Saying Yes to God: Yes and No
Today we’re starting a new sermon series called “Saying Yes to God.” The giveaway, the ultimate point of the series is right in the title: I want us to be equipped to say “Yes” to God when God calls us - whether God is calling us to get to know God better, or calling us to be a follower of Jesus, or whether God is calling us to a particular path or task or ministry, or whether God is calling us to stand up with a bold voice and bold actions, or whether God is calling us to turn away from sin, turn away from destructive ways of life. However God is calling us, the spoiler is: I want us to be ready to say Yes to God. So for the next few weeks, we’ll be thinking about how we can do that, what holds us back from saying yes, what will help us say yes with our whole hearts. Today, we’re specifically thinking about how sometimes we seem to say both Yes and No to God at the same time. Yes with our lips, and no with our hearts. Yes with our words and no with our actions.
In our gospel lesson today, our second text from Matthew is set during what we call Holy Week, just after Jesus enters Jerusalem, greeting by adoring fans, and just before Jesus is arrested, tried, and crucified. Just a few weeks ago we heard another gospel lesson set in this time frame, and remember that this time for Jesus is filled with particularly tense interactions with the religious leaders, to whom Jesus speaks more directly and critically than ever. Jesus tells this parable from inside the temple. When he enters the temple to teach, the chief priests and elders, the religious leaders of the temple, come over to him immediately and question where he gets his authority to teach. Jesus, who often answers questions with questions, tells them that he’ll answer if they answer a question of his, also a question about authority in its way. Jesus asks them if the baptism John the Baptist proclaimed had a heavenly or a human origin. The religious leaders realize that either answer puts them in a bind - either the people who thought John was a prophet will be mad at them, or they will have to explain why they said they didn’t believe what John was preaching. They tell Jesus they can’t answer. And he says that neither will he answer their questions about authority.
This is what sets Jesus up to share today’s parable. A man has two sons. The man goes to the first and says, “Go, son, and work in the vineyard today.” The son says, “I will not.” But later, he changes his mind and goes anyway and works. The father says the same to the second son: “Go and work in the vineyard today. And this son agrees, saying, “I go, sir.” But later he changes his mind and doesn’t go after all. “Which,” Jesus says, “did the will of his father?” The audience, presumably still the religious leaders, responds that the first - the one who said no but actually went and worked - is the one who did his father’s will. And Jesus concludes: “ Truly, tax-collectors and prostitutes,” two groups of people commonly pointed out as “known sinners” in the society of Jesus’ day, “Truly [they] are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came in the way of righteousness and you didn’t believe him, but they did. And even after you saw it,” he says, “you still didn’t change your mind and believe.”
When I read this parable, I can’t get over how timeless it is. I’m trying to plan a family vacation. My great aunt took my brother Jim to Disney World when he was 13, and I have long-promised to my nephew that I would take him to Disney World someday too. And here he is, 11 years old already. So I’ve been trying to coordinate to get my whole family there. It’s been a challenge. My brother Todd is on a college academic year schedule, and my niece and nephew are on the school calendar, and no one wants to go in the summer when it might be very hot, and Jim is worried about getting time off of work at times he requests because he’s a newer employee where he works, but finally, we managed to settle on January of 2020 as a time when we could all travel together. And after all this, the best commitment to these dates I can get from my brother Jim is, “I don’t have anything else on the calendar for those dates right now. I’m free as of right now.” I keep telling him that all he needs to do, then, is to put this on his calendar, and then he’ll remember not to schedule anything else at the same time. I want him to make this the priority, and to set aside the time for this. To say, “I can’t do that - I have family vacation scheduled for those dates” if someone else tries to claim his time for that week. But so far, he’s not quite willing to commit.
