Becoming a New Creation

Lessons for Proper 21, Year A: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Have you heard of Millard Fuller? He was a successful businessman and lawyer, self-made millionaire by age 29. In 1968, he and his wife gave away their wealth to focus on Christian service. After some years of mission work, the Fullers returned to Koinonia Farm in Southwest Georgia, a place they discovered on a road trip in 1965. They would found Habitat for Humanity in 1976, a ministry which now completes twelve houses each day around the world.

Have you heard of Dr. Bill Warren? Dr. Warren had a successful pediatric practice in Sandy Springs. Georgia but he left that practice in 1995 to respond to what he felt was God stirring in his heart. God, Dr. Warren felt, was guiding him to use his greatest passion: healthcare, to meet the needs of people of Atlanta. Serving “the least of these” out of a spare room in a local church, Dr. Warren would eventually found The Good Samaritan Health Center, focusing on patients who have no means otherwise to afford care.

How about Catherine Corr? Sister Catherine Corr heard God’s call to leave her safe life of quiet solitude among the Little Sisters to take residence with the Sisters of Notre Dame, an order dedicated to active service in the world. She was enjoined to spearhead the nationalization of the local Notre Dame AmeriCorps – empowering the poor, educating and acting on behalf of justice and peace.

How about Abby Mohaupt? Rev. Mohaupt was a pastor in a church much like Saint David’s. After some years of service she would leave the comfort of parish life to become the chaplain among a migrant farming community. She embedded herself for four years with Puente de la Costa Sur in Northern California. She is now on the forefront of seeking justice and equity for America’s farm laborers.

There are countless stories – the stories of saints in the Church – holy ones who are making a difference, who have said yes to Christ…and then have gone out and done what was asked.

We made promises to God during our Baptismal Covenant:

“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

Always, the answer is, “I will, with God’s help.”

GOD’S CALL TO CONVERSION

In today’s Gospel narrative, Matthew presents the first of five controversies between Jesus and his opponents in Jerusalem, interrupted only by three parables. The first controversy has Jesus in a debate with the chief priests and elders. The latter are attempting to manipulate Jesus into public blasphemy but are thwarted by Jesus’ counter-question about the source of John’s baptism: “from heaven” or “of human origin.” The chief priests and elders are reduced to silence, their insincerity exposed.

The criticism of the chief priests and elders is continued by means of the first of three parables, And again the opponents of Jesus are forced into an admission in which they condemn themselves, revealed as less responsive to God’s prophets than those considered the dregs of Jewish society: tax collectors and prostitutes.

The chief priest and elders constituted the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, with the Temple as its symbolic center. They worked alongside the Roman officials and Herod Antipas to maintain the peace and security of the people. So John’s movement posed for them both religious and political threat: A religious threat because John’s ministry was not centered in the Temple and a political threat because John was making straight the path for the return of the king. So, in the first controversy and its correlated parable the chief priests and elders are criticized for being co-workers with the Romans to preserve the status quo rather than being co-workers with God in ushering in the kingdom of Heaven.

Do you see that? Jesus describes the first son as the one who initially refused when his father said, “…go out and work in the vineyard today,” but afterward changed his mind and went to work. Jesus then demonstrates that these are those prostitutes and tax collectors and other types of sinners. These are the ones who had said “No” but who had converted and were now following after Jesus, living and working in the Lord’s vineyard, building up the kingdom,

But the second son respects the father’s command: “I will go sir.” But he never goes, does he? Jesus notes that this describes precisely those with whom he was debating, the chief priests and the elders, who prayed publicly in the temple and chanted their loud “Amens!”, but who did not follow in their covenantal commitment. It was these who said “Yes” but failed to carry through in practice.

FOLLOWING THROUGH TO THE END

The parable invites us this morning to reflect on what our answer to the Father is when asked if we will go into the vineyard. We’re here this morning so we’ve probably said “Yes” to God many times over the course of our lives. On the day of our baptism, either we or our parents and godparents spoke for us, making baptismal promises in which we commit to burn with and walk in Christ’s light, to keep our baptismal garments clean, and to live into the dignity of the children of God. At our Confirmation, we renewed those promises and committed to work in the Lord’s vineyard with tongues of fire, to proclaim the Gospel with ardent passion, and to the work which the Lord has prepared for us to do.

