Gotta Serve Somebody: Sermon for September 28th, 2014

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.

Copyright, believed to be Nadia Bolz Weber (please contact me if this is incorrect and I'll be glad to change it).

Copyright, believed to be Nadia Bolz Weber (please contact me if this is incorrect and I’ll be glad to change it).

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.

“Jesus Doesn’t Reject People” – Sermon for September 25, 2011

Matthew 21:23-32
21:23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

21:24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.

21:25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’

21:26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”

21:27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

21:28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

21:29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.

21:30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.

21:31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.

21:32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

My grandmother grew up in Portland, Maine in the Little Italy. Her parents were immigrants who had left their homeland to come here carrying little else other than their Catholic faith. Like everyone else in her neighborhood, she was raised in the church and taught that it was the one true faith.

And then, as a young woman in the 1930’s, she met my grandfather. A soldier whose family had lived here for generations, and who was very Protestant. As best as I can figure it, they eloped. And sometime after she went to her priest and told him. He condemned the marriage and told her she would go to hell. The only way she could avoid hell, he told her, was to raise her children as Catholics. Then, maybe, she wouldn’t be damned.

When I heard this story for the first time I realized immediately that my grandmother must have been a pretty courageous woman. My mother and her siblings did not grow up Catholic. The priest did not scare her into compliance. And when you think about the insular, tight-knit community where she grew up, it’s pretty remarkable that a young, religious woman valued her love for her husband over the scare tactics of a clergyman. In the end she trusted her relationship with God over fear.

That’s the story I remembered when I read today’s Gospel. Jesus is entering the Temple, the most holy place in Israel, and he is stopped by the chief priests who want to know why he thinks he should be there. “By what authority are you doing these things,” they ask. And Jesus tells them a parable about two sons. Both are asked to work in their father’s vineyard. And one says immediately that he’ll go, but he never actually does. The other complains and says he won’t go, but then finally does. Jesus asks which one, the one who said he would do the right thing but didn’t or the one who didn’t want to do the right thing but did it anyway, did his father’s will. The priests agree it’s the one who went.

Jesus uses that story to show them how much they are like the son who says he will follow his father’s will but never does. And he tells them that the tax collector and prostitutes, the most looked down upon of society, will enter the kingdom of God before them. He tells them that these least of society, they truly believe.

I want to have the faith of the tax collectors and prostitutes. I want to have the faith of my grandmother. I want to have so much faith that I trust my relationship with God over the clamor of those who want to tell me God does not love me as much as them. I want to trust it over the voices of those who say others are going to hell.

My freshman year of college I had a friend who also later went on to be a pastor. One night after our campus Christian fellowship had worship, we were walking back to the dorms and chatting. As we came close to my dorm he stopped and looked at me and said, “Emily, I love you, but you’re going to hell.”

I’d heard that before. I didn’t really believe it. Not in most parts of my soul, anyway. But it still stung. Now, years later that classmate is now pastoring a church in the town where I grew up. A church where some of my friends who he would have also thought were going to hell attended. And I worry sometimes that some 14 or 15 year old kid will come into his office, and hear the same thing. And one of two things may happen. They’ll either believe it, and believe that God hates them. Or they won’t, and they won’t believe in the church anymore.

I hope neither happens, but I know that more often than not, one or the other does. When my grandmother left the priest’s office that day, she made a decision not to raise her kids in the Catholic Church. But, beyond that, she made a decision not to raise her kids in any church. And so my mother and her siblings didn’t grow up in the faith. In fact, most of her grandchildren and now her great-grandchildren didn’t grow up in the faith. And that’s all for two reasons. First, someone tried to convince her that she had done something so awful that God didn’t love her anymore. And, second, no other church came along and told her that wasn’t true.

Those of us who represent the church, and you are among them, have an incredible influence. And it can be used to inspire incredible things. And it can also be used to hurt someone so deeply that they think we are doing it in Christ’s name, and that they believe they have no place here.

