First Congregational Church
September 27, 2020
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
This morning’s opening illustration is in honor of the great Rev. Dr. Bill Hirschfeld, born over there on the east coast. Researchers for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority found over 200 dead crows near greater Boston recently, and there was concern that they may have died from avian flu. A bird pathologist examined the remains of all the crows, and, to everyone's relief, confirmed the problem was definitely not avian flu. The cause of death appeared to be vehicular impacts.
However, during the detailed analysis, it was noted that varying colors of paints appeared on the bird's beaks and claws. By analyzing these paint residues it was determined that 98% of the crows had been killed by impact with trucks, while only 2% were killed by an impact with a car. MTA then hired an ornithological behaviorist to determine if there was a cause for the disproportionate percentages of truck kills versus car kills.
The ornithological behaviorist very quickly determined the cause: When crows eat road kill, they always have a lookout crow in a nearby tree to warn of impending danger. They discovered that while all the lookout crows could shout "Cah", not a single one could shout “Truck.” I’m Dinah Haag, and I approve this joke.
Last week, we dealt with a scripture passage that is often a burr under saddles - a parable Jesus told about workers getting paid the same amount of money regardless of hours worked. Turns out, the parable is far less about the workers and far more about the grace of God.
This week we are “blessed” with another un-easy parable. It’s actually all one passage prescribed for this morning, but it’s going to be read in two different voices, mainly because they are so different, yet so linked.
Matthew 21:23-32 The Authority of Jesus Questioned
23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”
27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
The Parable of the Two Sons
28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ 29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. 30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
Thank you, Molly and Naomi. I don’t know about anyone else, but at least for me, this passage is not so antagonizing as confusing. The first part - about Jesus’ answering a question with a question is easy enough: sort of a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t scenario, even if it seems that Jesus is being a little rude with his evasiveness.
Putting that section aside for a moment, the parable of the two sons is what sort of rankles my brain, and maybe it’s because I’m not the brightest star in the sky. As far as the story goes, both sons were acting like sons - or daughters. Kids - and adults for that matter - change their minds all the time - for a myriad of reasons. Even so, it’s when Jesus throws the tax collectors and prostitutes into the conversation that leaves my brain uncomfortable for ever and a day. It was a person named Suzanne Guthrie, on her web page called “At the Edge of the Enclosure” that finally helped my brain finally figure out the issue.
Suzanne said, “Both sons in the parable insult their father. Both sons clearly need a change of mind and heart.” Maybe it’s been that I’ve been trying to make one son be the good guy; thinking that Jesus was wanting the good guy to be the first son. I know this sounds like it’s all about me, but sometimes, don’t you know this one thing, but you just aren’t making the connection with the other thing?
And here’s the rest of Ms. Guthrie’s thought. “But the one that acted, however reluctantly and late, proves to be the righteous one after conquering himself. Like the prostitutes and tax collectors who repent, knowing their need of grace, the first son shows up and does the work and the will of his father.
I might insert a thought here, that sometimes, doing what God wants of us is not always so noble or pure of heart. Sometimes, when a person changes their mind to do whatever, it can be a reaction to boredom. Even so, God still works and is honored.
Back to Ms. Guthrie, she finished by saying, “Pharisees, in the way the word is used in this parable, as hypocritical, self-righteous provocateurs, come in all forms and presences. The masks must come off to find the true self and liberation.” (Nice nod to our current state of the world.)
Hopefully Ms. Guthrie’s words will help make the second passage a little more sensical to everyone. However, putting both sections back together again is a little stickier. Authority and Intention. While it is God’s authority that allows for us to do anything, it is also God’s intention for us to do everything - which is basically loving all those we have been given.
There’s a pretty fun and cool Jesuit priest named Fr. Gregory Boyle, who just happens to be the founder of Homeboy Industries. The following is his speech - or part of it - from a commencement address at Pepperdine University.
It has been the privilege of my life for 30 years to have learned everything of value by gang members. And in the last few years, they taught me how to text and I'm really grateful to them because I find it sure beats the heck out of actually talking to people. And I'm pretty dexterous at it, LOL and OMG! and Btw. The homey's have taught me a new one OHN! Which apparently stands for oh hell no! And I've been using that one quite a bit lately.
