Sunday, September 25

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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


Often, when I'm reading scripture, I am reminded of how much we filter through our own understanding and experience. The last two weeks' Gospel readings are a great example; I can't help but hear them from my perspective as a parent. Last week, as you'll remember, we heard about laborers hired at different points during the day to work in a vineyard, who were all paid the same wage. Remember the anger of those who had worked the whole day? "It's not fair! You gave him more than me!" It's a cry everyone who has kids-- or has been a kid-- can recognize.

This week we're back in the vineyard, this time with a father sending two sons to work. And again, I find both of their responses very familiar. The first son is initially defiant, but eventually does what is asked of him. This sounds to me like every kid who goes off to do chores he or she doesn't like, grousing and whining and complaining the entire way. "I don't wanna!" "How come I have to?" I imagine even his body language was grumpy and defiant, stomping off with a scowl on his face.

The second son is initially more pleasant, but doesn't get anything done. And doesn't this sound familiar? It's like seeing a sink full of dirty dishes in the kitchen, and a child sitting on the sofa watching TV.

"Honey, will you please come take care of this for me?"
"Sure, Mom-- will do!"

Then I come back an hour later to find the same dirty dishes in the sink, and the same child on the same sofa, watching the same TV. Only the program has changed.

Isn't that aggravating? Even more so than the behavior in the first scene.

And yet, if I'm honest, I have to admit that I'm guilty of this as well. Maybe not so often with household chores, though it does happen; but also in my walk as a Christian disciple. Aren't we all? We know we need to come together for worship; to spend time in prayer, and reading scripture; to work for and care for one another, beyond the barriers of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or politics (to name only a few) that we erect between ourselves and those around us. We acknowledge all these things, and say we'll live into the commitment-- and then we fall short, every one of us.

Now, this is nothing new. Even Paul complained of the same problem. "I do not do the good I want," he says, "but the evil I do not want is what I do." We're in good company, my friends. It's part of what is meant when scipture tells us that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

The good news, my brothers and sisters, is that God forgives us, every time, if only we will accept it. This is what Jesus was trying to tell the priests and the elders, and what the prostitutes and tax collectors had already figured out. That forgiveness, and the opportunity to try to do better next time, is there for all of us, always. Perennially guaranteed, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

Now, doing what we need to do with our lives is not always easy. Sometimes it's really hard. But here's more good news: we can grumble and grouse and argue with God about doing it, knowing that God understands and loves us, even when we feel reluctant and uncooperative. Goodness, even Jesus did that. Remember his prayers in the garden at Gethsemane? "Father, let this cup pass from me!"

We are reminded of this understanding in the Episcopal tradition by the promises we make at each and every baptism. Among them, we make the commitment "whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord." We don't say "IF we sin." We acknowledge it inevitably happens. However, we vow that when it happens -- and that includes the sin of not doing things we know we should, our "sins of omission" -- we intend to repent -- literally, to turn away from the wrong -- and to reach for the grace and mercy that we're offered. We can do this with confidence, knowing that we will be forgiven and welcomed back every time. We only need to be willing to admit we erred, and try again.

This is good news, brothers and sisters-- worth claiming, and worth sharing. Thanks be to God.