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The Better of Two Bad SonS + Matthew 21: 23-32

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21], September 30/October 1, 2017
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist

Whether we like it or not, we are living at a very contentious time. From health care to tax reform, from immigration to support for the victims of floods and earthquakes, we are a divided nation. We cannot agree on what we should do. Like most congregations, Washington Memorial Chapel has people who voted for the current President and have total confidence in his ability to Make America Great Again, while an equal number, who did not vote for him, are regularly stunned and appalled by his tweets, rampages, and threats.

We begin our 10:00 service every Sunday by singing the National Anthem. Most who worship here love this tradition. Non-citizens may be surprised at this practice but they stand respectfully. Those who are offended by the singing of a patriotic song at the start of what is a Christian worship service have found somewhere else to worship on Sunday mornings! We do not consider this gesture, unique to our congregation, peculiar or contentious.

Yet, suddenly the singing of our national anthem has America convulsed. People are either annoyed or inspired by National Football League players who take a knee or lock arms. Everyone has a viewpoint or an attitude on this action. The President of the United States has become obsessed by it. People are screaming, tempers are flaring and the afternoon game has not begun! If football is our favorite national sport, it has suddenly become a symbol for just how divided we have become.

I would remind you … as I did the Sunday after the November election … that this is a time for the Christian Church, made up of congregations like Washington Memorial Chapel, to remember that underneath these surface, transient differences we have a deep unity and common duty to perform. As Christians, we are neither red nor blue, but rather we are all children of the Living God, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. We must never forget that God loves us, encourages us when we are down, and calls us to do great things for the sake of God’s kingdom.

Our Gospel lesson reminds us that Jesus also lived at a contentious time. His encounter in our Gospel lesson with the religious leaders, the Scribes and the Pharisees, came a day after He had driven the money-changers out of the Temple. That was the context in which Our Lord was challenged to explain by what authority he had performed that act of civil disobedience.

Who do you think you are, acting in such a disruptive manner? This is what the religious leaders asked Jesus. He responded by challenging them to take a position on John the Baptist, his cousin, whom they loathed, but whom the people loved. Jesus further challenged them on their inability to see God’s hand in all that He was saying and doing.

William Barclay beautifully captures the spirit of this encounter between Jesus and his distractors in this striking paraphrase of Our Lord’s speech:
All your lives you have been making a great profession of your devotion to God and now your attitude to me belies your whole profession. The people you berated as sinners … the tax collectors and the prostitutes … have all their lives seemed to be turning their backs on God, but now they have changed their minds and have found a place in the Kingdom which you have thrown away. [William Barclay. And Jesus Said, 198-199]

Against this background, Jesus tells the Parable of the Man with Two Sons. In some ways this is a simple story of bad behavior by sons who treat their father with disrespect.
One son says he will not honor his father’s request, but then has a change of mind and performs the required work in the family’s vineyard.
The other son responds dutifully to his father, but then he blows off the work.

The story of these two sons is a very human story. Perhaps you have them in your family … the gender is irrelevant. If you are honest, you may see yourself in this story of parent-child strife. Both of these sons insulted their father. Both sons needed some attitude adjustment! But at the end of the day I think we would agree that the one who acted in the appropriate manner, even if reluctantly, fulfilled his father’s request. What matters in the end is performance, not promise.

To Jesus, the first son was a stand-in for all those people he knew and loved, whose lives appeared to have nothing to do with God. Jesus called them tax-collectors and prostitutes. Today we might call them the cultured despisers of religion, the over-stressed, over-booked control freaks, who have no time or purpose for Christian community, the multitudes who are more apt to turn in at Starbucks, the gym, or the soccer field on a Sunday morning than at a church parking lot.

The second son represented the Scribes and Pharisees, those good religious people who scorned and shunned everyone who did not achieve their high standard for a God-pleasing life … a standard that could loosely be defined as … anyone who is not as devout and pious as I am!

I love Jesus parables. I am always amazed by the way they can say so much to us with so few words. A big part of the charm of this particular parable is all the things we do not know:
We do not know if the behavior of these sons was typical or exceptional,
We do not know about the sibling dynamic between these boys – were they constantly contrary? We do not know their ages.
We cannot find anything in the parable that gives us a rationale for their dramatic change in behavior.

So what do we know? We know that the son who said he would show up to work did not … and the son, who at first refused, eventually accomplished the task his father had given him ~ clearly the better of two bad sons!

I do not know about you, but I often feel like that second son. I feel like I am the one …who says the right thing, but does not always follow through.

I think we all feel that way from time to time … our intentions are good, our hearts are in the right place, we want to help and do more, but time runs out … our energy and compassion ebb … the urgent eclipses our best laid plans.

What a complex challenge we face as God’s people …
a challenge to see the good in those around us who may seem different and diverse but are living lives of goodness and accomplishment;

a challenge not to surrender to all those negative forces that would have us mutter “what’s the use” and walk away!

In such moments let us rely on God, who believes in us even when we do not always believe in ourselves. Let us not be weary in well-doing, instead, let us strive to be more like Christ, described in the Letter to the Philippians, as one who ~
… did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Amen.