Following Through, October 1, 2017
The following sermon was preached by our Lay Pastoral Associate, Deb Saffin.
Ever look at a bunch of readings and wonder how they fit together? I sure did as I put things together for today. In Exodus we have folks wandering the wilderness hungry, tired and frustrated.
In the Psalm we have people who have forgotten what God has done for them and in Philippians we are told to be humble and have the spirit/mind of Jesus and then we get to the Gospel only to hear yet another parable of two sons. At least that’s what is there at first glance. Gotta wonder who put them together and why.
Well, I see follow through as one of the primary themes in these readings. Follow through along with a little teaching on authority; and we all know authority is powerless without follow through.
Reading Philippians alongside Exodus and Matthew, we reflect on the relationship between our patterns of thinking and patterns of living and that’s a lot of what I’ll focus on today.
Moses followed through with his promise to lead the people out of bondage into freedom even though he found it hard. With so many challenges and so much bickering many of us would have given up even though we’d promised God we’d do the job. Moses didn’t want centre stage from the very start but still continually sought God’s voice and comforted the people — he hung in there. He followed through with the authority and gifts given him by God.
For the Philippians, “selfish ambition” was perhaps more natural than humility – much different than Moses. They were encouraged to follow through with what they knew was right and stick with a right way of living and were praised for their efforts. In both the Exodus and Philippians cases, certain patterns of thinking yielded certain patterns of living. But as Jesus’ parable points out, affirmative responses alone are not praiseworthy as much as a life pattern that embodies them. Follow through, right?
In the Gospel parable at the end of the reading we see two brothers asked by their father to help out with the days work. One says, No and then relents and the other says yes and then doesn’t follow through. Let’s think about this parable for a minute.
It’s painful to have someone you trust tell you they are going to do something for you and then they don’t. Many of us can tell story after story about people who have let them down by making a promise and then not following through. Like the second son in today’s parable. My mom used to say, “a promise made is a debt unpaid and you have to pay your debts either now or later.” We expect family and friends to keep their word and to come through for us when we have a pressing need, but sometimes they don’t and we are hurt. When a friend disappoints us we are not too terribly upset but we do lose a bit of trust. However, it’s even harder when someone we think has power doesn’t follow through.
At the same time, we must acknowledge there are times when we, ourselves, have made promises and then not kept them. Sometimes we’ve given a half–hearted ‘yes’ to someone just to get them off our back or because everyone else did; even though we have no intention of following through. So whether we’ve been on the giving or receiving end of broken promises we need the challenge of the Gospel we hear today. And this is where I saw authority as part of our own commitment to follow through. So let’s add that element to our discussion and then we’ll get back to follow through.
The church leaders of Jesus day think they have all authority and power over the people because of their title and, most often, they follow through by quoting the rules of the law and commandments to back them up or imposing a penance on the people — that’s why the money changers and vendors in the temple square were doing so well.
Jesus, however, doesn’t talk about his authority he exhibits it with healing, withering a fig tree, and claiming the temple space back showing that he follows through with the authority he has been given over nature, people and institutions too, no matter what others think.
We’re not at all surprised to hear the temple leaders asking Jesus about this display of authority. He was exhibiting enormous power and the crowds were enthralled, not to mention his courage in confronting the institutions.
The church leaders were the recognized authority and therefore they had to ask Jesus just who the heck he thought he was. Look at their years of experience, their lineage and their education (equivalent to a master’s or doctorate today) and here was this man of low standing, without much education, and no title, throwing his weight around, and the crowds were eating it up, encouraging him and asking for more. He had a following.
Jesus was practicing what he preached and was following through with the authority that had been given him by God by doing what He knew was right.
Needless to say, the religious leaders were not happy. After all, they had a good thing going, and Jesus was ruining it.
As a side note, Jesus shows he is smarter than they are and has no intention of getting caught up in some abstract or conceptual debate about the nature of his authority in order to show who has the most power or authority to make things happen. Instead, he decides to ask them a question that causes them to struggle as they reflect on the true nature of authority itself. “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer then I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?”
The church leaders know they are hooped no matter how they answer because one answer leaves them open to appearing disobedient to God and the other would lose the respect of the crowd. They answer: “We don’t know.” which was probably very true.
So much for their spiritual authority, so much for their ability to follow through on what they preached or to know the will of God— one little question from Jesus renders them speechless and defenceless. And in that moment, the religious leaders were unmasked for who they truly were. They claimed authority, power and privilege but their chief concern was to protect their standing in society and their reputations. They didn’t give an answer because they didn’t want to lose what they had. They couldn’t follow through with what they believed. So where’s their authority now?
I think that causes us all to question where authority comes from. Can authority be given to us by human power or by education? I ask… who is the boss of you? Who tells you how to act? Who are we letting down when we don’t follow through?
That represents our usual way of understanding authority … who’s the boss — who’s the rule enforcer, who will give us trouble? But I don’t think that’s the real question — maybe we should ask — is it human power or heavenly power. I’d rather follow someone with heavenly power than human power. Is THAT the authority we see in today’s gospel? Is the authority we see here different than human authority?
The chief priests chose to exchange the God-given authority to do right for human power to maintain status. Sometimes we do too and that’s what’s happening in so much of our world today.
In the absence of true authority there will always be power struggles. Good grief look at the gridlock in the world of politics – yikes, let’s not go there.
Instead, think about the people who hold authority for you; the people you care what they think. Usually they are not concerned about themselves, they don’t dominate or try to control you – they aren’t pushing their own agenda but encouraging you to grow. They inspire you and call forth from you faith, hope and trust; expanding your world, opening new possibilities and bringing forth life and gifts in yourself that you never really knew were there. That sounds an awful lot like Jesus and it’s very different than those who exercise or impose human authority. It’s the will to do what’s right, to live like the Philippians in today’s readings.
I think sometimes we refuse to recognize, claim or exercise the authority within us to do what is right or step out in faith and it halts our follow through. We’re waiting for a burning bush or a voice echoing from heaven to tell us what to do to give us the confidence to do it. What Paul tells us is that we find God’s will when we come with humility and allow God to work in us and through us. That’s what he’s reminding the Philippians of in this reading.
There are people in this parish who have no leadership position, title or theological credentials and yet they have great authority and they follow through. You can see it in their compassion and gentleness. I hear it in the way they pray and I feel it in their love — they too show me the way to the live out Gods will in my life. That’s what authorities do — it’s not about them — it doesn’t come from them. All authority originates in God and is manifest in us.
That leads me back to the follow through of the sons in the parable. Both sons are wrong, both sons have dishonoured their father and have not honoured the authority figure in their lives. BUT the first son has follow through — that authority growing within that said, “put your Ipad down and go help your Dad.” In Verse 29 it says ‘but later he changed his mind and went… a more literal translation of the Greek would be “later he changed what he cared about and went.”
And that is the idea here — when he changed what he cared about he followed through and chose to care about the honour of his father. A kind of follow through the chief priests couldn’t make. I think it’s important to note the father in this story didn’t impose authority over his sons – he asked them to help and moved on but didn’t make them go. He gave them the authority and freedom to think things through and choose for themselves.
Like the first son in the parable, I’ll bet most of us can name times when we’ve felt that pull to do something we didn’t want to – something maybe we’d said we’d do but didn’t feel like doing or maybe something we’ve said no to but now feel ‘a real change of what you care about’ and then we’ve gone and done it!
Follow through is important and the drive to do that is found in the authority of God-given gifts given us each and every day.