DO ACTIONS MEAN MORE THAN WORDS?
Matthew 21: 28-32
I am a fan of Twelve Step programs, the bedrock of many support groups. Following the Twelve Steps can not only lead someone with an addictive behavior onto a track of functionality; following the Twelve Steps is good for anyone. Back in 1985 when I came to pastor this congregation, no groups were allowed to meet at the church. When the Session was finally ready to welcome certain groups into our buildings, we started with Twelve Step programs; those that currently meet in church rooms are Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon- the group for families of alcoholics; and Gambler’s Anonymous. Do you know one of the main reasons that we are glad to have such groups meet in our buildings? It’s because they do what they promise to do and they follow our requests to the letter. They promise to open and lock the rooms, and they do that. They clean up any messes, and leave the room as they found it unless we ask them to set it differently when they leave. When we need the room for another purpose, they are willing to meet almost anywhere we can put them temporarily. In others words, as Jesus’ parable points out: they don’t say they’ll do something and then not do it; nor do they do something after first saying “no” to the request; they do as requested of them. Life is a dream with those who do what is requested of them! Times when a salesperson or customer service rep promises one thing but your bill or statement says another are but frustrating examples to the contrary.
Jesus’ parable has timeless meaning, but it implies someone giving directions to someone taking directions. As I said to the children, in my house growing up, the question “Jeffrey, will you please empty the dishwasher?” was not really a question! There would have been consequence on my allowance or on my free time if I said “no” to my mother or dad even if I did it later! The same happens in my adult life. If someone asks me to do something, I carry around paper in my pocket and I write it down, and for the times I forget to do what I agreed to do I always feel sorry. So if I need a task done and ask someone to do it, if they say the will, I count on it. I count on a person’s “yes” so I can check that task off of my list. But what if they say “yes” and do not do it? That’s worse: I have trusted them to do what they said, and I’ve not even started looking for someone else to do it. Conversely, how about if someone says “no?” Our parable doesn’t give us the inflection of the reply: was it a defiant “No!” Or was it regretful: “No,” meaning “I just can’t, I have another obligation?” Part of good training is to teach a child, or a grandchild, to do as they are asked to do unless it is harmful in some way. Our military would never accomplish a thing if those receiving orders regularly said “No.” And there is little to be gained by someone saying “no” and then deciding to do it. By that point if the job had to be done, someone else do would have been asked to do it. A person’s late decision to do what is asked is of little value.
So back to the Twelve Steps for a moment: one of the steps is “To make a rugged and fearless examination of yourself.” How good that is. Sometimes, if we grade our own lives through the honor system, we give ourselves passing grades on such things as manners, on promptness, respectfulness, and follow-through when really we fall far short. One day in Jerusalem long ago, Jesus used his parable like a mirror, holding it up to the faces of the chief priest and elders who were challenging him. You know what a mirror can do? In the right light it can show your blemishes and, as the recent song” All of Me” by John Legend says, “Your perfect imperfections!” On occasion I have been in an upscale hotel and I have looked in one of those enlarging make-up mirrors with strong lights around them! Maybe eyesight loss had its blessings! It was not too long ago that newscasters got terrified of HD television because the clarity the camera produced exposed every wrinkle and discoloration! Well, in a manner of speaking that’s what Jesus did in this passage: it’s a bit of a trap. “Which of the two sons did the will of his father?” he asked. That’s the question: the true answer, or best answer, is “neither or them.” But that’s not a choice in this game. Which one did what the father asked? Disregarding the son’s negative answer, the first son did what his father asked; he just said he would not. Defiance is another issue. But the second son said he would do what his father asked, but he never did. Implied in this story is Jesus’ message to the Chief Priest: “Which of those sons are most like you?” And here’s how he asked it: “Which of the two did the will of their father?” They answer correctly, but they condemn themselves in their answer! “You, Chief Priests, took vows in front of God and in front of witnesses having to do with reverence and charity and faithfulness, yet you judge others which is God’s job; you treat others harshly which goes against your own Holiness Code,, and you are not keeping the Levitical law that commands us to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ You are falling down on the job, Chief Priests and elders.” And then Jesus stings them with the statement: “Truly tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God before you.” I suspect he had some candidates in mind, that is, actual tax collectors and prostitutes who had repented of sin. Because, remember: the first son—like the tax collectors and prostitutes—repented; they turned away from sin and turned back to God. That is the eternal “Get out of the jail of sin card” any of us can play with God. That is, if you, like the Chief Priests, act like you have no need for repentance, then Jesus is telling this parable to you too. True followers of Jesus Christ are called to shed haughtiness, and smugness; conceit, arrogance, and un-bending self-assurance. Christ who is building God’s Kingdom, is like a parent to a child: He needs you, and me, to say “yes” to his questions that are really requests. I learned that “Will you please unload the dishwasher from the lips of my mother was the same imperative as my father saying: “Jeff, unload the dishwasher!” Jesus saying: “Will you follow me?” needs to be heard as the imperative: “Follow me.” The Pharisees were giving lip-service to honoring God, because they were breaking God’s guidelines for personal humility and neighborly hospitality. They were the law keepers, yet they were not keeping the law!
Friends, people all around us can spot a phony: children, youth, and adults can do it. We lose the respect of others if we act as if we have no need of God’s forgiveness; how foolish! Yet some people in America are unchurched because they’ve felt coldness and judgment when they visited a church; not here of course, but other churches! So let’s put our best foot forward; let’s admit our funny habits, our weaknesses, and acknowledge our wrinkles and blemishes! Those make-up mirrors are a reality check of the way God sees us Let others depend on you and not say you’ll do something and then forget. People notice dependability, and I think God especially notices it! Of all people, do not let down your Lord!
Let us pray: O God, you can see us as if we are in a magnifying glass. And you know our heart and you watch to see if we turn good intentions into actions. Watch us as we please you; and please forgive our disappointing ways. Through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 28, 2014