16 Pentecost—Proper 21-A
September 28, 2014
Matthew 21: 23-32
Paul proclaims today:
“…at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
Growing up at Saint Anne’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta “Lord” was a word used only in the liturgy: at the end of prayers, for instance, we would pray, “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
As a child I don’t remember hearing anyone after church talk out loud about “the Lord”. Plenty of people in that good parish believed in Jesus’ Lordship, including my parents, but at home we didn’t talk about “the Lord”.
They did act out that faith in visible ways: My father read from a battered King James Bible every night after he’d finished reading a Rex Stout mystery and my mother took food into the inner city years before it was the thing to do.
I didn’t hear personal talk of “the Lord” until I joined Campus Crusade for Christ at the University of Georgia. Members would say, “During my prayer time this morning I asked the Lord what I should major in and he spoke to me as I was reading Matthew”. They talk about him as if he is present in the room and not somewhere far, far away.
I never found this kind of public language natural but it is true that the phrase “Jesus is Lord” is the earliest confession of faith in the church. You might be a perfectly lovely person doing all kinds of good things in the world to help people, but you are not part of the community that follows Jesus until you make the public confession that Jesus is Lord—which we do at our baptism.
Paul puts it this way in Romans 10: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”.
Jesus as personal presence to whom one gives allegiance and obedience is to look at Jesus as Lord.
At college this was difficult, because the spirit of the age was telling us to do whatever we felt like doing.
Some of us were exactly like the second son in the parable today.
Jesus says, “Go work in my vineyard” and we’d say, “Yes Lord we’ll go…but then we’d go do something we thought would be more fun.
I must have been hard of hearing because when he said “go work in my vineyard” I thought he said, “Go drink my wine!”
So it is quite natural to be those who say, “Yes” but don’t go.” This is easy because much of the religion we were raised in allowed us to say Yes on Sunday and No the rest of the week and still feel like we were on the team.
But of course we are all brought up short when Jesus says in Matthew 7 21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
So we’re brought back to the parable. and we wonder about the ones who say No at the beginning but end up doing the will of the Lord?
We’ve been trained to think it must be the people who follow the rules and who go to church all the time, but in fact Jesus says it’s the tax-collectors and the prostitutes who believe.
They are the ones who believe God’s mercy has been extended to them.
The problem we fall into sometimes as religious folk is that we do not believe we need new lives. We are not aware—YET—- that we need the mercy of God every bit as much as the so-called big sinners.
All we think we need is a little singing, a few prayers, a little money in the plate, and we’ll be fine.
The tax-collectors and the prostitutes believe God’s mercy has been extended to them—because in, with, and through Jesus the mercy of God has given them new lives.
It seems to me this is something of what the Lordship of Jesus means on the personal level—the micro level.
But we must also pay attention to the macro-level:
On the macro-level when you say Jesus is Lord you are saying Caesar is not Lord. Augustus Caesar and his successors had titles like “son of God” and “highest priest” but each was also known as “Dominus Noster”: Our Lord.
Lord here means the Big Boss, the boss of all bosses. The Big Boss can move people around, enslave and kill them, or protect them and pave their roads to create the Pax Romana—the Roman Peace.
It is obvious to everyone living in the first century that Caesar is Lord—until this small band of Jews start claiming that Caesar has been dethroned and replaced by the Jew from Nazareth who was crucified by Rome and then raised from the dead by God.
To say Jesus is Lord is a subversive political act that threatens all empires including our own.
If Jesus is Lord then I cannot blindly follow my country into every war. Any time my country serves the will of the Lord we can say “yes”, but any time it does not we must say no.
Knowing the difference of course is the difficult piece and is the source of the political struggles in our democracy.
As we ponder these things in our hearts we wonder: “what does the Lord want me to do?”
But this is not the first question to ask:
The first question is “am I willing to dethrone my self-interest and let Jesus be my Lord.
No point asking anything else until, each morning we struggle with that.
That’s why before getting out of bed it’s a good idea to say a prayer, offer thanks for the night, something to remind us that Jesus is Lord, even though first thing in the morning the ego wants to take charge and get the day under control.
Each morning take a deep breath and relax into the reality that “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want and that I will dwell in the mercy of the Lord forever.”
We don’t have faith like we have a bed or a table. We don’t have to do anything to experience the furniture—it’s just solidly there.
The Mercy and Lordship of Christ are always there, but our faith in him must be rebooted each morning. Some would say in each moment.
So some days we forget our faith and we forget we have work to do for Christ and we don’t go into the vineyard—until grace wakes us up and we turn back to the Lord who is in that moment with us and start the day over.
Paul ends his great hymn on the Lordship of Jesus by saying it’s up to us: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…”
We are responsible every morning for turning to the Lord for mercy and help, we are responsible for seeking God’s will in economics, politics and foreign policy. We are responsible.
Then Paul says just the opposite: “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
God is responsible.
How the two fit together no one knows—but every time we do our part and trust the Lord to do God’s part we find God is already at work ahead of us, remaking us by a mercy that is new every morning in the vineyard of the Lord.