Saying Yes and meaning it

Sunday, October 1, 2017
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year A
Matthew 21:23-32
The Rev’d Richard Smith, Ph.D

[Click here for the video.]

The two sons in this gospel story are sent to the vineyard: one says yes, but never sets foot in the vineyard; the other says no, but later changes his mind and goes. The moral is not hard to grasp, and the cliches come tumbling out: Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words. Practice what you preach. As Jesus says in another place, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father.” And St. James puts it starkly: “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:14-26).

In the end, it’s not about what you say, but what you do.

Somehow we’ve gotten all messed up. We’ve come to think believing in Jesus is a matter of getting the words right, of making some disembodied, intellectual Yes to a checklist of doctrines and finely honed theological statements. Somewhere along the line, the litmus test for being a Christian became a matter of correctly rattling off all the obscure theological words. We got it backward.

Marcus Borg says this distortion of what it means to believe came out of the Protestant Reformation.

Protestants distinguished themselves from Catholics by what they believed compared to what Catholics believed. Then Protestantism divided into many churches, each distinguishing themselves from others by the doctrines they subscribed to.

Add to that popular Christianity’s emphasis on the afterlife, and being Christian came to mean assenting to the right doctrines now for the sake of heaven later.

But it was all so different in the early church, which had no clear consensus about doctrines, and in which a variety of opinions held sway. They did not call themselves “People with the absolutely correct theological doctrine you better believe or you’ll burn in hell forever,”–they did not call themselves that. Rather, they called themselves simply “the people of the Way”–that is, the Way of Jesus. For them, it was less about correct doctrinal statements and more about following Jesus–sharing food with the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the immigrant and the stranger, visiting the sick and the incarcerated, working for peace. Being people of the Way.

Then, a few hundred years after Jesus, the bishops and Emperor Constantine wrote what we now call the Nicene Creed. It’s in your service bulletin; we’ll recite again in a few minutes. Like so many works from other times and places–like our scriptures and our hymns, like the music of Thomas Tallis or Bach, or the plays of Shakespeare–the Nicene Creed was written by people with experiences and challenges and ways of thinking very different from ours. For that reason, like the works of Shakespeare or Bach, it can take a little work to understand it.

And yet, even in this statement, however obscure and baffling to us, we can see the earlier understanding of what it meant to believe: It’s not about an intellectual conviction, but rather a way of life.

The creed begins with the Latin word credo, most commonly translated into English as “I believe.” But at the root of the Latin word “credo” lie two smaller words: cor, meaning “heart”, and do meaning “I give.” At its root, the word credo means “I give my heart.” In other words, saying the creed does not mean, “I believe the following theological affirmations to be literally true,” but rather,

  • “I give my heart to one God” – and who’s that? The creator of heaven and earth, of all that is.
  • And “I give my heart to Jesus – and who’s that? God’s beloved child, who was born into this world, became fully human, suffered, died, was buried, and rose again.
  • And “I give my heart to the Holy Spirit” — and who’s that? The Lord and giver of Life who has spoken through our prophets and our ancestors.

And so on…

Belief is not just a matter of subscribing to some list of doctrinal statements. Rather, it’s about giving away your heart in a passionate, and compassionate, way of life. It’s about saying Yes and meaning it.

And later in the creed, we say “I give my heart to the church–that all-too-human community that many of us have struggled with over the years to be sure, but one that nevertheless tries, in its best moments and however imperfectly, to follow the Way of Jesus.

Here at St. John’s we are part of this larger community, and for us, our being church comes with a few specifics:

  • Radical hospitality to a motley crew of people, including those needing a safe, dry, quiet place to sleep;
  • Protection and accompaniment of refugees from the poverty and violence now laying siege to their struggling Central American countries
  • Strong arms and legs and backs and a little cash to help rural Nicaraguans build latrines and water stations
  • A prophetic outcry against the increasingly shrill voices of white supremacy and anti-immigrant hatred
  • A plea for an end to the violence both nationally and here in the Mission, whether
  • that violence comes from random individuals, gangs, or police
    A special pride at seeing so many young people in this struggling neighborhood finish high school and head off to college because of the work of Mission Graduates

It’s not just about some disembodied, left-wing, progressive agenda for saving the world. It’s about following Jesus.

And it’s not some disembodied, abstract, lofty ideal. It’s more real than that, more practical; it’s about credit cards and bank balances and checkbooks and squeezing what you can from your already meager resources. Over the next few weeks, you’ll hear a few reflections about our financial stewardship of this community.

This stewardship is about living into what we say we believe, and about our deepest values as followers of Jesus. It’s about being people of the Way who are willing to sacrifice to do the works of love.

It’s about giving your heart away, saying Yes and meaning it.

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