May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
This past Friday, on the Feast of St. Michael & All Angels, I was humbled to serve at the profession of life vows of Sr. Victoria Michelle at our Episcopal Convent in Mendham, the Community of St. John Baptist. This was a most sacred moment – a giving of a ring, and a servant of Christ vowing to give her life to God. Our bishop, the Rt. Rev. Mark Beckwith, gave the homily, and in his sermon, he spoke about the misconception many have about convent life.
Speaking from his own experience, he spoke about the first time he ever experienced a monastery, and how he marveled at the way in which the brothers must live in such perfect harmony – without a single bit of guile – why, if the world could just be like that things would be so much better. He later realized that it isn’t that these brothers, or any communal community, were perfect and all got along all the time, just that they had learned, despite being the very human people they were, how to live into the promises they had made as servants of God within a community of faith.
Which brings me to the gospel today. Jesus is now in Jerusalem. The big triumphal entry is done, and his presence in these holiest of holy places has raised the stakes of all that he says and does. He is in a center of power, and now surrounded by those with power – the temple elites.
They can see that he has power too – the power to heal, to teach with incredible knowledge of Torah, the power to draw thousands to hear him preach – but their question to him is not about his power, but about the origin of that power. What authority is behind it? There is a real truth to their questioning…they realize that there is a difference between power and authority.
Which reminded me of a story I heard once…”When Christian Herter was governor of Massachusetts, he was running hard for a second term in office. One day, after a busy morning chasing votes (and no lunch) he arrived at a community barbecue. It was late afternoon and Herter was famished. As Herter moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman serving chicken. She put a piece on his plate and turned to the next person in line.
“Excuse me,” Governor Herter said, “do you mind if I have another piece of chicken?”
“Sorry,” the woman told him. “I’m supposed to give one piece of chicken to each person.”
“But I’m starved,” the governor said.
“Sorry,” the woman said again. “Only one to a customer.”
Governor Herter was a modest and unassuming man, but he decided that this time he would throw a little weight around.
“Do you know who I am?” he said. “I am the governor of this state.”
“Do you know who I am?” the woman said. “I’m the lady in charge of the chicken. Move along, mister.””
The Governor thought his authority also gave him power in all planes, but in this case, the woman was having none of that.
So, back to the gospel, these temple leaders question Jesus to answer by whose authority he does do all these things. Jesus responds with a question – they punt, and Jesus punts on them too. Nobody is answering anybody – at least not outright. But then he said “What do you think?” and begins to tell a parable.
Now, when Jesus starts out with “What do you think?” it’s kinda like when your mother-in-law asks you “Do you want to know what I think?” You know there is no good answer, right?
So, the parable is about this farmer with two sons. He says to one of them “I need you to go into the field today to work.” The kid says “But dad, I’m right in the middle of a video game here, give me a break.” Later on he puts the game aside and does what his dad asked him to do. The dad said to the other kid the same thing, and that kid said “of course dad,” but as soon as he left the house, got in the car of his buddies and headed down to the beach.
Okay, that isn’t exactly how Jesus told the story, but anyway – he asks these temple leaders which one did as his dad asked. Now, I would argue that the first one needed a remote slapped out of his hand….but, I digress. Obviously…the first one actually spoke and acted truthfully – he truthfully didn’t want to do it, but then he did it. The other lied and said he would, and then he didn’t. One of them was doing what he should do, the other was not…and was lying about it. All of which sadly was far too familiar to anyone watching the news this weekend.
This past week, we continued to hear about the horrors of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. This is on top of all the other hurricanes devastating Texas, Florida, and much of the islands surrounding us. Last night, the Mayor of San Juan Puerto Rico, Carmen Yulín Cruz, was pleading to our government, to the leaders of our country, to our President, to please step up. She was clearly sleep deprived – yet there she is, pleading for help with every fiber of her being, “I am begging, begging anyone who can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency…So I am done being polite. I am done being politically correct. I am mad as hell. So I am asking the members of the press, to send a mayday call all over the world. We are dying here.”
