The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, September 25, 2011
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
O God who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running to obtain thy promises, may be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 28-32
Last Sunday at the announcements at the nine o'clock Mass, just after the proclamation of the Gospel and before Phil gave his excellent sermon on the parable of the householder who paid those who worked all day the same amount as those he hired at the last hour, I made a joke about how, as I was listening to the story, I saw the libertarian slant on that text: that a businessman was free to do with his money as he wishes and the workers really should not complain, especially if those who worked all day were paid the fair day's wage they agreed upon. In a funny way, I think that was just the point of the story.
As the householder met his payroll, God is free to love us as much as he wants and love those who have been on the journey of faith with him all along as much as those who have just set out. This love is neither selfish or conceited. God has the will and freedom to love us for our own sake and not his and he makes no boast about it. God's ultimate freedom, oriented always in the direction of love is, in fact, one of the most important things we can affirm about the Godhead.
God's freedom to love is also perhaps the most important and powerful aspect of Christian hope. Each of us is always and at any time a worthy object of divine love. Last week, both in the story of Jonah and in the Gospel's parable, we learnt that everyone, even those who are seemingly unworthy, receive the gift of God's love. Even more pointedly we learnt that the righteous need not—and indeed must not—be concerned about the deservedness of the love generously given to those who turn their lives around, reorient themselves towards God as some later point in their lives, even after engaging in what can, quite frankly, be called sin. This very hope is what we can offer those who do not believe themselves worthy of love, who believe themselves outside of God's reach, those who say that "someone like me" could never be a part of the life of God. God makes room in each of us for his love to enter in and change us. All anyone needs is to be receptive to the idea that this notion could possibly be true.
In this week's Gospel, Jesus is teaching in the Temple and gets into a disputation with the religious leaders over the question of authority: by whose authority does Jesus teach. Jesus does not answer them directly and asks them under whose authority John the Baptist preached. The priests and the elders thought it was some kind of trick question. They wanted to answer in a way that would make points in the argument, rather than face the question head on. In the end, perhaps honestly, they say they do not know by whose authority John preached. Jesus says if they will not say, he will not tell them. Rather he shares with them a parable about the two sons, one who when asked says he will go to work but does not, and the other, who refuses at first but then ends up going. At the end of the little tale, Jesus asks them which one "did the will of his father?" and the authorities said, and this time without hesitation, "the second." They seem to have gotten the answer right, but were still in for a rebuke:
Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him."
Jesus has turned this argument about his authority, which we know comes from God, into a question about who is and can be included in the life of the community, in the life of faith.
Jesus is not interested in telling them that his authority comes from God. Jesus embodies divine authority in his speech and argument. This is something that the community of Matthew's Gospel, and the Church reading it in subsequent generations already knows. Instead, Jesus focusses upon the question of receptivity to God's word. He points out to the priests and elders that those whom they consider to be sinners—tax collectors and harlots—heard and received the word of John the Baptist and followed him. These sinners, these marginal characters were not the ones expected by Jewish society to engage with and learn from the teachings of holy men and turn their lives towards God. These tax collectors and sinners, who had not in their earlier life followed God's word, had the opportunity later to hear about God in new and dynamic ways, and they embarked upon new lives. Jesus suggests that those same priests and elders, who considered themselves on the path of religious life for many years, were deaf to new teachings, closed to change (the radical sort of change about which Phil spoke last week), and, unless they opened themselves up, would be left behind.
Jesus makes it clear that the choice is ours to make. Our openness to God's call, to God's love is in our hands and the decisions we make have consequences. This has been one of the themes of my preaching these past few weeks and it is a theme that continues to resonate. In today's lesson from Ezekiel we read
Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is lawful and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die .... Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin.
The wicked man, the harlot, the tax collector (and remember Matthew was a tax collector), has the power to turn his or her life around. Each of us, in fact, in whatever way we may turn away from God, has the power to change our lives and move in the Godward direction. Such a move is never futile, such a move is always rewarded by acceptance and love. Our previous actions will still have consequences with which we must still reckon and our conversion will not change or take away the hurt we may have caused others, but on our new path, our new journey, in our reoriented life we will always have companions and support, and the power of God's love to do new things, engage with the work of the Kingdom of God. God never cuts us off. This is the power and freedom he has to love us in the face of all our resistance or indifference, to love us abundantly, to love us to the defiance of human logic. We alone have that devastating power—but our power in this regard is limited, for it can never be permanent and it can always be shattered, shattered by the love of God.
Jesus shows us in this tough story and throughout this Gospel, that the path of repentance, the path of conversion is always open, even at the eleventh hour. That the path is open to all people, not just those whom society would imagine worthy of God's love, but to all people, whoever they are and what ever they do or, indeed, have done. It is open to the conventionally religious who have been there all the time and to those who have just stumbled upon the path. The trick, Jesus seems to keep telling us, is that we never loose hope, that we be continually open to God's love, especially the love we experience as we encounter other people.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Ember Day, 24 September 2011
© 2011 Andrew Charles Blume