September 28, 2008
In preparing this week I couldn’t shake the way these very different scripture passages seemed to coalesce. The focus is always on the character of God as trust worthy. The refusal to repent is simply a refusal to trust God. It challenges, again and again, our rugged spiritual individualism, our intense need to trust ourselves. The pendulum of Christian confidence has swung into arrogance and presumption. We pray as though God were a magical ATM dispensing what we ask or we assume that God has a plan to which we have special privy. These notions have nothing of fear and trembling in them. They suggest that God is static, fixed and man-ip-u-lat-able. Such a god is no God at all. We have even come to think that our salvation is based in what we believe rather than on the grace of God.
“Yes and No”
“There was a man who had two sons. The father went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he changed his mind and went. And the father went to the second son and said the same and he answered, ‘I will go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Mt. 21:28–31).
Soren Kirkegaard spoke to this parable out of Matthew and said that though it is seldom considered it is very instructive and inspiring. He asked: “Now, what is the point of this parable? Is it not meant to show us the danger of saying “Yes” in too great a hurry, even if it is well meant? Though the yes-brother was not a deceiver when he said ‘Yes’, he nevertheless became a deceiver when he failed to keep his promise. When you say ‘Yes’ or promise something, you can very easily deceive yourself and others also, as if you had already done what you promised. It is easy to think that by making a promise you have at least done part of what you promised to do, as if the promise itself were something of value. Not at all! In fact, when you do not do what you promise, it is a long way back to the truth.”
He said “Beware! The ‘Yes’ of promise keeping is sleep-inducing. An honest ‘No’ possesses much more promise. It can stimulate; repentance may not be far away. He who says ‘No’, becomes almost afraid of himself. But he who says ‘Yes, I will,’ is all too pleased with himself. The world is quite inclined – even eager – to make promises, for a promise appears very fine at the moment – it too inspires!”
“Now suppose”, Kierkgaard continued, “that neither of the brothers did his father’s will. Then the one who said ‘No’ was surely closer to realizing that he did not do his father’s will. A ‘no’ does not hide anything, but a ‘yes’ can very easily become a deception, a self-deception; which of all difficulties is the most difficult to conquer.
It is the most dangerous thing for a person to go backwards with the help of good intentions, especially with the help of promises; for it is almost impossible to discover that one is really going backwards. When a person turns his back on someone and walks away, it is easy to see which way he is going. That is that! But when a person finds a way of turning his face towards him who he is walking away from, and in so doing walks backwards while appearing to greet the person, giving assurances again and again that he is coming, or incessantly saying “Here I am” – though he gets farther and farther away by walking backwards – then it is not so easy to become aware. And so it is with the one who, rich in good intentions and quick to promise, retreats backwards farther and farther from the good. With the help of intentions and promises, he maintains the honest impression that he is moving towards the good, yet all the while he moves farther and farther away from it. With every renewed intention and promise it seems as if he is taking a new step forward but in reality he is only standing still, no, he is really taking another step backward.”
While Kirkegaard alludes to it, I think that we have grossly undervalued saying ‘No’. Of course, as this parable underscores, just because someone does say “no”, it does not automatically seal off the possibility of repentance, a change of mind and of behavior. And when we mean it, when we are consistent with our ‘no’, a couple of good things come of it. Probably the best is that it opens up the opportunity for someone else to say ‘Yes’. We’ve got our Inland Area gathering coming up Saturday and it reminds me of attending a similar event at Sugar Creek Friends Meeting in Thorntown, Indiana. When it was time for reports from various Boards of the Yearly Meeting one man stood to speak and he spoke again and again and again, reporting on the work of the different Yearly Meeting Boards. He lived with this powerful sense of obligation to keep Western Yearly Meeting, our Quarterly Meeting and his own Monthly Meeting alive for the next generation. That is something we shouldn’t under value. But, it pointed out to me that the result was that his obsession effectively denied the opportunity of responsible involvement to others and it actually served to undermine his heartfelt intention because no new leadership was being developed. I think he just couldn’t bring himself to trust the idea that if God was interested in the continuation of the Yearly Meeting God would provide others to serve.
