Good morning (evening)! A special welcome to anyone who is here for the first time or feeling new to the Christ Church family, like me. We are delighted you are here. I want you to know that you will be very glad you came to Christ Church today —not only because it’s just a great church, but because I have all the answers for the questions in your life. Right here. It’s the double issue of Time Magazine from September—billed as The Answers Issue.
Let’s look at some of life’s questions that can be answered with a quick read. Does your SAT score predict your future? (No) What is the beer capital of America? (Denver) When did we start saying ‘groovy’? (1937) Should my kid have a tablet? Is Stubble Attractive? How many prisoners believe in God? On a deeper note, Who are we? What is the meaning of life? What defines us? What are we doing with our lives? How do we love? In fact, why bother with a magazine if you have a smart phone in your pocket. Ask Siri. She knows. I asked Siri “What’s the meaning of life? and she told me,” To think about questions like this.”
I sometimes feel that if I only had the right answers—not just any answers but the right answers- to life’s questions, then my life would turn out well. I would have everything under control. I would finally have my proverbial ‘act’ together. And then all of you out there would think well of me—could see my ‘act’ and say, “She’s so smooth! So together!”
Thursday at the women’s bible study, we talked about three things that showed you ‘had it together’: being thin, smiling and wearing designer jeans. Everything in your life could be going down the tubes, but if you have those three things, no one would guess. The problem is we know down deep that we don’t have it all together. Most times, we don’t even have a little together. Despite our big smile and our skinny jeans, we suspect that all hell is going to break lose any minute and somehow it will be our fault.
Our gospel today hits us right where we live– in our ‘have-all-the-answers’ world. Jesus poses questions to the priests. The answers allow us to live without the anxiety that we carry around, worried about having the right answers in life.
A father asks his two sons to help out in the family vineyard. The first son says, “I will not.” But then, later goes. The second son says, “I go, sir!,” but does not go. We could take this story at face value—something along the lines of “you should always say yes to your Father” or “cheerful working is a good thing” or maybe “God will like you better if you say yes.” But as with all of Jesus’ parables, there are many layers of meaning embedded in this story.
First of all, what is the Father asking the sons to do? To go and work in the vineyard. We often see the vineyard used in Jesus’ parables to symbolize the church, with himself as the vine.
In the Old Testament, planting a vineyard meant that you planned to stay somewhere—dwell there—be committed for the long-term. For instance, the oldest winery in the world is in Slovenia and is 800 years old. That’s a long time. The vineyard also was a sign of abundance, nourishment and love. I don’t own a vineyard, but something tells me that it’s very important that you have laborers who love the vineyard like you do because it is meticulous work that builds on itself. What is the Father in the parable asking the sons? The Father is asking them to join him in dwelling in the land, having a vineyard that lasts and feeds, abiding together without worry. In the gospel of John, we are often told that Christ abides in us and us in him, and that Jesus is the vine. With Christ, abiding is not just surviving, it is thriving, enduring, sustaining. So the Father is asking the sons to come into the vineyard so they will be able to abide with him and leave their solitary life behind.
We are like the sons, however. We like our solitary life. We don’t need the father’s old vineyard to do our thing. We just need some skinny jeans and a smile– or a good resume, an impressive date, an expensive car, just more of something we don’t have right now. These things are not in any way bad in themselves—it is how we cling to them to give us value and worth. I know because I have been down this road before.
I tried everything I could think of to fix myself. Be nice, go to college, get a great job, marry someone, have children, have the picket fence life. But the nagging voice inside still said, “You’re not enough, Marilu.” And I knew it was true.
I am not enough. By myself, I am not enough to understand the underlying questions of this world. The nagging doubt remains that all of my efforts go nowhere and do not satisfy me. As our Exodus text says about the wanderers in the wilderness, I am stiff necked. Not because I slept wrong or hadn’t exercised—I am stubborn.
Stiff-necked people are stubborn people, not easily guided, because only think about themselves. The people in the wilderness ignore God’s guidance and do not trust or obey God—and they complain that they aren’t getting what they want. The term was familiar to the people of Jesus’ time because oxen are stiff necked and need to be prodded in the neck to move. The neck is also between the head and the heart—the passageway for change of heart or mind. A stiff- necked person is a self-centered person, interested only in their own happiness and not in others or the community.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, they call this “self-will run riot.” Martin Luther called it “en curvatus se” or being turned-in-on-self. In other words, I am always on my mind. What about me? What will I get out of it? What are they thinking of me? When will I get what I want? People should do things my way. I know best. Other people are to blame for what’s wrong in the world.
The problem with being turned-in-on-self is that self cannot cure self. Self manifests in self-pity, self-seeking, self-delusion and self-destruction. The heart hardens and calcifies without love and acceptance.
Martin Luther addresses this hardening of the heart in his essay, “The Bondage of the Will.” He says, The person turned-in-on-self “does not seek God, nor care for the things of God: he seeks his own riches and glory, and works, and wisdom and power, and sovereignty in everything, and wants to enjoy it in peace… he can no more stop his self-seeking than he can stop existing for he is a creature of God; though a spoiled one.”
So the two sons are spoiled—not believing that their very life comes from the Father and is sustained by the Father. As children say, “You’re not the boss of me!” Guess what- the two sons are us.
