Sunday, September 25, 2011

Preach One: Proper 21A

Preached at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Crystal Springs, MS, and at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Forest, MS

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

I never took the ERB exams when I was in school.  I never took the ISEE, or the MCT2, or the ACT.  But I've taken the SAT, and several AP's, and the GRE and the GOE's.  We know our educational system's standardized tests by their acronyms, by rows of letters like a scantron sheet full of answers waiting to be bubbled in.

It was ERB week this week at St. Andrew's Episcopal School, where I work.  As I peeked in on classrooms full of children busy with exam booklets and answer bubbles, I was suddenly a student again, waking up early on test day, eating a healthy breakfast, and arriving at school armed with number two pencils and scratch paper.  I remember the flimsy booklets filled with columns of math problems and reading comprehension questions, analogies and synonyms, formulas and definitions.  But what I remember most about taking standardized tests are the directions.

Do not begin until you are instructed to do so.  Go on to the next page until you see the word "stop".  Erase stray marks completely.  Fill in the circle, and make your mark dark.

I learned a little bit about psychometrics, the art and science of creating tests, in graduate school.  But I have forgotten why and how it is sometimes better to guess when you do not know the answer, and sometimes it is better to leave the answer blank.  In this evening's gospel reading, we hear both approaches, and neither gets a very good score.

We do not know, the chief priests and elders respond, leaving the answer blank when the question of John the Baptist's authority arises.  Is it of divine or human origin?  Either answer would get them in trouble with the crowds whose respect they crave, and so they choose not to answer at all.  Neither will I tell you by what authority I am acting, Jesus replies, and while it sounds like leaving the question blank, he will go on to explain that he has shown all his work.  Hadn't they seen?  Hadn't they heard?

Maybe they would do better on the analogy section, so Jesus tells a parable of two sons ordered by their father to work in the vineyard.  What do you think?  Which of the two did the will of the father, Jesus asks, and the chief priests and elders correctly guess that it was the one who said no, but who later changed his mind and went to work after all.

But still they did not understand.  Still they did not see.  They did not hear that the question wasn't about authority.  It wasn't about right and wrong answers.  It wasn't about pleasing God by getting a perfect score on some test, although the religious leaders of Jesus' day loved nothing better than scorekeeping.  If they were keeping score, they would have noted that neither brother in the parable deserves full credit for his answer.  The one who agreed to do his father's will didn't end up going into the vineyard at all, and the one who went to work at first refused.

If we were keeping score in our reading from Exodus, we would have noted that the Israelites' scantron is also full of stray marks, half-erased answers, and second guessing.  Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst, they complained, perhaps forgetting how they once thirsted not for water but for freedom and a future.

For that matter, if we were keeping score, how would we in our own lives measure up?  Would we merit the credit God gave us in Jesus Christ, whose perfect obedience to the Father is the only reason we pass the test at all?  On test day, which is to say every day (for when do we not find ourselves faced with multiple choices) how often do we wake up on the wrong side of the bed, skip a healthy breakfast, forget to follow directions, guess wildly, or throw up our hands in defeat and say we just don't know?

If we were keeping score... It turns out none of us are very good at psychometry, at creating tests, writing questions, and making out answer keys, precisely because we do keep score.  God does notIs the Lord among us or not, the Israelites asked, but it was the wrong question.  Hadn't they seen?  Hadn't they heard?  God was there as pillar and cloud, leading them from slavery to salvation.  God was there as manna, feeding their hunger.  I will be standing there in front of you on the rock, God promised from the place where water would gush out, quenching their thirst.  The people questioned God's authority.  But the real question was about their faith, their response to God's power and presence, their willingness to go on to the next page, the next stage of their journey through life's wilderness, trusting that God was with them.

Is the Lord among us or not, the chief priests and elders are truly asking when they question Jesus' authority, but it was the wrong question.  Hadn't they seen?  Hadn't they heard?  God was there no longer just in the words of prophets but as a living Word of hope and promise and forgiveness and grace.  Even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe, Jesus said.  The real question was about their faith, their response to God's power and presence, their willingness to go on to the next page, the next stage of their journey through life's wilderness, trusting that God was with them.

Is the Lord among us or not?  Paul tells us we are still asking the wrong question.  God is with usIt is God who is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for God's good pleasure.  What the Israelites and the chief priests and elders and we all fail to realize is that, if we must look at life as a test, it isn't about right and wrong answers at all.  The son who went into the vineyard to work didn't give the right right answer - he told his father no.  He didn't give the right answer, but he did live it.  In the end, he didn't let a hasty response, a mistake, a stray mark, keep him from doing his father's will.  That son changed his answer from a disobedient word to a faith-filled way of acting, and for showing his work he got full credit.

Thank goodness life is not a standardized test.  There may be rules to remember.  There may be choices to make.  There may be right and wrong answers, easy and hard ways to work things through.  But God sees and hears more than our multiple choices, more than our true and false, more than our yes and our no.  Our response to God's authority in our lives is not contained in a little bubble.  Our response to God's authority, God's will, God's invitation, in our lives is how we live them, day in and day out, mistakes, stray marks, and all.  As we work out our salvation, if we will but believe that God is among us, that indeed it is God who is at work in us, saving us all along, if we will but believe, then God will erase our stray marks completely and give us full credit simply for trying.

The vineyard to which we are called, the world out there, might as well be a wilderness.  But we do not journey there alone, nor do we face life's daily tests without a study guide.  Is the Lord among us or not, we have always asked, and God has answered with fire and cloud and bread and water and, finally, with Christ himself, God's divine yes to our human no.  Haven't we seen?  Haven't we heard?  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, Paul encourages us, and so our questions of how to do our Father's will, how to see, how to hear, how to work, how to live, how to love, are once and for all answered.

Let us take out our pencils.  Let us go on to the next page until, one day, we see the word "stop", and let us answer this question to the best of our ability, being certain to show our work: Will we go into the vineyard today?  Amen.

Artwork: "Vineyard Gold," by Jennifer Vranes; "Moses Striking the Rock," by Marc Chagall; "Jesus Icon Painting," by Alpha Shanahan.

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