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 The Right Choice

Sermon - 9/25/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 21:23-32

Let me take a little poll here -- how many have you have seen the movie "The Adjustment Bureau"?. A new movie with Matt Damon, and it deals with the question of free will and pre-destination (thought they never use those terms, because it's not really a religious movie, but it does have some incredible religious implications). Very creative and entertaining. I'm not really going to say anything else about it or use it as an illustration because to do so I'd have to reveal too much about, that would destroy half the fun of it. So I'll just drop that as a little teaser.

But the movie got me thinking about choices we make, and how they determine so much in our lives and our future. And the basic theme of the movie is the role that love plays in those choices.

Well, Jesus tells a story about the freedom we have to make choices. And though love is not an obvious theme in this story that I'm going to share with you, it turns out to be the primary factor in its application. So here's the story:

Jesus has entered into Jerusalem, and you remember that -- the big parade, the processional that is kind of a parody of the military processionals that would come from the opposite direction into Jerusalem.  You know, with some mighty warrior or ruler on a high horse, and here comes Jesus and his little company riding on a donkey. Then he enters into the Temple and of course literally and figuratively turns the tables upside down. So when he returns the following day, religious authorities are just a little bit peeved with him, and that's where we pick up the story in the 21st chapter of Matthew's Gospel verse 23 and following:

When he 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.


The moral of the story, of course, is pretty clear -- the one who is most pleasing to God is not the one who says the right thing, but the one who does the right thing.

Soren Kierkegaard, famous Danish philosopher and theologian in the 19th century, said "Jesus wants followers, not admirers". The prophet Micah makes a very similar point in that passage we read earlier: "What does the Lord require of you? Rivers of oil? Great sacrifices? No, but what the Lord requires of you is to "Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God". The letter from James sums it all up when it says "Faith without works is dead".

So we get that -- faith is really about deeds, not so much about doctrine. Only when Jesus goes from this theory of faith to the practice of it, that's when the trouble begins. First, Jesus associates the son who says the right thing but does not do it with the religious leaders of his time. Well now, good thing this is about the past, right? It's about 'those' religious leaders. Religious leaders today would never do anything like that :).

I was on my way to the memorial service for the daughter of Mike Moreno, you remember his daughter was tragically lost to drowning in the Umpqua River, and they held the service at the Ford Alumni Center. I was concerned about parking so I decided to walk -- it was a nice morning. I'm walking along, concentrating on what I'm going to say to be comforting. I'm suddenly aware that there are some people up in front of me, sitting on the sidewalk, and as I draw closer I realize they're not sitting -- they've passed out, drunk. So I did the right thing, that any good, self-respecting religious leader would do -- I walked on by :) I didn't spit on them. I didn't kick them while they're down. I didn't judge them, I just passed on by.

And then after I walked passed, suddenly I hear this story about a man beat up, lying along the side of the road to Jericho. And the religious leaders that walk on by. And I thought "God, I've got to do the Lord's work here, don't bother me!". Right?

So maybe there are those times when I'm no different than those religious leaders back then. Maybe I need to worry about that log in my own eye before I try to remove the speck in someone else's. I can deal with that, I'm human. Doesn't hurt to remind me. Just don't do it that often :)

What about the first son, who says the wrong thing but then does the right thing? I mean, we all want to identify with him, right? Who does Jesus apply this to? Tax collectors and prostitutes. So which one are you?

Now, I would imagine in the crowd that day there were a bunch of other folk. There were the merchants, the story tells us that -- the ones that got their tables overturned. They don't come off too good in that story. There were all kinds of pilgrims, it was a festival time, there had to have been carpenters from Nazareth, fishermen from Galilee, tanners from Joppa, sailors from Caesarea, farmers and shepherds from Bethlehem (not too far away). There had to have been all kinds of people. Why does Jesus single out prostitutes and tax collectors? Couldn't he have found someone else?