I think that perhaps, God is inviting us today to move beyond words and to make our life an “Amen!,” a “let it be done to me according to your word!,” a “thy will be done!” As I reflect on this parable, I wonder if there isn’t a third son to consider – a third son whose example is set before us today as someone who both says “Yes” and then does what is asked. It’s the Son…the very Son who is telling the parable: Jesus himself, the source and summit, the invitation and the answer, the one here among us today and always. In the letter to the Hebrews, the author reminds us that upon entering into the world, Jesus said unto the Father, “Here I am, Lord, I have come to do your will” (Hebrews 10:7-9). Yes, this is what is meant by living with the mind of Christ, living in the light of grace, and doing the will of “the one who sent me”. This is what Saint Paul invites us to do in that reading from Philippians when he exhorts, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Christ sought to do the Father’s such that he “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” “Which … did the will of his father?,” Jesus asked the chief priest and elders. Perhaps, I wonder if we should be prompted to respond that is was Jesus! Jesus invites us to follow him in doing the Father’s will…to say, “Yes,” and then to go.

SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI

One way – and a great way at that – to learn how to do live like this – to say, “Yes,” and to do yes is by the example of the saints. “The imitation of Christ in the lives of the saints,” wrote Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich, “is always possible and compatible with every state of life. The saints did but one thing — the will of God. But they did it with all their might. We have only to do the same thing — and according to the degree of intensity with which we labor shall our sanctification progress.”

For one such saint – perhaps the most famous non-biblical saint – the Church will celebrate a memorial feast this week. On Wednesday, October 4, we will honor and remember, celebrate and implore prayers from Saint Francis of Assisi – and yes, we will follow his example and honor the creatures of God’s creation by blessing the animals next Saturday.

For those who might not know, Francis lived in central Italy, among the city-states in the mountainous region of Umbria, in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. He would form a monastic order that, to this day, draws Franciscan women and men into the service of mankind in some of the most desolate and forgotten places.

Francis was an ordained deacon in the Church – a fitting sacramental expression for a man who exemplified not only the notion but the very meaning of the word: Deacon, from the Greek, diakonia, meaning “servant.” Francis exemplified his diakonia by living it out a poverty in dedication to the service of the poor. He further and fully exemplified his diakonia in the very best sense by protecting those who were marginalized and seeking justice for those who were cast off, discriminated against, and abused by society.

Saint Francis was like Saint Paul and many saints in that his early life was lived well apart from Christ – a life of self-centeredness and arrogance, conceit and sin. But when Christ came and Francis finally listened, Francis would accept the full yoke. The transformation of life that happened in Francis confirms the words of Saint Paul to the Galatians that “a new creation is everything!” (Galatians 6:15). Indeed, Francis took seriously the invitation to follow after Christ and “emptied himself…and humbled himself…even unto the point of death.”

Francis’ becoming a “new creation” took time but God worked in Francis and gave him a great depth of compassion and love for the poor. Through this incredible gift of love, Francis was able to do what most of us would think impossible. There was a time when he would be disgusted by the site of a leper. At one point after his conversion, he faced a man with leprosy, embraced the man and put some coins in his hand. Emboldened by this victory of love, he went immediately to a leper colony and begged the pardon of those there, lingered for a while, distributed money to them and left only after kissing them each on the mouth. He had fully taken on the yoke and burden of Christ, he had become a “new creation” and that meant “everything”.

Blessed Francis sold all his possessions – as Jesus commanded the rich young man – a he gave away the proceeds. He led a life that did not concern itself with the building up of possessions on earth and he invited the the lame and the blind to his banquet.

To be honest, the thought of such a radical transformation scares me. I know I could never take up that lifestyle and all of its responsibilities by my own free will. I don’t think many of us will leave here today and begin imitating everything Francis had become. But I do think we face the same question that Francis faced? What are we to do with the Gospel invitation? Will we accept the invitation? Will we say, “Yes,” to the invitation to work in the vineyard and go? Will we accept the invitation as Francis did or do we send our regrets?


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