Today’s activities at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Greene, Iowa, also included the high school group beginning to watch the movie, Luther in the morning, and then cleaning the Highway 14 ditch in the afternoon followed by pizza and bowling. We also started a new adult study on Luther’s Small Catechism, By Heart.
Here’s today’s sermon:
Is it better to believe, or to obey? Can you believe without obeying? Or can you obey without believing?
Before we get to these questions from today’s reading, though, it’s important to know what comes before the story we just heard. When the chief priests and the elders ask Jesus about his authority for doing these things, what things are they talking about?
The lectionary readings skipped over it, but this story takes place in Matthew during holy week, right after Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, surrounded by cheering crowds. Then, he went to the temple and overturned the money changers’ tables, protesting corruption and exploitation in God’s house. He’s stirring things up, and the religious leaders, the ones benefiting from the corruption, they want him to stop.
However, they can’t confront him directly. Remember, he’s being followed by large crowds, and they don’t want to start a riot. So, they try to trick him, and it goes about as well as you’d expect tricking Jesus would go.
Jesus sidesteps the question and like any good Jewish rabbi, he responds with his own question. His accusers are afraid to answer, so they let him off the hook.
But Jesus isn’t done. Instead of letting them try to come up with another way to trap him, he tells them a parable. Sometimes, Jesus’ parables are complicated and hard to decipher. This one, though, is pretty straightforward.
When you’re told to do something, is it more obedient to say you’ll do it and not do it, or to say you won’t do it and then do? Obviously, obedience requires actually doing what you’re asked, not just saying you will. It’s a pretty pointed attack on the corrupt religious leaders who claim to believe, but don’t act accordingly.
But it’s not just an attack on them; it’s a challenge to us too. We in the church are insiders. Usually, we’re closer to the chief priests and the elders than we are to the tax collectors and the prostitutes. We talk about what we believe a lot, don’t we? We say it every week in worship, and I’m pretty confident if someone asked you if you were a Christian, you’d say yes. That’s the easy part. The harder part is letting that change your life as a disciple.
Remember, what’s at stake here is not salvation. That’s God’s job. God has claimed you in the waters of baptism. In Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection, your sins are forgiven.
Like we talked about last week, God’s love is not based on anything you do. You can’t make God stop loving you.
Even in the story, where one of the sons is clearly a hypocrite, Jesus doesn’t say he’s condemned. He just says he’s disobedient. Jesus doesn’t even condemn the high priests and elders trying to trap him. He simply says, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Ahead of, not instead of. Salvation and God’s love are not at stake here.
What is at stake, though, is what we do with that. We’re heard the good news. We know we’ve been forgiven. We know Jesus has been raised from the dead. We know we don’t need to fear death.
One of the speakers I heard this last week at the tri-synodical conference in Des Moines, Pastor Anna Madsen, put it like this: “When we know death doesn’t win, we know there are better things to do with our lives than merely preserve them.”
Jesus challenges the kind of religion that only matters for a little under an hour on Sunday morning. I don’t think any of us want that kind of faith anyway, because what good does it do?
What good does believing in Jesus’ resurrection do if it doesn’t change anything in your life? What good does faith do if it doesn’t affect the causes you advocate for, or the people you care about?
This is tricky for Lutherans, I think, because we emphasize God’s grace so much. Nothing we do can add to the work God has already done. You are already forgiven. Jesus has promised eternal life to you. We can’t overstate the importance of believing that. But what difference does your belief make in this world?
God has redeemed you and claimed you and called you to live a life of faith, a life that serves the world God loves, a life that makes a difference for others. I hope that you’re here today because you’ve heard the good news and you want to respond. I hope you’re here because you want to answer God’s call to live for something greater than what this world has to offer.
Jesus challenges the idea that you’re part of the church simply because your parents were, or because we live in an area where most people identify as Christian. I once heard a speaker put it like this: “Being born into a Christian nation doesn’t make you a Christian any more than being born in a McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.”
Living as a Christian, living as a follower of Christ isn’t something anyone else can do for you.
The reading from Ezekiel talks about this too. In that reading, the Lord says to stop repeating this proverb, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Children will not be held guilty for the sins of their parents. Instead, everyone is responsible for their own behavior, for their own actions.
The good news in this parable is that it’s never too late to respond to God’s grace. It’s never too late to change the way you live. Look at the obedient son in the story. He began by rejecting his father’s instructions. Then later, he changed his mind and obeyed. That’s repentance.
The Holy Spirit keeps working on all of us throughout our lives, keeps calling us to repent and to follow Christ.
Maybe you’re someone who has said you’d obey, who’s made the commitments of faith to live the way God calls you to, but you struggle to do it. I think that’s all of us sometimes. Or maybe you’re much more skeptical of this whole faith thing, but you’re here for someone else’s sake.
Either way, God hasn’t given up on you, and it’s never too late. Will you trust God enough to live as a disciple? Will you take risks, trusting that God is faithful?
I don’t know exactly what living in response to the Gospel looks like for you. I suspect it looks different for each of us, because God calls us to different vocations. We’re given the basic instructions of loving God, loving our neighbors, serving the world, and sharing the good news, but God doesn’t lay out a detailed plan for each of us.
Living in response to the Gospel affects everything. It’s financial, the way we use our money to serve God and love our neighbors. It’s the way we spend our time, choosing to do things that are worthwhile, to invest in relationships and family and community, rather than just wasting time.
It’s the way we treat others, the way we treat family, or classmates, or people at work, or people of the other political party. It’s making the choice to stand against injustice, to be a blessing to our neighbors.
Jesus tells us the obedient son went and did the work of his father. He doesn’t tell us what precisely that work was.
At the risk of reducing your response to a single piece of the Christian life, I do want to shift gears for a minute and talk about worship.
Worship is only one piece of the way we respond to the Gospel, but really, worship is at the heart of our life together as God’s people. Worship is where we gather to refocus each week on how we’re called to live, where we hear again and again about the good news of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.
Worship is not a spectator sport that you come to sit and watch and be entertained (I’m not that entertaining!); it’s something we all do together. We listen to the word together. We pray together. We sing together. We gather around a table together. And each service needs lots of people involved to make it happen.
In your bulletin, you’ll find an insert with 10 different ways you can be involved. (Here’s a PDF of the survey: Worship Servants Survey Bulletin Insert) You can mark as many as you want, but I hope every single person here will mark at least one.
Some of these require some specific skills, but most of them, anyone can do. If you’ve never done one, that’s ok. We’re working to be a lot more intentional about providing training. If it’s not a good fit, that’s ok, you’re committing to try it, not to do the same role for the rest of your life.
Take a minute now to fill out that sheet. Write down your name, mark a worship service time, and whatever role you’re willing to try.
I invite you to join me in a word of prayer: Good and gracious God, we trust that you are alive. We believe Jesus has been raised from the dead, that death has been defeated, and that we’ve been set free.
Send your Holy Spirit to fill us, to guide us, and to inspire us to change the way we live. Show us how you are calling us to respond in our lives to your loving grace, and give us the strength to respond. When we fail, forgive us and call us back again and again, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.