"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sunday Sermon: The man with two sons: Matthew 21.23-32

Some Context: You've no doubt heard the phrase it never rains but it pours? This morning was one of those occasions.

I went to bed last night reassured that I'd got everything ready for today: I'd printed off my sermon and done a couple of spare copies for those who can't really get a grip on the loop system and I'd read it over a few times.

I woke up this morning cursing myself because that little nagging doubt I'd sat on yesterday had become a full blown thought.

It was the wrong sermon.

Now one of the advantages of being a teacher is that the summer break affords me the opportunity to get ahead of myself and research and prepare sermons. I'd looked at the rota and got them all done well in advance. For some unaccountable reason I'd printed off the wrong one. I'd printed off Jesus and the Roman Coin rather than The Man with Two Sons.

Now that's hardly the end of the world and so I logged on, found the right one and pressed print.

The printer can not print. You are out of magenta ink the screen told me helpfully. Don't bother me with trivia: I want to print in black. Whoever prints a sermon in magenta?

Not having magenta, it seems, renders black inoperative.

What to do?

I ring my friend Steve, my Area Dean, and explain the situation. "If I pop round with my USB stick, would you mind printing it off for me?"

I arrive with said USB stick and Steve, having made me a cup of tea, logs on. I put my USB stick in his computer and a warning sign comes up. Removable Device Corrupt. Steve goes through the "fix" options and eventually we have access to my menu.

There is no sermon.

"Have you had breakfast?" Steve asks me.

I ring home and ask my beloved to send the sermon as an e-mail attachment. I sit and wait while she goes through the whole log-on routine and locates the sermon. It arrives. It is "Jesus and the Roman Coin." I ponder just turning up and reading and preaching from the wrong gospel in the hope that no one would notice, but that would still leave the problem that in a couple of weeks someone else would get to preach on Jesus and the Roman Coin. I speculate whether anyone would actually notice the same reading twice. I decide to ring home again. There is a sharp exchange and the correct sermon arrives on Steve's screen.

His printer takes three weeks to print it off.

"What's it about?" Steve asks.

"Obedience." I lie, saying the first thing that comes into my head. I wrote it weeks ago: I've no idea what It says.

It then occurs to me that my sermon was kept on an external hard drive and I could simply have unpugged that and taken it to Steve's.

And all this before 9.30. I still have to get home, shower, shave, put on my Sunday clothes and practice a sermon I can barely remember.

Still, who else can say they had breakfast with the Area Dean?

It was, therefore, with rather more conviction than normal that I prayed: "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord."

Matthew 21. 23-32

There was a father who had two daughters. The holiday period was coming to an end and although the topic of bedroom tidying had come up a number of times no noticeable progress had been made. Tiring of the mantra, “Daaaaad! It’ll be done, chill.” he decided to put his foot down. A deadline was set. “You have three days. I want it done by Sunday.” Time passed. More time passed. Saturday night arrived. “Chloe’s rung. I’m sleeping over at her house tonight.” And one daughter was off, leaving her bedroom looking as if she had been the victim of a particularly thorough burglary – except that’s how it usually looked.

The father turned to the other daughter and raised an eyebrow. “But it’s the X Factor tonight.” He raised the other eyebrow. “Dad, you look stupid. Stop doing that.” This daughter sighed as if she carried the weight of the word’s injustices on her shoulders and disappeared: for the next hour or so she passed through with bags destined for the bin. There was even some attempt to differentiate rubbish for black and green bins and the sound of both Hoover and washing machine could be heard. At eight o’clock she settled down to watch the televised ritual humiliation of self deluded pop wannabees.

Which of the two did the will of their father?

I’m guessing that we can all identify with today’s Gospel story even if we have to adapt it somewhat to fit our own circumstances – our own children, colleagues, friendship groups, anywhere in fact where there is an expectation of obligation and where promises are easily made …. and easily broken.

So today Matthew relates this incident from the life of Jesus: two sons are given a job, both promise to complete it but only one does.

It’s not actually a very interesting story as it stands is it? Of course what we have here is Matthew’s summary written some years later, so we miss the full impact of the original with its greater detail, wit and nuances; maybe even with some banter between Jesus and his listeners. Choosing an incident about family relationships, of course, ensures that Jesus’ audience will identify with the story. If football had been invented in the first century you can bet that Jesus would have used it as an analogy because his audience would have been drawn in. Remember, this is a consummate story teller. He once told the story of a man who set off on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho and was robbed on the way. I can imagine a modern day Jesus sitting in a motorway service station and relating an incident to a group of salesmen and truckers over a coffee about a man who set off from the Heartshead Moor service station on the M62 and had his car hijacked along the way. That’s how he worked: talk to people about what they know.

It may help, though, to be clear about who Jesus was talking to. There are two audiences here as there often were: Jesus is talking directly to his followers and the crowd in the temple. We are told that he was teaching, but Matthew isn’t more specific. Along come the Temple Authorities, clearly put out that Jesus was trespassing on their spiritual territory during a religious festival and the ongoing battle of wills between Jesus and the Pharisees continues to gather pace. It’s a well established pattern: the Pharisees seek to entrap Jesus into saying something they can use against him and Jesus responds in such a way as to make them look foolish and in a way that causes those who witnessed the exchange to question their authority.

It starts with the question “By whose authority are you teaching here?” The attempt is to undermine Jesus in the eyes of the crowd “Look, we’re the orthodox here. We’ve been to theological college; we’ve got certificates for goodness sake. And you; you’re just a carpenter. What do you know? Shut up.”

