Scripture: MATTHEW 21:23-32
Here’s the scene: you’re a parent and you’re headed out for the afternoon. To one of your children you say, “Please mow the lawn while I’m gone.” To the other child you say, “Would you please set the table and prepare a salad for dinner.” The first child is surly and says, “No way I’m mowing the lawn,” but after you leave, the child has a change of heart and does all the mowing. The second child says, “Sure, I’ll take care of getting dinner ready,” but after you leave, this one camps out in front of the TV and lifts not a finger to prepare dinner.
And Jesus poses the question, “Which child did as you asked?” I’m not sure the answer is as obvious as the story makes it out to be. If one of my children had responded to my asking for help around the house by saying, “No way,” even if they later did what I had asked, I would still have thought it was not at all appropriate to so curtly deny my request.
Jesus, though, ignores the first child’s rudeness and zeroes in instead on the change of mind. Key for Jesus is that the first child finally does the right thing. Intentions are totally irrelevant. It only matters what was actually accomplished. It’s not what’s said that counts, in other words. It’s what’s done.
And we get this, don’t we. The circles we travel in are so often all about doing. We live in a world in which results are what matters. At one of my doctor’s offices, there is, in the stairwell, a sign quoting Yoda from Star Wars: “Do. . . or do not. There is no try.” For any number of us, work is about productivity. The diner isn’t going to survive if the plates aren’t served. The factory is going to go under if the widgets aren’t made. The medical practice is going to fail if the patients aren’t ushered in and out with some dispatch. Do or do not, in so much of our work. There is no try.
And the same is so often true in our spiritual lives, as well. Churches tend to measure their vitality by the quantity of work done. How many meals will be served at St. Paul’s through Loaves and Fishes today? What are our children and adults doing to make a difference in the world? Are we making enough phone calls, delivering sufficient meals, knitting plenty of shawls? We put a premium on achievement and results-oriented service. As in so many dimensions of our lives, so also at church: output and yield are paramount.
And this is all for incredibly important reasons. Tending to others is at the core of how we live out our faith. When Jesus is asked what the first commandment is, after all, love of neighbor is a huge part of his answer (Matthew 22:39). We’re to love our neighbors how much? As much as we love ourselves. And so often we show that love in measurable acts of kindness and generosity. You are not to leave worship today thinking that a caring ministry is not a huge part of the core of faith. We’re to do justice and love kindness. With apron on, we’re to serve not only each other but also the larger community and world. Faith without works is dead, said James (2:26). Our work is vital to our life of faith.
All that said, though, there’s something else that’s crucial to the life of faith. And that is that we be connected to God, that we be filled by the energy source that makes it all possible. If we try to make it simply on our own, if we devote ourselves to the work of faith without having our reserves replenished, we are bound, eventually, to run out of steam. Discouragement may set in. Cynicism may take over. Exhaustion will likely have its way with us. Making a difference in the world takes a lot of energy. So returning to the storehouse for fire and light is critical if we’re to stay in it for the long haul.
My friend and colleague and perceptive church consultant, Tony Robinson, remembers that, early in his ministry, church members used to come to him with all kinds of ideas about what the church should do. Many of the ideas were promising and worthwhile. And Tony thought it was his job, as a local church pastor, to put all these ideas into action. What he hadn’t counted on was how wearing this would be on him. After a few years of trying so hard to do all the things he thought he needed to do, a significant depression set in. He was never going to be able to do it all, and it weighed him down.
Tony learned at least two things from this. The first was that, when people came to him with ideas about what “the church ought to do,” he learned to turn it back to those who had proposed the idea. “How can I help you put that idea into practice?” he would ask. The church, he knew, is the people, not the pastor, and the most faithful thing he could do for the people of his church was to empower them to be the church.
There was another learning that grew from his depression, though, and that was this: his value as a human being and his worth as a pastor were not about all the things he could get done in a day. The core of his life was not his check-lists or his accomplishments but rather the life-giving relationship he had and has with the God who had given him life and in whose house he was to live out his days. God first, as former football star Gale Sayers, who died this week, used to say.
The key to the story Jesus tells about the two sons is that the first son has a change of mind. In Greek, the word for changing your mind means something much more like regret or repent. It means essentially that he ‘turned in a new direction.’ This entails much more than simply a cerebral shift, in other words, as though he weighs his options, measures the likely outcomes, and elects to try a different tack from the one with which he had begun.
When Jesus tells this story, what he’s saying is that the first son turns his whole self in an entirely new direction. We sometimes say a person had “a change of heart,” and this is something like what Jesus is saying. When a person has a change of heart, their whole being changes. “He had a change of heart about whether to marry his lover,” we might say. “She had a change of heart about whether to have a child.” They totally reorient themselves. And it’s so much more than just their thinking that’s involved: every part of them is engaged in this transformation.
This is what Jesus says happens to the first child. He is changed from the inside out. At the end of today’s story, Jesus amplifies this when he castigates the chief priests and elders to whom he’s talking. He rakes them over the coals, in the words of Eugene Peterson’s The Message, for not doing what “the crooks and whores” do (21:32). Unlike the religious leaders, the tax collectors and prostitutes change their minds, change their hearts, change their lives. They come, says Jesus in the climactic verse, to “believe” (21:32).
