When I was a kid there were these books that I would often read called “Choose Your Own Adventure Books”. The idea was simple. You started reading and after a few pages there would be a question. And you were given two options, leading you to two different pages in the book.
For instance, you are hiking in the woods and you are lost and it’s getting dark. Do you keep trying to hike your way through? If so turn to page 30. Or do you stop at the creepy abandoned cabin and stay there for the night? Turn to page 56.
As you can imagine, neither is a good choice. But they lead you to other pages where you have to then make similar choices. And choice after choice you work your way through the book. And, to be honest, a good portion of the time you end up dying some tragic death.
Somehow someone thought these were great books for children. But, honestly, I was a big fan, and so were my friends. And I think that’s because the books always gave us choices, and they always took those choices seriously.
I am reminded of those books when I read today’s Scripture, not because everyone meets a horrible end, but because Jesus is presenting his disciples with a sort of “choose your own adventure” story. Jesus is teaching his disciples, and the religious authorities are getting worried. He’s gaining too much influence and so they ask him “who gave you the authority to do the things you are doing?”
Jesus answers the question with a question. He tells them, “I’ll answer you, but first answer me this: Who gave John the Baptist his authority?”
And he had them there. Because if they had said “God” Jesus could have asked “then why did you kill him?” And if they said otherwise, the crowd, who loved John, would have turned against them. And so, they just say “we don’t know”.
And so Jesus tells them this story: A man had two sons and a vineyard. And one day he asked both of them to go to work in the vineyards. The first son says “no…I’m not going.” And the second son says “sure, I’ll go”. But here’s the twist. That second son never goes. And the first son, who said he wouldn’t, changes his mind and goes.
So Jesus asks the Pharisees, which of those two sons did what his father asked? The one who said he would and didn’t, or the one who said he wouldn’t and did.
The Pharisees answer, “the one who went to the vineyard”.
And then Jesus delivers this stinger: Truly, the tax collectors and prostitutes, the ones looked down on by everyone, are going to be ahead of you in the Kingdom of God.
And that’s when the Pharisees get it…he’s talking about them.
It’s a dangerous thing to call out someone’s hypocrisy. I don’t suggest it, because usually it makes the hypocrite pretty mad. But being Jesus has its privileges. Jesus publicly exposes these religious officials, these people who like the second son are a little more talk than action, for what they are. And it infuriates them.
There’s something satisfying about that. There’s a reason that when a person who professes religious faith falls from grace it becomes a media field day. I remember being very young and watching televangelists be led off in handcuffs on the evening news. A few years later I would look around at my more outwardly devout neighbors who maybe weren’t living in such devout ways when they thought no one was looking. And I began to get a little disillusioned with religious people. And it struck me then that maybe not everyone’s words and actions lined up.
But years later, I’ve developed a little more sympathy for the Pharisees and the other hypocrites of the world. And that’s because I know now that I am at times a hypocrite too. And, more than likely, so are most of us. Perhaps my everyday hypocrisies aren’t as newsworthy or spectacular as the ones on the front pages of the paper, but they are there. More than I like to admit.
The truth is that I call myself a Christian, a follower of Christ. I say everyday that I will go to work in the vineyard. And most days I at least make it there. But some, I don’t. Because this is what I think working in the vineyard looks like. I think it looks like choosing to follow Christ, even when we are afraid, even when there are other things we would rather be doing, even when it’s hard.
I say I want to do that, but some days I know my own fears and limitations hold me back. I get distracted. I put my trust and faith in other things. I get it wrong. And I know that some days I am so busy serving other things, that I never make it out to serve in the vineyard. I’m too busy checking things off my to-do list instead.
This is not just a clergy problem. This is a problem most of us who want to follow Christ have. We have the best of intentions when we are asked to go out into the vineyard, but good intentions don’t always get us out there. And, slowly, we begin to realize that maybe, just maybe, we are hypocrites too.
And this is where I am reminded of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I talked about. Not because I think we are all headed for certain destruction. If so this would be the most depressing sermon ever. But instead because I think each day we get to make a new choice.
In the books one bad choice ends hope for you. But in the life of faith, we make bad choices all the time. And the good news is that God’s grace somehow reaches us even when we wander away from the vineyards. And, yes, even when we are hypocrites.
Every Sunday in church we say the prayer of confession together. And at first glance that might seem like a bit of a downer. Some churches, to be honest, have jettisoned it altogether because they don’t want anyone to feel bad about themselves, especially not visitors who might never come back. .
But to me the prayer of confession is about this: it’s about telling the truth. It’s about saying that sometimes we get it wrong, and it’s about believing that God can still use us anyway. When you think about it, church is probably one of the only places in our lives where we can so easily admit to being wrong sometimes.
I think there is some real grace in that.
I wonder about the son who tells his father that he will not go to work in the vineyard. I wonder if other days he, like the other son, told him that he would. And I wonder if he never made it there either. I wonder if on the day he was asked, he finally decided to tell the truth. And maybe that act of truth telling set him free to do more than just have good intentions.
Another minister I know shared a photo this week of a church’s sign. It read in big letters, “This Church is Not Full of Hypocrites!” A little defensive sounding at first, really. But then at the bottom it said this: “There’s always room for more!”
I think that’s what the church is about sometimes. It’s about admitting that we mess up. And it’s about sharing the good news of God’s grace with one another, assuring one another that God can still use us, and deciding to go together out into those vineyards. The church has never been about being perfect. Our purpose is not to exist as a club for saints. Instead, the church is a place for real people, living real lives, and facing real choices, who all the while are trying to follow Jesus Christ in this world.
It’s about understanding that God has given us grace. And it’s about responding to that grace. And, to me, the best way to respond to grace is always in gratitude. It’s about choosing to live a life of gratitude in a world that often gives us a lot of other choices about how to respond. That’s what the church is all about.
So getting back to choosing your own adventures. This morning I borrowed my sermon title from a song by Bob Dylan. In it he gives this long list of things that you might be: an ambassador, a rock and roller, a banker, or even a “preacher with your spiritual pride”, but he says no matter who you are “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
It may just be a song, but he’s right. We all end up getting to choose what, and who, we are going to serve each day. We all get asked that question every morning when we wake up, the same one asked of the two sons: Will you go to work for me today?
And it doesn’t matter where our day takes us. It doesn’t matter our profession, or our age, or what we have or don’t have in our bank accounts. It doesn’t even really matter what you say when you are asked. All that matters is this: When you decide which vineyard to go to that day, and there are a lot to choose from, will you choose one that will never be able to love you back? Or will you choose the vineyard that belongs to the one who loved you first, and always?
It’s like what I told our kids today in the children’s sermon: never give the best of you to something that can never love you back.
And so, in this book that is life, make good choices. But even if you don’t, don’t worry. There’s always tomorrow. And the pages can always be turned back. And no matter what you will still be welcome in this place where day after day we keep trying together to choose the one we want to serve. Amen.