My alma mater, Gonzaga University, called me and said, they were going to have a big talk on a Tuesday night with a thousand people. And so I said, “Sure.” And they said, “Can you bring two Homies with you?” And I always pick homies who have never flown before, just for the thrill of seeing gang members panicked in the sky. I've never picked anybody more terrified of flying then this guy Mario. He was just absolutely petrified. In fact, he was hyperventilating and we hadn't even boarded the plane yet.
And then our flight crew arrives, and I see our flight attendants, females, and they both have very large cups of Starbucks coffee, and they're schlepping up the front steps. And Mario goes, “When are we going to board the plane?” I said, “As soon as they wake up the pilots.”
I should tell you that Mario, in our 30 year history at Homeboy, is the most tattooed individual who's ever worked there. His arms are all sleeved out, neck blackened with the name of his gang, head shaved, covered in tattoos, forehead, cheeks, chin, eyelids that say THE END, so that when he's lying in his coffin… there's no doubt. And so I'd never been in public with him, and we're walking, and people are like this, mothers are clutching their kids more closely, and I'm thinking, “Wow, isn't that interesting?”
Because if you were to go to Homeboy on Monday and ask anybody there, “Who is the kindest, most gentle soul who works there?” And they won't say me. They'll say Mario. He sells baked goods at the counter, at our café. He's proof that - the only the soul - that ventilates the world with tenderness - has any chance of changing the world.
So the nighttime talk comes, and it's a thousand people and I invite them up to share their stories in front of all these people for five minutes each. They were terrified, but they did a good job. And honest to God, if their stories have been flames you'd have to keep your distance, otherwise you to get scorched. I invite them up for Q&A. and a woman stands and she says, “Yeah I got a question. It's for Mario.” First question out the gate.
Mario steps up to the microphone, he's a tall drink of water, skinny and clutching the microphone, and he's terrified. “Yes?” And she says, “Well, you said you were a father and you have a son and a daughter who are about to enter their teenage years, what advice do you give them? What wisdom do you impart to them?” And Mario clutches his microphone, and he's just terrified and he's trembling and he’s getting a hernia trying to come up with whatever the heck he's going to say. When finally he blurts out, “I just…” and he stops. And he retreats back to his microphone-clutching, terrified retreat. But he wants to get this whole sentence out. (And Fr. Boyle - either intentionally or by his own nature says, with warbled voice,) “I just don't want my kids to turn out to be like me.”
And there's silence. Until the woman… who asked the question stands, and now it's her turn to cry and she says, “Why wouldn't you want your kids to turn out to be like you? You are LOVING. You are KIND. You are GENTLE. You are WISE. I hope your kids turn out to be like YOU.” And a thousand total perfect strangers stand… and they will not stop clapping. And all Mario can do is hold his face in his hands so overwhelmed with emotion that this room full of people - strangers, had returned him to himself. And they were returned to themselves. And I think you go from here to STAND with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. And you STAND with the disposable, so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away. And you STAND with those whose dignity has been denied. And you STAND with those whose burdens are more than they can bear. And you STAND with the poor, and the powerless and the voiceless. Make those voices heard.
Jesus did this very thing to the prostitutes and tax collectors and the other “unsavories” of his day. Jesus is still in the business of “Vineyard Work” - embracing whoever will take up the work, for whatever reason they decide. And Jesus continues to ask us to join him in this Vineyard Kingdom - of reaching past fears and expectations and comforts and all the other excuses - to bring the Kingdom of God - the Kingdom of Love and Grace - to all the little corners of our worlds. And he doesn’t allow us to put such grace-offering aside because we have a pandemic or civil unrest or fires or floods or hang-nails. So let us grab all the tools God has given us to do this Vineyard Work - starting with prayer.
Holy God of Love and Redemption, inspire us to continue in the work you have given us - to redeem insensitivity, indifference and even cruelty and exchange those poor, lifeless soils with the soils of love and grace and sensitivity to those around us. Helps to be kind and and gentle and wise, that we can recognize those traits in others, and even heal those others in the recognition of their strengths. You have given us the authority to do this work through your Son and your Holy Spirit, so help us to feel enabled to do that which seems insurmountable. Forgive us, for those times when we have turned away from being able to make a difference in someone’s life. Thank you for those who have done so in our own lives. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.