I sat there in front of the TV as I am sure you did if you saw it – stunned, my heart broken by what I was witnessing, and also inspired by this woman – this mayor of this now very broken city. Under normal circumstances, I would expect our President to be cut to the core in the same way – to perhaps respond with something like “I heard your impassioned plea Mayor Cruz, and rest assured – we hear you. The United States stands by all her citizens, and you are not forgotten. I pledge all that we have to helping Puerto Rico recover…” But no. That is not what was said. Instead our President, while enjoying time at his golf club, attacked her by tweeting: “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help.”
Really. Like the kids in Jesus’ parable, let’s compare and contrast their responses to the role they were called to do by those who elected them.
If you were to google Mayor Cruz, you can find pictures of her hugging survivors, of wading waist deep with a bullhorn to find those in need of help, and you will also discover that she herself is living with her daughter in a shelter. She has hardly slept in days. She is an elected official with power who acts with authenticity, which is a sign that her authority among her people will be evident.
On the other hand, our President, another elected official with power, has been spending time at his golf course tweeting about the National Football League. He may be in the most powerful office in the world, but he lacks the authenticity (not to mention a moral compass) to have any authority anymore.
What has that to do with us?
Here’s the thing… the Mayor and the President have a roll to fulfill,…they were called to serve their people – both said they would, but only one actually has. The same is true of the temple leaders – they were called to love and serve the people of God in Jerusalem…did they? This was never about power, but authority that is born out of authentic response to what we are called to do. The temple elite had failed to lead authentically. Our President has failed too. What about us? What about us? Because we are also called. We are called, and like the sons, the temple leaders, the mayor, the President, we can live our faith in the vineyard, or we can think we have done enough by coming to church on Sunday, and giving lip service to what we are supposed to do in the world.
If we choose to be as the first son, to live our authentic lives, then we will live authentically in the world. To do that, we need to strive to live into our vows, as much as Sr. Victoria Michelle will strive to live into hers. Yes, we are not too unlike our sisters at the convent.
You see, there is another misconception of about monastic communities besides the one the bishop referred to. Now, many balk at the idea of a vow to obedience, not to mention poverty, and chastity. The thing is, not all of us are called to serve in the same way. I think we also misunderstand these three vows, especially obedience. It doesn’t mean blindly following a bunch of rules. If that were a measure of faith, then we truly are a dead church. In fact, that has for centuries been one of the problems of the Church. But the vow of obedience really means devotion to listening to God, in all the ways that may mean, that God might shape our lives to live in the fullness of grace and possibility. That is why God called the sons into the vineyard – not because of some desire to drive them to work hard, but because if they didn’t go, then they weren’t being the full measure of all they could be. Both of them heard the call, even if both didn’t respond, but do we? Because God is still speaking to us even now…are we listening?
Now, I know I’ve quoted this line from Lily Tomlin before, but it bears repeating here. She said “Why is it that when we talk to God, we call it praying, but when God talks to us, we call it schizophrenia?” She’s got a point. When we converse with God, we tend to do a lot of talking. But like we might expect or hope of our own children, as the children of God, we need to listen to our parents as much as we hope our parents listen to us. And the reality is, that God can speak to us in ways we might miss if we place expectations around how that happens, the way the temple elite did.
Putting aside for a moment the point Jesus was also making about them being ones who said Yes to God, but did not work the vineyard, the reality was that they also weren’t listening with either ear or eyes. They could not recognize in Jesus the authentic authority he carried. You see, despite having gone a bit off the rails in their sense of abiding in God, they really were people of great faith, and yet they had a preconceived idea of what one sent by God, a prophet or messiah, might be like. That is why when Jesus is standing right in front of them, they were blinded to who he was. They were holy men who could not recognize the holy in their midst. They were obedient to God’s law, but their eyes and ears were closed to God’s purpose for them – to the holy wisdom greeting them in the temple. We too can make this same mistake.
