A Coin Called Gratitude

(sermon 10/22/17)

denarius - tribute penny

Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

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This morning, we hear another story from Matthew’s gospel, this one immediately following the one we heard last week. At this point in Matthew, tensions are building between Jesus and the various power groups of the time, and this tension is continually building up to the climax point of the story that we all know is coming a just a few chapters later.

In this passage, we’re told that two groups came to Jesus – the Pharisees and the Herodians. It’s an odd coalition, since the Pharisees and the Herodians were political opponents, each vying for power against the other. The Herodians were a political group whose power was derived by their open support of the occupying Roman government. They were the “go along to get along” group within Jewish society. Many people felt that the Herodians were sellouts – that if they could even still be called Jews, they were apostate Jews who had allowed the norms and standards of the day to divert them from the true Jewish faith and what the Jewish scriptures clearly taught, which, presumably, would never permit working with an occupying government. By contrast, the Pharisees derived their power by portraying themselves as the true voice of the people, the supposedly “true,” pure Jews who hadn’t allowed their faith to be distorted by the society around them. In their role, the Pharisees prided themselves on a meticulous, rigorous, highly pietistic observation of the faith. They still pretty much went along with the Roman occupiers, but they gained popularity with the people by at least putting to voice the religious and nationalistic thoughts of the general population before ultimately going along with Rome in the end.

So when it came to the issue of paying the tax mentioned in this story, the groups were really of two different minds. The tax needed to be paid using a particular Roman coin – a denarius. In value, it was a day’s wage for the average worker, the first-century equivalent of Joe Six-Pack. It wasn’t anything big or fancy; in fact, here’s a reproduction of the coin itself – it’s hardly bigger than a modern dime. Being supportive of the Roman government, the Herodians supported paying this tax, considering it just the price we pay for the benefits and protection given by the government, even if it was sometimes heavy-handed. But the Pharisees took the opposite approach, saying people of the Jewish faith shouldn’t be forced to pay this tax – which made them as popular with the people then as any political group who wants to lower your taxes today. The Pharisees’ argument against them having to pay the tax was made on religious grounds. The coin itself bore the image of the emperor, and the inscription that ran around the edge of the coin identified the emperor as divine – which was clearly inconsistent with Jewish belief. The Pharisees argued, then, that for the people to pay this tax using a coin that called the emperor divine would be a violation of their deeply held religious beliefs – it would make them complicit in something that their religion taught them was improper and immoral.

But now, these two opposing groups find a common cause – they’re both feeling the pinch of large numbers of people following Jesus and his teaching, instead of falling in line with one of them. It’s in their mutual interest to find a way to get rid of this upstart. So they come up with this attempt to trap Jesus into saying something that could be used to discredit him. They ask him if it’s right to pay the Roman tax. If he says yes, the people will all turn away from him and hate him. If he says no, then he’s become an enemy of the Roman state, and we all know from history that there was very little future in that.

In the end, Jesus gives them the brilliant answer that we’ve all heard many times. He doesn’t fall for the trap. He rejects the Pharisees’ claim that to pay a tax with the coin that is inscribed with something contrary to their religious beliefs would be inconsistent with their faith. He rejects their argument that to do so would make them complicit in what they perceive as immorality. He simply acknowledges that in this life, there are things that are the emperor’s, and things that are God’s, and we’re responsible for both – but by far, the more important thing for us is not get bogged down with silly, counterproductive arguments, and to focus on giving to God the things that are God’s.

Ever since this story was written, Christians have debated about where that actual divide is. What is the emperor’s – what is the world’s – and what is God’s? What do we owe to our civil government, either in terms of our money or our obedience to civil laws established for the general population which might conflict with our own particular beliefs, and what do we owe to God?

