(Sorry – just back from an overseas trip – I posted this sermon on last week’s date. I plead old age and a wandering mind)
Jesus’ parables are generally easy to follow but not all are simply vivid and memorable stories. According to the gospel accounts, Jesus, the master of creative story-telling, is typically recorded as telling each parable in a form that everyone listening could find something there with which to relate. That was the comfortable bit. But then, for a good number of the parables, with his listeners first following and then taking the bait, they would discover the hook.
The parable was not always just a story about someone else – it was sometimes a story directly and personally aimed at those who would listen. Even when we find the story told again two thousand years later, the barb on that hook is as sharp as ever. Jesus aimed this particular story about the two sons asked to work in the vineyard at those who in his day who were leading religious figures. The barb was that to point out that others like the lowest of society were ahead of those leaders in their faith. Might his parable retain the same bait – and same barbed hook today?
The parable again:
28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John 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 it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
There is something artificial in the promises given for Church membership that has the potential to make Jesus’ parable of the two sons almost embarrassing. This is possibly one of the easiest parables to understand. Two sons are asked to help their father in the vineyard. One son promises – then fails to deliver on the promise. The other son says he won’t help – then does help. Which of the two does what his Father wants?….An absolute no- brainer. It isn’t the promise to help that counts – it is whether or not the help is delivered that matters.
Here in New Zealand we have just emerged from yet another election. And boy – did we hear some great promises. Race relations would improve. Each party was going to fix the economy, the social issues and the environment. The education system was going to be reformed. Trade was going to increase. The children were going to be looked after. Employment was going to improve. The health system would deliver and the elderly would have a better future. New Zealand would become a more caring society.
But did you like me notice three things missing?
The first was the promises from last time did not seem to have made much difference in the last governmental term. The second was that most promises seemed pretty well like those we heard last time. And thirdly – and perhaps most significantly – we the voters were not called upon to account for how we had helped the government achieve their goals on our behalf.
If we had been called to account, how might we have responded?
But rather than complain about the way the politicians had met their past promises wouldn’t it then be also somewhat embarrassing if Church members and even entire Churches and denominations were assessed, not on their assertions on entering membership, but rather on the evidence that they were delivering on the promises they had made.
Although Jesus’ detailed teachings are sometimes hard to interpret in a rapidly changing world, the principles are fairly articulated in most branches of the Church. Do you remember when, a few years ago, virtually all organizations including Churches were encouraged to come up with their mission statements?
Our Methodist Church took its task of setting up its own Mission Statement very seriously, developing it over more than one annual conference with numerous Synods in between and because I don’t want to embarrass anyone here this morning by asking how much of this they can recite from memory – I would just remind you that there are some magnificent intentions in this carefully crafted set of what in effect are our promises.
Without giving the whole of it in detail, we have at least agreed that not only are we going to proclaim the transforming love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and declared in the scriptures we are going to reflect that love in what we do. No doubt the preachers do a reasonable amount of proclaiming on our behalf but do our neighbours and those in the community see evidence we are reflecting this transforming Love?
We are going to challenge people to commitment in Christ. I am sure we are – but it is also a fair question to ask which people we have challenged in the last week – or even in the whole of the last month?
Remember we are going to be peacemakers between people both in the community and in the world. Well out in our community there are examples of violence on a daily basis. Our jails are full. Marriages are still falling apart. I am sure we are going to be peacemakers, but looking back over the last week – this last month where exactly has our peace-making effort been visible?
These statements you see, are in effect promises. We are saying what we are going to do. Under ecology for example we say we are going to care for creation. Presumably this has to mean something about handing on the world to the next generation in better condition than it was when we took over our stewardship.
Planting – rather than destroying native forests, cleaning our waterways rather than standing by and watch them be polluted, caring for our air and our soil and our endangered species. Having made and agreed with our statement of intent we can but hope that our planning as Church members includes action. So here is the question. Would others watching from the side be able to say that from what we see that our Church is concerned with ecology?
