Summary: Doing the will of God, even though not exactly as quickly as God had hoped, is still better than saying we will and never getting around to it.
19 Pentecost A Matthew 21:23-32 29 September 2002
Rev. Roger Haugen
Do you remember what happened 30 years ago this week? 1972. Does the name Paul Henderson help out? Yes, 30 years ago this week Paul Henderson scored arguably the most famous goal ever scored in the history of hockey. It is the eighth game of the Canada – Russia series, the series is all tied up after a less than glorious series. The Canadians were expected to dominate, yet here they were back in Russia after losing two and winning one and tying one in Canada. Unknowns like Tretiak had taught us a lesson or two about our game. The mood is ugly and the final game is 34 seconds from the end and Paul Henderson puts the puck in the net and we won.
If you talk to Paul Henderson, who is more famous for that goal than for anything he did before or since, he will tell you it was a garbage goal. One of those goals that result from a pile-up in front or a fluke deflection. Not a pretty goal that you think of when you think of the likes of Wayne Gretsky. It was a garbage goal and Henderson is the first to admit it. But you know what, the goal counted, Canada won and that was all that mattered. I don’t remember the goal going in, but I certainly remember the image etched in my memory of the Canadian team gathered around Paul Henderson with his arms in the air. A garbage goal but it counted, and we won. All that mattered was he put the puck in the net.
Jesus tells a story. There were two brothers who were asked to go into the vineyard to work. One said, “Oh, sure” but never went. The second said, “Not today,” but later changed his mind and went to work. Jesus asked those around, “Who did the will of the Father?” and they all answered, it was the second son. The older son knew all the right words but did nothing about them. It may not have happened the way that the Father would have liked, but the work got done and that was all that mattered in the end.
We just know that Jesus was talking to the religious leaders who were gathered around to catch Jesus and John doing something against the Torah. The leaders knew the words of the Torah so well, but that was where it ended. Very soon in the story, we know that Jesus caught their attention and their inaction, because they soon gathered to crucify him.
Jesus was also talking to the tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners who hungered for all his words, his healing, grace and love. Here were a lot of people who hadn’t lived lives anywhere near what we might call “righteous”. They were the outcast, the scum of society and they knew it. They had made a lot of bad choices in their lives, but they heard the words of Jesus and wanted to turn their lives around. They were not to be bound by their past, what mattered was that they had decided, now, to follow Jesus. Jesus’ words of grace and hope to them in this story were that they need not be bound by the past, forgiveness was theirs and more than that, they were invited to live in the kingdom of God. They were restored to a relationship with God, that which they craved so dearly. That which they saw in the life of Jesus.
Jesus also speaks to us. Sometimes we are the first brother, knowing all the right answers, hanging out with the right people in the right place but forgetting what Jesus has asked us to be about. We forget that we are to go to others with the good news that Jesus has come to restore our relationship to others. We forget that our real work is outside of these walls. We say the right words but forget to allow them to change our lives.
Sometimes we are the second brother. We may have made poor choices in our lives, we have ignored what Jesus asks us to do. We might feel as though we do not deserve anything from God, let alone the right to ask. Yet, sometimes we turn back to God asking forgiveness even if we do not believe we can rise above our past. It is to us, as the second brother, that Jesus speaks telling us to not let the past destroy us, it is far more important how we respond today. We may not know eloquent words of confession, but the confession of our deep longings and actions is all that counts. Remember Paul Henderson’s garbage goal. If we are to live gracefully into our futures then we need to live gracefully with our pasts.