Based on the many times Jesus is quoted in the gospels talking about faithful use of our money, our financial resources, there’s really no question that regardless of how much we might owe the government, we still have an obligation to use our finances in a faithful manner to support the kingdom of God, and most directly, to do so by financially supporting the local congregation in a way that is reflective of our total resources. Someone was said that if a preacher were to preach about money in the same proportion that Jesus is quoted about it, the preacher would deliver 17 sermons about money per year. I’ve never actually checked that statistic, but I suspect it’s probably about right. But don’t worry – I know that if I preached 17 sermons about financially supporting the church per year, you’d run me out of town, so I’m not going to preach that many money sermons – but I am going to preach some, and this is one of them.

You know that we’re in the midst of “Engage,” our annual stewardship campaign. And all through this campaign, you’ve been hearing – and you’re going to hear again today – about some of the amazing and wonderful things about our congregation; the things that should make us really enjoy and be excited about what we’re all about, both in terms of spiritual support and development for those of us who are part of the congregation, as well as in terms of our broader outreach to the community. Springdale is indeed a remarkably active congregation, living out the kingdom of God in both of those directions, and as we truly, prayerfully think about what Springdale means, to the community at large and especially in our own personal lives, we should be grateful to God for this congregation and we should gladly support it financially.

In your stewardship materials that were mailed out to you, you found a “step” chart, that showed how many households were supporting the church at five various levels of giving. I think it’s helpful to see where we ourselves are on those steps in relation to how many are on other steps – and especially, to consider if maybe this is the year that we should step up. Maybe it’s time to step up to the next level on the diagram. Maybe it’s just time to move somewhere up even within the same step, but then maybe next year move into the next level. I can tell you that I’m increasing my pledge this year, and I invite you, I challenge you, to do the same. I’m doing because, yes, I know the pragmatic reality that everything costs money, and every year everything costs more – but mostly, I’m doing it because I know how important this congregation is to my own spiritual life and development.

Being faithful stewards of the financial resources that God has given to us is a very important part of “giving to God what is God’s.” But it’s also important to remember that our time has been given to us by God. And our talents, our skills, our passions, all of these have been given by God. Because of that, we need to be faithful in the giving of those things back to God, too. These are two faces of the same coin, if you will, of giving to God what is God’s, and if the coin in the gospel story is a denarius, maybe we can call this coin “Gratitude” – gratitude for the fullness of the love and mercy that God has blessed us with. That’s exactly why this year, in addition to the standard financial pledge card that came in your stewardship mailing, there’s also the checklist to indicate how you might like to offer your time and talents in service to God. I hope that everyone will fill out both sides of that card, representing both sides of that coin called Gratitude – both sides being important spiritual disciplines that help us to deepen our faith.

In this story, Jesus asks his opponents whose image is the coin created in. For ourselves, we all know whose image we’re created in – God’s. We’re supposed to reflect God’s image in this world. In order to do that, we need to act in ways similar to the one whose image we were created in. And being faithful stewards, with both our money and our time, with both sides of the coin, is how we do that.

Thanks be to God.

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Ugly Words, Scary Story

(sermon 10/15/17)

banquet

Exodus 32:1-14

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!< The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

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Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

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Isn’t this an odd story? Really, when we hear this parable, isn’t it more than a little discomforting? Here’s a story about a king who flies into a fit of rage because people won’t come to a big, lavish party he’s invited them all to, and in his rage, he ends up causing harm, even death, to thousands, and who knows, we don’t know the size of the city, maybe millions of people who haven’t done anything wrong to the king, by obliterating their city, and all because his precious, tender ego had been bruised. Then he sends his people out to bring in other guests – a rental crowd, if you will – just to fill the empty seats and make sure that it looks like the king is great, and very popular, and to give the impression that his wedding party would be the best and biggest one ever. Finally, after bringing in all these new guests, telling them they’re invited and welcome to the party, and the guests all come in under those terms, the king comes in and changes the rules on them after the fact. He throws one of the guests out for not complying with his new rules, throwing him out of the palace and presumably out into the death and destruction of the burning city that the king had destroyed, even though the guest had really been abiding by the rules originally set out for him.

