Sunday, 1 October 2017
How do we pray that we may
‘both perceive and know’?
Sunday, 1 October 2017
The 15th Sunday after Trinity.
11.30 a.m.: Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Tarbert, Co Kerry, Morning Prayer.
Readings: Exodus 17: 1-7; Psalm 78; Philippians 2: 1-13; Matthew 21: 23-32.
May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Black or white?
Dog or cat?
Land or sea?
Wet bob or dry bob?
Paris or Rome?
Wine or beer?
It’s the sort of game we all play in our families at one time or another. I loved playing ‘Matching Pairs’ with my sons when they were at the early learning stage.
For adults, there are similar jokes about two kinds of people we compare or contrast:
‘There are two types of people: those who divide people into two categories, and those who don’t.’
For the mathematicians among us: ‘There are only 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.’
And for those with a more subtle sense of humour: ‘There are two types of people in this world: Those who can extrapolate from incomplete data.’
This morning’s readings give us contrasting pairs:
In the Old Testament reading (Exodus 17: 1-7), we see contrasts between adults and children; water and wilderness; testing and thirsting; obeying and quarrelling; responsible freedom and slavery without responsibility.
This morning’s Psalm (Psalm 78) contrasts images of ancestors and children, day and night, rock and river, and so on.
In our Epistle reading (Philippians 2: 1-13), the Apostle Paul gives us the stark contrasts offered in Christ of slavery and freedom, deity and humanity, fear and trembling, heaven and earth.
This helps us to prepare for the matching pairs or clashing contrasts we find in our Gospel reading (Matthew 21: 23-32).
This reading is set in the immediate aftermath of Christ’s entry in triumph into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and his cleansing of the Temple.
When he returns to the Temple the following day, he is confronted by the religious and civic leaders, the guardians of belief and tradition, who challenge and question him about his power and authority.
The ‘chief priests and the elders of the people’ are the leaders in the Temple hierarchy, and also at the apex of society in Jerusalem – questioning Jesus about what gives him authority. In particular, they ask what gives him the right to behave as he does, and especially the right to claim he is acting in God’s name when he is behaving like that.
It is a question that Christ might have expected, under the circumstances. The exchange takes place when he enters the Temple. The day before had been an eventful day: when Christ enters Jerusalem and the crowds hail him as king. He next goes into the Temple courts, he overturns the tables and the seats of the money changers and the dove sellers, and he speaks about the destruction of the Temple.
The Temple authorities have been offended. Quite naturally, they have to confront him.
Who does he think he is?
What gives him the right to force his way in and stir things up?
What authority has he to behave like this?
But, in a clever manoeuvre, Christ answers their questions by asking his own question.
A clever manoeuvre, indeed. It was acceptable then, but every bar room lawyer knows now that you are not allowed to ask questions that allow only a choice between two convicting answers, loaded questions like: ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’
Loaded questions are loaded with presuppositions, often with built-in fallacies and false dichotomies.
And the chief priests and the elders fall into a trap that every sixth-form debater would know how to set and how to escape.
There is a great deal of humour here. Those who are skilled in the Law failed to see the flawed legal trap. And in doing this they display their innate inabilities, their incomparable incompetence, their own failures in judgment.
In this morning’s reading, Christ answers with a two-part question. And once again, he turns the tables on those who confront him. They are taken aback; they are caught in a dilemma. If they answer one way, they are caught out; if they answer the other, they are still caught out. It’s a dichotomy. And either way they cannot win.
As they are left mulling this over, Christ tells the parable of two sons and a father. The second dichotomy, the second comparison, the second either/or choice, is posed when Christ tells this parable about a father who sends his two sons, a willing son and an unwilling son, to work in the family vineyard.
It is a sharp contrast between being and doing.
The two sons remind me of the T-shirt I have joked about for years and that eventually I bought this summer in the Plaka in Athens with these words:
‘To do is to be’ – Socrates
‘To be is to do’ – Plato
‘Do be do be do be do’ – Sinatra
The American publisher Cyrus Curtis (1850-1933) once said: ‘There are two kinds of people who never amount to much: those who cannot do what they are told, and those who can do nothing else.’
But the two sons illustrate a serious dilemma:
Those who respond negatively to what they are asked to do, may eventually do it … and recognise their initial wilfulness.
Those who say they are going to do something they are tasked with, but then refuse to follow-up, to deliver, to do, refuse to recognise their own wilfulness yet persist in their sinfulness.
How often have you responded to people because of their words rather than their deeds and found you have completely misjudged them?
The two sons are asked to go to work in the family vineyard.
One son says: ‘I will not.’ In a Mediterranean village culture, in which there is no such thing as personal privacy, this son’s reaction to his father shames the father publicly.
The other son says: ‘I go, sir.’ In public, he appears to be as a good son should be.
But the tables are turned when we learn that the son who mouths off actually goes to work in the vineyard, while the son who seems at first to be good and dutiful turns out to be disobedient.
So those who say they are compliant and say they are doing the right thing have headed off to do things their own way, while claiming they are doing what God wants.
On the other hand, Christ tells all present that even prostitutes and tax collectors who appear to be disobedient might actually end up with a true place in the vineyard. In today’s context, who are the people I keep excluding from the kingdom yet are being called in by God?
Paradoxes aside, most of us are not like one son or the other … most of us are like both sons, and wrestle with their responses and their approaches throughout our lives.
Have you ever received an invitation to a party, a book launch, a wedding, with those four little letters at the end: ‘RSVP’?
Have you ever been one of those people who, anxious not to offend, sends back a reply saying yes, I’ll be there, and then … and then something else crops up, and I fail to turn up?
It has happened to me. I have been invited to parties and book launches, ignored the RSVP line in the bottom corner, and then, at the last moment, turned up. And, I have to confess, I have, at least one or twice, accepted … and not turned up.
On which evening do you think I was most appreciated, most welcomed?
An obvious answer, I think.
It is more forgivable to be socially awkward than to be wilfully rude.
When we strive with the demands of Christian living, with Christian discipleship, it is easy to be like one of these sons.
There are times when we may find it difficult to do what God is asking you to do. We wait, we think, we ponder, but eventually we answer that RSVP and seek to do God’s will.
We say ‘No’ countless times, and then realise how worthwhile it all is: labouring in the vineyard should be hard work, but it leads to a good harvest and good wine.
I have to be careful to distinguish between God’s will and my own will. When they coincide, there are countless blessings. But when they are in conflict, I need to beware of pretending that one is the other, that I am answering the Father’s call and doing his work, when in reality I am doing what I want to do myself, and telling others what I want rather than what God wants.
In the words of the Collect of the Day this morning, we pray that we may all, each one of us, that we may ‘both perceive and know’ … but these two are not good enough on their own; instead, we pray that we may ‘both perceive and know what things’ we ‘ought do’ … so that with God’s grace we actual do them.
Being and doing come together; we know what to do, and we do it.
In The Great Divorce, CS Lewis claims: ‘There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done”.’
And we encourage one another to do God’s will and we find that when we do God’s will, it is God’s will for us, when in the Church, as Saint Paul encourages us this morning, we are ‘of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind’ (Philippians 2: 2).
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
O Lord, Hear the prayers of your people who call upon you;
and grant that they may both perceive and know
what things they ought to do,
and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for 1 October 2017.