Sermon preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
October 1, 2017; Proper 21A: Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
This summer, much of my travel was spent staying at Bed and Breakfasts. BnBs are fun because you are invited into someone’s home and often into a little bit of their lives. Each experience is unique. Some homes are fancy, some are not. Some offer a single room, others a whole house or a floor. Some hosts are chatty and want to be your friend and others maintain a professional distance. Along our way, we met a wide variety of people in an equally wide variety of places. Interestingly, however, I felt the least welcome in the two homes that were the most obviously Christian. Though they had scriptural quotes on their walls and stories of their churches on their lips, they projected an uptightness and a sort of judgmental aura in their hearts that left me walking on eggshells and feeling very ill at ease. Like the second son in this morning’s gospel, they said yes but had difficulty living it out in a real way. I don’t say this to criticize them or their practice of Christianity but rather to look at my own. Like many people of faith, I have good intentions. I want to do what is pleasing to others and to God and can sometimes say yes and then find myself overwhelmed or too busy to do what needed to be done. Has this ever happened to you? I know it has happened to us. I think back to Missio San Lucas and Emmaus House, great mission-focused projects that fizzled because we said “yes” to but never completely followed through. Coming back from sabbatical, I have found that even ministries as fundamental as outreach, pastoral care, and coffee hour are struggling to find enough people to cover basic tasks. (Yes, Dick Rasner did much to keep these things going, but a focus on staffing misses the point.) There is a meeting after church today about the declining numbers in our Sunday school and a corresponding feeling among some parents that though the congregation says that we want strong programs for our young people, we don’t match our “yes” by offering to teach, committing to bring our own kids, being truly welcoming to families, or rejoicing when slightly squirmy children are with us in church. Before you get defensive, remember that the concern of these parents is for their children – and the future of their church. When we fall into the role of the second son, we run the risk of stalling out, becoming paralyzed or panicked from fear that it’s is all up to us, that no one else cares and that God isn’t there. Like the Israelites in our reading from Exodus, we run the risk of descending into division, forgetting that God has been with us all along and is taking us on a journey through the wilderness to something new. Like the Israelites, we forget that God will do everything he can – even breaking through the hardest of defensive shells – to bring us through and be renewed in the most amazing of ways.
The challenge comes because most of us play the part of the first son as well as the second. Part of the issue of attendance in worship and in Sunday school comes from several generations of parents who – being cautious and a little unsure of their own faith – didn’t pass it on to their children. This saying “no” is an unintended consequence of progressive theology in a pluralistic society. If you can find God through a number of different paths in a wide variety of places, why do you need organized religion? There are good answers to this but many haven’t thought much farther and, looking at a whole lot of first son behavior, have said no to God. Others, like the people of Israel, have been so lost in their own wildernesses and so worried about their own their survival that they no longer believe God is real.
The thing is, those people in the wilderness are really thirsty. God understand their struggles, recognized their failings and their fears, and provided the water of life they needed all along. Jesus’ parable is clear that the second sons out there — those who have said no to God — have a deep longing for God and for the meaning and purpose, communion and connection, and healing and hope that comes from God. The problem is that they see the struggles of the first sons and the decreasing success of old models and conclude that Christianity doesn’t work… or wouldn’t work for them. They miss the point that it’s not about human failings, but about God’s grace that will carry us through it all. I celebrate diversity, am proud of progressive Christianity and – particularly given some of the crazies out there – am glad for the separation of church and state and the post-Constantinian world in which we live. These things give us great freedom to live our faith. They also give us great responsibility to share it, both in what we say and in what we do. Despite options of sports, brunch and sleeping in, you have made a choice to be here today. If you can clearly articulate why you did that with others, they might just do the same. If you can show them your “why” in the way you live your life, it’s almost guaranteed they will.
A hint on how to do this is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Though he wrote this letter in prison, Paul never lost his trust in God’s grace, or the joy that came from knowing God loved him and was with him every step of the way. Later in his letter he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.” (Phil. 4:4) “If there is anything worthy of excellence, think of these things.” (Phil. 4:8) In today’s passage he says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. The key is focusing not on ourselves or our own needs, but those of others. The key is focusing on the goodness and the Good News of God. Paul wrote the Philippians to give them hope. His goal was to offer encouragement, consolation in love, sharing the spirit, compassion and sympathy, and making his joy – and ours — complete. In the last sentence, he says, “God is at work in you, enabling you to will and work for his good pleasure.” Though it may be hard to see when we are in the midst of it all, God is with us. God has heard our concerns and not just give us what we need to survive but will lead us to a future we cannot even imagine.
This is a very anxious time. With a sequence of storms, threats of war, uncertainty in many areas and ever increasing callousness and coarseness in the air, normal stresses can seem overwhelming and like the Israelites, it can feel like our very survival is at stake. Did you know, however, that Moses Bottles came from Maine and were created with the salvation of those Israelites in mind? Introduced at the opening of the Poland Spring Hotel in 1876, Moses bottles were used to tell parched people everywhere that the water of life they were looking for was right here in Maine. That water actually on tap right here at St. Luke’s. God knows that you are thirsty and has provided the pure water, the spiritual water you need. Whether you are the son who said “Yes” to God and dropped the ball or the one who said “No” and has yet to pick it up, it’s never too late to say “yes” and help others do the same. My hope and prayer is that you will do that today.