Sunday's Sermon -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
I grew up in Berks County, Pennsylvania, home of the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch people. These are not to be confused with the Amish of nearby Lancaster County – the Amish are “plain” people, known for their horses and buggies and other 18th century ways and simple lifestyle.
Pennsylvania Dutch people are not from Holland but are Germans who came to the Berks County, Pennsylvania area more than two centuries ago. When asked who they were, they answered “Deitsch,” the word for German in their native German language. Deitsch was immediately mistranslated and became “Dutch” and the term stuck. A German-related dialect language called “Pennsylvania Dutch” was used widely in that area, at least until World War I when anything German became suspect. I never mastered the language, but I certainly heard it. Most of the language has now disappeared but much of the culture is still around. And, you have got to like a culture in which Groundhog Day is the major holiday of the year!
I thought of the Pennsylvania Dutch people when I read today’s Gospel lesson from St. Matthew, especially Jesus’ story of the man with two sons. As a pastor serving in that area of Pennsylvania, I could always count on many, if not most, of my members to be like that first son. When asked to do something, they would often say “no” or, at least, hesitate or not even respond. And then, most often, they would do as I had requested. Quietly. Just like the first son in Jesus’ parable. It was very frustrating until I figured out that, for whatever reason, it was cultural and had nothing to do with me or anyone else. I just had to wait and most things would get quietly done.
In today’s Gospel lesson from St. Matthew, Jesus has just argued with the chief priests and scribes and put them in their place, so to speak. Jesus knows that his authority has come from God. The chief priests and scribes do not want to recognize Jesus’ authority, this but they also are afraid to suggest otherwise because they know the people love Jesus. So they are silent. Jesus catches them in their unwillingness to respond.
Then Jesus tells the quick parable of the man with two sons. One son says he will not work in his father’s vineyard, but then does. The other son agrees to work in his father’s vineyard but then does not.
We do not know why the first son changed his mind and did as his father had asked, a request he had first refused – perhaps he had another commitment or was feeling overwhelmed by everything in life, perhaps he was annoyed at his father for asking for help. Perhaps his father had asked one too many times.
For whatever reason, the first son changes his mind and helps his father. For this son, the future is now more open. He can respond to his father’s request and invitation. As he responds, the first son proves himself faithful to his father’s request and invitation. He can live in his father’s hopes for him.
And we all know people like both of the sons in Jesus’ story, people who say they will do something and do not do it and others who, like the Pennsylvania Dutch, say they will not do something, but then do it anyway!
Jesus tells this story to make a very important point – the future is open for those who follow Jesus.
This is a pivotal moment for Jesus in St. Matthew – Jesus is inviting his adversaries and friends into an open future, one not dominated by arguments and opposition of the past, but one that is open to the movement of God’s spirit to heal, revive, restore, to make “all things new.” The chief priests and scribes do not, perhaps cannot, accept Jesus’ invitation – they have too much at stake in the past – it has created their primary identity and, whatever its limitations, they have become dependent on this identity. They refuse to trade that past for a more open future.
But those who followed Jesus, people who were often the poor and marginalized of Jesus’ day, people like “tax collectors and prostitutes,” as today’s text tells us, these people do realize that the identity created by their past does not bring them life. These folks grab hold of Jesus’ promise of a new, open future.
And, today, Jesus makes that same promise to us. No matter what we have done, not matter what may have been done to us, the future, our future, is still open. Whatever hurt we may have experienced or done in the past is, ultimately, in the past. We do not have to allow it to determine or dominate our future. We do not have to drag our past on our back like a snail drags its shell. We are, finally, more than the sum total of all that has happened to us. We are more than the sum total of all that has happened to us. The future is open. It may be hard to let go of the past and walk into the future. No question about that. The past, after all, we at least know, and even our dysfunctional identities are at least familiar, whereas the future is so open that it can be scary.
It is easy to move from “the future is open for those who follow Jesus” to accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. But, I see this text as less about our decision to follow Jesus, as important as that is, and more about God’s reaching out, once again, to us. God, the author of all life, regularly invites us into a new relationship with him. God will not count our past deeds, mistakes, griefs or hurts against us. God refuses to define us by what we do, have done, or by what has been done to us, but instead regards us always and only as God’s beloved children.
And, this also takes us back to the first part of today’s Gospel lesson from St. Matthew, to Jesus’ question about authority – to what do we give authority in and control over our lives? If, in Jesus, our future is open, then we can move beyond what we have given authority to in the past and let go of what might be holding us back from a more open future.
We are in the midst of our annual fall congregation cottage meetings, a chance to think and talk about our congregation’s past and, more importantly, our congregation’s future. The same questions Jesus asks of us personally can apply to our congregation: What is holding our congregation back from a more open future? Can we look beyond the past? Can we look to a more open future? What do we need to provide for worship, programs and facilities so that our congregation will grow in faith and, hopefully, in worship attendance? This congregation has a wonderful past, but now is the time to move beyond that past into a hopeful future, with the positive assurance that God is still, is always, with us, to love and guide us as both individuals and a congregation.
Scholar David Lose suggests that, in our personal lives, we should reflect on to whom or what we have given authority in the past in ways that do not serve life. Perhaps we should call to mind those elements of our past, things we have done or things that have been done to us, those things we regret or resent – all of that and consign it all to the past, no longer giving those things authority over our lives. Lose suggests that, based today’s text, we should walk into a future not defined by regret or hurt or resentment, but instead a future grounded in God’s promise to be with us and for us forever.
Now, I want to take just a moment to talk with those of you who have experienced abuse in your lives – those who have been abused by parents or spouses or friends or strangers.
First of all, if you are in an abusive relationship, please get out NOW. It will not get better. There are resources to help you. Vicar Scott and I and others will help you.
And, for those of you who have experienced abuse in the past, today’s text is for you! Jesus is inviting you to begin to move beyond a past of hurt and regret and resentment into a more hopeful future grounded in God’s promise. God promises us all, but especially those of you have been abused by others or society, a more hopeful future. You CAN take the first step toward moving beyond your past. And, if you do, you can be assured of God’s love for you every day, all days.
Perhaps this is summed up in this prayer, also suggested by Dr. Lose:
“Dear God, we often allow things from our past to dominate our present and close off our future. But you have promised that you love us no matter what, and so we offer our hurts, regrets, and resentments to you, trusting that you already know them and love us anyway. Help us to believe about ourselves what you believe about us: that we are worthy of love and respect. And help us to treat others as you have treated us: as those who deserve love and respect. All this we ask in the name of Jesus, the one who died on the cross to show the depths of your love for us all.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California