Changing the Scaffolding
Ez. 18:1-4,25-32; Psalm 25:3-9; Phil. 2:1-13; Mt. 21:28-32
Next week is "Bring A Friend Sunday." Now, bringing a friend to church is
ALWAYS a good idea, but next week weve been called to be intentional about it.
Well have special nametags, extra goodies at coffee hour, new displays on the
bulletin boards ... much like getting our home ready when company comes, were
getting St. Peters 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 were 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, Id like to frame
our thoughts around that question: just what kind of church is this?
First of all, its the kind of church that believes in love. Its 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,
youll 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 whos
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 todays 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 doesnt say how long afterward. It doesnt 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. Thats
what kind of church this is.
What else can we tell about this church from our lessons today? Its a church that
inherits a tradition of challenging the tradition. Sound confusing? Lets 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 childrens 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.
Its 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.
Its 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 couldnt 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 its done. Well, if what were 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 isnt 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 dont 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, its sturdy and its strong -- but its also flexible and
adjustable ... just like good scaffolding needs to be.
Of course we have our share of "But weve always done it that ways ..."
but have we really? If were 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
The Seventh of the Ten Commandments originally applied only to married women: it
wasnt adultery if the man was married and the woman wasnt . It was changed to
include both men and women -- revising what many have believed was literally "etched
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 Churchs national
legislature: the General Convention -- overcoming objections based in scripture quotes
from Galatians and Titus.
Integration in the 70s ... the ordination of women in the 80s ... it
becomes clear very quickly that theres very little weve "always done that
way" ... becomes clear that the God whose power is declared chiefly in showing mercy
and pity isnt 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 doesnt change ... if the scaffolding cant be re-arranged ... we
arent being faithful to Gods call.
"We did then what we knew how to do. When we knew better, we did better."
Thats 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!