October 1, Just do it

Just do it

Matthew 21:23-32

Here’s my preparation paragraph that I wrote about the sermon before I actually wrote the sermon – I’ll just give it to you right up front:

We are all inconsistent and mismatched. We say one thing and do another. Often our internal thoughts don’t match our spoken words. We paint ourselves in one way and then sneak around to do the very thing we judged in someone else. To be consistent, to have the internal and external parts of us match up, is a constant effort. Some do it more easily, it seems, than others. But Jesus wants you to know: when you are inconsistent (and you will be!) it’s the action that counts most of all. The questions is this: Did you do what Jesus would have wanted you to do? You may sometimes have said the wrong thing at the wrong time, but did you do the right thing when it counted?

That’s what I wrote when I was making my initial plans for this sermon some time ago, and that paragraph has been sitting on the side of my desk as I have been thinking and writing about the scripture text this week, particularly the second half of the text.

But first, the first half: The scripture starts with a story about Jesus having his authority challenged by the temple priests and elders. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they ask. Jesus turns the tables with a question of his own: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?”

The priests and elders have a dilemma then: Should they say that John’s baptism was of heaven and then have to explain why they didn’t get on board with it right from the start? Or should they say that it wasn’t of heaven – that it was of human origin – and risk the backlash from the crowds of regular folks who did consider John to be a prophet? It’s a thorny dilemma, so they punt, so to speak: “We don’t know.” And then Jesus refuses to answer their question as well. 

That’s the part of the scripture text that you may have heard before – memorable because it appears to be one of those verbal martial arts moves for which Jesus is well-known in his encounters with the religious authorities; they try to attack him or trick him, and then he uses their own critical or argumentative momentum against them.

It’s kind of a clever back and forth; I like it. But the second half of this scripture is the part that more captures my imagination, stirs my interest. It’s the part where Jesus tells another of his shorter parables:

 ‘What do you think? (he says) A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. And then Jesus follows up with a question: Which of the two did the will of his father?’ The temple priests and elders respond, ‘The first.’

Why do they say that? Because they know, as we know, that when it comes right down to it, actions speak louder than words. It’s not that words don’t matter, but actions speak louder than words. And, if you say one thing and do another, then what you do is the standard by which you will be judged or measured.

Now, as I said upfront, we are all inconsistent and mismatched in our words and behaviors. All too often, we say one thing and do another. And it is also true that our internal thoughts don’t always match our spoken words and to have the internal and external parts of us match-up is a constant effort.

This is true for us and it is true for others. So, over time, we can get a pretty good picture about a person’s motives or intentions (whether our own motives or someone else’s motives, our own intentions or someone else’s intentions) simply by paying attention to the match or mismatch of word and deed.

For example: Someone might say (as is suggested in the parable), “I don’t want to work today,” but do they show up then, and do a good job? Or they might say, “Yes, I’ll get the job done!” but do they lay in bed all day? What are you to believe then? The words or the actions? What does integrity and trustworthiness look like? It looks like words and actions going together, doesn’t it?

The Church of the Brethren denominational taglines reveal where we stand on this matter of how the rubber hits the road in terms of word and deed: “Continuing the work of Jesus, peacefully, simply, together,” is one of the taglines and the other is “Another way of living” – that is, we emphasize continuing the work (not just continuing the words) and we lift up another way of living, not just another way of talking.

And yet, even though we know that actions reveal the truth of our words, and that a consistent person or institution is easier to trust than an inconsistent one, we still seem to get fooled all the time by either believing words and ignoring actions, or by getting distracted by words and forgetting to look at the outcomes.

Jesus says to the priests and elders, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

And what does he mean when he uses the word “believe”? Does he mean “to agree in principle,” or “to nod in assent,” or “to repeat what you are told,”? Is that what Jesus means when he says that the “tax collectors and the prostitutes believed (John)”?

No, of course not. What he means by “believe,” is that those who came to listen to John, heard what he said, took it into their heads and their hearts, and then acted: they decided to repent, and went into the water to be baptized, and came out with a new direction for living.

Now the call to marry your words to your deeds seems like a simple message, right? It’s the call to be honest about your inconsistencies; to bring your actions in line with your words; to believe with more than just your mind – that is, to translate your believing into living. And maybe it is a simple message, but we live in a time when the air is filled with arguments, and social media means that everyone can and does have an audience, and people worry more about (and are seemingly more influenced by) intensity than integrity.

We get caught up in words: We argue about what things mean and how they look and what people’s motives are – about things like national anthems and kneeling athletes and what it all means -- and meanwhile storm ravaged islands edge closer to starvation and disease and despair.

