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Proper 21A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I said yes but I meant no. It was years ago at camp. Sky Ranch is a high-altitude Lutheran bible camp. In the mid-1970’s, the nearest pop machine was at the ranger station in Pingree Park, a mile and a half hike away. A kid named Evan asked me to buy him a coke. I said sure. He gave me the money. I went on the hike. I bought the coke. On the way back I shook that can. I dropped that can. I kicked the can. I beat it up with a stick. The other kids thought it was pretty funny and so did I –until it was time to give Evan his soda. I think I was trying to tell him what a jerk I thought he was. All I did was show what a jerk I was. Words are empty and hurtful things when not backed with our deeds.

Jesus told about a father who asked two sons to work in the vineyard. Which did the will of his father? I know who has my vote. As father to five children, four of them sons, I am delighted when any one of them helps out regardless of how they might have complained about it at first.

The chief priests confronted Jesus in the temple. The day before, Jesus entered the city riding a donkey in triumph. Crowds lined the road, shouting “hosanna!” Afterword, he fashioned a whip of cords and violently drove the moneychangers out from the Temple. The religious leaders are furious with Jesus. They can’t believe this no-name backwater preacher’s nerve. Because their words were empty the faith of their fathers had become poisonous and hurtful. “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” Jesus said (Matthew 21:31).

The controversy in the temple that day drew everyone’s attention. The priests asked Jesus, “by what authority are you doing these things…?” (v.23). But there was so much tension they seemed to forget their own question. It’s like what happens to us sometimes in the middle of a twitter storm, or while dealing with a global pandemic, or in a climate emergency, or maybe a national uprising about systemic racism and gender inequality, or on the eve of a national election, or a contentious Supreme court nomination, or when we are worried about how to do school online, or about the economy, specifically our jobs, or how to feed our family, or any one of a number of things that can come at us in life to knock us off our feet and take our breath away.

Who gave you authority Jesus? The priests asked a good question. Maybe they weren’t really interested in hearing Jesus’ answer. Maybe they hoped he would claim to be a God, or a king, or anything else they could use to get the Romans to take him down. The religious leaders might have been saying yes to God, but they were living in a way that said no. Their walk didn’t match their talk.

For the chief priests the price of admission to God’s vineyard was too high. But to us who recognize our need of grace Jesus’ fellowship is a lifeline. Jesus’ answer to the priest’s question is vitally important to us today because it is also our question. In the midst of so much tension and confusion how can we know what is of Christ and what is not? How do we meet adversity without adding to the problem? How do we defeat our enemies without becoming just like them?

I think we find an answer today in Jesus’ story. Jesus said, by their fruits, you will know them (Matthew 7:16). We recognize words of authority by what follows in their wake. Love begets more loving. Mercy begets more compassion. It doesn’t matter about education, or credentials, or status, or power. The mind of Christ is revealed in words and deeds that give life to grace.

Over the centuries, Son number one—the one who said “no” but lived “yes,” has become an icon of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus. His example points the way out of chaos and into the vineyard where God welcomes sinners even though their hearts and minds remain divided.

“What Jesus opposed through the story of the father and the two sons was all forms of religion that stop at empty words. All forms of piety that don’t move us into the world of concrete action on behalf of justice, mercy, equality, love, and compassion. All forms of Christianity that flicker to life on Sunday morning, but then fade out between Monday and Saturday.” (Debi Thomas: “Words Are Not Enough,” Journey with Jesus, 9/20/20.)

In our second reading from Philippians, Paul reminded us we do not labor alone. More profound than any work we do for God is the work the Holy Spirit does for us, in us and through us. Martin Luther wrote, “It is as if a wolf devoured a sheep and the sheep were so powerful that it transformed the wolf and turned him into a sheep. So, when we eat Christ’s flesh physically and spiritually, the food is so powerful that it transforms us.”

We work out our salvation “with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). We learn to follow Christ to other vineyards. By their fruits we learn to recognize other brothers, other sisters, and other siblings in faith, regardless of their creed or religion. The salvation we work out in fear and trembling in God’s vineyard includes work together to fashion a community characterized by mutual love, harmony, humility, and unselfishness (2:2–4). Rivalry, conceit, and selfishness are evaded, as well as grumbling and complaining (2:3–4, 14). Our salvation, therefore, is not simply the activity of God upon us as passive and solitary human objects but is a work of the transforming power of God’s grace and faithful human activity working together.

At the font and at the table, through water, bread and wine, through Word and witness, we trust in God dwelling within us to provide guidance and counsel—regardless if we are more like the first or the second son – even as we continue to struggle with the questions. In welcoming Christ, we become more generous and hospitable toward each other. In welcoming in each other, we open and give greater honor to Christ. Yielding to God’s authority empties us of selfish rivalries, including those with our enemies, and lends dignity to even the most modest human life. This is the vineyard to which we are called. This is our work. May God strengthen us for it now, and in all the difficult days that may lay ahead, so that we may say “yes” and live “yes” to the glory of God.