Sermons

Whether you are a long-time member or seeking a deeper connection with God, progressive, theologically-grounded teaching can be encouraging. St. James clergy and renowned guest preachers speak to issues of faith and public life that both challenge preconceived notions and call to action.

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A Man Had Two Sons...

September 27, 2020

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

What do you think? A man had two sons….

So, which one are you? Are you the arrogant one with attitude, who is happy to tell dad that the family business can go screw itself, and that you’ll do whatever you damn well please? Are you that one? That one who’s made something of a habit of such selfish behavior? And not just selfish - as if that’s not bad enough - selfish and irresponsible. 

Because this ‘man’ who is so unlucky as to have such vexing children - this man has a vineyard. That’s property that needs attention. That vineyard needs work. It is quite likely that the ability to put bread on the table and keep a roof over at least four heads is related to that vineyard. The request to ‘go and work in the vineyard today’ isn’t just a suggestion for a hobby or pastime, it’s the nearest thing to a command about keeping the family business going and the family income assured.

But not for the first son - not, that is, unless he wants to do so. Life, with this first son, sounds as if it has to be lived on his terms and nobody else’s. So, I wonder - are you that son - the lazy one?

Or are you the other one? The one who is happy to say what you think other people might like to hear? Are you the one that ducks the truth, and is happy to hide the real, essential facts from other people - even those close to you, even those on whom you depend? Are you the one who can do the smooth talking…. But nothing else, because you can’t be bothered? Are you that son - the liar?

A man had two sons - what do you think?

Frankly, what I think is that neither of them are very nice. The lazy one and the liar. Disagreeable people, both of them. Enough to make you quite upset. Enough, perhaps, to make you cry out - cry out to God - What shall I do with [these] people? And Moses, who was the one crying out this morning - Moses had to deal with more than just two sons. Moses had to deal with what our reading this morning called ‘the whole congregation’ of the Israelites, who - without a trace of irony - are camping at the wilderness of Sin. Camping, grumbling and quarreling, because they are thirsty - very thirsty.

And so Moses turns to the Lord - and, of course, the Lord has a solution to offer. The Lord tells Moses to go to a nearby rock, and that “water will come out of it, so that people may drink”. But let me tell you something strange: A man had two rocks - what do you think? Doesn’t that sound a little strange?

Because the Bible is a complex thing. It takes our Bible sixty-six books to tell the very simple story of God’s love for God’s world and God’s children. And along the way, these sixty-six books pose no end of unresolved questions and issues. You’ll know without me telling you that the four gospels that tell the life of Jesus do so in notably different ways, ranging from carbon copies of some stories and teachings shared between them, to strikingly unique stories picked up by only one of the four evangelists.

And - being a much larger collection of material - what we call the Old Testament is a set of even more complex documents. A complexity that you encounter even in what we sometimes call the Pentateuch - the first five books of the Bible - which our Jewish sisters and brothers more usually call the Torah. The complexity is there right at the very beginning of it all - because, what do you think - a man had two creations. 

For if you open the Hebrew Scriptures to page one, you’ll find that In the beginning…God created the heavens and the earth. Genesis Chapter One sets out the famous six-day narrative of creation at the hands of God, who looks at his achievements noting that it was good.

It’s fabulous stuff, but, just in case you wanted what we would now, in medical terms, call a second opinion, you only have to read as far as Chapter Two to get a completely different account of creation. From a modern literary perspective, you wouldn’t necessarily call this the most deft piece of editing, and the juxtaposition of the two accounts of creation have been the stuff of scholarly and pious debate for many many years. 

But never mind that a man had two creations - what I need you to be aware of this morning is that there was a man who had two rocks. What do you think? 

And not only did Moses have two rocks, he also had two ‘congregations’ of parched and irritable Israelites. Jump from Exodus 17 to Numbers 20, and you will find that the Israelites are no longer in the Wilderness of Sin - they have arrived in the Wilderness of Zin. That minute difference in name should already put us on our guard that something curious is happening here.

And in both these stories the Israelites are thirsty and grumbling, and in both these stories, they are apparently at a place within this sinful wilderness known as Meribah - a Hebrew pun on the word ‘quarrelsome’. And in both stories, Moses is sent, staff in hand, to a rock, from which the Lord tells him that water will be freely available. And in both stories, Moses strikes the rock, and water flows abundantly.

But something is different. Most scholars would tell you that the literary relationship between these two stories is very strong, and a remarkable number of details are identical. Scholars who are into textual scholarship will tell you that there is a very serious dependence between the thirsty Israelites of Exodus and the thirsty Israelites of Numbers. They will tell you that it is more than a coincidence that Moses finds himself in a sinful sounding wilderness being sent with a staff in his hand to a rock to try to get some water. But for all the similarities between these two accounts, there is one huge difference.

For at the end of ‘our’ story - the one we heard this morning from Exodus, all ends well. There’s been some grumpy behavior and raised tempers, but water flows from the rock, and everyone is happy.

