I want to share a story with you today. Several years I ago I had purchased a couch and love seat from Big Lots while living in Kentucky. Now, I know Big Lots does not carry the most prestigious of furniture, however after only 6 months of very gentle usage both pieces started to become undone in several places. For those of you who have been to Andrew and I’s home, you know how meticulous I can be and I tend to make sure things remain looking new. Naturally, I was quite infuriated that these new pieces of furniture had already begun to unravel. So I loaded them up in a truck and took them back to the local Big Lots to be exchanged towards a better set.
When I arrived an employee wearing a nametag that said “Pastor Bob” greeted me in the furniture section. In case you have forgotten, I was standing in the heart of the Bible belt – so not a complete shocker. Pastor Bob proceeded to introduce himself which included a run down of his church, personal faith, belief in Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior, superiority of his brand of Christianity over all others and finally the fact he had led countless souls to heaven while standing in Big Lots. Little did he know I was a minister myself standing there but it was clear this moment wasn’t about me or why I was in the store, it was about Pastor Bob and his divine mission, as he saw it. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity Pastor Bob asked me how he could help me.
I spoke up and shared that I had a previously purchased living room set outside in a truck that I wished to exchange for a store credit in order to purchase a better set. I told him how the fabric had begun to already come apart and I found that to be absurd after 6 months of minimal wear. Well, Pastor Bob looked up at me and told me there was no way he would exchange that living room set. He informed me that clearly I was a liar and had mistreated the pieces and I had best go home and get over myself. After several “back and forth moments” it was apparent I would be getting nowhere with Pastor Bob unless I wanted to kneel down and say a prayer with him and so I departed.
I drove one town over to the next Big Lots. I walked in where I saw a “hardcore” lesbian kissing her partner who had stopped by for her lunch break. I judged a little in my heart, no doubt. Then I walked back to the furniture section. Naturally, the woman I had just seen came walking in my direction. She said, “Hi, I’m Kate, how can I help you today?” Within fifteen minutes I had exchanged my furniture and had a new set loaded in the truck that I am still using to this day. Kate was warm, she was caring and she invested herself in my situation. Granted, she wasn’t a “pastor," as matter of fact, I have no idea what her faith was or who should have claimed to follow but her actions spoke volumes.
That day was no doubt the start of a turning point in my own theology and understanding of what being a child of God meant. The way I was raised would have led me to elevate Pastor Bob on a pedestal; after all he was doing the Lord’s work! Or was he? Kate might not have been covered in crosses or using religious titles or sharing her faith as some form of absolutism but she took time to listen, to look into my eyes, to see my upset and to respond lovingly.
Our Gospel reading today has Jesus telling a similar parable or story for his own day a time. A story that would not have gone over well with those who felt they were THE true followers of God and practically enjoyed belittling others as beneath them or subpar. Jesus tells us the tale of two sons and their father. The father approaches both of his sons to help him work in his vineyard. The first son is straight up himself and says, “Heck no, I don’t want to.” But ultimately finds his way to the field and gets the job done. The other claims he is happy and blessed to do so, can’t wait, after all its what he is all about, but ultimately he never goes to the vineyard and does nothing for his father. Jesus asks who listened to the father and the people respond, “The first son.” He then goes on to use provocative language, that is bound to upset the religious in the crowd, explaining the that “sinners” amongst them will enter or experience the kingdom of God first because they truly believed not in word but also deed and action.
We could summarize this parable in one short sentence: God cares more about what you do than what you say! It’s a simple concept, isn’t it? And yet, I think for many of us it can be down right horrifying. After all we are often great at priding ourselves on our faith and the religious traditions we deem to be correct. We know how to explain meticulously “who we are” and what we believe. We have invested endless hours scouring the pages of the Bible and “growing close to God.” But have we really? It seems to me that Jesus is telling us that we grow close to God not through lofty language, or descriptors we use for our faith, but rather through concrete lived action. We grow close to God; we enter the kingdom of heaven, when we heed God’s call to work in the vineyard. To work in the vineyard is to help those around us, to hear the cries for social justice, sustenance and equality. James 1:27 tells us, “True religion is looking after widows and orphans in distress…” Widows and orphans represent all those in society who are often forsaken and neglected. In these people we behold the face of God, when we help them up we are literally entering into the Kingdom and ways of God. You see it isn’t those who claim God that get to enter into the kingdom first; rather it is those who actually seek God out in the “least of these” and make a difference. God cares more about what you do than what you say.
As progressive people of faith, we often pride ourselves on leaving room for others. However, some of the vilest judgmental people I have ever met were “progressive Christians.” I have also met “fundamentalist Christians” who you knew were completely against certain ways of life and living and yet they would open their home to anyone at any moment, knowing it isn’t for them to judge and that God will take care of God’s own business. Our parable today is calling each of us to get over our verbiage, our rhetoric, our tiles, our poetic claims and promises and instead become serious about the work we are called to do. God doesn’t care whom you claim to be if, in all actuality, you do nothing and forsake loving your neighbor as yourself. God cares about you discovering the kingdom, discovering God’s own face in those around you. For far too long Christians have spent their time looking to future, hoping to enter a far off land called heaven, when Jesus said it is already here. All we have to do is respond to the call of God and begin to work in the vineyard.
(The song "Open the Eyes of My Heart Lord" preceded the homily.)
Today, we ask God to open the eyes of our hearts because we truly want to see God. This isn’t some goose bump prayer meant to get us into a zone where we can feel God like no one else. It is essentially a prayer asking us to open our eyes to the Divine all around us, to God who is asking for food and drink, to God who is asking for a listening ear and to God who is asking for a hug. When we finally quiet our mouths long enough to actually engage the presence of God in those around us we will witness Love high and lifted up, we will witness God shining in our midst and we will know true power. True power is seeing the humanity and the Divinity in our neighbor, it is calling each person we meet: “Holy, Holy, Holy.” We can claim to be people of faith all we want but do we actually live as people of faith? Do we say , “yes, yes, yes,” and then sit idly around or do we sometimes have doubts and yet still take up the call to love as God?
In the word of today’s 25th Psalm, may we ask God to show us how to work, to school us and then may we go to work caring in our lives and communities. Because when it is all said and done, it turns out: God cares more about what you do than what you say!