Of course, it's precisely because, you see, they are the lowest of the low. They are the morally-suspect people in the group. Tax collectors because they were collaborators with Roman oppressors who benefited financially from that system of oppression. Prostitutes because they sold their bodies, were perpetually unclean. I mean, you just can't get any lower than this. And that Jesus would name these as the ones who would enter God's realm before the respected religious leaders is not just shocking, it's offensive. It goes against everything that the people knew (or thought they knew) about the realm of God.

And we see this same point made over & over again throughout the Gospel story in various ways -- Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus associating with lepers, the unclean. Jesus saving a woman caught in adultery from stoning. Jesus healing the servant of one of those oppressors -- a Roman Centurion. All people excluded from God's realm according to the standards of that day.

And so too the stories told by Jesus, like that story of the Good Samaritan -- there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan, everyone knew that. The parable of the great banquet, where everybody is invited in off the street, regardless of who they are. They story of the last judgment, where Christ is found in the hungry, in the thirsty, in the prisoner.

And then there's that other story of the two sons, you remember that one -- when the young son takes half of his father's wealth and squanders it, wastes it. And yet is welcomed back with open arms.

Now, what is especially challenging for a modern sensibility is nowhere does Jesus say anything about tax collectors to cease being tax collectors. Now, Zacchaeus, he was a tax collector, he responds, he gives away 1/2 his wealth and restores anyone he has wronged four-fold. But that is in response to the grace of Christ, not as a prerequisite. And he doesn't say he's going to stop being a tax collector.

And prosecutes? Jesus doesn't say anything about prostitutes ceasing to be prostitutes. He does tell that woman caught in adultery, "Go, and sin no more". So, yeah, maybe we can safely assume that they have changed their ways. It's interesting that we are not given any indication that such was so -- there is no tax collectors & prostitutes anonymous, right?

In this story, we're only told that they believed John the Baptist. And what did John preach? He preached a message of repentance as a way of preparing for the coming of the Messiah. So in whatever way they believed and responded, their lives must have been changed. But that change did not move the religious leaders, Jesus says. And is that because they were not convinced by the evidence of their changed lives? Didn't trust it, didn't believe it?

Or, is it because they did not wish to associate with such people regardless of the evidence?

Do we as church people ever do that? Judge someone by their appearance, by their profession, by their identity, by their favorite sports team? :)

Ray of Hope Christian Church in Atlanta is one of the largest Disciple churches today, it's actually a fairly new church -- started about 25 years or so ago. The Reverend Cynthia Hale is the pastor, some of you have heard Cynthia, she's been in Oregon a time or two, a very popular, very dynamic preacher. Nettie Craddock was on the committee that helped to establish the congregation. Nettie is the spouse of Fred Craddock, very renowned, greatly-loved Disciple preacher. And so it was that Fred and Nelly were at the service when they first organized the congregation and Cynthia began her ministry. And of course it was much smaller in those days. And so Cynthia, at the end of the service, invited everyone to stand up and form a circle and join hands.

Well, standing next to Fred was this eight-year-old boy, African-American (congregation is predominately African-American). And the little boy looked up at Fred and says to Fred: "Are you a mean man?" Fred said "No, I'm not a mean man". And so they held hands and prayed together.

After the service, the father of the boy (standing on the other side) apologized to Fred. And Fred said "It did hurt me a little, I'm sorry that your son thought I might be a mean man". And the father said "Well, it's my fault. I have been a victim of so much racism over the years, that some of that has come home. And you see, it's because you're a white man, and my son has picked that up from me".

And it's true -- so much racism in our world that must be undone. That's why Disciples seek to be an anti-racist, reconciling church, to create a different image, a different experience.

