Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Rhyming" Word and Deed

Dilworth Lutheran Church
60th Anniversary Celebration, “Growing Disciples”
September 28, 2008
Matthew 21:23-32

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

I’d like to do something sort of strange this morning. I’m going to start by telling you how this sermon ends. It ends with this line: “God loves to wrap words in flesh and blood. God loves to make faith come alive in energy and action.”

Let me say that again, the conclusion to this sermon: “God loves to wrap words in flesh and blood. God loves to make faith come alive in energy and action.”

OK, that’s the end of this sermon. Now, back to the beginning.

Jesus is in the hot-seat here in Matthew 21, as he often is in the gospels. Jesus has been making a stir among the people, riding into Jerusalem like a king, angrily clearing all the merchants out of the Temple, cursing a fig tree so that it withers at once.

Jesus is making a scene, and the religious leaders of his people are understandably nervous. Like the dithering school board members in that old Broadway play The Music Man, always trying to get Professor Harold Hill to fork over his “credentials,” the Jerusalem religious establishment demand that Jesus show his ID and tender his resume.

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they ask, and it is a very legitimate question. It’s the kind of question they should be asking, even as we wary voters, in this presidential election year are only smart to ask the same thing of Senators McCain and Obama. Show us your credentials, please!

But Jesus isn’t answering this question, at least not directly. He seems to dodge it by asking his own question: What did they make of the now-dead John the Baptist? Where did he get his authority—from God or from human beings?

It’s a no-win question for these religious leaders. If they say that John represented God’s authority, everyone will wonder why these religious leaders opposed John. But if they say that John was just another ordinary human being, they’ll risk upsetting the common folk for whom John had become a hero whose image continued to shine long after his martyrdom.

So Jesus’ accusers back off. Staring nervously at their feet, they mumble: “We don’t know where John’s authority came from”—basically the equivalent of: “No comment!”

Jesus knew they’d answer that way. And so Jesus uses his accusers’ “no comment” to justify his own refusal to answer their question. He wasn’t about to tell them how he got the power to do and say what he’d been doing and saying.

It seems like Jesus was ducking the question his accusers posed. Or was it that Jesus simply didn’t want to TELL his accusers about the source of his authority. For Jesus had another way of dealing with that. Jesus almost always preferred to let his actions do the talking for him.

…which is the point of the little parable Jesus tells next. It’s about as simple and straightforward as any of Jesus’ parables.

A man has two sons. He asks one to go work in the family vineyard, and the son replies: “Bug off, old man. I’ve got better things to do!” (You’ll notice, I’m taking a few liberties with the text…)

But this first son, after a while, feels crummy about what he said to his dear old dad, and so heaving a big sigh, the son puts on his work clothes and heads out to the vineyard. He does the opposite of what he said he’d do.

Meanwhile, thinking he struck out with his first son, the father turns to his second son and asks him to go work in the vineyard. “Sure, Dad, I’ll get right on it as soon as I finish this video game…” (I’m still taking a few liberties with the text…)

But the video game (or whatever else was distracting the second son) takes longer than he imagined, and by that point he has lost interest in obeying his father, and in fact he never makes it to the vineyard. Like the first son, the second son also does the opposite of what he said he’d so.

And so Jesus asks the Jerusalem religious elite: “Which of the two did the will of his father?” And the answer is obvious: only the first son actually did his father’s will.

And with that answer still on their lips, Jesus nails the religious authorities of Jerusalem with this inconvenient truth: “You guys are just like the second son. You talk a good line, but your actions betray you. You say a loud YES to God, but your lives are a huge NO. And meanwhile, the scum of the earth—the ones you look down your long noses at!—they are ‘getting it.’ Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

What is Jesus after here? What is he seeking?

Jesus is seeking a congruence, a correspondence, a “rhyming” of word and deed. That’s because Jesus is speaking for God, indeed Jesus is speaking as God here. And God just “loves to wrap words in flesh and blood…God loves to make faith come alive in energy and action.”

But wait a minute. We Lutherans love words and make much of faith—faith that grasps God’s promises. We’re skittish about doing stuff, leery of “works.” We know that nothing we do can make us right with God, after all.

So, we Lutherans are queasy about what Jesus is up to here in Matthew 21, because Jesus almost seems to de-value our words, our verbal professions of faith.

And yet, and yet, must we pit words against works, faith versus deeds in order to be good little Lutherans? Martin Luther himself once said of faith that it is “a living, busy, active, and mighty thing” (LW 35:370). And Luther himself showed again and again how God’s Word is always more than letters on a page, always more than mere talk. God’s Word is living and active, forgiving our past and forging our future. God’s Word is always, always more than syllables.

In Jesus, after all, God’s Word—God’s “I love you”—became flesh and lived among us (John 1). In Jesus, God’s grace and truth came alive in energy and action….going all the way to the Cross and the Grave for you and for me. God could have mailed us a love letter, but instead God sent us Jesus.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, God sends us, to be his own continuing “love letters” to a hurting, hungry world. We call that discipleship—hence your anniversary theme, “Growing Disciples”—and discipleship involves correlating, “rhyming” words with deeds in the most natural, indeed inevitable way.

When Martin Luther called faith a “living, busy, active, and mighty thing” it’s as if he were saying that faith is hyper-active. It’s in the nature of faith to snap, crackle and pop with life and vitality. God is forever taking our words and wrapping them in flesh and blood:
God wraps our longing for a fresh start and a new creation in the flesh and blood of fervent prayer.
God wraps our awe at the wonders of the universe in the flesh and blood of inspiring worship.
God wraps our pain at the hurt and heartache of this world in the flesh and blood of self-less service.
God wraps our gratitude for all good things in the flesh and blood of overflowing generosity.
God wraps our longing that others might know this Great News in the flesh and blood of winsome witness.

When God wrapped himself up in the flesh and blood of Jesus, born of Mary, we called that incarnation.

When God wraps himself up in our flesh and blood--in where we show up and what we do with our bodies and our being--we call that discipleship.

All of it—all of it—is God’s doing in our lives. God bids us go into his vineyard, and however we may at first answer him, the proof of the pudding will be in what actually happens, what results there—in the vineyard, that is, in God’s glorious world.

So dear friends at Dilworth Lutheran, today as you give thanks for 60 years of life and ministry, you are wisely and appropriately committing yourselves to “Growing Disciples”….which is just another way of saying that you’re opening yourselves up to God who “loves to wrap words in flesh and blood, who loves to make faith come alive in energy and action.”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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