This is an ugly story. And yet, the way most of us have been taught about it over the years is that this parable is an allegorical depiction of what the kingdom of God is like, and that the king in the story represents God. Well, I’m sorry to say this, but I don’t think I buy that. To me, this all sounds a lot more like the pride and ego and capriciousness of the kingdom of this world, not the kingdom of heaven; and the king in the story sounds more like a madman, an egomaniac who wouldn’t deserve respect if he were a human leader in this world, let alone if he were the eternal God of the universe. He clearly doesn’t resemble the God of all love; the God who is portrayed in the scriptures as continually changing his mind in favor of offering mercy to people instead of lashing out in anger, just as we heard in today’s first reading. No, the king in this story doesn’t represent any God that I can comprehend through observing Jesus’ life, and the studying the totality of the scriptures.

Now I will say that I don’t have any doubt that whoever wrote Matthew’s gospel really did mean to portray God in just this way. I’m sure he was trying to portray a God who rejects an initial group of selected people and who will deal harshly with them, and who invites in replacements – but replacements who can’t get too cocky themselves, or they’ll suffer the same fate as the first group. I don’t have any doubt that the writer of this gospel framed this story in a way to denounce and discredit the Jewish religious leaders who rejected Jesus; and to explain, in hindsight, the reason for the Romans’ destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple, which had occurred shortly before this gospel was written. And it was intended to claim that Jesus’ followers – who by now were mostly Gentiles – were now God’s new favored ones. I’m sure that was the author’s intent.

But we need to understand a bit of history here. We need to know that this gospel was written at a time of terrible division and bitterness and hatred between the Jewish orthodoxy and Jesus’ followers, and telling the parable this way was the author’s equivalent of sending a letter or email out to someone when you’re the maddest at them and haven’t had time to take a breath and see things a bit more clearly. It was the equivalent of posting a snarky, hurtful meme on Facebook designed to make your own group look good by trashing and insulting the other side. It’s an ugly, and frankly, counterproductive thing when people do it now, and it was just as ugly and counterproductive when the author of this gospel did it in the first century. And back then, just as it is now, once hurtful, ugly words are spoken, they can’t be unspoken – they take on a life of their own, and the hurt they cause can continue for a long time. Unfortunately, this parable has been used hurtfully up until our own present time by some people to want to justify the worst kinds of prejudice and discrimination and violence against Jewish people. To be honest, I think that not only have this writer’s way of telling this parable been harmful, it’s served to disguise what Jesus may have originally said, and what he’d originally meant.

And we can look at this passage with those critical eyes, you know. The truth is, this same story shows up here in Matthew, and again in Luke, and also in the so-called Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian collection of the sayings of Jesus that wasn’t itself included in the New Testament. And in each of these versions, you can see that the author told some basic, core teaching of Jesus, but each of them told it in a way with some degree of editorial “slant” that emphasized their particular overriding message.

If that’s the case then, what might be a better way for us to hear this parable as it appears in Matthew? Is it possible to strip away some of Matthew’s dangerous and ugly editorial slant, and maybe get closer to what Jesus might really have been saying?  Is there a way to hear the gospel here, and reject the hate?

Well, how about something like this summary: The kingdom of God is indeed like a banquet that God is hosting – a banquet that we begin to enjoy here in this life as we live in relationship with God and with one another, and it continues at this Table as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and it continues into eternity. It will be something indescribably good and wonderful, and God will not allow anything in the world to prevent it from happening. And God invites the famous and the faceless, the great and small, the good and the bad, the acceptable and unacceptable. And finally, as the banquet goes on, God does expect those guests – us guests – to show, with God’s own help, some evidence of lives transformed by this act of immense grace, and welcome, and hospitality on God’s part. This is the great joy, the great hope, that all of us guests have through our faith in Christ, regardless of what the kingdoms of the world and the kings of the world might do to crush our hope.