There is a Zen story that makes this point for us today. “Word spread across the countryside about the wise Holy Man who lived in a small house atop the mountain. A man from the village decided to make the long and difficult journey to visit him. When he arrived at the house, he saw an old servant inside who greeting him at the door. “I would like to see the wise Holy Man,” he said to the servant. The servant smiled and led him inside. As they walked through the house, the man from the village looked eagerly around the house, anticipating his encounter with the Holy Man. Before he knew it, he had been led to the back door and escorted outside. He stopped and turned to the servant,
“But I want to see the Holy Man!”
“You already have,” said the old man. “Everyone you may meet in life, even if they appear plain and insignificant… see each of them as a wise Holy Man. If you do this, then whatever problem you brought here today will be solved.””
Jesus was the Holy Man some could not see, even in the temple where one might expect to find him. And he is here now, in so many ways, telling us, that there is work for us to do – that our lives have an important purpose – that each one of us is needed, really needed. And for that to happen, we, like the sisters, must devote ourselves to listening for God’s call. We have to listen, to look, to expect God in all times and all places. And then once we hear, we must also act.
Every one of us is called to live into our baptismal promises to love and to serve. We come here each week, we offer ourselves and our hearts to live as the body of Christ in the world. So, “what do you think?” If Jesus were here now, would we, as Christ Church, be the first son or the second?
Based on all I have seen and experienced in this place over the past several years as your rector – neither and both. By that I mean that we respond to God’s call…and we follow through. That doesn’t mean we get along all the time, but like the convent, we are open to hearing where the Spirit is leading us, and then following that out in the world as a community.
Just this past month, your Vestry & Wardens voted to give over our entire outreach budget to launch a 1:1 match to raise money for Episcopal Relief & Development – a group who actually IS responding to desperate people in Puerto Rico and the other storm ravaged areas. You all responded. But that wasn’t the end of the story – far from it. Really, it never is, once the Jesus movement gets rolling. Out of this place, the call went out into our neighborhoods and the diocese, trying to fully meet the $5,200 we offered in match. The response was unbelievable! Parents of our Nursery School, people in our neighborhoods of Bloomfield & Glen Ridge who have never stepped foot inside this church, parishes and people from across our diocese – they all responded! We now can send a check for more than $11,000 to help those in need. A miracle of faith – all coming out of a decision by those with authority to act with authenticity to the gospel.
And that is why, I believe, that as we celebrate today the 159th birthday of this church, we are 33% larger than we were four years ago, and we are becoming that vision of being a core of our community with every day that goes by. This place is alive! Alive in Christ! Sure, the building is beautiful, the music is great, and our family ministries are engaging, but that isn’t why this all this is happening. It is because we try – we try to listen to God who is calling us to go work in Her vineyard. And like the convent, we won’t always agree, but we will try to be open to the Holy Spirit, and to live that call as a community.
Today we are launching our Stewardship season, and as is our custom of late, each of you will receive a gift blessed at the altar. Today it is a colorful rubber bracelet with a cross embossed on it. Think of it like the ring the sister received yesterday – to serve as a symbol of the vows you have made in your baptism to do the work of the vineyard, to seek out the lost, the lonely, and the least – to love and serve them in the name of Christ.
Each time you wear it, may it remind you to look for the holy in what appears ordinary, to not mistake human power for the authentic authority of Christ, to be obedient to listening and then responding to the call of God, and to always know that in this place you have a spiritual home to rest from your labors.
So, what do you think? Is this something we can do?
Because if we can do that, if we can really do that – listen and respond to God – then there truly will be hope amidst the suffering of the world.
For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:
 Bits & Pieces, May 28, 1992, pp. 5-6.
Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
October 1, 2017
Pentecost 17 – Track 2
1st Reading – Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32
2nd Reading – Philippians 2:1-13
Gospel – Matthew 21:23-32