Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In Scripture, the psalmist writes, “Sons are a heritage from the Lord. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.” I was nearly 40 years old when we adopted our sons Vitali and Alexei, but I can assure you that two arrows in my quiver was enough. Yes, sons may be a heritage from the Lord, but at 40, I couldn’t imagine the disorder and chaos that children could bring to my calm and composed middle -aged life. Janna and I were both extremely naïve. We placed a small 4 foot by 6 foot rug on our living room floor expecting that a four and six year old would play there nicely with their toys all day. Apparently, I didn’t learn anything in the process. My grandchildren are the very same way. In 3 hours, they can turn the house upside down systematically moving from one room to another leaving a path of Legos and worn clothes in their wake. We simply never learned that “A child is an experiment in testing boundaries.”
This morning’s gospel lesson of Jesus’ lesser-known parable of the two sons shouldn’t surprise any parent with more than one child. It happens everyday in our homes. After “mommy” and “daddy,” the next word children seem to learn is “no.” And after that, it is, “Please, more money.” There are children, and I would dare say a goodly number of adults, who often refuse to do what they are requested to do, while in the same home there are others who say emphatically that they will do it, but then neglect to carry through.
Now it would be easy to make Jesus’ parable into a morality lesson for honoring your father and your mother. Perhaps that is the reason that I remember the parable so well. Miss Knutson, the Sunday School Director in my home church in Austin, taught us that even if you had said no to your parents, you could still surprise them by doing what they have asked you to do. But my friends, that would be oversimplifying the message. This morning, let us meditate on the promise of Jesus’ lesser -known parable of the two sons, that no matter what you have done, nor how strong you have protested, God’s future is still open to you.
In St. Matthew’s gospel, we discover several parables which are set against the background of the vineyard. Serving and working in God’s vineyard is a noble and high calling and honorable work. Certainly, the images of farming and agriculture were commonplace in Jesus’ teaching, which would have made them easily understood by the shepherds and farmers in the Galilee But the vineyard was also a well-known and important religious symbol for the nation of Israel which would have piqued the ear of the chief priest and elders in the Temple in Jerusalem. The prophet Isaiah, generations earlier, had described the people of God as a vineyard. In another. He portrayed the people of Israel as a chosen vine that God had planted in his garden, and protected with walls and watchtowers.
The story today opens in the Temple courtyard in Jerusalem the day after Jesus has entered in the city on Palm Sunday and turned over the money changers’ tables. The Chief priest and elders were demanding that Jesus answer them by what authority he did these things and taught in the Temple Jesus challenged them by questioning them about their own treatment of John the Baptist, whom the crowds treated him like a prophet, and yet, they chose not to defend when he was arrested, imprisoned and beheaded. Instead they were silent and turned a blind eye. That is the heart of the conflict. There are men and women in this world who claim to be religious and follow God, when in reality they do not. Jesus then told the parable about a man who had two sons. The father asked the first son to work in his vineyard. The son refused, but then later changed his mind and headed out to work. The father also asked his second son to work in the vineyard. This son said emphatically he would go, but then never set his foot on the path. “Which son did the will of the Father?” Jesus asked. “Which of the two sons obeyed?”
The chief priests and the elders knew the answer to that question. Perhaps they too had the heritage of sons. They knew that the son who truly obeyed. “The first,” the one who in spite of his own protests, did the will of the Father. Unfortunately, it was hard for them to admit that their own lives might have been filled with the same empty words of a good confession and no action. For God, good words alone are never enough. It is a warning for all of us. But here’s the good news. It is not too late. No matter what you have done, no matter what may have been done to you, the future to serve with God is still open.
Now, the temptation for many Christians at this point is to celebrate the belligerent son’s moment of decision, as if that was enough. Both sons frustrated their father, but it was the one who changed his mind and went to the vineyard who delighted his father. Good words and good intentions are not enough. There are many who talk the talk, but never truly walk the walk. So where do you and I begin?
Let me offer three suggestions for committing yourself to doing the work of God’s vineyard. First, commit yourself to the work of God’s vineyard today. As in so many things in life, do not wait until tomorrow. The second son who said “yes” may have had every good intention of doing the work his father asked him to do, unfortunately, he simply never got around to it. It is one of the most embarrassing aspects of service in God’s vineyard. We come to the table too late. We visit the friend when the crisis has passed. We avoid the heat of the midday sun. As I often jest, as a pastor, you know it’s going to be a bad day when you finally remember the name of the person you were to visit in the hospital while reading the obituaries. The World War II French pilot, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, wrote, “If you are to be, you must begin by assuming responsibility. You alone are responsible for every moment of your life, for every one of your acts.” To do the work of God’s vineyard, you must begin to take care of the needs today.
Second, commit your time, strength and resources to lessening the burdens of those in need. I am no longer certain who said it, but it has become a pattern for my life. “If you want to enjoy and experience a meaningful life, you must allow your passion to meet the needs of the world.” There are human needs all around us. There are the poor and hungry calling to us everyday. Some are real and some are not. But going to work in the vineyard means committing your time and energy. They might be small gestures and small gifts, but in God’s hands they will make a meaningful difference. The blind and deaf American author and humanitarian Helen Keller, said, “I can not do everything, but I can do something. I must not fail to do the something that I can do.” Commit your time, strength and resources to lessening the burdens of those in need.
Third, commit yourself to do the work of the vineyard to those who are nearest to you. The world turns away those state that they follow God, when they clearly do not care about those closest to them. What stops those outside of the church in their tracks and to pause is kind action beyond words.
In every church I have served I remember a few particular names and faces fondly. They were men and women who were often too shy to pray in public or too uncomfortable to teach Sunday school, but they were the ones with came with a casserole and a dessert in hand when there was a death in the congregation. They were the ones who wrote notes and called parishioners when they needed it the most. They went out of their way to greet the visitor in church and to help them find their way through the bulletin. They were the ones who took folks who didn’t own cars to the grocery store, and the ones who whispered as they took my hand at the back door, “I pray for you every day.” They knew that words and good intentions alone were not enough for the workers in God’s vineyard.
My friends, it is not too late. If you are the one who once protesting loudly saying, “No,” you can still change your mind, your heart and your will, to do what your father has asked you to do. The work of the vineyard is waiting. And if you’re the one who said “yes,” well, it’s time to work. Get out to the vineyard now and be a living, visible heritage of your loving, heavenly Father. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.