A sermon preached to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on September 27, 2020 the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.
Today’s cover has on it a painting from the 19th century of a minstrel – a person who went around entertaining the nobility by reciting stories, and setting them to music. Notice the details in the painting that tell a story of its own – the way people are dressed. The shade of their skin. The way they are physically positioned. Notice the elements of the scene – the stone street, the items thrown to the side on the left, the stone steps, the dark hallway in the background. The position of the wooden bench, drawing a line between the nobility and the minstrel. What kind of a story is it telling you?
I’d like to talk about stories today.
What is your story? What do you say when someone says, “Tell me about yourself”? What is the story you tell to other people? Is it different than the story you tell yourself? Who are the main characters in your story?
And what is your story of God? How does that relate to the story we hear from scripture?
Scripture, after all, is a collection of stories about God over time with a lot of different names for God. A lot of different impressions of God. A lot of different relationships with God. And as we read scripture in its entirety, we are able to glimpse a larger story of God as, over time, people’s understanding of God deepened. As humans, we learn new things about how God’s creation works and how God’s presence manifests in it. Connecting us, making us interdependent and interconnected.
Someone once told me that a priest’s primary job is to open up the story of God so that people can connect with it. So that people can locate themselves in the story of God. And find, for themselves, where or to whom they belong. To understand how this bigger story of God pertains to you. To me.
For many of us here, worshipping together, whether we are in the sanctuary or online… we have heard the stories of scripture before. Sometimes, many times. What have these stories given to you before? What are they giving you today?
Let’s focus on two of them – a part of the ongoing drama of the Exodus story and today’s story from Matthew’s Gospel.
Today, in Exodus, Moses is trying to lead people through the wilderness to the Promised Land. But the Israelites only focus on how inconvenienced they are. And, unable to put their fear aside, they come after Moses, who is so alarmed by their response, asks God to intervene. From Moses’ perspective, he’s doing what God has asked him to do – trying to help these people come home to God’s promise, come home to themselves. From the perspective of the Israelites, however, Moses is the bad guy – worse even than the Pharaoh – because he has made them uncomfortable, led them to struggle and, possibly, die in the wilderness.
What is God doing in this story? Take a moment to consider, who are you in this story?
And in today’s Gospel from Matthew, the story that Jesus tells is a parable about two sons. The first son tells his father that he will not go to work in the vineyard, but eventually changes his mind. The second son tells his father that he will go to work in the vineyard, but never shows up.
When Jesus asks the chief priests and the elders, who did the will of his father, they respond with the correct answer – the first son. But Jesus explains to them that the correct answer isn’t enough. That’s the point of the whole parable.
You can’t just say “yes” and then not do what you say you’re going to do. To say yes to God is to be transformed by Love – so much so that we show up in the vineyard, which is another way of saying “in the world” to tend to God’s creation.
And Jesus goes on to say, “Those people who you call sinners, the ones you’ve always looked down upon… they may not have always had the right answers, but they have been transformed by Love.”
What is God doing in this story? Who are you in this story?
These stories aren’t just stories from a long time ago. These are stories that are still taking place today. If we can remain open enough to listen, we may hear them anew. And we may hear what God is doing for us in our lives right now. In our own personal life and in the larger life of our society.
What is God doing right now? How is God acting in the story of your life? How is God working in the story of our common lives today, in this place, at this time?
This time of pandemic, when we’re all exhausted by the changes and chances of this life and scared of contracting this virus and grieving those who have died.
This time of societal and national upheaval, when we seem so deeply divided that we feel like we don’t even know our neighbor anymore, let alone trust them.
This time of racial justice reckoning that has been too long overdue yet, is still woefully absent in too many places.
What is God doing in the midst of this? How is God moving in Love? How is God’s justice coming to bear?
It may be a while before we know the full answers to these questions. But what we do need to understand, is that we are integral to this story. As the Talmud saying goes: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
And as you consider the story of your life and what is happening in it, the mistakes and the good things you have wrought, the struggles and the comfort you have known.
Here’s what you need to know, to remember: God loves you. Period.
That’s who you are in the story of God: God’s beloved. A creature wholly loved by God. Loved so extravagantly, with so much passion, that in our limited understanding, we cannot even conceive of the kind of love we’re talking about. And God is with you.
And today, we bring our story back to this Table. Because at this Table is an experience of God’s Love that is undeniable. An experience of God’s presence that is real and tangible. We are fed by this bread, fed by the mystery of God’s Love for us and changed by it. So that we may become Christ in and for the world. At this Table we become intimately aware of and deeply attuned to how desperately God wants us to be transformed and learn once again who we are in Christ.
As we lay down our burden and, as St. Augustine tells us in his invitation to the Eucharist: Behold what you are. Become what you receive.
So, as you receive today, I invite you to reflect on your story. And ask yourself: How is God loving me into becoming?
With all that is happening in my life, with all that is happening in the world, who is God asking me to become? And what is God asking me to give up in order to do that?
Maybe your story is like the story from Exodus and God is offering us discomfort so that we can finally come home to a deeper truth. Or maybe it’s like the story Jesus tells and God is reminding us that the right answer doesn’t matter as much as whether or not we show up for one another. Or maybe it’s something else.
Whatever your story is, know that God is here. With us, with you. Doing something in our lives that we cannot yet comprehend.
So that one day, like the Psalmist says, “We will recount to generations to come the praiseworthy deeds and the power of God, and the wonderful works God has done.”