A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

By: The Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler

Living the Divine Yes

(Matthew 21:23-32)

Our Gospel Reading, which finds Jesus both telling a story about two sons, and encouraging us to follow his example, reminds me of the father who was preparing pancakes for breakfast for his two sons—Kevin, 5, and Ryan, 3. They began to argue over who would get the first pancake. And the father saw this as an opportunity for a moral and spiritual lesson, saying to them; “If Jesus were sitting here, he would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.’” The two young brothers listened and looked at each other, and then Kevin, the oldest of the two, said, “Ryan, why don’t you be Jesus.”

In our Gospel reading we find Jesus being asked a serious question by the Jewish chief priests and elders. According to Matthew, this incident happened during the last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus had just cleansed the Temple, overturning the tables of those that were profiting from religion and people’s faith. He had also been healing the blind and the lame—even on the Sabbath, which was forbidden. And his teaching was challenging the entire foundation of the Jewish religion at the time. So, a delegation of chief priests and elders are sent to question him—and challenge him, “By what authority are you doing these things?” What gave him the right to do this? It was literally an interrogation!

The chief priests and religious elders, together with the scribes, made up the group called the Sanhedrin at that time, which was responsible for maintaining order in religious affairs. And during that time, when teaching, no scribe or rabbi would ever give an individually determined judgment. Rather, they would always begin, “There is a teaching that……” and then quote all the relevant authorities and/or cite a Scripture passage, for everything they said and did. And yet here is Jesus, acting and teaching as if he needed no authority—quoting no experts to justify his actions.

Jesus answers them by telling them a story, a parable, thereby providing them an indirect answer—attempting to focus them in on the real issue of the life of faith! Jesus tells a story about two sons—which of course has been a teaching vehicle from ancient times (i.e. stories of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Jacob in the Hebrew Bible). The parable Jesus tells is about a father who asked both his sons to go and work in his vineyard. The first son says “no” he won’t go and serve in the fields. But later on, changed his mind, and did go. The second son says, “Yes sir, I will go”, but does not end up going. Then Jesus finishes the story with the seemingly obvious question; “Which of the two did the will of the father?”

To us, the obvious answer is what they responded in the text–“the first”. However, what is difficult to pick up here is that while they would have known that this was the correct answer in terms of what Jesus was trying to say, this was NOT the correct answer according to the local Middle Eastern culture! Ironically, the local Middle Eastern culture would lead them to say the “second son” did the right thing! Because culturally it was far worse to say “No” to one’s father, or any authority figure, than to say “Yes, and not do it”.

Today the Middle East is still like this. For example, in Egypt, where we lived for ten years, you are very often told something will be done, and yet it never is! And for a Westerner it can be extremely frustrating. As if this wasn’t shocking enough to the chief priests and elders, Jesus goes further, and equates them with the second son—those who talks a lot about faith, who are focused more on right belief/theology, but who do not live their faith.

Interestingly, the second son, not only said “yes, I will go”, but “yes, I will go sir” — showing an extra dimension of apparent reverence and respect–which makes his not going, all the worse! And Jesus then equates the first son with tax collectors and prostitutes (who were considered the least acceptable to God by those who were religious at the time) . . . those who perhaps first said “no”, but in contrasting their life with what they had heard about God’s intended way of life for them, were moved to change and live differently.

Jesus’ parable is deliberately uncomfortable—it was not what either son said that really mattered—it was what they finally did! Jesus is highlighting here that God is more interested in what we do, rather than what we say or believe. That theology, Biblical knowledge, creeds and religious traditions (which the chief priests and elders had a lot of), only have value in being connected to how we live. That what counts is not spiritual words or faith beliefs, but seeing it lived out in action.

As Paul Tillich, the great 20th century theologian used to say; “We may have … truth, but how can we be the truth?”

