"You don't know"
A sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on October 1, 2017
Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; Phil 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
October 1, 2017—Proper 21A
Exod 17:1-7; Phil 2:1-13; Matt 21:23-32
Imagine we lived in a world in which people make up their minds almost before they hear all the facts. A world in which huge numbers of people have essentially taken a lifetime subscription to a particular worldview. A world in which those people feed on a regular diet of outrage, fed to them by the preachers, the pundits, the bloggers and the news outlets they consume. Imagine such a world, in which weeks upon end could be consumed by inflammatory opinions from either side, so loud that they fairly much drown out any people who might at least be trying to listen to each other.
Like the veteran who listened to what the quarterback had to say about why he was protesting. Like the quarterback who listened to that veteran and went from a disrespectful slouch to a more carefully-considered knee.
Imagine living in such a world, where so many people seem to find it difficult to hear other perspectives … to honor other perspectives … to acknowledge the limitations of their own perspectives … to be able to have their minds changed. To be transformed.
Imagine Jesus talking to a world like that. To people who are convinced of their own rightness, their own morality, the fact that they are completely sure that THEY are on the right side of history and of eternity. THEY are religiously righteous. THEY are politically and ideologically righteous. Imagine that. And then imagine Jesus challenging them, challenging YOU (challenging me), to be more humble than that.
There was a son who said “Here I am!” when asked to do something, but then he didn’t do it. There was another who said he did not wish to do it, but then (as it turned out) he did. And Jesus asked which one of these did the will of the Father, and the priests and the elders were sure it was the second son: the one who said he would not, did not want to, did not intend to, but then went on to do it.
And maybe they were right, and maybe they were wrong. Jesus never says, but it would certainly be something for the religious elite to consider, that actions speak more loudly than the correct words.
But the fact is: we have very little information about any of it. We don’t know anything of the circumstances that led either son in the parable to their original answer, or to their eventual actions. We don’t know whether they lied, or misjudged their own abilities, or found their circumstances or attitudes changed in some way. We have no idea who or what might have intervened, for better or worse, to bring them to or keep them from their father’s vineyard.
We don’t know. And isn’t that so often the case? We don’t know. We don’t ask. We don’t stop, in the face of a decision or opinion that disturbs us, that we are SURE is wrong (is evil, is stupid, is different from ours); we don’t stop to explore what has possibly brought it about.
Because it’s easier to ascribe motives. Easier to cast an opposing religion as heathen, godless or non-biblical. Easier to cast an opposing political opinion as selfish or hateful or divisive. Easier to give our own motives and outcomes the benefit of the doubt, while casting the worst possible light on the opposition. Easier to maintain a death grip on the myth that we have it all correct, than possibly have to give any ground whatsoever, by admitting that we do not possess the entirety of the Truth.
When Jesus challenges the priests and elders to answer his question about John the Baptist, we recognize their response. They aren’t actually looking at what the truth may be about John’s authority; they are weighing the costs and consequences of either answer. If we admit this, then it means this. If we assert this, then it will cost us this. The truth of the thing, the reality of the situation, is less important than the face we might lose, the ground we might have to give up, the price we might have to pay.[i]
As a contrast, Jesus holds up the tax collectors and the prostitutes. Holds them up not because of the things that they have done (or perhaps still do, it’s hard to say), but because of their ability to recognize that they are capable of doing wrong. They know that they are sinners. They know that they are fallen. They know that they can make mistakes, and so they are willing to listen … able to hear the whispering of God wherever it might appear … able to admit that they don’t have the whole truth, and to change their minds. Which is why THEY, and not the religious elite (or the politically correct) will be showing all the rest of us the way into the Kingdom of God!
Because you don’t know. You don’t know. You don’t know the motivations and thoughts of others, any more than we know what moved either of those sons to do or not do what they said … to do or not do the will of their father. You really, really don’t know. And much of the time, acting as though you DO KNOW will do nothing but lead you down dangerous paths of ignorance, division, pride and an utterly un-Christian lack of compassion.
So, be humble. Be willing to seek the fullness of truth, and take whatever consequence that might bring for your perspective, your team, your position in this world. Be humble enough to suspend judgment, to ask questions, and to listen.
Be humble enough to hear what motivates a football player to take a knee during the national anthem. And on the flip side, be humble enough to hear why this particular protest feels so painful and insulting to so many. Because you don’t know. And your current reaction (to this and to so many things) might well be more about the costs and consequences of any answer than it is about the truth.
Stop and listen, because you don’t know. And refusing to know shuts you off from the huge and gracious possibility that God extends to all of us … the promise that all of us (chief priests and tax collectors, protesters and police officers) always, eternally, need to be redeemed, restored, renewed, and reclaimed. Even you. Even if you’ve never been on the wrong side of any issue, I hate to tell you: even you. We all, always, eternally, need to be redeemed. AND we all, always, eternally, CAN be redeemed.
Even that person you might be sure is doing it wrong religiously (like the priests thought about the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and quite frankly, Jesus), Even that person you’re sure is doing it wrong politically (and I’ll let you take a moment to think who THOSE people are for you). Even they are going to be in the line of folks getting into the kingdom of God. Maybe in front of you, maybe behind you, it’s hard to say. All that Jesus tells us is that those folk who have already admitted that they don’t know it all, that they are imperfect, that they are willing to be transformed, THEY are the ones who will be showing all the rest of us the way into the Kingdom!! Thanks be to God, and may we have the humility to follow where they lead. May it be so, Amen.