And in response Jesus, as he often does in true rabbinic style, answers a question with a question. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Of course John had been very popular with the people and he’d been executed. No wonder the Pharisees were careful about their answer; they recognised the pitfall in the question. “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why didn’t you believe him then?’ "But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we’re on dodgy ground with the crowd because they think John is a prophet.” So they said, “We do not know.”

“Then I’m not telling you about my source of authority.” Round one to Jesus. Instead he told the story of the father and his two sons. Now this was a story for everyone – then and now - because we can all take something from it, but it was particularly targeted at the Pharisees and given that he had already compared them to fig trees that looked good but had no fruit – all show and no substance - they must have realised that this would be another attack. And so it was and we are left with the Pharisees once again confounded and confused. Jesus compared them to the son who made promises but delivered nothing and most disturbing to them, compared the crowd, the sinners and the marginalised, to the obedient son. Round two to Jesus.

Can you imagine how they felt? They were the religious leaders and they took that role seriously. In many respects these were society’s good people; they were charged with the moral and spiritual welfare of the people and they did not take that responsibility lightly: and here was Jesus telling them they were disobedient to God. It would be akin to telling the House of Bishops that they'd got it wrong.

(No. Don't even think about going there.)

I think what we often forget is that these people should have been Jesus’ natural constituency and his natural allies. It would have made perfect sense if the Scribes and Pharisees, the moral and spiritual leaders of the day, had become Jesus’ disciples and turned to him in droves. We are terribly biased against them because we know how the full story resolves and we tend to think of them as bad people. They weren’t. But they didn’t get Jesus. They weren’t open to seeing an alternative perspective that while it was revolutionary, wouldn’t have required too big an adjustment to their theological worldview.

Jesus and the Pharisees working together – what a change in society that would have brought. And let’s not forget, some of them did buy into this alternative. Nicodemus, we are told, was a follower and of course later St. Paul would make a dramatic conversion.

The sad thing was that instead of seeing the possibilities, most Pharisees felt superior and therefore threatened by Jesus’ teaching and this blinded them both to Jesus’ message and consequently to their own inadequacies: theirs had become a religion of legality, of rules and regulations; a religion which understood all about God’s transcendence and judgement but little about his closeness and his love.

O.K. So what? Fair enough, it’s an interesting piece of religious history and it tells us once again about the stubbornness and self-interest of the religious elite and of Jesus’ superior debating skills.

Why should I care? This story has to have the power to touch me today or its retelling is meaningless. Remember the parable of the sower? The seed is the word of God and it lands in different places and grows, or not, depending on how hospitable the environment is. We could be those who put the full stop here and go away merely thinking “Nice story. Let’s have coffee” Or we could be those who realise that there is more to the story which needs acting upon.

This is a story about the inadequacy of religious insiders. Well we’re religious insiders aren’t we? We are members of the Church of England. It’s hard to imagine who else might be more on the inside in this country in religious terms, than those in the national church. If the vineyard in the story is the Kingdom of God and there is work to be done, which of the two sons are we?

This parable is an invitation from Christ to go and do God’s work in the vineyard, in the reality of the world in which we live. The vineyard, the world, is always in a mess. There are earthquakes, floods, volcanoes or tsunamis. We see them on the T.V. week in and week out. Hurricanes of the East coast of the USA, earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan. There are always wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq currently and there is political unrest throughout the Arab world. There are always families under stress. There are always poor families with not enough money and emotional resources to make it. There are always refugees and asylum seekers who have the most dreadful stories of loss and trauma to tell.

And what is the reaction of the church to this pain and devastation in the world around us, far and near? Too often, we merely hold our worship services in the middle of the vineyard.

In other words, this parable is an invitation for us not to be like the Pharisees. It is a challenge to go into God’s messed up world and do the necessary work.

Ah, good, some practical applications from the gospel. Well … yes and no. I can’t tell you what you should be doing in the vineyard. I’m very much with St. Paul here who tells us in Philippians to “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Beyond the general principles of Micah Ch 6: “What does the Lord require of you? Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God;" I’m afraid your on your own. We’re all on our own.

At Vicar School the very first module we studied was that of Mission. It is called the Missio Dei – the Mission of God, and the thing that really challenged me in the study of all these historical models of how the church had done mission down the ages was the simple idea that mission is God’s mission. In essence the Missio Dei is not about us deciding what needs doing; you know, “Let’s decide our mission initiative for this year, let’s have a meeting”, that sort of thing, it is about seeing where God is already at work and joining in. To me the challenge of this gospel story for us church insiders is for each of us to seek to discern where God is already at work in our society and to join him there, using the skills and talents that he has given us as appropriate. And it won’t necessarily be the same place for each of us.

It is a challenge, but I think this Gospel passage shows it’s also an imperative.



  1. Sir, You remind me of me, with the exception that I would not have had the proper sermon already written, which would have made the whole situation much worse than no magenta ink.

    Anyway, your proper sermon for the day is excellent and thought-provoking.

  2. I did wonder when I looked at the sermon last night, and noticed that it was a different reading than the one I had prepared. I thought that maybe you were following a different Lectionary .... maybe I should have said something ... sorry. Glad it all got sorted.

  3. They wouldn't be your daughters by any chance?

    A very challenging sermon. Thanks.

  4. From reading the homily above, I believe that you did quite well. There are times when I wonder if we make too much of the preparation and don't give the Spirit enough 'wiggle room'.

    "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding" (Pr. 3:5)

    Again, I think you were right on point.

  5. A splendid sermon and the road to delivering it resonates strongly with this retired vicar....