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Changing the Scaffolding
Ez. 18:1-4,25-32; Psalm 25:3-9; Phil. 2:1-13; Mt. 21:28-32
Bishop Rev. Susan Russell

Next week is "Bring A Friend Sunday." Now, bringing a friend to church is ALWAYS a good idea, but next week we’ve been called to be intentional about it. We’ll have special nametags, extra goodies at coffee hour, new displays on the bulletin boards ... much like getting our home ready when company comes, we’re getting St. Peter’s ready to welcome visitors who will come to see what kind of church this is.

The lessons appointed for today tell us a lot about where we come from -- as well as where I believe we’re called to go. And before we can really welcome others into our tradition, it seems to me that it makes some sense to remind ourselves just who we are and were we come from ... as well as how we got here! So this morning, I’d like to frame our thoughts around that question: just what kind of church is this?

First of all, it’s the kind of church that believes in love. It’s a church that celebrates its relationship with a God whose almighty power is declared "chiefly in showing mercy and pity" ... in the words of the Collect of the Day -- the prayer that opened our worship this morning. If you listen to Channel 40 ... check out the street corner preachers ... or venture into the Y2K hysterics of some of the millenialists, you’ll hear a lot about wrath, judgment and persecution -- and not much talk of mercy and pity. A lot more about fear than about hope.

This is a church that believes that the essential quality of God is love; so what have we to fear? "Nothing can separate us from the love of God" the scripture assures us. Even our mistakes. Even when we get it "wrong."

"Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to our love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord."

Words from the Psalm this morning. Words of hope and encouragement to anyone who’s ever needed a second chance. God forever offers us a second ... and a third ... and a fourth ... a seven-times-seventieth. Our job is to trust God enough to take it! That, I believe, is Jesus’ message in the story about the two sons in today’s Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said: A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, "Son, go work in the vineyard today." And he answered , "I will not"; but afterward he repented and went." It doesn’t say how long afterward. It doesn’t say why he changed his mind. But he did. As Maya Angelou once told a woman who had come to her for spiritual direction, agonizing over past mistakes and decisions: "You did then what you knew how to do. When you knew better, you did better."

Like the first son in the parable, she had a second chance and took it.

This is a church for people who are looking for second -- third -- fourth chances. People who have been turned off by the rhetoric of judgment and exclusion and are looking for the Gospel of love and mercy. People who are looking for a church that has relevance for the lives they live and a community to support their journey into faith. That’s what kind of church this is.

What else can we tell about this church from our lessons today? It’s a church that inherits a tradition of challenging the tradition. Sound confusing? Let’s look at Ezekiel for a moment. "The Word of the Lord came to me again: "What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel."

What we need to know about the culture Ezekiel lived in -- about the tradition he challenges here -- is that the proverb he was rejecting was a cornerstone of how Israel understood itself in relationship to God. If bad things were happening ... and at the time Ezekiel wrote, yet another conquest of Israel was about to occur ... they looked to "the sins of their fathers" for the cause of the ills around them. It was right there in scripture! Yet Ezekiel challenged that understanding -- asking them to reject the tradition ... and look to their own actions and faithfulness ... not their fathers’. It’s an important shift in the history of Israel -- the beginning of a shift from a purely corporate to an individual understanding of salvation. A shift that happened because Ezekiel listened to the Word of the Lord ... and challenged the status quo.

It’s a story Jesus would have known -- maybe even one he taught in the temple the day he told this parable of the two sons. We hear it as a Gospel Lesson told in isolation from the rest of the 21st Chapter of Matthew, yet it sits smack dab in the middle of what amounts to a knock-down drag out confrontation between Jesus and chief priests and scribes in the Temple at Jerusalem. It comes just after the triumphal entry into the City on Palm Sunday ... immediately after he has tossed over the tables of the moneychangers and driven them from the Temple.

At this point the chief priests have had it -- and come to him asking, "What authority have you for acting like this? And who gave you this authority?" In response to their questions, he gives them a riddle they cannot answer, and when they reply "We do not know", Jesus tells them "Nor will I tell you my authority for acting like this."

Talk about "in your face"! Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the two sons ... which clearly illustrates that the tax collectors and the prostitutes -- the second, third and fourth chance folks -- were going to make it into heaven before these pillars of the community ... these leaders of the Temple. For they could hear and respond to the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. In the end, the Pharisees had too much at stake in their own authority and in their own control of the religious institution -- they would have to lose everything in order to receive the kingdom. And they just couldn’t go there. Having given their whole lives over to their view of God, they have too much invested in the old ways to consider Jesus’ radical call to new life in the Kingdom of God. It reminds me of an illustration I once heard about the Kingdom of God as a building -- a BIG building. And what it takes to build a big building is a lot of scaffolding: the outside framework that supports the building until it’s done. Well, if what we’re called to build is the Kingdom of God, then the church is like the scaffolding -- what supports us for that work. The problem is, if we get to spending too much time focusing on the scaffolding, the building isn’t getting built! We can forget what our primary task is -- and become so invested in maintaining the institution, the tradition, the external aspects of our "scaffolding" that we neglect to build the kingdom ... to work in the vineyard ... like the second son in the parable ... who said he would go but did not. Got too distracted rearranging the stones on the wall surrounding the vineyard to work IN it? We don’t know.

What we do know is that when we challenge the church to live us to its mission and vision, then we walk in the footsteps of Ezekiel and Jesus of Nazareth ... we inherit the tradition of challenging the tradition.The Good News is that this is a tradition ... a church ... that -- at its best -- is pretty darn good scaffolding. Set on a firm foundation, it’s sturdy and it’s strong -- but it’s also flexible and adjustable ... just like good scaffolding needs to be.

Of course we have our share of "But we’ve always done it that ways ..." but have we really? If we’re going to either defend our challenge our tradition, first we have to understand it ... and in reasearching this sermon this week, I came across a list that I found most informative. Called "The Anglican Future", the writer begins by noting that "since the time of Christ, the Church has always been changing.

The Seventh of the Ten Commandments originally applied only to married women: it wasn’t adultery if the man was married and the woman wasn’t . It was changed to include both men and women -- revising what many have believed was literally "etched in stone."

The Book of Acts chronicles how -- after much debate -- the infant Church decided that gentiles could become Christians. In the early church, members held all property in common ... and then the Church changed away from that.

The doctrine of the Trinity -- one of the foundations of the faith -- did not begin to develop until 150 and was (more or less!) clarified by the Council of Nicea in 325 ... with some revisions at the Council of Chalcedon in 451

Marriage was not considered a sacrament by the western church until 1215. At the time it was a radical, new and contested concept. The idea of marriage as a sacrament was only about 150 years old -- and yet we hold it as "how it's always been."

In more recent times, re-marriage became permissable in the Episcopal Church in the 1950s -- in spite of specific scriptural prohibitions against it. And in the 1960s, for the first time blacks and women could serve in the Episcopal Church’s national legislature: the General Convention -- overcoming objections based in scripture quotes from Galatians and Titus.

Integration in the 70’s ... the ordination of women in the 80’s ... it becomes clear very quickly that there’s very little we’ve "always done that way" ... becomes clear that the God whose power is declared chiefly in showing mercy and pity isn’t finished with us yet. As we labor here in the vineyard to build the kingdom, God calls the church to be and do different things in different ages. If the Church doesn’t change ... if the scaffolding can’t be re-arranged ... we aren’t being faithful to God’s call.

"We did then what we knew how to do. When we knew better, we did better." That’s us ... a church based in love, claiming the tradition, open to change. A church you can be proud to "Bring A Friend" to next Sunday. See you then! Alleluia. Amen.