Sermon – September 28, 2014
The Rev. Rebecca S. Myers, CSW
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Corbin, KY
“Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Matthew 21:31
Please be seated.
As I was thinking about Latino/Latina Heritage month, I was remembering my friend Maria. She was a NewYoRican, having lived some of her life in Puerto Rico, but much of her life in New York City.
By the time I met Maria, she had relocated to Harrisburg, and she had been in recovery from drug addiction for many years. She was a counselor in an outpatient treatment clinic and a mom, raising a daughter the same age as my daughter. She was very active in the community, advocating for justice. And she was a patient and loving teacher and a wonderful trainer.
I first got to know Maria through an informal group that organized to address racism in the Harrisburg area. Throughout her life, we continued that work in many places and in many ways. And we also became very good friends, having children who grew up together, going camping, taking trips, going to dinner and the movies.
When I was living in North Carolina, Maria and her two grandsons came to visit for a weekend. When Maria got to my house, she realized she’d forgotten her suitcase! Well, there was a GoodWill store within walking distance of where I lived. Maria bought a whole wardrobe for the weekend, jewelry, belt and shoes included, plus a toy for each of her grandsons, for about $20! She was classy in her style of dress and loved bargains.
Maria taught me so many things, including the fact that good intentions don’t let you off the hook for your actions. She’d say, if you put your foot on my neck (an action), do you expect me to thank you when you lift it off just a little (good intentions.)? In other words, even if you intended for good, the results of your actions were the key.
That’s what we hear in our Gospel today, isn’t it? Jesus tells a parable about intentions and actions. The first son did not intend to follow his father’s request, but then acted in compliance with the request; whereas, the second son intended to follow his father’s request, but his actions proved otherwise.
How many times are we like the second son? We refuse to take the actions we know are best or right or Christian, yet when the consequences of our inaction occur and people are hurt, we bargain for credit or even total pardon, because our intentions were good or honorable. Today Jesus says, “The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions.”
Because, there are consequences when our intentions do not lead us to action. The father experienced consequences in the vineyard. Not as much work was able to be done that day. Maybe he was out finding others to labor in the vineyard or figuring out how to live on the reduced harvest. What would you say to the son who intended to go out and work and then did not? The father would find it hard to trust this son. Yes, there were definitely consequences when the intentions did not match action.
The scribes and elders intended to be faithful, to follow God, serve God, worship God… to do God’s Will, but Jesus lets them know their actions do not follow their intentions. That the actions of the outcasts, prostitutes, tax collectors, people usually not deemed to want to follow God, serve God and worship God, nonetheless acted in ways that were faithful to God’s will.
Christ is calling us to match our intentions with our action…to love our neighbor as ourselves; to not be so attached to our property; to work for justice and fairness; to be good stewards of all God has given us. We intend to and we fall short.
So today, we also hear Paul exhort, “… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12). We intend to work out our own salvation, knowing that following Jesus saves us and we are imperfect in our actions. That is why we are humble…why we do so with fear and trembling. Not because we are afraid God will punish us, but because we know we must be vigilant in our efforts to match intention with action, because we know how often we will fail.
Even though Maria eventually moved to Rhode Island, and I moved to DC, we stayed in touch. She called me one December, about 2007, I think, and left a message on my phone. Now I can’t remember whether I called her back to not, but I kept that message on my phone, just to hear the sound of her voice. A couple of months later, I received the news that Maria had advanced cancer. She died within a couple of weeks. I kept that message on my phone for years.
You see, Maria taught me about the strength of community. She taught me how we work our our own salvation, acting with great humility, with the fear and trembling Paul talks about. She taught me how important it is that intentions match action. She taught me that my good intentions did not and could not let me off the hook for the consequences of the actions I took or failed to take. I couldn’t bear to know her voice was no longer in the world. I felt I had so much more to learn.
So, we come together in the community of St. John’s today. We are in the same boat and it’s easier to share with others who are also doing their best. It’s easier when we pray together for and receive forgiveness. It’s easier when we break bread and drink the cup of wine together. We can begin again. Together, we work out our salvation and do the will of the father.