How many of you have been frustrated by someone making a commitment, RSVPing yes, only to be disappointed when they don’t actually show up after all? How many of you have done this yourself - committed to something, but not followed through in the end? How many of you have been unwilling to even RSVP until you knew what other good options you might have for that same time period, or been on the receiving end of that behavior? I know I’m guilty of it. I think about the practice of RSVPing to invitations we receive. RSVP means “Respondez s’il vous plait” - “respond if you please” in French. Most invitations - from formal invitations to informal facebook event invites ask us to respond with our intention to attend or not. I just went through this with inviting friends and family to my brother’s wedding shower - I sent paper invitations and facebook invites. And some folks answered right away, and some folks never answered at all, and some folks used the facebook option that is probably the most frustrating: the one where you can just check “interested,” which can mean anything about whether you can be expected to attend. And sure enough, in the days, even the hours before the actual shower, there was a bit of shuffling: people who we thought weren’t coming who were after all, and people who had initially RSVPed yes, but who weren’t actually going to attend. It’s frustrating, and makes planning a challenge, when people won’t commit, or they won’t honor their commitments. It can make us, the ones who are trying to organize these events, feel like we’re just an option on a list of many possible plans for folks - and maybe an option that is pretty low on the list.
To be clear: I’m not trying to cast blame without recognizing my own shortcomings. I remember that when I was in seminary, I had a friend Niurca who asked me to hang out with a group of people on a certain evening that week. And I was reluctant - in fact unwilling - to agree too many days in advance. Truthfully, I didn’t want to commit to going with her until I knew what the guy I had a crush on was doing. I wanted to be where he was going to be. My friend Niurca called me out on my behavior immediately. She was angry and hurt that I wouldn’t choose outright to commit to spending time with her, that she was going to be my second-choice, the place I would go only if the person I really wanted to spend my time with was unavailable. If I had just said “No thank you” to her invitation, I’m sure that would have been better than hurting her by letting her know she was just a back-up plan. Or better yet, I could have said “yes” and gone with her and let her know that her friendship was valuable to me too, showing it with my actions.
We know the saying: “Actions speak louder than words.” Words speak pretty loud already, friends. Our words are important. But over time, people will believe not what we say we will do, but what we actually do. I wonder: what do our words and actions tell us about our commitment to our relationship with God? What do our words and actions say about our commitment to follow Jesus? Is our willingness to commit to God - and follow through on that commitment - deep or shallow? I want, friends, for us to have a deep life of faith, a growing life of faith, a level of commitment to following Jesus that expands the more we get to know Jesus, the more we let Jesus into our hearts, the more we are willing to listen to God and God’s word and let God guide us. Sometimes, though, we’re quick to say “Yes” to God because we think that’s the right thing, but we get distracted by other options, or afraid of our “yes”, or we’ve really put following God on a list of possible plans and only plan to follow through if no better invitations come along. It’s tempting to say “Yes” to God with our lips, but “no” with our hearts and actions.
The funny thing about this parable is that both sons refuse their father - one in words, and one with actions. Expanding the metaphor, everybody in the story refuses God at some point or other on their journey. But our “NOs” to God aren’t the whole story, and they definitely don’t have to be the end of the story. David Lose writes, “I hear in this parable the surprising possibility of hope that someone who has refused to listen to God may yet change his/her mind. Hope that it’s never too late to respond to the grace of the Gospel. Hope that one’s past actions or current status do not determine one’s future. Hope that even those whom good folk … have decided are beyond the pale of decent society are never, ever beyond the reach of God. If this is so,” he concludes, “then perhaps … what we might proclaim … is that no matter what may have happened in the past, yet God is eager to meet us in the present and offer us – indeed, secure – an open future.” It is never too late to say yes to God with words, heart, soul, and life. It is never too late to say yes to God.
So what do your words say - and what do your actions say about the depth of your commitment to God? To following Jesus? To serving and loving God and neighbor? Our challenge is to be very honest with ourselves and with God: where are we saying yes with our lips, but just responding “interested” with our hearts? Where are we sending in our RSVPs to God, but never really showing up to the relationship? God has room for you at the party - sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors and chief priests and elders and disciples and you and me. God’s promise is heaven on earth, God’s reign on earth and in heaven. I promise, that’s the best invitation we’re going to get. Let’s say yes together. And then show up, day by day, to life with God. Amen.