This change of heart leads finally to belief. “Believe” is a funny word in the Bible. We tend to think of it as something we do with our minds. Belief in the New Testament, though, has much more to do with where we orient our hearts and lives. Most of us have grown up thinking that there are particular tenets of faith to which we have to assent with our minds if we’re to be people of faith. We tend to think that Christianity is a list of mental affirmations that we have to agree to: that we must affirm God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for example; or that we must consent to a doctrine like Virgin Birth; or that we have to understand salvation or resurrection in a particular way. And people will say to me, “I can’t be a Christian because I can’t go along with that.” And I want to say to them: that could not possibly be further from the truth.
When the New Testament talks about belief, it’s not talking about getting the right answers on a dogma test. It’s talking about an orientation of the heart, a way of life, a tending of a primary and life-giving relationship. If I say I believe in you, it doesn’t at all mean I assent to something intellectual about you. It doesn’t mean I acknowledge that you were born on May 12 or that you’re married to Susan or that you work for the Eaton Corporation. If I say I believe in you, it means I trust you. It means I have confidence in you. It means I look for the best in you.
When we “believe” in God, this is something like what we’re saying. We’re saying we realize we live our lives wholly within God. The life we’re living we’re living in God. At the heart of everything is not first of all what we do, but what we are. It’s something of a cliché but still worth hearing again and again: we are not human doings; we are human beings. At every moment, we rest—we “be”—in the heart of the eternal.
What this means for us is that my yearning for God is actually God’s yearning in me. My tears are God’s tears in me. My ecstasy is God’s ecstasy in me. The heart of my spiritual quest is to know, at every moment that I am in God and God is in me. I have spent most of my life concluding prayers with the phrase “ . . . in the name of Christ we pray.” My goal and my hope now is to conclude those prayers “. . . in Christ we pray.” Not in Christ’s name, but in Christ. Because that’s where I reside.
What this asks of me isn’t some demanding spiritual practice in which I am required do this or that—though I may engage in some significant spiritual practices. What it asks of me is simply that I attune my gaze to see that all is grace, that every moment is charged, in those familiar words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with “the grandeur of God.” I am invited—not required—to look with eyes that trust, to listen with ears that delight, to recline on a bed of gossamer silk that conveys only lilt and affirmation and beauty.
Maybe what this prods us to is not a “to-do” list but a “to-be” list—a to-be list that marvels, perhaps, at your own birth, that wonders at the mysterious flight of the hummingbird, that takes an intentional, not-to-be-taken-for-granted moment to look into the eyes of your beloved and to know that you have richness of life in and through this person with whom you are connected at the core. We’re to simply be, and to be, above all, in the arms of the Holy One.
It’s not demand or expectation or requirement that is forced upon us. What is instead invited in us is only that sacred gaze that sees the heart of God looking back at us. That is our deepest work. When I was in seminary, I read a short piece by an Episcopal priest named Urban T. Holmes. What I vividly remember is his putting to us clergy this question: Would you be willing this afternoon to go out and lie on a hillside and gaze up at the blue sky and the cottony clouds, and to know that that was your work? Not striving to get lots of tasks done, but simply to take in the unfathomable beauty of God’s love for you? And then, he asked, would you also be willing to tell your church that that was your work for the day? Steeped, as I am, in this culture that so values productivity, I confess I would find that second part markedly harder to do! But I’m working on it! Someday, maybe, I’ll tell you that’s what I did for work one day!
One of the things of which I’m so aware at this moment in our shared life is the anxiety and brokenness that are so prevalent on so many fronts. COVID-19 seems interminable, and with cold weather setting in, outdoor gatherings will seem less and less appealing. Racial tensions simmer and flare. Hurricanes and wildfires wreak enormous destruction. Our political climate and presidential battle decimate any sense of tranquility.
In this context, a church member sent to me this week a piece by Richard Rohr, and I was taken by its tone and its gentle directives. One of the people Rohr quotes is Etty Hillesum, a Dutch woman who suffered untold horrors at the hands of the Nazis and was executed at Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of twenty-nine. Hillesum once wrote, “There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too . . .. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of you, God, in ourselves.” As Rohr says, Hillesum knows “there is a Presence with her, even as she is surrounded by so much suffering.”
Rohr then quotes Psalm 62: “In God alone is my soul at rest. God is the source of my hope. In God I find shelter, my rock and my safety.” And Rohr asks what it could mean “to find rest like this in a world such as ours,” this world in which, as the poet William Butler Yeats, once said, “the centre cannot hold.” And this is where Rohr lands: he says, “Somehow our occupation and vocation as believers in this sad time must be to first restore the Divine Center by holding it and fully occupying it ourselves. If contemplation means anything, it means that we can ‘safeguard that little piece of you, God,’ as Etty Hillesum describes it. What other power do we have now? All else is tearing us apart, inside and out, no matter who wins the election or who is on the Supreme Court.” And so that this divided and depleting situation doesn’t get the best of us, we need to return again and again to the source of life and joy and peace.
God, says Rohr, “cannot be born except in a womb of love.” So he suggests that we “impose a moratorium on exactly how much news [we] are subject to—hopefully not more than an hour a day of television, social media, internet news, magazine and newspaper commentary, and/or political discussions” (email from Richard Rohr, September 21, 2020). What’s needed, he reminds us, is first and foremost that we go to the Divine Well that is the source of our very life; that we rejoice in the “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7); that we be filled again and again, every day, every moment, with the love that simply will not let us go.
Yes, as Christians, there is a lot to do to share God’s love with those who need it. We dare never forget that. But perhaps first of all, after this afternoon’s decisive Browns win, is to simply be: to gaze up and around at the sky and the endless horizon of the Love that embraces us, and to take in the blessing that is yours and mine. At its core, this is what it is to believe: to trust that we lie, now and always, in those “everlasting arms,” full of grace and peace.