Maybe that’s a good synopsis of Jesus’ original point. Maybe that’s really the good news that we can get out of this parable, after strippng away the storyteller’s harmful editorializing. I don’t know, what do you think? We all have to reach our own conclusions, I guess, but I think it is, anyway. Because that’s the kind of banquet I hope for – that’s the kind of God that I can put my faith and trust in.

Thanks be to God.

The Untitled Sermon

(sermon 10/8/17)

many candles

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the Lord answered me and said: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”

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Matthew 26:47-52

While Jesus was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

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Sometimes, when you get your Sunday bulletin, you’ll see there isn’t any sermon title listed. That usually means that I just hadn’t come up with what I thought would be a good title by the time the bulletin printing deadline arrived. Today, though, the reason there isn’t a title is that sadly, I’ve preached so many variations of today’s sermon that I’ve just run out of different good titles to use.

It’s been about a week now since the mass shooting in Las Vegas. Since then, we’ve seen what’s now become the all-too-familiar pattern kick into gear like we’re all just following a script. First the shock as we hear the first news reports. Then comes the immediate question, was it Islamic Terrorism – as if the deaths caused by the much more deadly Angry White Man Terrorism is somehow more socially acceptable. Then comes the searching for the terrorist’s motives, and the armchair psychoanalyzing, and filling too many hours of news programming with too little actual information with interviews of the killers’ family and friends and neighbors and third grade teacher, who all say it was a shock, he was such a nice, quiet man who wouldn’t hurt a flea. And then come the demands for more gun control regulation, and then comes the obligatory press release from the NRA, pre-written, ready to go with just the location and death count a fill-in-the-blank. Then come the politicians, who trot out in front of the cameras to say that this is not the time to “politicize” the tragedy, and to piously offer their “thoughts and prayers,” whatever that means to a politician, to the families of the dead and maimed, while wads of gun-lobby money is practically falling out of their overstuffed pockets and onto the floor. And then, after maybe a week and a half, no more than two weeks, filled with live remote reporting and candlelight vigils, the reporters and cameras move on, distracted by the next shiny object in the news cycle, and things generally go back to what we consider normal, and nothing’s changed. Rewind the tape; have it cued up and ready to go in another few months.

So much of this happens because a lot of people have allowed themselves to be sucked into a ridiculous, absolutist reading of the Second Amendment right to own firearms that won’t allow for reasonable limitations. But we know that none of our Constitutional rights is absolute. We know that we have the right to free speech, but we can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We know that we have the right to peaceably assemble, but that the police can still tell us we can assemble on one side of the street but not the other. We know that we have freedom of religion, but we still can’t use our personal religious beliefs to deny other people their own Constitutional rights and equal protection under the law.

We’re so far past the time that we need tighter controls on possession of firearms in this country that I feel stupid even saying it. The rest of the world looks at us, and rightly so, as if we’re crazy, being willing to allow this kind of insane gun worship to continue, being willing to allow the death toll to keep rising and rising, being willing to live in a society where it’s harder to buy three boxes of Sudafed than three semiautomatic rifles. We constantly hear “Guns don’t kill people; *people* kill people!” without someone saying “Right! *People* kill people, so we need to keep guns out of the hands of *those* people!” Instead of that, in the upside-down world we live in today, we pass laws that actually make it easier – not harder, but *easier* – for the mentally disabled to buy guns.