What makes us act this way? I believe it is fear. Fear we will not get what we want or lose what we have. Fear of rejection. Fear of impending doom. Fear of the future. Fear of people, fear of failure, fear of abandonment, fear of not measuring up, fear of ending up alone and unloved. We are creatures of fear. We believe if we only get it ‘together,’ have all the answers, look good on the outside, then we will be happy. But when we get everything we want, we are still not happy. We are standing outside of the vineyard where our real life is, and our soul is yearning for something more.
What breaks us out of this cycle of self? And what does God expect of us? We try being a good person. We get up earlier, work harder, try to be nicer, never make anybody mad. We get thinner, smile more, wear great jeans.
Make our kids look better, behave better. Go to church earlier or more often. Study harder, go to graduate school, download more information. We’re trying as hard as we can, for goodness sake.
Therein lies the problem. The problem is that more self does not solve the problem of self. We are still trying to have all the answers. We are still self-seeking even when we are trying to be good. We want something—we think being good should get us some sort of payback. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Great Divorce, says that at some point during all this self-centered activity, God says to us, “Ok, your will, not mine, be done.” Until we are sick and tired of self and don’t have any answers left, we are not ready to accept help. Grace works on people that have given up having all the answers.
This is where God saves us from ourselves. If you’ve wondered what God saves us from, God saves us from self. Luther continued by telling us that, “God has taken salvation out of the control of my own will., and put it under the control of His, and promised to save me, not according to my working or running, but according to his own grace and mercy…I have the comfortable certainty that I please God, not by reason of the merit of my works, but by reason of His merciful favor promised to me. So if I work too little or badly, he does not impute it to me, but with fatherly compassion pardons me and makes me better.” Luther is telling me that I please God because I exist. I am his handiwork. I am his child. Nothing I can do can make him love me more. Full stop.
In the passage of the two sons, the original Greek verb says that the first son repents, or changes his heart and mind and basically says, “Here I am, I am ready now.” The first son has recognized his self-seeking and is ready to live a different way. This is an echo of the writings of St. Augustine who said to God, “I will distrust myself, I will trust you.” I will trust you, God. Over my own ideas and plans. Over my own fears and anxieties about how my life looks today. I will trust you when things seem to be going very wrong. I will trust you when the answers just aren’t there. I will trust that you are sovereign over all things, especially me. The first son trusts the father’s authority over his life. The second son does not. He is not ready. He is still stuck in fear and doing it himself.
Does the Father love both sons—the one who says yes and doesn’t go, and the one who says no and then goes? Yes- the father loves both sons. Jesus asks the chief priests at the end of this parable, “Which son does the will of the Father?” they say the one who goes. The one who trusts and dwells or lives his life with the Father. The one who trusts the Father’s answers over his own. This is the word for us today.
What does God expect from us? Belief. Belief = trust. When Jesus is asking if you believe in Him, as he is also asking these priests, he is asking if you trust him. Do you trust him to love you no matter what you do? Do you trust him to guide you in this life on a day-by-day and sometimes hour-by-hour basis? Or would you rather do it yourself?
If you are having a hard time with believing in God today, maybe you can trust that I believe. I believe wholeheartedly that this is true in my life and I know it can be a reality in yours. I have seen it happen too many times to too many people to not believe it to be true.
Lastly, I want to leave you with a story of grace that could be called the One Daughter with two lives. Phillip Yancey shares this story in his book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace?”
There is a high school girl, let’s call her Ashley. She had lived in a sleepy little town her whole life, with the same old people, same old things to do, same kids in every class. Her parents loved her and she had a good home, but she was just so bored with it all. She longed to go to New York and make it big. She was a star in the show choir and dance team. She knew wanted much more than she was getting. Her parents knew she had big dreams, but they wanted her to finish high school first. She thought they were just trying to keep her down. So one night she left. She hopped a bus to New York with about $500 to her name, sure that she would make it into commercials or a big musical once she got there. It didn’t work out so well. The $500 didn’t last very long and she ended up in a flea bitten hostel. She didn’t have a high school diploma, so she could only get fast food jobs, that didn’t pay the rent. She started doing things she thought she would never do, just to survive. She was ashamed and demoralized. Soon enough, she was down to her last $50 and she thought of home.
That little town with the same old people didn’t seem so bad after all, but she felt too ashamed to go home. Surely everyone knew by now how awful she was, what she had done, who she had become. She did something she hadn’t done since she was in middle school—she prayed, “God, help me.” She called her parents house when she knew they wouldn’t be home and left a message on the voice mail. “I’ll be coming home on the midnight bus. I can understand if you don’t want to see me so if I don’t see you at the bus station, I will just stay on the bus and keep moving.” As the bus neared home, she started shaking. She noticed her dirty looking clothes and skinny body and felt shame all over again. Who would want her now? If she were her parents, she wouldn’t go to the station. What was she thinking? She slunk down lower into her seat to save herself the pain of an empty bus station. Then she heard noise outside and saw bright lights. She peeked over the edge of the window and saw what looked like the whole town at the bus station. Her parents, her brother and sister, her friends, teachers, pastor, neighbors. They had signs that said “Welcome Home, Ashley! We love you!” She started to cry as she headed off the bus. She had been forgiven- now maybe she could forgive herself. She headed into the vineyard of grace saying, “Here I am. I’m ready to trust now.”
Jesus has only one question that we need to answer today, “Do you trust me?” The answer he’s looking for is, “Yes, Lord, I trust you. No matter what it looks like to my eyes, I will trust you above myself.”