The Rector’s sermon for October 1, 2017 


Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32


Today we look at something fairly practical:  making decisions, and our motives for making decisions… AND, is there any saving grace in making the right decision for the wrong reason?   Is that confusing enough for you?!   Making decisions, our motives for making decisions, and is there any saving grace in making the right decision for the wrong reason?


In today’s dialogue between Jesus and Pharisees, there’s a great deal of tension, and it would help us to understand the degree of tension if we look at what has just preceded this encounter.  At the beginning of this chapter—chapter  21—we have the events of Palm Sunday.   Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, is greeted like a king,  and the first thing he does is go immediately to the temple and overturn the moneychangers’ tables, throwing out the buyers and the sellers!   Not a good way to make friends!   Unrepentant thieves and robbers have no place in the house of God.  The elders of the Temple are furious with Jesus for his actions because they benefit from this commerce.    They weren’t happy with him before this episode, so you can imagine how they are now!    Jesus overthrows the moneychangers and their tables, and he enters the temple to teach the crowds.  Imagine!  He’s destroyed the outer entrance to the temple, throwing around tables, money, cages with animals, he quotes Scripture:  ‘My house shall be a house of prayer, and you have made it a den of thieves.’    Then he walks inside the Temple and begins to teach!   No wonder the elders are furious.  


While he’s teaching, the angry chief priests and elders walk in and they say to Jesus, “How dare you!  You’ve destroyed our business and then you come into our Temple to teach us?   Show us your credentials!  Who authorized you to teach here?”  They want to know by whose authority Jesus has come.   And Jesus says to them, "I’ll answer your question, if you answer mine.”  And Jesus’ asks a question about John the Baptist.  Now remember, these same chief priests and elders had had John captured and eventually he was beheaded to appease the whim of Herod’s stepdaughter.   And Jesus’ asks this question:  ‘By whose authority did John baptize:  man or God?’   Now the chief priests and elders know they are in a lose—lose situation because if they say ‘John’s authority was from God’ Jesus will say, “Then why didn’t you listen to him,” and if they say ‘John’s authority was from man’ the surrounding crowd who believed that John’s authority was from God, will rise up against the Pharisees and there will be a riot.   So they’re trapped, and they say to Jesus, ‘We don’t know where John got his authority.”   And Jesus answers, “Then neither will I tell you where I get my authority.  You didn’t answer my question; I won’t answer yours.”    I wish I could think that good on my feet!


Now, all this has just preceded today’s gospel lesson.  So you can feel the tension in the air between the chief priests, the elders and Jesus.  You can picture Jesus teaching the crowds, and the chief priests and elders conniving among themselves how they can trap Jesus.  And Jesus, knowing their thoughts, tells a story of the man who had two sons.


The man goes to the first and says, ‘Son, will you go out for the day and work in the vineyard for me?’  The son answers, ‘I don’t want to.’  But later on, the son thinks about his father’s request and he does go and work in the father’s vineyard.  Now the father asks the same of the second son.  The second son answers,  ‘Sure, dad; I’ll do that for you.’  But he never goes.  Which of the two sons did what the father asked?”  The Pharisees answer, “The first son.”  Jesus says, “Correct, and I tell you that crooks and prostitutes are going to precede you into the kingdom of God.  John came to you showing you the right road.   You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and prostitutes believed him.  Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change your lives and believe him.  So mark my words:  The crooks and prostitutes are going to get to heaven before you.”   


Two sons making decisions.  Pharisees, crooks and prostitutes making decisions.  How do you make decisions?   And is there any saving grace in making the right decision for the wrong reason?


Because we’re not perfect we certainly make our share of mistakes and do things we later realize are not smart or helpful, or more importantly, not God’s will.   But the difference between the two sons happens when “the light bulb goes on.”   When we realize we’ve made a mistake, do we simply live with it—or do we correct it?  Do we follow our own ways, right or wrong, or do we search out the heart of God for the solution that will help us get closer to the kingdom of God?   Remember Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night for fear of being seen?   He had lots of questions for Jesus.  He wasn’t sure if he was on the right path.  He believed in Jesus, yet he chose at least in the beginning to appear as a non-believer.   But in the end of their conversations Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Nicodemus, you are not far from the kingdom of God.”  What a glorious, humbling compliment!  Nicodemus was searching for God’s will and not his own, but he struggled with his image as part of the non-believing establishment.   What motivates our decisions?   Is there any saving grace in making right decisions for the wrong reasons?


There is a story of a man who had a job for any homeless person who came looking for a handout.  Whenever the vagrant appeared, the man had the vagrant move a refrigerator from one side of his back yard to the other side and he paid him a small sum of money.  Someone who observed the action asked the owner if he had the refrigerator moved because he wanted the vagrant to feel that he had earned his  pay, that he wasn’t just receiving a hand-out.  “No,” said the man, “I do it because I don’t know what to do with the refrigerator.”   A good decision—the wrong reason—is there any saving grace?  


Some years ago, a study of corporate philanthropy pointed out that the motive behind many benevolent contributions of businesses and corporations is really self-interest.  It improves the company’s corporate image and they get a tax break!  But if you are a recipient of funds from one of these philanthropists, do you care about the motives?  The best circumstances are when good intentions and good deeds come together.  But sometimes we have to start with doing the right thing and let our intentions catch up, like the son who said ‘no’ to his father, and later repented and did indeed fulfill his father’s wishes.   


When Jesus called his apostles, he didn’t say, “You know, I need some disciples.  I’ve got an awesome task for you, so if your motives are pure and selfless, follow me.”  No, he simply said, “Follow me.”  That must have meant they were to follow despite their mixed feelings and motives.   And so should we.  If we’ve said no or if we’ve made the wrong decision, there is still time to mend our relationship with the One who simply will not let us go.   So what if we had a method of helping us make right decisions in the first place, so that we don’t have to go back and correct our errors later.  Well, there is a method.   I call it my BCP, and that doesn’t mean Book of Common Prayer.  I call it Biblical, Circumstances, and Peace.


When making decisions ask yourself three questions:   First, is this decision biblical?  Second, do circumstances make it possible?   Third, do I have God’s peace when I make this decision?


Is this biblical?  This one needs no explanation.  Whatever the issue, would God approve?   If you made this decision, would God be pleased with you?  Would this decision help you get closer to the kingdom of heaven?   Then, do circumstances make this decision possible?  In other words, if I make this decision in this particular way, does everything fall into place, or do I have to cut the corners off the puzzle pieces to make them fit?  Do I have to force the decision into my way of thinking?   Finally, do I have God’s peace when I make this decision?   This is so very important.  If I make this decision, do I have God’s peace—the peace which passes all understanding—that peace that only God can give?   Never discount the peace of God in anything.  You can be in constant physical pain and in dire emotional anguish, and you can still be filled the peace of God—if you are following the right path.  I don’t understand it, but I know it to be true.


Two sons, Nicodemus, you and I.   Some follow their own path, making mistakes along the way,  and return to the Lord later on.  Some are righteous up front, but deceive and go their own way. If Jesus walked in here today and sat down beside you, would he recognize you as the one who went his own way, or would he be able to look at you and say, “My child, you are not far from the kingdom of God.”  

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