Sunday, October 01, 2017

Proper 21

Matthew 21
28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

Sometimes, you just want a do-over.

You know, a do-over: a second chance, an opportunity to erase the past a start over. Take, for example, the 95 million people who neglected to vote on November 8 of last year. I bet they want a do-over.

Or that time you loaded some software and suddenly you computer stopped working, or slowed down to a crawl. My computer has something called Time Machine, that freezes a moment in time and allows you to travel back there, pretending that everything that happened in the meantime never happened. When will that function appear in real life?

Even golf has a do-over, famously called a mulligan. While I haven’t played since high school, I can recall with some relief my mates saying ‘you’ll never find that ball—take a mulligan.’ Oddly, the opposite of mulligan is gilligan, whereby someone may demand that you redo the most amazing shot of your life, just to prove you can. This only applies to informal play, it seems, and if agreed in advance. Then there’s a “gimme,” something I have no time to explain, and ironically is meant to save time.

Whether it’s a do-over, a mulligan, or a fresh start, there are elements that are common to any new beginning. First, there has to be a set of rules (even informal rules) that govern the do-over. Everyone involved should agreed to how and when these things happen, with the understand that they are uncommon and not an everyday occurrence. Like the get-out-of-jail-free card, there must be few of them, or what’s the point of having that jail in the corner of the board?

And there has to be some acknowledgment of wrong-doing. You can’t claim the opportunity for a fresh start if you don’t at least understand what happened. When your teenager is grounded for life (obviously in the heat of the moment) there will be a moment when it’s best for everyone to offer a fresh start. But unless there’s some remorse that follows whatever offence occurred, you might just have a teenager with you into old age.

And the do-over has to serve some higher purpose, or there is little point in the first place. It should demonstrate compassion, for forgiveness, or the well-being of a group. It should be a way to build character or model future behaviour, and not just a quick way to get on with your day.

The Bible, of course, is filled with do-overs. Noah’s Ark is the most obvious example, with the interesting twist that the story is an incomplete do-over. God’s first instinct is to utterly destroy humanity, but decides that might be too humiliating, having created these creatures in the first place. So it’s a modified do-over, with one family surviving, along with animals two-by-two, followed by future toymakers and cartoonists following closely behind.

The story of the exodus is a series of do-overs, with (once again) God’s periodic desire to let these troublesome people perish in the desert, followed by all sorts of items to allow them to continue, from water to manna to quail.

Then, of course, there is the exile. As a punishment for disobedience that would make Noah and Mrs. Noah blush, the people are carried off into exile, with little or no hope of return. Luckily for us, and those who follow the other Abrahamic faiths, the exiles used the time to reflect on their life with God, to codify their beliefs, and renew themselves. The return from exile is a do-ver, with God switching from anger to comfort right there in the middle of Isaiah (39-40).

Finally, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a gospel of do-over for the forgiveness of sins. He called the gospel of do-over repentance, the desire to renounce sin and embrace the promised One of God. Sins would be forgiven, Christ would come, and the ultimate do-over would follow, both in the presence of God-in-Jesus and the do-over that would happen at Calvary. With the destruction of death itself, we might say all of creation was subject to do-over, the past done and new life come.

But it was never that simple. It was simple insofar as God truly did make all things new, but less simple because some could not accept it. Couldn’t accept it and couldn’t begin at the beginning of the whole process: the need to repent.

Let me interrupt this sermon to offer you a penitential get-out-of-jail-free card. Repentance is hard work. It requires self-awareness, some humility, and the desire to look candidly at your situation and the people around you. And it requires confidence. Those who lack confidence will say “it’s not my fault” or “I didn’t intend for that to happen” or “I can’t afford to be blamed.” It takes depth of character and practice to say “I did it, and I wish I could do it differently again.”

So, back to our regularly schedule sermon. The interaction between Jesus and the elders of the people, and the parable that follows, are about John’s message and how it was received. The chief priests and the elders question Jesus’ authority, namely the authority by which he is forgiving sins and continuing John’s ministry of calling people to repent.

He sets a bit of a trap for them: He asks them about John’s baptism—a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins—and whether it was divinely or humanly inspired. What follows is some rather desperate dialogue:

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

It is obvious from their tortured comments that they didn’t follow John, or spend time in the desert, or repent of their sins. They were the excessively righteous ones that Jesus continually railed against—unwilling to repent and unwilling to accept that Jesus could forgive that things that people were repenting. But it was the first sin—unwilling to repent—that was the most troubling for Jesus, as becomes obvious through his parable:

Two sons, a vineyard, and a simple question that every parent asks: ‘My child, today will you do your chores?’ The first son says “nah, can’t today. See you later, I’m off to (unintelligible).” But, somehow he does it. The second son says ‘sure I can, no problem, you can count on me, I’m your guy...’ then does nothing. Jesus asks ‘which one did what the father wanted?’

‘The first,’ they reasoned, as they fell into the trap Jesus carefully laid for them:

“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

The way of righteousness begins in repentance. Get a pen and write it on your hand, get a tattoo, or hire a plane to travel around the neighbourhood with a rather lengthy banner that says “The way of righteousness begins in repentance.” These words are trustworthy and true. If you want to be righteous (meaning you want to follow God) you need to practice repentance. There is no other way.

So what is it and what is it not? Starting in reverse, it’s not constant self-denigration or an unending ‘woe is me, a sinner.’ And it’s certainly not helping others to see their sin, like we’re doing them some sort of spiritual favour that they will thank us for later. And it’s not meant to make you loath yourself, doubt yourself, or count yourself as unworthy of God’s love.

Instead, it’s a discipline. It’s the capacity to say “I wonder if I made this situation worse in some way?” Or “given the chance to do this again, how would I do it differently?” Or simply “that was screw-up—I’m really sorry.” Repentance is rejecting the world’s desire to appear blameless and our human tendency to point the finger in any other direction.

Repentance is standing with all the other screw-ups and ne'er-do-wells, all who need a do-overs and everyone who needs a second or a third chance. That’s where Jesus is standing too—listening, understanding, forgiving, and loving us even when we need more mulligans than the course allows. Amen.


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