That doesn’t mean that the conversation about free speech and patriotism and societal injustices and what is or isn’t unifying isn’t important. It is. Without conversation we don’t start to challenge and be challenged in our thinking. But ‘arguing about’ is not the same thing as doing good. And maybe, just maybe, patriotism (for example) isn’t best demonstrated by arguing about what is happening on a sideline, so much as it is demonstrated by delivered food and water and electricity to citizens of the United States who are suffering the devastating effects of two hurricanes in two weeks’ time.

Talk if you must, but take care of the widow and the orphan and the alien in your midst. Talk if you must, but repent from your self-centeredness, your defensiveness, your anger, your complicity.

How do we turn that corner? Maybe the key phrase in the parable is this one – referring to the son who says “No, I won’t go” and then later does: “But later he changed his mind.” Maybe that’s the key to the whole thing: Later he changed his mind.

I’d like you to think for a moment about that – about changing your mind – and more specifically how changing your mind (from stubbornness to acceptance, say, or from judging to embracing, or from resisting to engaging) allows you then to change your actions.

And then think of an instance – recently, if possible – where you did change your mind and changing your mind led to a new and better set of actions.

John the Baptist calls it repentance and we tend to only think of it as the turn from the bad to the good, and it can be that, but might it also be turning from inconsistency to consistency, turning from closed to open, turning from rhetoric to helpfulness, turning from word to action?

I was writing these words on Wednesday morning and afternoon, knowing that the boys high school soccer team would be going to North Miami later in the day to play for the conference championship; and knowing that the man who coaches that team drives me nuts: He seems to me to be…well, I won’t say it, but you know it’s not good. I have nothing good to say about him.

But as I worked on this sermon about words and actions in the middle of the day on Wednesday, I knew also that what I think (and am tempted to say) about him, can’t be what I allow to direct, or overshadow, or outweigh my actions.

I pushed the scripture text around on my desk knowing that when I would go to the game in North Miami, later in the day, I would have to interact with this man. I would have to approach rather than turn away. I would have to let his rudeness roll off my back. Why? Not because I am trying to fool anyone (trying to act polite even though inside I am…you know) but because I have to point myself, maybe even pull myself, in the direction of grace. I have to act in a way that might even change my thinking.

Did I manage to do it at the game that evening? Did I set my default thoughts and words to the side, and act the way I want to be in the world? Well, I certainly tried.  I started by not saying anything to or about him that I wouldn’t want my players to repeat. I initiated conversation. I tried to think about ways I could be a force for positive good and then I tried to act on those things. I put my arm around players. I picked up the water bottles and the balls, instead of looking around for who “should” be doing those things. I shook hands. I smiled. I was gracious in defeat.I tried to be who I want to be, even in the presence of someone who pushes my buttons.

Did it work? Well, I can say at least this: Rather than be in reaction-mode I was in initiation-mode. Rather than clenching up, I was ready to be in the moment. Rather than looking for problems I was looking for possibilities.

But was it just me behaving better? Maybe it was that, but I don’t think it was just that. I think it was a spiritual thing too; spiritual-intention, spiritual-awareness, trusting that God will fill in the gaps that exist in me, believing that grace isn’t created by me, but neither do I have to always get in the way of grace, as I so often do.

And from that awareness-filled encounter, I had it confirmed again that I can work on changing my mind by changing my behavior; doing the right thing consistently enough that I begin to believe more readily and more fully in that right thing.

I was reminded that I need to think more about repentance, about changing my mind so that I can start over – not just once, but again and again. I need to think more about where the inconsistencies in my life are sapping my spiritual and emotional energy, because I am spending so much of that energy trying to paper over the dishonesty of those inconsistencies. I need to think about issues like privilege and racism and violence and how I am participating in those things with my words and even my actions. I need to think about what “continuing the work of Jesus” really means for me, for us, and what “another way of living” looks like in these times.

And I’d invite you to do the same. Spend less time reading the news this week to find the things that feed your outrage or justify your judgement of others. Spend less time on the words that bounce around. Instead, think to yourself: What can I do this week? The doing may have something to do with how you shape your thoughts and words, but more likely it will also have to do with some kind of physical act, or at the very least, with some kind of intentional encounter with another.

What can I do? I say that I want to be a good neighbor, but what can I do? I say that I want to follow Christ, but what can I do? I say that I want to be helpful, or compassionate, or courageous in the face of injustice, but what can I do? I say that I want to challenge the status quo, stand up for those who are at the margins, but what can I do? I say that I want to be consistent in word and deed, but what can I do?

And then this question as well: What do I need to change; what change of heart or change of mind do I need to embrace, before I can do what I need to do?

Start there and see what happens. Maybe you’ll get a taste of your own repentance. Maybe you’ll get a taste of unexpected grace. Maybe you’ll get a taste of the coming kingdom of God. Amen.


Benediction: See it, speak it, do it; take one more step toward the undivided life. And Christ be with you and in you. Amen.


Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

October 1, 2017