16 Pentecost A—9/28/14
Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32; Psalm 25:1-9; Philippians 2:1-13; Matt. 21:23-32
One of the best TV series I’ve seen this year is The Roosevelts. Ken Burns recently did a week-long PBS series on Teddy, Eleanor and Franklin.
They were no saints. Like the rest of us they were sinners. Their lives included chapters of disappointment, self-interest and betrayal. But what I remember most from the Roosevelt story is the power of love to shape who these leaders became. Teddy’s father was his hero. Franklin’s mother told him from an early age that she believed he could become whatever he wanted to be. Eleanor’s parents did not provide the love she needed–but she received that love from others in her life.
In the Scriptures we find that it is the Father’s love that shapes Jesus into the person he becomes. It is the Father’s love that encourages him and drives him to preach and teach and heal. It is the Father’s love that, against impossible odds, sustains him as he brings saving power to people whose hope has dimmed.
One day Jesus tells a story about a father’s love for his two sons. These sons were no saints. The father commands both to go work in the vineyard. One says he will and then doesn’t. Although the second eventually does go he first says no, which in Jesus’ time would’ve been an unheard of disgrace to the family.
Christian faith is about the Father’s love–for us, and, for all people. And the Father’s love desires nothing more than the transformation of human hearts. “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” These are the words of the prophet Ezekiel in today’s first reading. St. Paul puts it in more familiar religious language, when he says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
It’s been said that Lutherans are really good at embracing God’s grace. What Lutherans are not known as much for is transformation. “God Loves You, No Matter What.” We get that. Children need to hear that to get a good start in life; they need to get at least a glimmer of that through the love of their parents. But the changed heart, the changed mind? Each week we return to the waters of baptism. But the waters of baptism are not about a one-time transformation. The waters of baptism urge us to a daily rhythm of death and resurrection. “Why will you die, O House of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.”
In last week’s Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat reflected on someone who wrote to him worried that our country is becoming poor. This person said that every time they pick up the newspaper they read that roads are falling apart, more and more people are without adequate food or shelter or healthcare, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. “Aren’t these the problems of a third-world country?” the person asked. Well, maybe. But in a nation that possesses immense wealth what these social problems point to is a need for transformed hearts and minds and lives—the very thing for which we the church are to be an example to the world.
How might God’s children, attuned to the Father’s love, bring about salvation in our world? We have only to ask, What are the great questions and pressing issues of our time? How do sons and daughters of God respond with transformed hearts and minds to questions of climate change, war and peace, poverty and wealth?
When we are tempted to be discouraged or overwhelmed by big problems we remember that the Father has sent us to work in the vineyard. Tackling the big problems is our Christian vocation. But it starts closer to home, where we allow our hearts and minds to be transformed in more ordinary ways. St. Paul puts it this way: “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
For Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt, their fathers’ love was essential to helping them remember who they were. Likewise, it is the Father’s love that reminds us of who we are. We are children of the Father, and lest we forget, St. Paul reminds us that it’s not about our own abilities but “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” What is the Father’s pleasure? It is life. It is transformed hearts and minds dedicated to the salvation of the world.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow children of God, we the church are a laboratory for salvation. Our life together is a practice field where, by the grace of God, our hearts and minds are transformed daily, prepared for the Father’s work of saving the world. AMEN