October 1, 2017 Sermon

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 1, 2017, Lectionary A, Proper 21


The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard + Rector                                         Scripture: Matthew 21:23-32

“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30

Hearing God – obedire


Let us pray. Heavenly, loving Father, send now the Holy Spirit to unplug our hearts and minds, so that we might hear and obey the voice of God through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.   


“Thomas Cranmer was the principal figure in the Reformation of the English Church, and was primarily responsible both for the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549 and for its first revision in 1552.  At the age of fourteen he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, where by 1514 he had obtained his B.A. and M.A. degrees and a Fellowship. In 1526 he became a Doctor of Divinity, a lecturer in his college, and examiner in the University. During his years at Cambridge, he diligently studied the Bible and the new doctrines emanating from the Reformation in Germany.


A chance meeting with King Henry the Eighth at Waltham Abbey in 1529 led to Cranmer’s involvement in the “King’s affair” — the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Cranmer prepared the defense of the King’s cause and presented it to the universities in England and Germany, and to Rome. While in Germany, Cranmer became closely associated with the Lutheran reformers, especially with Osiander, whose daughter he married.


When Archbishop Warham died, the King obtained papal confirmation of Cranmer’s appointment to the See of Canterbury, and he was consecrated on March 30, 1533. Among his earliest acts was to declare the King’s marriage null and void. He then validated the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Her child, the future Queen Elizabeth the First, was Cranmer’s godchild.


Cranmer’s sincere belief in the king’s supremacy in all matters, civil and religious, was the mainspring of his actions. This explains his many compromises with his reforming ideals; and it finally led to his undoing. In the reign of Edward the Sixth, Cranmer had a free hand in reforming the worship, doctrine, and practice of the Church. But at Edward’s death he unfortunately subscribed to the dying King’s will that the succession should go to Lady Jane Grey. For this, and also for his reforming work, he was arrested, deprived, and degraded by Queen Mary the First, daughter of Henry the Eighth by Catherine, and a staunch Roman Catholic.


Cranmer wrote two recantations of his supposedly heretical doctrines during his imprisonment, but at the end he recanted his recantations, and died heroically, saying ‘forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished; for if I may come to the fire, it shall first be burned.’ And so it happened at Oxford on March 21, 1556, Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake” (Lesser Feast and Fast. p. 404).


Sssshh.  Do you hear it?  It is the voice of God speaking to us?  Not audibly, necessarily, but in our thoughts.  What might He be saying to us?  Seriously, what might God say to us if He were to speak?  Would He say something to us about the way we treat others, perhaps a spouse, a child, a friend, or co-worker?  Would He say something to us about our health, whether we are taking care of ourselves?  Would He say something to us about how we are spending our time, where we are spending our time?  Might there be certain habits or indulgences of ours that He would bring to our attention and question?  You know what I mean.  Is there someone we have hurt or who has hurt us that He would tell us to approach?  Might He ask where we have been or what we have been doing lately?  Have we been to church, read the Bible, prayed, or ministered to others?


What would He say?  More importantly, what did we say when He spoke to us?  Did we merely dismiss the thought of God speaking to us as our own imaginations?  Did we discount the possibility that God might actually speak to us.  He doesn’t really do that anymore, does He?  Besides, people might think we were crazy if we told them that God spoke to us.  It was a dilemma Thomas Cranmer faced and with which he struggled.  When he finally acknowledged what it was God was saying to him and telling him to do, it cost him his life in a most unpleasant way.


Whether God is speaking to us and whether we are hearing Him and responding accordingly are the very questions we hear Jesus raising in today’s gospel from Matthew.   As we heard, the chief priests and the elders came to Jesus and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  In other words, they were asking, why should we listen to you?  Just because we hear you, we don’t have to listen, especially since we doubt that you have the authority to say and do what you are doing.


Theirs is an attitude with which we are familiar, perhaps one that we ourselves have expressed from time to time.  Two people can say virtually the same thing, but if we do not believe that one is authoritative, we will dismiss what that one has said.  Who are we going to believe—the person with the Ph.D. or the individual who did not make it through high school?   Of course, we see this played out in the political arena all the time.  How authoritative is a Republican to a Democrat or a Democrat to a Republican?


So, the question by what authority Jesus did these things was important to the chief priests and elders, especially if it might be from God. At least, that is what they seemed to suggest.  Jesus would have been happy to answer their question with one proviso; that they answer a question of His first.  This was no trick on Jesus’ part, but standard rabbinic procedure.


The chief priests and elders had asked Jesus by what authority He was doing these things.  Now Jesus asks the very same question of them except in respect to John the Baptist.  “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin.”


Matthew shares with us what the priests and elders thought about Jesus’ question. Frankly, they did not even try to answer it, but were instead concerned with the political ramifications of their answer. “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”  We might have some empathy with their political concern.  In today’s cultural environment there is no way anyone can speak the truth without it being politicized, resulted in mean-spiritedness and divisiness.


Because these leaders would not answer Jesus’ question, neither would He answer theirs.  Instead, He used this opportunity to deliver one of His ever effective parables.  Parables, or course, are little stories that teach, and the problem or benefit of such a story is that it is difficult to forget, like a tune we cannot put out of our minds.


Jesus introduces this parable in the form of a question to the chief priests and elders.  It is an even deeper question, one which lies at heart of their question to Him about His authority and to the one He asked about the baptism of John.  Listen again to Jesus’ problematic parable.


