Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sermon for Proper 21

Matthew 21:28 32                 
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Christ the King, Normal

Sometimes, a person with a demanding life just needs to relax in a way that is otherwise a complete waste of time. For me, the way I waste time is to play solitaire on my iPad. I don’t play it in my office, but early in the morning when I’m trying to get going, or late at night when I’m trying to wind down, it’s there for me.
One of the features of computer solitaire that makes it a lot more fun, in my opinion, than using actual playing cards, is the feature called “Replay.” As you’re playing out a particular hand, you’ve got to make certain choices along the way. They may or may not be the right choices, even with a hand that is a potential winner, you can still lose.

So when, sure enough, you play to a dead end, you can click “Replay,” and one second later, the original hand is laid out for you, just as it was before. So you can do it again, only this time make different choices, take a different fork in the road. On many occasions, I have played a hand unsuccessfully three or four times, and then finally coaxed a victory out of it. The motivation behind all this is the knowledge, or at least the suspicion, that there is a winning path, there is a route to victory; we simply haven’t found it yet. And what a gift of grace it is to be able to start over, to keep trying until we get it right.

If only the rest of life were as kind and forgiving as computer solitaire. Alas, it is not.

We make mistakes, we make wrong choices, we face a fork in the road and it often seems that the best we can do is toss a coin, and the odds are still that we’ll miss the path to a winning hand. We look back on education and career decisions we have made, and wish we had chosen otherwise. We look back on friendships and romantic relationships and marriages that just didn’t go the way we had hoped they would, and we wish we could have this word or that deed back to do over again. But there is no “Replay” button to click on. We look back on addiction and mental illness and the destructive behavior that flows from them, and we wish we knew then what we know now, but it’s too late. What’s done is done, water under the bridge, over the dam, and out to sea.

Many of us, particularly the sorts of people who would find themselves in a place like this on a day like this doing what we’re doing, many of us have a gnawing sense that many of the choices we have made have been displeasing to God, and we’re ashamed. But we don’t want to think too much about it, and we surely don’t want to talk about it, what’s done is done. We can’t take it back. We can’t do it over again. It’s too late. In something we have said or done, or not said or not done, we have said “No” to God, and it feels well past the time when we can change our mind and say “Yes.” It would seem dishonest, hypocritical, or, at best, presumptuous. If God knows what he’s doing, that is, if he behaves the way we would behave in the same      circumstances, he has closed the window of opportunity for us to change our mind, assuming our most recent behavior to speak for itself, and be, in fact, our final answer, our last word.

We’re like the batter who at first decides to swing at a pitch, but then wants not to, so he checks his swing. If the umpires decide he has not reached the point of flexing his wrists, they will give him the benefit of the doubt. But if he broke his wrists, he is considered to have swung, and it’s a strike, and there’s no appeal. It’s easy for us to envision God as the home plate umpire who has just called “Steee-rike!” . . . and that’s that. 
Or we’re like the bargain hunter who clearly sees the sign on the cash register, “All sales final,” and hands over her credit card, even as she has second thoughts about the wisdom of her purchase. Once the clerk has swiped the card through the machine, the deed is done. She has made a purchase. Repentance is meaningless and regret is fruitless. She may as well just enjoy what she’s bought and try and move beyond the guilt.
Indeed, repentance does sometimes seem meaningless, and regret fruitless, and because we feel like it’s too late to rescind our negative RSVP to God, we look for ways to rationalize the stupid decision we have made, just to relieve ourselves of the crushing burden of guilt. It’s OK. It’s all right. Sure, we have displeased God, but he’ll just have to find a way to deal with it. What’s done is done.

So we persist in ways of living that are destructive to our souls, either slowly or quickly.
We chase furtively but vainly after false gods like career success, attainment of wealth, health, beauty, or sexual fulfillment, self-improvement, and even “spirituality” of a sort. But we ignore the true and living God, the lover of our souls, the one who alone fills the void at the core of our being, the one who alone is our health and our salvation.

Into the darkness of this pit of fatalistic despair shines the light of the Good News in the form of a simple and abundantly clear parable told by our Lord Jesus as recorded for us in the 21st chapter of St Matthew’s gospel. A man has two sons, and he needs their help. The first one says “Yes, father, I will certainly do what you ask. Consider it a done deal.” But the day goes by, and the first son’s words are never translated into action. Maybe he was lying to his father from the outset. Maybe he genuinely intended to keep his word, but just never got around to it. Who knows? The important thing is that he did not fulfill his commitment.
The second son, by contrast, immediately told his father, “No way, Dad. Not gonna do it. Better find somebody else.” Now we don’t know, of course, whether Son #2 was just being willfully ornery, or whether he had a genuine conflict of obligations that would have prevented him from honoring his father’s request. The relevant fact is that he changed his mind. He thought better of his initial decision and checked his swing, he pulled the credit card back from the sales clerk’s hand. By his deeds, he changed his words. He changed his “No” into a “Yes.”

And his action is an icon to all of us, for all time, of the fact that we always have “space” in which to repent. As far as God is concerned, there is a “Replay” button in the game of life. He will not accept “No” as our final answer. So, as many words as we may have spoken that mean “No,” as many deeds as we have done that add up to “No,” God is always ready and eager to hear our “Yes.” As the Lord says in the direct, un-sugar coated words of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, “...when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is lawful and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live....”.

God places a premium on personal responsibility and personal integrity. He is much less concerned about what we said yesterday than he is about what we do today. If we can let this simple fact sink in to our hearts, it can change our lives. Do you see the potential for liberation that is available to us here? God wants to set us free from the burden of regret. Sure, maybe we broke the wrist, but we can have the pitch back. Yes, the credit card has been swiped, but that “All sales final” sign suddenly disappears. We can have the hand of solitaire back at the beginning, and this time play our cards right.

It is never too late to say “Yes” to God, and the way we say that is by doing it. We know what God wants. We know what behavior will please him. And even if we originally said “No,” it’s still not too late. We can perform the work that he calls us to do. We can say “Yes.” We can do “Yes.” God’s magnanimous grace is here to help us, if we will but receive it. Amen.

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