18th Sunday after Pentecost Sermon

October 1, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

One son told his father he wouldn’t go work in the vineyard, but he did. The other son said he would work, but then he didn’t. Which of the two did the will of his father? It’s obvious, isn’t it? It was the first son, whose actions – as we’d commonly say – “spoke louder than words.”

It’s something we can all relate to. We’ve all been the first son. We’ve all been the second.

And I suppose, if we wanted, we could reduce the morality of this story to a simple story about lying and honesty. But I don’t really think that’s the issue. Because if we were to put ourselves into this story, when we imagine ourselves as the second son, rarely are we being outright liars. When we say “yes” to something, at some level, we believe that what we are agreeing or committing to do is “right” and that we want to do it (or think we ought to do it or we aspire to do it). But when push comes to shove, however genuine our aspiration might have been, we often lacked the maturity or character to actually live into it. The reality of life and the particularity of our lives turns out to be very complicated, with a lot of dark alleys and sealed doors behind which lie all manner of fears and sorrows and bad habits.

And yet, even in the midst of this confusing labyrinth of a life we’re living, the most extraordinary and beautiful things can happen. The timid young woman who says, “I could never raise a child with Downs Syndrome,” turns out to be a brave and fiercely loyal mother – delighting in and defending her daughter all the days of her life.

We fail to do what we say we’ll do. And then we step up to the plate and do what we thought we could never do. We’ve all been the first son. We’ve all been the second.

But for us in the church, there’s a particular struggle we deal with – this ongoing conflict between the words we say about faith – that is, our “doctrine” – and the way we actually live out our faith.

Now on the one hand, our words – our doctrine and theologies – they’re really important. These words we say about God have an enormous impact on us. The way we define God absolutely informs the nature of our relationship with God, and consequently, how we view ourselves and our neighbors and this whole world.

And the way we use these words matters. For us, as Episcopalians in the Anglican tradition, our liturgy is central to our identity. It’s the liturgy that made me an Episcopalian! I was captivated by these words, so carefully crafted through the centuries, so beautiful and wise and trustworthy and stable. They drew me in, week after week, opening a door for me to know and worship God.

These words we say about God – these theologies we write – they are our best stab at making sense of what is ultimately a divine mystery. And as humans, we’ve got to do it. We are hard-wired as a species to seek meaning in this cosmos and in our souls. And bit by bit, step by step, over the duration of our lives, we continue to fashion words that express what we believe and don’t believe. Be they declarations of the Nicene Creed or declarations of atheism, or anywhere in between, we use our words to define what we understand and believe to be true of this life.

But they carry within them a danger. These “right words” we proclaim – they can be wrong, or at least misleading. And when we do it in the church, in the name of God, we always claim God to be on our side. And then this God of our defining can become quite a bully who approves of our “rightness” and by default, everyone else’s “wrongness.”

That was Jesus’ big beef with the Pharisees – these very sincere and committed religious people. They were genuinely earnest in their faith. And their faith came with a lot of words – a lot of rules about how “to do faith right” in order to make God happy. And in the end, they got it wrong.

A father told two sons to go work in the vineyard. One said he would, but he didn’t. The other said he wouldn’t, but he did. Which son did the will of the father?

Our words are important. But they can deceive us.

I am very concerned about the state of the church in America. There is a large swath of Christians whose faith system is very committed to believing and saying the “right words.” This is the tradition I was raised in. For us, the central expression of Christianity, and the goal of all our evangelism, was to make disciples who would affirm and maintain an accurate declaration of faith: that I am a sinner, that Jesus died for my sins, and that I accept his death as the necessary means of God’s forgiveness. And in this tradition, affirming these words is what we meant by “faith.” And the outcome of this “faith” is that we would go to heaven.

Now let me just pause and say, in this tradition, there are a lot of good people. Sincere people. Generous people. Truly faithful people who I believe will go to heaven. But my concern with it is, that at its core lies this belief that what God principally wants from us – demands of us, even – is that we say and believe the “right words” – the right words that explain Jesus’ death on the cross. That is the core of faith, and everything else is secondary.

So long as you keep adoring the crucified Christ – so long as you keep expressing gratitude to Christ-on-the-cross forgiving your sins – you are doing what God chiefly requires of you. It would be nice if you also became a good person, and you certainly admire those who do, but it’s not actually necessary, for you have been saved.

That is the goal of faith: to make it to heaven. And the way you get there is to believe the right things.

The problem is, this is not at all what I see Jesus modeling for us. In fact, it seems quite the opposite.

In obedience, Jesus left heaven to join us in this life and to live out his faith in love. It was not at all what the Pharisees were looking for in a Messiah. Even John the Baptist – his faithful vanguard in mission – was totally confused by him. “Are you the Messiah or not?” he sent his own disciples to ask him.

“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard,” he said. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Luke 7:22-23).

And his invitation was this: “Come, and follow me.” Come and follow me, and I will show you the Kingdom of Heaven.

At its heart, Christ’s incarnation is God’s declaration to all humanity that “I join you in love. I meet you where you are, as you are, with compassion – I take what is broken and I heal it. I take what is estranged and I join it together. I take what is sinful and I forgive it. This is what I desire for you, on earth, as it is in heaven.”

So now for us, living this life, as followers of Jesus, we are asked to join Jesus in living out this way of God – this way of heaven – with one another.

Now, to be certain, the words we use will matter. (I’m saying things about God right now, with words to exhort you!) And of course we hold a hope for heaven. And, of course, Jesus’ death on the cross was central to his own obedience and mission. All of these things are woven into our faith and discipleship.

But to be a disciple means to repent from selfishness and fear, and to align ourselves with the Spirit of God, living as Jesus lived, loving as Jesus loved, bringing life and hope and healing to this world.

I was struck this weekend hearing the eulogies that have begun for Diane Feinstein. I was a child in the Bay Area when she stepped in as mayor of San Francisco after her predecessor was assassinated. In the years that followed I was still too young to see or understand the substance of the AIDS crisis that was exploding there. At that point, in the early 80s, it was still socially acceptable to satirize and dismiss gay people. I remember my Grandma Stelle calling San Francisco the “Gay Bay” and thinking it was funny. Gays, themselves, were the problem, and so AIDS was a gay problem, and not our problem at all.

Thank God Diane Feinstein did not share that opinion. This was her city and her people and under her leadership, San Francisco was spending more in response to the AIDS crisis than was the entire federal government.

And then, just yesterday, I heard the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Seattle speaking of that parish’s history – how during the AIDS crisis, they were the one church in the city where dying people and their families knew they were welcome. “We were doing one funeral a week, or more, for people dying of AIDS,” he said.

And in hearing both these testimonies of profound compassion for God’s suffering children, my heart was filled with gratitude. When I was in ignorance, when I was laughing at the Gay Bay, there was somebody loving them, somebody touching the diseased and caressing the dying, somebody naming the dead as God’s beloved and burying them with dignity, somebody comforting the bereaved – who might themselves soon be dying of AIDS.

Whatever words our faith may espouse, it must look like this.

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:1-2).