When I was a chaplain I was often called to talk to someone who was dealing with some kind of addiction issue. They were often brought into the hospital because they finally had decided to go to rehab, or they ended up needing treatment for some illness the addiction was only making worse. And they would ask for a chaplain to be called.

We would talk and, since they called me, I would ask about whether or not they were involved in any religious community. And more often than not I’d get a response like, “No, they don’t like folks like me,” or “I live in a small town and everyone knows about my problem,” or “I’ve never been a saint. I won’t be welcome.”

I always wanted to say, “that isn’t true, you’d be more than welcome” when I heard something like that. I wanted to tell them that there would be no judgement because there were plenty of people in the pews, and, yes, even behind the pulpit, who had been through the same. But I sometimes found it hard to say that in good conscience because I know that welcome is not always universal. I know that I’ve even heard other clergy, not here in Vermont but in other places, complain about the AA groups that use their churches. It’s hard to have to give someone a cautious recommendation about going to church.

But the sad truth about churches, is that when many people think about us, they don’t think about people who will love them. They think about people who will judge them. And most people in this world get enough of that elsewhere.

Martin Luther rejected the view that we were all either saints or sinners. Instead, he said, we are all simultaneously saints AND sinners. Five hundred years later most churches still haven’t caught on to that. That those of us who come to church on Sunday morning are here both because we need God’s grace AND because God loves us beyond our deepest understanding. And what’s true of us is true of every one of God’s children. And it’s not our place to withhold the church, Christ’s body here on earth, from any of them.

There is a story by an author named Flannery O’Connor. She was a writer from Georgia, and a devout Roman Catholic. She wrote a short story called “Revelation” about a good Christian woman who was very assured about her place in heaven. The story follows her throughout her day as she judges the people she encounters. She enters a doctor’s waiting room and looks around and makes a judgment about everyone there, in her head making racist comments, judging the poor, belittling the appearance of others. And all the while assuring herself that she is “grateful” and a “good Christian”.

At the end of the story she is struck by a religious vision. She sees a line of people ascending to heaven. All the people she had seen that day are in it, and they are following one another up into the clouds. And she is not leading the line into the kingdom of God. She is at the very end of it. And she is shocked.

I see myself in the people she judged. But more importantly, I see myself in her too. Like Luther said, we are all simultaneously saint and sinner. All simultaneously the one who closes the door of welcome, and the one who opens it.

This summer, when I went to the United Church of Christ’s General Synod down in Tampa, we were greeted by a huge banner as we walked in. It read “Jesus didn’t reject people. Neither do we.” The UCC put a number of those banners up all over Tampa that said that. And I remember thinking what it was like, to grow up not even two hours from there, and to sometimes believe that the church was full of people who could never welcome someone who was in any way not like them. And I thought about what it would be like for a kid growing up there now to see those signs, and know that there were people who loved Jesus so much that they loved him beyond what he thought possible.

When I first realized what those signs might mean to the people who saw them, I cried. I’m not a big crier, and it shocked me to cry over a church sign, but I did. And when I realized that the simple act of a church making clear that they welcomed everyone no matter who they were or what they had seen moved me so much, I cried even harder. Because an act of hospitality, an act of welcome on behalf of a church, shouldn’t be so rare that it’s existence shocks us. I cried out of joy for the one who would find Christ’s welcome. And I cried out of pain for a church that has often withheld it.

It doesn’t have to be like that. We are welcoming churches, I believe that. I believe anyone who comes through those doors will be welcome. But I also believe that there are some outside those doors who have been so hurt that they will never dare to come in on their own. And so maybe, the welcome needs to go outside. I’m not saying a big sign on the lawn, though I wouldn’t object. But a big sign in our hearts, a big sign on our faces, a big sign unfurled by the work of our hands: you are welcome here. Jesus would never have rejected you. Neither will we. Amen.