We are going to work for justice for any who are oppressed in our country (Aotearoa New Zealand)? Presumably this means that when new immigrants are getting a raw deal – or being denied entry because they are refugees rather than rich people – we will not only care, we will speak up. When did that speaking up happen?
Our promise on inclusiveness is that we will ensure the operation of our Church caters for all – so that our leaders meetings and worship will have visible representation by all groups, different cultures, newcomers as well as old hands, people of different sexual orientation, old and young. At one leadership course our District Superintendent asked how many of those present had young people fully involved in Church decision making… without going into detail I would have to say most present were a bit uncomfortable with the question.
And so we might continue to recall the promises we have in effect made. Those promises about Church unity, evangelism, cross cultural awareness.
But remember according to Jesus it was not just the ones who promised and failed to deliver – but he then went on to say that the ones who were not making the promise – but did in fact deliver on the test were the ones doing the Father’s will.
This is where there is possibly cause for embarrassment. We state we are concerned about ecology. If for example it is a group of young people not connected with the church who start to plant trees and clean up the environment, who will get identified as the group that is concerned about ecology?
If it is the United Nations or the Quakers who offer the courses in peace-making skills and sponsors the peace convention – is it them or the Methodists who are entitled to say they are concerned about peace-making?
Clearly we can’t all be predominantly peacemakers and ecologists and evangelists – and if it comes to that – in any case we are all at different stages of our journey. The elderly person on a walking frame cannot be expected to be a front line disaster volunteer, or a young teenager a disputes resolution mediator in a war zone, yet nor do we have the right to proclaim intentions unless somehow we follow through and ensure that somewhere in our organisation there are those who are delivering in these areas.
You can see at the very least the mission statement highlights Church family intentions – and if they are intentions that seem be intended as having no part in the present expression of the family life, they might be better temporarily set aside as inappropriate for public declaration rather than trumpeted for others to wonder at. Yet there is also a reality to acknowledge. In each of us there is something of the sinner as well as the saint, and as with Jonah, knowing what we should do is not necessarily the same as doing it.
When it comes to those mission statements the real trick is then not so much to abandon the parts of the mission statement we are not achieving and nor is it for that matter even setting our sights lower. The Mission statement is after all the agreed ideal and within most mission statements there are indeed fine ideals. What however may be missing is a starting point of ruthless self awareness and honesty. The mission statement can provide the essential points of reference. The quiet acknowledgement of those aspects of faith where we are falling short – and the genuine resolve to attempt to do better might be all that is required as the beginning of genuine mission.
I like retelling my favourite non Bible parable –admittedly with scant regard to the original form) from the Talmud.
Once there was an old Rabbi who got to the stage in life where he needed transport.
He decided to buy a donkey and went down to Honest Joseph’s donkey yard.
The latest models were out of his price range but in the trade-in section there was a rather shaggy and care-worn donkey with a somewhat moth eaten appearance and a matted mane. A price was struck and honest Joe was seen rubbing his hands as the rabbi and his new second hand donkey left the yard.
When the rabbi got home he called his friend over to have a look. He was initially sceptical but on closer inspection this donkey looked rather better than he did at first sight. The rabbi said, “All he really needs is a good brush!” And right then and there he started to brush the donkey. There was a particularly stubborn knot in the mane and when he took a closer look – there was an expensive jewel bracelet.
“Wow!”, went his friend. “Now you’re rich!”
“Oh no said the Rabbi. I bought the donkey – I did not buy the bracelet.
And despite his friend’s protests, it was off back to the donkey yard.
To say that Honest Joe was flabbergasted was an understatement.
His reaction was interesting.
“Your God must be a great God!”, he said.
To follow through on the ideals of our faith takes us to a new level. But more than that, it provides purpose and meaning to what otherwise might be meaningless promise. Who then would Jesus say is doing the master’s will?