Rev. Dr. Marlene Kropf
Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32
Thirty years ago this fall I was a seminary student. And like all seminary students, I was required to take a preaching course.
For many students, the preaching course was high stress. Most of us hadn’t preached much before – which was my case. And to make matters worse, the preaching professor was known to be something of a tyrant. She could make mincemeat of any sermon – good or bad.
Among the terrifying things this professor did was to initiate us into preaching — cold turkey. During the first week of class, she would hand each of us a text, give us two minutes to read it and collect our thoughts, and then tell us to stand up and preach for five minutes.
The text I received was – you guessed it! Matthew 21.28-32 – the parable in today’s gospel reading:
“What do you think? A man had two sons;
He went to the first and said,
Son, go and work in the vineyard today…”
I don’t remember exactly what I preached that day, but I do remember what impressed me most about the text. It was the word No – Jesus was affirming people who say no to others, and in this case, to someone in authority. The son who said no to his father, who refused to follow orders, and then later changed his mind and said yes is the one who did the will of his father, the one who fulfilled his father’s hopes and desires.
Today I’m more impressed with the yes part of this story than the no part – but more about that in a bit.
Perhaps the reason I noticed the importance of saying no thirty years ago is that I had just been saying a lot of no’s. Our friends and family did not want us to leave Oregon and move to Indiana. When I told my dear Mennonite mother that the reason we were moving was so I could attend seminary, she was horrified. She said to me, “Well, if you go to seminary, at least don’t preach!”
And here I was learning how to preach.
At that stage of my life I had been learning to say no in a variety of ways: I needed to begin to say no to the people-pleasing expectations that had been part of my life for as long as I could remember. I was beginning to say no to some of the religious understandings I had inherited from my church and family. And because something new was stirring in me, it looked like I would need to say no to a teaching career that had brought me much satisfaction.
It felt very scary.
I hoped all these no’s were going to open up to a big yes somewhere in the future, but I had no idea what it was.
Today I understand more fully what was happening. I was leaving the first half of life and the fine container I had built in order to enter the second half of life with its paradox and mystery and new layers of trust in God.
Sometimes it’s important to say no. We don’t know why the first son in Jesus’ parable said no to his father. He may have just gotten up on the wrong side of the bed that day, but I suspect it was something deeper. He may have been tired of saying yeses that seemed forced and inauthentic. He may have wondered, What do I really want to do today?
But his courage to say no and then ponder his response to his father opened up a logjam. Something that had been stuck or clogged was split open. He discovered he did want to join his father’s work; he did want to see the vineyard prosper. And so he picked up the hoe and pruning shears and went to work.
If you are acquainted with the theory of the Enneagram, you know that there are three ways of being in the world, three postures that reveal our basic approach to life:
the gut people,
the heart people,
and the head people.
Gut people are visceral; they tend to resist, to say no. They push back and don’t immediately go along with others’ wishes.
Heart people tend to lean toward others’ wishes, to say yes. They want to be loved; they want harmony and peace; they want to please.
The second son may well have been a “heart” person. “Of course, I’ll go work in the vineyard,” he said to his father. How could he say no to his father?
But then, of course, he didn’t go. So something is wrong here. The second son may be resentful of all his yeses, and he may be tired of pushing aside his own desires. When it comes down to it, he can’t face another day of people-pleasing. His yes withers into a whimper and disintegrates into a no that eventually creates a chasm between himself and his father.
The third group of people, the head-people, tend to be neutral in their stance. They stand at the edge, watching and waiting, thinking about how to respond. They avoid conflict, shun engagement, stay on the fence. Our parable doesn’t present us with this option, but we know what it looks like.
According to Enneagram theory, the goal is for us to be able to use all three centers of intelligence: acting, feeling and thinking and to realize when we are on “automatic,” responding in habitual ways, instead of creative, discerning ways.
In Jesus we see all three stances: Jesus was saying no when he resisted the falseness of the Pharisees and religious rulers, the leaders who made a show of their piety but were not truly saying yes to God. Jesus was saying yes when he bent toward the sick and outcasts and women and lepers and drew them to himself, offering compassion and healing. And sometimes Jesus stood back, listening, waiting, pondering – as when he asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
Jesus knew how to make discerning use of all three centers of intelligence, and he wants his followers to do the same. He didn’t surround himself with yes-folks. After all, he called Peter and James and John and Judas to follow him – and Martha and Mary Magdalene and the Syro-Phoenician woman. His own mother Mary had had some practice saying no. She sang a song extolling revolution:
the proud are brought down and the lowly are lifted up.
Both no and yes can be costly. That’s what the Israelites discovered in today’s reading from Exodus.
They said yes to freedom, to being liberated from their bondage in Egypt – and then they discovered how long and hard the journey to freedom really is. In their weariness, their yes turned to a no.
We can’t do it, Moses. This journey is too hard.
We’re thirsty and tired, and we’re afraid we won’t make it.
Jesus also knew how costly these responses can be. He said no in the Garden of Gethsemane –
It’s too much. I can’t do this. Take this cup away from me.
But as we follow the story of Jesus’ passion and death, we see his no become a yes. Just like the first son in the parable, Jesus decides he does want to trust God — even though his enemies slay him. He will join what God is doing in the world.
And then – in the darkest night in the tomb, God does what God longs to do in every moment: God brings life – a huge resounding YES — out of death.
Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest, says,
We humans are not so at home with the resurrected form of things.
The death side of things grabs our imagination and fascinates us.
We have to be taught how to look for the infinite or good.
Somehow resurrection is actually a risk and a threat.
For some sad reason, it is joy that we hold lightly and victimhood that we grab onto.
(pp. x, xi, Immortal Diamond)
Jesus’ yes on the cross, his thorough and complete yes: body, heart and mind, continues to reverberate across the centuries, and we hear it still every time we walk up this aisle and hold out our hands for bread and wine.
What God wants ultimately is our yes – our freely-given yes. If it requires a no on the way to yes, God can be patient. God trusts us to discover our most profound desire – which is to be united with God.
In the Christ hymn from Philippians 2, we hear the song the earliest Christians sang to remind themselves of this amazing story and of their call:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – he said YES — even to death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name…
When we come to Christ’s Table, we bring our whole lives – all our no’s and yeses and maybe’s, and we open our hands: and whether we are tax collectors
or children or adults
or Episcopalians or not-Episcopalians,
we come in trust and receive courage to find the deep yes within us — the yes to everything: life and death, suffering and resurrection.
So let us come with joy and hope and eat the bread and drink the wine of new life – of radical yeses; let us chew on this Mystery and – together — become what we eat: LIVING BREAD for the world.