We’re all good Americans; we all value and honor and respect our Constitutional rights. We’re good citizens of the United States. But as Christians, we’re citizens of the Kingdom of God first. We’re a people whose scriptures, whose sacred texts, are full of calls for peace, and injunctions against violence, as in the two texts we heard this morning, and there are countless others. The truth is that there is simply no scriptural justification whatsoever for our gun-saturated mentality, and we wonder what a Christian response should be to it all. Yes, we mourn when these tragic events happen. Yes, we organize candlelight vigils, and we offer our sincere, heartfelt thoughts and prayers. But we can’t just stop there, because when it comes to matters of faith and living as God’s people, we know, as we said just last week, that talk is cheap – and to be honest, prayers are cheap too, if that’s all we do when we can, and should, do more. We know that we’re called in this life to promote God’s way, and God’s way is most definitely not the way of violence – that as Jesus said, those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

We know as a key tenet of our faith that while laws will help, no law will ever solve all of this problem, which is deeply rooted in the human condition, and in our human brokenness. That brokenness leads us to hate one another. To envy what someone else has that we don’t. To want vengeance whenever we’re wronged. At the center of this brokenness is fear. Fear that someone will hurt us. Fear of uncertainty. Fear that others won’t respect our human dignity and worth. Fear for our security. Fear of death, and what awaits us beyond.

Friends, as followers of Christ, we’re called to not give into this fear, to not be part of this culture of violence and death. We’re called to opt out of all that because we worship a God who casts out all fear. We worship a God who offers us the peace that surpasses all understanding, the real, lasting peace that doesn’t come from the end of a gun. Our rock and our salvation is God, not a roomful of people with concealed-carry permits. Our security is Christ beside us, before us, and behind us; not body armor and an AR-15 with a bump stock.

It is absolutely, factually undeniable that our country’s unhealthy obsession with guns has been counterproductive – it hasn’t made us more secure, more safe, it’s made us less so. As Christians, God has called us to love one another, and to care for one another, and to do whatever we can to keep people from harm. In living out that call, all of us – from the most liberal Democrat to the most conservative Republican; from the avid hunter and sportsman and recreational target shooter – and I’m one of them myself; I’ve enjoyed recreational shooting at various times in my life – to the most anti-gun, never-touched-a-gun, never-want-to-touch-a-gun urban cliff-dweller – *all* of us – can agree that the supposed security that comes from the proliferation of guns has shown itself to be a lie. It’s a false security that produces only human carnage and destruction for many, and profit for a few. All of us can all agree that there are reasonable, common sense regulations that would respect our Second Amendment rights, while still preventing many of these senseless acts of evil. As a matter of faith, we all need to stand up against the current situation, against the big-money lobbyists and dealers of death, and simply say “Enough Is Enough!” – which, if I hadn’t already used it, would have been a good title for this sermon.

Thanks be to God.

Talk Is Cheap

(sermon 10/1/17 – World Communion Sunday)

yes no maybe

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

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As a Lenten study series this coming year, Cathy L______ is going to do an educational offering on the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity. I’m sure it’s going to be an interesting and informative session, and I hope you’ll try to attend it when it comes around. Once, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Give me five minutes with a man’s checkbook, and I’ll tell you what he really believes.” Momentarily putting aside the male bias in the words, which just reflect the age he was writing in, and the fact that the youngest generation of adults today has probably never even had a checkbook, I think the point still comes through – that the way a person spends their money, and even more broadly, the things that they actually do, illustrates what they really believe, far more accurately than what they might say they believe.

There’s a lot of that same idea in Jesus’ words in today’s gospel text. In this lesson, Jesus is in the middle of yet another confrontation with a group of religious leaders who aren’t happy with what he’s been teaching. A lot of what he’s said runs counter to their teachings, and in this exchange, they’re trying to pick him apart, to get him to say something that contradicts their official orthodoxy that they can then use to discredit him. And after a brief back-and-forth battle over words, Jesus tells this short story about a man with two sons; the first one says he’ll do what the Father wants, and then doesn’t do it; and the second one says he won’t do what the Father wants, but ultimately goes ahead and does it anyway; and that it’s the second son who was pleasing in the Father’s eyes. He tells the story to make his point clear: having and saying the right words is all well and good, but what really matters – what actually accomplishes the will of the Father, to use Jesus’ terminology – is actually doing the right things, carrying out the intentions behind the words. In this little exchange, Jesus is saying, in essence, that talk is cheap If those words aren’t enfleshed, if their meaning isn’t made real in the world, then the words are meaningless at best, and just weapons used to divide us at worst.

