Sermon September 27, 2020
When I was younger if I wished for something good to happen, I would cross my fingers. I am sure that most of you remember doing this. If you wanted something really important to happen, you might cross your fingers on both hands because that would make your desired outcome more likely. Some people would cross their fingers before a critical play in a sports event. I don’t think that made much of a difference.
The idea that you would cross your fingers has a long tradition. Some think it was started by Christians and that crossing your fingers was a reminder of the cross of Jesus. Certainly, asking Jesus to help us is a good idea. But over time, it has been used as just a lucky thought, a wish for things to occur that might not be important.
Over time, a new custom of crossing the fingers was established. People started to cross their fingers and hold them behind their back when they didn’t tell the truth. Some believed that it was OK to tell a lie if we crossed our fingers. Some people may have believed that crossing their fingers when they told a lie was a request for God to forgive us for what we had said or done. Of course, I don’t think it really works that way.
I remember the idea of crossing fingers as I reflect on the gospel for today. Crossing fingers was probably what the second son did when he was asked by his father to go work in the fields. The second son said he would work for his father but he did not. He obviously didn’t tell the truth. Perhaps he even hoped inside that God would forgive him for lying or being lazy.
Jesus told the story of the two sons as a way to show that the leaders of the Jewish people were not following God’s wishes. Jesus followed in the footsteps of the prophets of Israel as he proclaimed that the leaders were sinners. Neither our Jewish heritage nor our Christian faith indicate that simply proclaiming our faith is enough. We must do the work. As one commentator wrote, “The religious respectability of affirming the right thing not only will never get us to heaven, but stands in the way of an authentic response to God’s call.”
Jesus said the tax collectors and prostitutes were the ones who listened to John the Baptist’s call to repent. They had changed their ways and asked for God’s forgiveness. They took action to follow God’s will. The chief priests who questioned Jesus thought it was below their standard to go see John the Baptist. The chief priests were self-righteous. We may have to give up our sense of righteousness and do God’s work in the world.
This gospel story tells us that faith is about how we act and not what we say. It is not enough to say that we follow Jesus. We must also act on those statements. Action is not always easy. Every one of us has sinned in this world. We are not perfect. Our life can be a daily struggle to do good. That is why we put ourselves in the presence of God as often as we can. For being in God’s presence helps us to defeat the devil and to do good. We ask Jesus to be our guide and our strength.
On Friday, we had a memorial service celebrating the life of Larry Little. Larry’s sister, Connie, shared thoughts that Larry had shared with her. Larry’s advice to us is to do God’s good works in the world. He promised that he would be watching over us and encouraging us.
Bill Robinson spoke of Larry’s Christian actions. Larry worked in the Chile Garden to help feed the needy. The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand was important to Larry. Larry so appreciated the gift that Jesus offered on that day. In the gospel of John, we learn that the people came out to see Jesus because of what he had done. They were excited because he had performed signs or miracles and cured the sick. They came out into the desert, far away from the cities and villages because of what they had seen Jesus do. Larry saw this miracle as a sign that our actions matter.
Jesus’s work for us never ended. As we read today in Philippians, Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.” Just as Jesus never stopped doing the work of God in this world, we seek to emulate his actions, even though we are humans who are not as perfect as Jesus was.
I think it can be difficult to determine the work of a Christian. Jesus often asked tough questions. The chief priests struggled and finally were unable or unwilling to answer the question about whether John was sent to the desert by God. When they refused to answer, they showed that the question they asked was a trick, a trap. By not responding to Jesus, they stayed in their comfort zone rather than digging deeply into their hearts to accept Jesus.
Sometimes we say that we are going to follow Jesus but we lose our way and we end up sinning. Other times, we may say we are going to follow Jesus but we intentionally choose to do something different. Sometimes we say we will follow Jesus but we don’t really understand what we must do and we mistakenly fall away.
In 1956, Gary Cooper starred in a movie called Friendly Persuasion. He was the husband and father of a Quaker family that faced ethical issues during the civil war. The Quakers were opposed to slavery but they also were pacifists, they were opposed to fighting in a war. The issue became personal when marauding southern soldiers invaded the area nearby. Should the Quaker men join the army or not? Quakers were also opposed to coercion, talking someone into taking a certain action. They believed in the importance of every person’s individual conscience. Thus, the question, should a father persuade his teen age son to remain out of the war or allow him to decide on this own? I am sure questions like this have haunted people in every generation and I think of conscientious objectors who chose to stay out of wars. It may not have been popular.
In our own time, we face questions that will test our understanding of what is ethically correct. We have ethical questions testing us right now and there is not an easy answer. Is it correct to stop illegal immigration because it is opposed to the law and threatens our well-being? Or is it more important to help the stranger and give every person an opportunity to live in safety? Should I focus on the concerns of minorities in America and encourage their right to protest? Or should I focus on looting and destruction of property and be more concerned about the safety of people and those who own property? Should I be more concerned about the actions of police or should I worry more about violence that is happening in poorer communities? I have Christian friends on both sides of each of these questions.
The reading from Philippians describes what our world would be like if we chose to imitate Jesus in all that we do. We would share a perspective that followed the compassion and sympathy of Jesus, that humbly regarded others as better than ourselves. It would be a place where everyone looked not out for their own interests but the interests of others.
In his book, The Drama of Christian Ethics, the Anglican priest, Samuel Wells, wrote that Jesus was so accepting of his people. By sending Jesus to live as a human, God demonstrated that he accepted us despite our faults. Throughout his ministry Jesus accepted people that were outcasts. In this gospel, Jesus points to the so-called sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes who had repented as examples for each of us.
Thomas Paine, the famed writer during the revolutionary War, expressed it this way, “Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.” Perhaps we can find that kind of a place in this small community.
Today is special, it is the first day that we have held services at the Church of the Transfiguration since March. During that six-month period, I have been amazed by the dedication of so many to their faith and this church. I am thankful for each person and each gift that has been given. I believe that our faith is stronger when we support each other. I believe that our faith grows every time that we come together and worship God, to ask for God’s forgiveness and to ask Jesus to help us make good choices. May this day be a time to commit ourselves once more. May we reject the actions of the two sons Jesus mentioned. Let us instead say yes to Jesus and live our lives acting on that yes. Amen.
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