day? I’m not sure that we have.

And every week, more or less, we confess that we have not done what we said we would do. Every week we name aloud and in our hearts the ways we have both spoken and acted in ways that dishonor the one who created us and our fellow created ones, human and animal alike. And we hear words of profound grace, words which we almost immediately fail to honor by returning to our previous words and actions or lack thereof. We may be both of the wayward children in this passage, but I think we may find ourselves particularly in the shoes of the one who doesn’t in the end do the will of the father.

We know this. We don’t need Jesus or the Bible to tell us that our actions do not always match our words. But what I find most interesting about this parable is the context in which Jesus tells it. This story is told in Jesus’ final days before his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. Jesus, by his triumphal entry – the one we celebrate on Palm Sunday – and by his having come in and literally thrown the moneychangers out of the temple courtyard has at this point managed to tick off any remaining religious authorities who weren’t already mad at him for his inclusive, grace-filled, life-altering ministry. And those authorities are trying to set a trap for Jesus, trying to catch him in saying the wrong thing, but Jesus skillfully wiggles out of it with this parable.

But as important as Jesus’ words are, what makes the context so important for this parable is that Jesus himself is about to put his words into action. He is, after all, the Word made flesh. He’s willing to carry on with this verbal sparring, but when push comes to shove, by which I mean when the people in power come for Jesus with a lynch mob, the one who is God made flesh, the word itself incarnate, offers himself to enter the place of the wrongly condemned, the outcast, the dying one. It shouldn’t be lost on us that as much as this parable reminds us of what we already know about what we ought to be doing, it also reminds us that we have a God who doesn’t just talk a good game, who doesn’t just say nice things to us, but a God who places God’s very self on the line, who literally puts skin in the game, to be in relationship with us. Jesus goes and models for us what it means to be the son who puts his words into practice.

This parable invites us, perhaps, to better speech and better action. But it also invites to live into relationship with the one who has put words into action for us. And more profoundly it invites us to follow the way the cross. It invites us into daily dying to self, dying to our failure to speak and act, dying to our own desires and our own will. It invites us to die to the things we say we want, to our desires, our rebellious inclinations, our snarky judgments, to our resistance to the grace of the one who is our life and breath, and in that daily dying to find God resurrecting us to a life that becomes in our daily rising the breaking in of God’s transforming kingdom.

-Pastor Steven Wilco