This is an idea that goes to the very heart of our faith. We say that in the beginning, before even the beginning of measurable time, was the Word – the creative power and essence and wisdom of God, and that God knew that the best way for us human beings to understand God, and God’s will, is for that eternal, spiritual Word to become enfleshed – so that we could see, and know, firsthand, what all the written words about God that only partially and imperfectly pointed toward God, actually were trying to say.

Of course, those religious leaders who were trying to trip Jesus up with words were far from the last to go down that path. The divisions across the full spectrum of the Christian faith over words, over theological jots and tittles run deep. We’ve argued, and divided over, issues like what precisely, scientifically, is happening when we celebrate and embrace the mystery of Communion, the Lord’s Supper. Or whether Jesus is divine and eternally coexistent, uncreated, with God the Father; or divine, but still nevertheless created by God the Father. Or whether the Holy Spirit emanates “from the Father,” or “from the Father and the Son.” Or whether, if God is supposedly trinitarian, how that works – are those making up the Trinity “beings” or “persons;” or are they distinct “parts” of God that only together make up God; or if they’re really just like “masks,” or parts in a play, that the same, unitary God just appears through at various points in time.

Did you keep up with all that? Probably not. And yet, we Christians have debated, and divided, and argued, and excommunicated, and tortured, and killed, and fought wars over those exact things. And just as bad, we didn’t limit our awful behavior to just other Christians. We persecuted people of other religious faiths, and those of no religious faith, because they didn’t accept the correctness of our own particular Christian theology – because they had their own “words” for defining how to love and serve God and humanity, and how they fit into the universe. And through all of our division and dissension and especially the violence over words, God must have been disgusted and heartbroken – and must still be when we do the same things today.

Jesus didn’t say in his story that words aren’t important. They are. It’s a good and proper and important thing for us to try to understand and comprehend God as deeply and correctly as we can with our words. But as Jesus points out here, having the right words isn’t enough. What matters most is whether we’re putting our words to use, to advance God’s will for us, and for this world. And taking that one step further, if we are putting our words, our beliefs into practice, and they aren’t really achieving God’s intentions, then maybe we don’t have the right words, the right beliefs, at all.

Today is World Communion Sunday. It’s a time when Christians across a wide spectrum of theologies and beliefs – a wide spectrum of words – all commit to come together to celebrate Communion – the Lord’s Supper – on the same day, as a sign of unity in God’s Spirit. It’s a statement that regardless of the details of our words, we’re committed, together, to do the will of the Father in the world – to love God with all of our essence; to love all people as we love ourselves. To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. World Communion Sunday is a global joint statement that as a tenet of our common faith, talk is cheap without follow-through.

And this Sunday, we need to recognize that while World Communion Sunday is a particularly Christian observance, its message of us turning our words into actions doesn’t stop at the threshold of Christianity. God’s will is that we extend those same loving and gracious and accepting attitudes to all people, because we’re all God’s people, regardless of our particular religious beliefs – regardless of our “words.” In a number of ways, through a number of Springdale’s different mission initiatives funded through our annual general offering – through our “checkbook,” thinking back to C.S. Lewis’ comment – we’re trying to do exactly that.

A man had two sons. Or three. Or three thousand, or seven and a half billion billion. The number wasn’t important. What was important wasn’t what any of them might say, because he knew that at any given time they were likely to say just about anything, and at one time or another, probably have. His question was “Regardless of the words, will they do what I want them to do? Will they love one another? Will they accept one another? Will they treat one another with justice and always strive for peace? Because whatever they might say or not say, *that’s* what pleases me. *That’s* what makes them my children.”

So will they do it? Will we?

Thanks be to God.