Another thing ‘no’ accomplishes is that it can help bring about closure to a long and previously positive activity that has passed its time of usefulness. And of course that was one of our above mentioned Friend’s deepest fears. Jesus’ parable was clearly about trust. Several years ago now the American Friends Service Committee took an unprecedented step with the bequests they received. Instead of salting them away in an endowment that would ensure the organization’s future they established a policy by which bequests would be expensed over ten years. The practical consequences of that ensures that when the interest and support of the organization dries up – so will the organization. It is a real statement about trusting God for the future.
Take the Exodus 17 reading: The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
That’s the big question isn’t it? God had already provided for these runaway slaves – time and time again. God lead them across the dry sea bed, God provided sweet water and manna and everything else they needed. This passage reveals both a short memory of God’s faithfulness and their own lack of trust that God will continue to provide for their needs.
The Ezekiel 18 passage is quite long. Some thirty two verses. It’s the sour grapes passage. Ezekiel lays out all the permutations and combinations related to the discussion of whether God’s judgment was unfair and puts to bed once and for all the old saw: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’. Near the end of the passage Ezekiel sums it all up for us: “When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life.” It gets to the question of individual responsibility for one’s behavior and responsibility to turn from that which is destructive. Ezekiel’s voice thunders from the pages of the Old Testament “Repent and live!” His message isn’t just Old Testament religious rhetoric. In Matthew 21, our gospel reading for today, where we began this discussion, Jesus preaches an identical message. According to Mark, these were the first words worth recording that came from Jesus’ mouth. Repentance is central to life. It is essential not dispensable, obligatory not optional and contrary to much modern day perspective, it is life giving, a movement toward health and wholeness not a death dealing descent into repression and self recrimination. Repentance best takes place in community and is a personal act not a ritual. In order to recover the explosive power of the Gospel the Protestant reformers insisted on this point. They believed that the Gospel had been encrusted with fifteen hundred years of tendentious traditions and arbitrary authority. When Martin Luther attacked the medieval sacramental system of ‘penance’ the first of his Ninety-five theses was this: ” When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent’, he called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” And Luther insisted that Jesus did not prescribe a complicated ritual that required the believer to confess to a priest, purchase an indulgence, or repeat so many “Hail Marys”. Rather, unmediated by rules, regulations and formulas, we need simply to “repent’ before God. Johannes Climacus, St. John of the Ladder if you prefer, wrote: “Let your prayer be very simple. For the tax collector and the prodigal son just one word was enough to reconcile them to God.”
A simple word, true. But a life time that acknowledges our humanity, our brokenness and our imperfection. Jesus offended his audience in our reading for today. He observed that the decidedly immoral people understand and take to repentance better than religiously righteous people. He explained that to their own peril the religiously righteous wrongly believe that they are better than they really are and so imagine that they have no need to repent. Moral outcasts live with no such illusions. In repentance, Ezekiel writes, we move beyond mere regret, embarrassment or shame. Rather, I implore God to help me rid myself of the offenses I have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. The enabling power of divine grace allows us to seek a change of heart and mind which leads to changed actions and directions. It is like Paul says in Philippians 2: it is the way we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to work for his good pleasure”.
In preparing this week I couldn’t shake the way these very different scripture passages seemed to coalesce. The focus is always on the character of God as trust worthy. The refusal to repent is simply a refusal to trust God. It challenges, again and again, our rugged spiritual individualism, our intense need to trust ourselves.
The pendulum of Christian confidence has swung into arrogance and presumption. We pray as though God were a magical ATM dispensing what we ask or we assume that God has a plan to which we have special privy. These notions have nothing of fear and trembling in them. They suggest that God is static, fixed and man-ip-u-lat-able. Such a god is no God at all. We have even come to think that our salvation is based in what we believe rather than on the grace of God. Is the Lord among us? Yes. Can we trust God? Yes.