So, this parable is really saying that the only real divide that really exists in this world, is between those living as “God wishes us to live” (what Jesus often called the “Kingdom of God”) and those who don’t. And that is has nothing to do with who believes this, and who believes that… Jesus is telling the Jewish religious leaders of his day that they were all about saying “Yes” to God, while living a “No”. They believed in many of the right things, stood for the right things, etc. but were not living it.

Saying “yes” is less important than what we do—rather it is about what our lives actually say.

The issue here for Jesus is on how one is living their life—as opposed to what they believe. So, the life of faith is an on-going opportunity of saying “yes” to God’s way of living (the kingdom of God) —living “the Divine Yes”.

One thing that often confuses people is whether what we believe is more important, or whether what we do is primary. It is easy to get beliefs mixed up with living. Even Martin Luther, the great 16th century church reformer, faced this tension—and he couldn’t accept the book of James in our NT, because he felt it was too based on our actions for God’s acceptance—as opposed to being based on belief and faith. And as one reads the Epistle of James, over and over again the author puts the emphasis on how we live out our faith as being what counts—summing it up with that famous verse: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress….”

Echoing that other summary from the Hebrew Bible found in the book of Micah: [God] has shown you…what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”. (6:8) It is a very interesting thing, this gap between what we believe and what is lived, which is the essence of the faith journey.

Perhaps the best prescription is found simply in looking at and emulating the example of Jesus himself. This is why it is so very important for us to study, discover and embody the core essence of Christ—what he did, how he acted, and what he taught. It is a divine lifelong quest each of us is called to—toward fully grasping the heart and life of Jesus. To distill the core essence of Jesus’ teaching and example. And the different Gospels help us with this—giving us different windows on him.

Perhaps one of the most profound things one can do read and re-read the Gospels through—not with the agenda to understand it all—but rather to understand the essence, the core, the heart of Jesus, whose way we are all about following. And it is a risky quest to be on at times……for it can take our lives in another direction— sometimes a direction that is very unexpected.

Outside the city of Cairo, Egypt, on the edge of a high limestone hill, is a large slum where many thousands of garbage collectors live. It is an indescribably filthy area, with pigs walking all around, and the smell almost unbearable in the desert heat. Years ago, a young successful Egyptian businessman, Samaan Ibrahim, while studying the life of Christ, felt led to move into this forsaken place to serve its people. Today, he is a Coptic Orthodox priest, and after 25 years of ministry there, the garbage collectors and their families worship in massive caves carved out of the rock hill. Astonishingly, every Thursday evening up to 13,000 people gather to worship in an amphitheater carved out of the limestone rock. And I am reminded of one of those worshippers, a young garbage collector’s son named Yusuf. A number of years ago at a Cairo construction site, an American executive lost his gold Rolex watch. Not long after, the young Yusuf, who was at that time an apprentice to his father, learning how to best collect garbage, found that gold watch. Due to having become a follower of Jesus through Fr. Samaan’s ministry among them, Yusuf felt led to find the watch’s owner in order to return it. This was obviously a difficult decision, as that Rolex watch was worth more money than Yusuf would ever earn during his lifetime.

It took several months of looking and asking questions for Yusuf to discover the true owner of the Rolex watch. He learned that the owner was staying in a luxury apartment building in Cairo. As a poor garbage collector, wearing very dirty clothes, he would never have been let into this luxury apartment building through the lobby; he would have looked completely out of place. So, Yusuf figured out a way to get in through a back exit-door used for garbage removal and climbed the stairs to the floor where the American was staying and knocked on his door. The American answered the door, somewhat astonished to see someone in the hallway dressed as shabbily as Yusuf. “You lost something?” Yusuf nervously blurted out in his minimal English. It had been a few months, so the loss of his Rolex watch, never came to his mind. “Did you lose this watch?” Yusuf asked as he took the watch out of the pocket in his dirty robe.

Upon seeing his watch, the stunned American invited Yusuf into his apartment. Inside he asked him, “Tell me, why you didn’t keep it yourself or sell it?”