A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.”


Many of us have brothers.  I am the older of two.  My brother and I get along quite well, and have never really had much conflict at least that I know.  This parable reminds me of a time many years ago.  It was Sunday lunch at home.  My mother had prepared a nice meal.  Now, there was this rule (you may be familiar with it) that neither my brother nor I could get up from the table unless we had cleaned our plates.  This was not an easy thing to do when spinach and squash were served.


Anyway, on this particular Sunday my parents had gotten up from the table.  They had finished eating.  I supposed they got tired of waiting on my brother and me. I finally managed to clean my plate and left the table.  My brother had not made much progress.  Ten minutes later I heard, “Clark, get in here. You left the table and have not finished your lunch.”  I protested.  “Yes, I did.”  I am not sure why they believed me, but they did.  With no one looking my brother had smartly switched my clean plate for his still uneaten lunch.


It is unlikely that such a switch as with my brother occurred in today’s parable, but it does leave us wondering why the first son told his father that he would not go into vineyard, and later changed his mind.  The second son, as we heard, immediately told his dad that he would go, but did not.  If we are honest, we have to admit that in the course of our lives we all have been a bit like the first son and sometimes like the second.  For us husbands it is known as a “honey-do” list.  Emily had been asking me since the first of the summer to remove a little cedar that sprung up in one of gutters at our house.  Numerous times I told her I would.  It was only last week that I did.


Jesus, though wasn’t talking about procrastinating, being lazy, or telling a falsehood.  His parable addressed something much deeper and profounder.  He explains it, much to the shock, irritation, and perhaps chagrin of the chief priests and elders.  What does He say? “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For 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.


Jesus has just insulted, eternally so, the religious elite, those who are supposed to have their spiritual acts together. Jesus has told them that the worst of the worst, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, are getting into heaven before they do.   Can we imagine?  The people we may put on the lowest rung of the ladder getting in ahead of perhaps us.  How could this possibly happen?   Had those religious elite somehow gotten distracted, let their priorities slip, or maybe, maybe ceased to listen to God because their minds, their energy, and their focus was being expended and applied elsewhere?


I came across this rather alarming article from the autumn issue of the “Anglican Digest,” written by Rabbi Stephen M. Wylen.  Here is some of what he said. “The Bible tells us that when King Solomon was old he went astray by erecting an altar to the Canaanite god Molech in the Valley of Hinnom.  The idol of Molech was a furnace, with the god’s mouth serving as the opening to feed the fire.  The Bible tells us that parents worshiped Molech by throwing their children into the fire as a sacrifice to this hungry, demanding god.  Molech worship was quite fashionable in those days.”


The rabbi goes on to say, “Today, parents offer their children up to the ever-hungry and always demanding soccer god.  Related sects worship the gods of football, basketball, gymnastics, and Little League baseball.  These are jealous gods who demand no less than the fulltime devotion of their adherents.  Any parent who does not bow and pray before the soccer god risks Eternal Derision and Being Out of the Loop (the modern equivalent of damnation and exile).


The soccer god allows his adherents to eat, sleep, and attend school—a concession to necessity—but all the rest of the worshipers’ time belongs to HIM. Devotees are struck with lightning bolts at the first sign of distraction or slackening devotion” (p. 44).


The rabbi’s observations strike close to home, not only in respect to our children, but even ourselves.  To what god or gods are we bowing other than the God and Father of Jesus?  What are our priorities and where are we spending our time?  In other words, to whose voice are we listening?  How can we do as God asks of us if we are not even listening for Him?  We cannot say, no or yes to Him if we cannot hear Him.


We live in a difficult time with such much competing for our attention.  It is indeed the information age and we have main-lined it by our various technological devices.  There is much distraction.  As Christians we are called to not only listen to God, but do what He asks us to do.  The chief priests and the elders in today’s gospel were not bad people.  No, they were good people, so much so that I would suppose that though they served God, they believed they did not need Him, and that was where they stumbled.


Might we being doing the same?  It is in needing Him that we listen to Him. God is speaking to us this very morning, corporately and individually.   We may not like what He has to say.  He is saying to us the very words Jesus had the father in the parable say to his two sons.  Go and work in the vineyard today.

Stewardship season is coming up in the next few weeks. Can we imagine God not telling us, every one of us, not to make a financial pledge to St. Elizabeth’s?  Can we imagine Him not telling us to come to church on Sunday more than once a month or even twice?  Can we imagine Him telling us not to bring our children and grandchildren to church less than twice a month?  Can we imagine Him saying to us, just do your job.  I’ll find others to take care of the ministry needs of St. Elizabeth’s and the community.


You see the tax collectors and the prostitutes, realized in the preaching of John the Baptist that it was God speaking to them.  They repented and began to try to live their lives as God would have them.  The chief priests and elders on the other hand demurred, not allowing themselves to believe what they knew.  Yes, it was God speaking to them through John the Baptist.


A little boy had been misbehaving and was sent to his room. After a while he emerged and informed his mother that he had thought it over and then said a prayer. “Fine,” said the pleased mother. “If you ask God to help you not misbehave, he will help you.” “Oh, I didn’t ask him to help me not misbehave,” said Johnny. “I asked him to help you put up with me.”


God in Jesus does put up with us.  If we listen to Him, He will also empower us not to misbehave, but go out into His vineyard and do the work He has given us to do.


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.