Lost and Found
The Rev. Judith Freeman Clark (Episcopal)
The story in todays Gospel challenges us to understand and accept two simple
truths: a truth about ourselves, and a truth about God.
In this story, two sons have an opportunity to serve their father in his vineyard. One
agrees readily to do this work, but doesnt ever get around to it. The other says,
" and rejects the offer. But he changes his mind and goes to
work in the vineyard after all.
The son who acts agreeable and cooperative is, in reality, a louse. He has no
commitment, he has no follow-through. Although he seems good at saying the right thing,
hes simply a "yes" man. Anxious to agree, eager to say whatever his father
wants to hear.
Then theres the son who says, "No." He appears to be a lazy
good-for-nothing. Whats going on when he rejects his fathers offer to work in
the vineyard? We dont know. Whatever it is, though, we can tell that work in the
vineyard holds no appeal for this young man.
The hinge on which this parable turns is not merely words. The truth about ourselves is
found in action or the lack of action.
The son who says, "Yes, Ill go," is struck by a major case of sloth, or
worse. (Maybe he was even lying when he said "Yes...")
Conversely, the son we think of as lazy, the one who says, "Nope!" goes,
later, to work in the vineyard. This son had a change of heart, and his later actions show
that he really did honor his fathers request.
Id like to tell you another story. Maybe you ve heard it before.
In the mid-18th century, there was a young Englishman who had grown up in difficult
circumstances. His mother died when he was young, he was a poor student. His father
worried about him and finally got his son a job at sea. The boy was later impressed into
the Royal Navy, he tried to run away, and was flogged. He had turned into a pretty bad
After his stint in the Navy, he became captain of a slave ship. He was only 23 years
old but he was tough. He lived life "on the edge," was well-known for his rough
language and his brutal treatment of his human cargo.
After years of successful trips, during which he earned a great deal of money, his ship
ran into rough weather. In fact, it was such a bad storm the crew and the captain thought
all was lost. At the height of the crisis, the captain looked around. He thought of the
money he would forfeit if the ship went down. He knew that, in all probability, he would
Uncharacteristically, he said to the crew, "Well, if nothing can be done, Lord
have mercy upon us." Then he went to his cabin, assuming the end was near.
Do you know what happened?
Well, the ship wasnt lost at sea. And the captain didnt lose his life. At
least, not in actuality. But something did change for him after the night that as he stood
on the deck and called upon Gods mercy. The captains name was John Newton. He
subsequently gave up slave-trading. He studied to be a priest in the Church of England.
After his ordination, while serving in his first parish, in Olney, Buckinghamshire, he
started writing hymns.
A few years later, in 1778, John Newton wrote these words in his journal:
"How industriously is Satan served. I was formerly one of his active
under-temptors and had my influence been equal to my wishes, I would have carried all the
human race with me. A common drunkard or profligate is a petty sinner to what I was. I had
the ambition of a Caesar or an Alexander. I wanted to rank in wickedness among the
foremost of the human race. Oh, to grace how great a debtor!"
John Newton was the author of one of our churchs best-loved hymns Amazing Grace.
He wrote out of his own experience, knowing that hed once said, "No," to
God. That hed been lost but that that God had, indeed, found and
brought him home.
The basic truth about human behavior which todays Gospel underscores is this: we
are notoriously good at nodding our heads, agreeing with God, saying "Yes," to
things and then falling down on the job.
Were also very adept at ignoring what God wants us to do. Too frequently,
were really good at saying, "No" to God, just like the son in the parable.
Just like John Newton, during his years as a slave trader.
Jesus knew this truth about human behavior, which is one reason he told the parable of
the two sons. He wanted to be sure that we understand: its not just what we say that
counts. Action, follow-through, behavior is what matters.
Saying "Yes," without doing anything about it is the opposite of Gods
call for us. Saying, "No," to God can be a rejection of Gods call
but, often, its only a temporary rejection. Like John Newton,
weve all been there. Weve all, at one time or another, said "No," to
God, done things we know are misguided or just plain wrong. Or weve said,
"Yes!" (hoping to sound correct and agreeable) and then weve done nothing.
I started out by saying there are two truths in todays Gospel. Each of us knows well
the truth about human behavior because we struggle with it every day.
The second truth, the truth about God in todays Gospel story, is this: God loves
us unconditionally. God loves us so much that God gives us free will. God has graced us
with an ability to know our own strengths and weaknesses. And God has given us the freedom
to call upon either strength or weakness. God leaves the choice to us.
The parent in the Gospel story was poorly served by the child who said, obediently,
"Yes," and then did nothing. The vineyard did not benefit from well-intentioned,
but ineffectual, words of agreement.
The parent in the Gospel story was more faithfully honored by the child who at first
said, "No," but then changed his mind.
God was faithfully honored by John Newton a real good-for-nothing
a mean-spirited man, driven by the thought of earning money through trade in
human lives. Yet John Newton was a man who changed his life and thereafter devoted himself
faithfully to serving God and Gods vineyard.
God isnt looking for "Yes" men or "Yes" women who say the
"right" thing but never get around to doing it.
God is looking for people like you and me. Real people. Ordinary people. People who
have the courage, honesty, and humility to admit theyve messed up with the free will
thing. God is looking for people who have said "No,"
God wants us to reconsider, to turn our lives around. And God gives us a promise: God
is always there, waiting for us, whenever we decide were ready to be found.
Let us pray
Dear God, we know that "through many dangers, toils and snares, weve already
come." Help us, please, to know that its your "grace that has brought us
safe thus far." And help us, please, to remember no matter how far we
stray or how many times we say "No!" that your "grace will lead
The Rev. Judith Freeman Clark St. Andrews Church New London, New Hampshire
September 26, 1999