Yusuf replied, “Jesus taught in the Gospels to not steal. It’s not mine… I must be honest.” The American asked him, “Are you a Christian?”, having initially thought he was Muslim. “Yes,” Yusuf replied. Miraculously, that American, who described himself as an agnostic, renewed his faith in God due to the example of the teaching of Jesus followed by that garbage collector’s son. And he wrote in his diary, “I came back to God because of a poor Egyptian Christian garbage collector in Cairo who really followed Jesus.”

This whole idea of following Jesus’ example is really how our faith began—this on- going, ever-deepening discovery of our Creator through Jesus’ life and teachings are what make up the substance of the faith journey. And those first followers of Jesus called themselves, “Followers of the Way.” What “way?” The “Way of Jesus” . . .the way he lived and taught.” It was only later, that outsider observers saw these “followers of the way of Christ” and called them “Christians” —which in effect simply means “little Christs”—for their actions so reminded them of Jesus’ life. Hence the term “Christian” is actually quite something to live up to!

Kahlil Gibran, the early 20th century Lebanese poet and mystic, most known for his book The Prophet, wrote his last book on Jesus…titled Jesus the Son of Man. He wrote it because his image of Jesus contradicted the image of Jesus and the message of his life that was often portrayed and taught by the Church around him. Hence a lot of his writing focused on how religion, such as the institution, laws, and rituals of the Church, can even inoculate against the real teachings of Jesus.

He sheds light on this in a profound little vignette: Long ago there lived a Man who was crucified for being too loving and too lovable. And strange to relate I met him thrice yesterday. The first time He was asking a policeman not to take a prostitute to prison; the second time He was drinking wine with an outcast; and the third time He was having a fist-fight with a promoter inside a church. Gibran came to believe that Jesus did not intend to usher in a new religion, but rather to point humanity toward God’s desired way for us to live, and to illuminate that path for us, by walking it among us first.

As the German poet Rilke (and secretary to Rodin the sculptor) asked, “Who is this Christ, who interferes in everything?” (The Workman’s Letter) Over the centuries the Christian faith became focused on “right belief” as opposed to “right action”. Christianity, during the first several centuries, developed into a creedal faith–where creeds form the foundation of our belief—such as the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. As opposed to the Christian faith focusing on Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”—about loving our enemies, being compassionate, acting with mercy, forgiveness, humility, reconciliation, peacemaking, generosity, etc. Maybe the greatest need of Christianity at this time is a re-discovery of the Sermon on the Mount as the way to live. Suppose at every church service, instead of reciting the creed, we instead said together the Sermon on the Mount, prefacing it with, “I believe in the Sermon on the Mount and in its way of life, and I intend, with God’s help, to live it.” I have a suspicion that the Christian Church and faith would look very different.

And all of this has particular relevance at this time in the ongoing Muslim/Christian divide and East/West polarization….the discord that often exists between the two faiths…and cultures. This is what the Beyond Bridges exhibition that is opening here today is all about.

I close with that poignant little story told by Isak Dineson (Karen Blixon) in her autobiographical book Out of Africa, which many of us have seen. She shares the story of a young Kikuyu boy named Kitau who appeared at her door in Nairobi, asking if he may work for her. She hired him and he was a good worker. After three months, he came to her and requested a letter of recommendation to Sheik Ali bin Salim, a Muslim leader in Mombasa. Not wanting to lose him, she offered to raise his pay, but he was determined to leave. He explained that he had decided to become either a Christian or a Muslim, and his purpose in working for her had been to closely see the way and habits of Christians firsthand. Now he would go and live for three months with Sheik Ali to observe Muslims and then he would make up his mind.

Shocked to hear this, Dineson wrote, “I believe that even an Archbishop, when he had had these facts laid before him, would have said, or at least thought, as I said, ‘Good God, Kitau, you might have told me that when you came here.’”

Our Gospel reading today tells us that what we believe changes who we are—and how we live naturally flows from that identity. I leave the last words to that bold and often cantankerous Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard; “Jesus wants followers, not just admirers”.