Fred tells another story of a different kind of prejudice he encountered in a grocery store. He was in a foreign city, a store he didn't know, he does a lot of traveling. And he just wanted to buy some peanut butter. So he asked a woman: "Excuse me, can you tell me where I can find some peanut butter?" And she said: "Are you trying to hit on me?!". Fred said "No, I'm just trying to find some peanut butter" :)

Well, he eventually found it by himself on aisle 5, and just as he's reaching to get the peanut butter, lo and behold, here comes this woman down the aisle. And she says: "Oh, I see you really were looking for peanut butter". And Fred said: "I told you I was just looking for peanut butter!". And said "Well, you just can't be too safe these days". Fred said "Oh yes you can" :)

Can you feel sorry for Fred because he's a white male? Not usually. But for Fred, both of those experiences gave him a little glimpse into what it is like to be on the other side. To be treated differently because of your race, because of your gender, because of your identity.

The reason why tax collectors and prostitutes, widows and lepers, and all the other outcasts figure so prominently in the Gospel is that they are the ones who most demonstrate what it means to create a little bit of that kingdom of God here on earth as in heaven.

It's not about loving and welcoming and accepting those most like us that makes God realm visible, tangible, present, here. It's precisely about creating a community that welcomes the other -- those most not like us. Those often rejected in our world.

Thursday evening I was in Albany, in my home church where I grew up. It was the first meeting of an open and affirming task force. They are beginning the process that we went through last year, of becoming an open and affirming church and invited me to come in to share from my experience.

And I remember growing up in that church, it's pretty traditional, even conservative, church. I remember very well when my mother created a big controversy because she wore pant-suits to church. How dare a woman do that -- it was pretty upsetting to the traditional ways of that church.

Well, on this committee were George and Sally Smith (that's not their real names, I didn't ask to use them in this story, so I'll protect their identity). But George and Sally, I know them well -- their kids were all the same age as the Bryant kids, I almost grew up in their household we spent so much time together in those early years. Salt of the earth type of folks, they loved the church, loved their kids. Their oldest son served in Vietnam, they were as patriotic as the sky is blue. Very traditional in their beliefs.

I remember when my brother was in high school (I was in middle school) and the youth held a dance in the youth building. Oh boy. Man, did that ever cause an uproar in the church. I have no doubt that George, one of the elders, was one of those who was just outraged that our youth would dare do such a thing (we didn't tell them we had cards :).

At any rate, they were wonderful, loving people, even if very traditional in their ways. And I wasn't sure just where they were on this issue, serving on this committee. Well, Sally shared with us as we did our introductions. She said "I have 8 grandchildren. One of my granddaughters is a little aloof, has become alienated from the family, never comes to any of our family gatherings. She called me up two years ago, is now 33 years old, and said 'Grandma, I need to talk to you. Do you remember when I was 8 or 9, I was in your house, and we were watching a show and they said something about homosexuals, and I asked you about that, and you said that's an abomination to the Lord'? Grandma, I'm one of those".

Sally said she was horrified. Not horrified about what her granddaughter had just revealed, but horrified at what she had said. And that she had contributed to her alienation from the family. She apologized profusely to her, they cried together on the phone. She went on to say that she loved each of her grandchildren just as much as every single one of them, no different. And she said her granddaughter went on to tell her that there are some people at her work that don't like her. Grandma, foolish enough to say "Well why not?" And she said "Well, I'm a welder, and they've never had a woman welder before, and I think I'm better than the rest of them, and they're a little bit jealous. That's why" :).

Sally, just as proud of her granddaughter as anyone else.

Some people may wonder why we chose to become an open and affirming congregation, or why we choose to welcome people of other faiths to our interfaith services that are held here once each month, or why we choose to provide free clothing to anyone in need, or why we choose to provide a free breakfast for people off the street twice a month, or why we choose to open up the church and provide free housing when it's freezing outside, or why we choose to accept and welcome people who are different -- people sometimes who are challenging. People who maybe don't always make the best choices in their own lives. Why would we do that?

It really comes down to this: it's not about what we say what is true, it's about what we do that is true.

And when what we do is guided not by fear or prejudice or hate or anger or revenge but but love, we can be pretty darn sure it is the will of God.


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