But if you jump ahead to Numbers chapter twenty, you will find a very different ending, because this time - as a result of striking the rock to get the water - Moses is told that he has lost the right to be the one who gets to take the Israelites over the finishing line and into the promised land. And thus it proves, at the end of Deuteronomy, when we see Moses die on the very peak of Mount Nebo, in modern day Jordan. A place from which, on a clear day, you can see across the Jordan River and right across to the summit of the Mount of Olives. Moses dies at a place so close you could almost touch the Promised Land - but because of the second smitten rock, he never quite gets there.

So we should ask why not? What was so very sinful about the second iteration of the thirsty Israelites in the sinful wilderness that makes rock-striking bring such a heavy punishment. The answer - which seems slightly curious at first - lies in a little detail of God’s command to Moses when he sends him to find the rock. Because on this second occasion, the Lord tells Moses that he is to speak to the rock, to ‘command’ it to ‘yield its water’. But whether Moses is simply in auto-pilot mode from the previous rock moment, or whether he wasn’t listening properly, or whether he was just fed up to the back teeth with all the grumbling he kept getting from his followers, Moses strikes the rock. And while - miraculously - out comes water again, Moses has nevertheless crossed the Lord and pays a heavy price.

A man had two rocks… What do you think? Why should one rock be smitten, and the other rock spoken to? Well - to answer that question, we need to see what has happened between Exodus 17 and Numbers 20. And what has happened between these two stories is that the Israelites - and Moses in particular - have had a transformative encounter with the Word of God at Mount Sinai. For in the blaze and drama of fire and cloud, God has spoken to Moses ‘as one speaks to a friend’ and the Law has been given complete with tablets of stone.

And if God’s Word has engaged with the world ‘as one speaks to a friend’, then God’s friends should be relying on the Word - talking, not striking.

But Moses - in this moment of deep frustration - Moses reverts to the more violent part of himself (and let’s not forget that he is a murderer). And through his choice of actions, he has cut himself off from the fulness of God’s promise and God’s presence.

Two rocks. Two sons. What do you think? I’m beginning to think it’s not working out so well. And if it is true for the vineyard owner, and if it is true for Moses, I’m afraid that’s true for someone else as well. For another man had two crowds - two crowds of followers…               

And just at the moment, that man is being grilled by the chief priests and the elders. That man is being cross-questioned angrily about the nature of his authority. A question which the vexed and vexatious Jewish authorities think will trap Jesus and allow them to justify arresting him.

But when they demand of him, “By what authority…?” they are saying more about their blindness and ignorance than they are about Jesus, the Word made Flesh.

Because our reading of Matthew’s gospel has taken a bit of a hop skip and a jump since last week. Because we have leaped over two vitally important parts of the gospel story - For a start have leaped over Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the crowds cry out “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

And we have also jumped over the story where, exerting his spiritual authority to the full, Jesus has ‘cleansed’ the Temple. And just as Mount Sinai was a vital revelation of the Word of God that should have changed the lives of God’s children, so too should Jesus’ great entrance to Jerusalem and the Temple have changed the lives of God’s children.

But like Moses at the second rock, the Jewish religious leaders did not allow the revelation of the Word of God to change their self-righteous and arrogant behavior. But the chief priests and elders refuse to allow the Word of God to affect their lives. Instead they persist with their stubborn and arrogant behavior. Like the first son, they refuse to play ball.

And the great crowd that has welcomed Jesus into the city on Palm Sunday. That great crowd is like the second son of the parable. They said the right thing, but they don’t follow through, and as a result, only a few days later their insincere cry will change from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify”. What do you think? A man had two sons.

What do you think? Because your opinion matters, as does mine. Because God call us and all God’s children into what Jesus refers to in that gospel passage as the ‘way of righteousness’. And our response to that call matters. Because God - God did not have two sons.
God had one son, the living Word. And God’s Word was revealed to the world to show us the full nature of the sacrificial and self-giving love of God - a love in which we are called to participate. And that participation should change things - it should change us, and, through us, it should change this world in which we live. It should change us from being like son number one - the selfish one. And it should change us from being like son number two - the liar.

What do you think? A man had two sons - but do you think we really need to be like either of them? Yes, the tax and collectors get to come to the party ahead of the self-righteous pharisees. And do take note that, apparently, everyone is getting to the party eventually. But that doesn’t mean we have to emulate either of the man’s two sons in our own behavior - not when we have God’s One Son to show us a better way. For the truth that I see when I look into the spiritual mirror is that, at times, I am the lazy one and at times I am the lying one. But - thank God - there are also times when I can do better and be better than either of them. And that’s probably true for you as well - especially when you, stop and remind yourself of the presence of the living Word of God in your own life, loving you into the fulness of abundant life, and calling you ever onwards to the ‘way of righteousness’.

A man had two sons. God had one beloved son. We have to work out whom we are called to emulate. What do you think?

Enough Really Is Enough

September 20, 2020

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

A Flowing River of Grace

September 13, 2020

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

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