Sunday, September 25, 2005

Proper 21A

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:3-9; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:28-32

My husband and I have spent our free time over the past couple of months making a few small changes to our kitchen. It’s amazing to me how much work small changes can take, and also what a big difference small changes can make. A fresh coat of exactly the same color paint on our kitchen cabinets, and a new set of hinges and handles….and presto!, our kitchen looks entirely different.

We’ve been inspired, of course, by all those do-it-yourself home makeover shows, which I love to watch. I actually like any sort of makeover show, whether it is a room or a garden or a person being transformed. From the nervous excitement when the design is unveiled by the professional you trust to see possibilities you cannot see, through each anxious decision to try something new, to the breathless anticipation of the big “reveal” at the end of the show when the host asks inevitable question, “Well, what do you think?”.... Truthfully, the disaster stories (when a designer nailed all the furniture to the ceiling, or a hairstylist insists that purple is really your color) can be just as entertaining as the success stories. But the best transformations, I think, are the ones in which the response to “what do you think” is “I never realized this room, this garden, this me, could look so beautiful.”

We could go straight to TLC or HGTV with our readings this morning. Through Ezekiel, God urges the people of Israel to get a new heart and a new spirit. Paul urges Christians in Philippi to adopt the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. These are no small changes!

Then Jesus, our host, begins his parable, What do you think? The chief priests and scribes to whom he is speaking don’t know it – they never really get it – but Jesus is about to reveal to them a transformation beyond their imagining. What do you think? A man had two sons….

By this point in Matthew’s gospel, the chief priests and scribes have had enough of Jesus, who they insist has made far too many unauthorized changes to God’s law. He surrounds himself with sinners, works on the Sabbath, and deals out grace as generously to the riff-raff as to the righteous. He had just the day before literally turned the furniture upside-down in the temple when he insisted that money-changers didn’t belong there, and in fact he had claimed to be able to tear the temple down and rebuild it in three days. They can’t even do that on Trading Spaces!

The preferred arrangement of things was this: if you obey the law, saying yes to God, you are to be commended. If you disobey the law, saying no to God, you are to be reprimanded and excluded from the company of the righteous. It was an arrangement as old as the stars on which Abraham had counted his descendants….and as contemporary as the standards by which we still measure our sisters and brothers today. Good rewarded, bad punished – it’s a simple, straightforward arrangement that lets us know exactly where we, and everyone else, stands.

Then Jesus goes and turns that arrangement squarely on its head. It’s bad enough that last week, in the parable of the vineyard, he suggested that the kingdom be offered to those who hadn’t worked nearly as hard as the rest of us to earn it. In this week’s parable, he offers the kingdom to those who, under the old arrangement of the law, have downright forfeited it by their disobedience, by their defiance of the law - tax collectors and prostitutes and who knows what other sinners. What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not.’

What do you think? The son who first defies his father is the one who will change his mind and go to work after all. He is the son the chief priests and scribes will correctly identify as the one who does his father’s will over against the son who says he will work in the vineyard, but then does not go. What do you think?

Here comes the big reveal. Truly I tell you, Jesus says, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, who have defied the law, are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John the Baptist 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 how their lives were transformed, you did not change your minds and believe, you would not go into the vineyard with them.

The new arrangement, it seems, is this. Everyone who believes (as opposed to everyone who behaves) is in.

Robert Farrar Capon writes, “No matter how much we give lip service to the notion of free grace and dying love, we do not like it. It is just too….indiscriminate. It lets rotten sons and crooked tax collectors and common tarts into the kingdom, and it thumbs its nose at really good people….We’ll teach God, we say. We will continue to sing ‘Amazing Grace,’ in church; but we will jolly well be judicious when it comes to explaining it to the riff-raff what it actually means. We will assure them, of course, that God loves them and forgives them, but we will make it clear that we expect them to clean up their act before we clasp them seriously to our bosom.”

What do you think – which of us in this painful (but honest) telling is doing God’s will? The riff-raff who believe God is at work in them to help them change their lives....or we who insist they must change their lives for God to work in them? Which of us is working in the kingdom, where power is turned upside-down and is revealed not by showing righteousness but by showing mercy and pity? Which of us is going into the vineyard to work, and which of us, though we say yes, really mean, but not if I have to work beside them? God, it seems, clasps to the bosom tax collectors and prostitutes and all others who defy the law just as tightly as God clasps us. God expects we will all clean up our acts eventually.

Because the truth is, of course, we are each of us a complicated mix of good and bad, obedient and disobedient, first sons and second sons. We daily utter both defiant no’s and earnest yes’s to God’s invitation to work in the vineyard, and we are prone, like those petulant sons in the parable, to change our minds as soon as we’ve made them up. Perhaps that’s why the old arrangement of reward and punishment doesn’t work and a new, even simpler arrangement is necessary – everyone who believes is in. Everyone who believes that God can take any old heart and mind and spirit and make it new, is in. In fact, the only thing that can keep us out is our refusal to let God have every old heart and mind and spirit, our saying no to any old sinner who has said yes to God.

And what of good behavior, of being obedient, of doing what is right in the eyes of God? Of course God desires us, as Paul writes, to have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus, to be willing to give our entire lives over to the service of God. But our obedience, doing what is right in the sight of God, is not what earns us our new heart and our new spirit. Real obedience, vineyard work, kingdom living, occurs only as our joyful response to having that new heart already beating in us and that new spirit already transforming our lives. God is at work in all of us riff-raff, making us beautiful beyond our imagining.

And so let us get ourselves a new heart and a new spirit, a kingdom heart and a kingdom spirit, a generous heart and a generous spirit. What do you think? Amen.