Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 26A)
Sunday, September 27, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester

Watch Here (Minute 24:12)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Just over a decade ago, I traveled to Europe with my parents. My Dad was recently retired, and my parents were looking for a vacation destination. Because I had been to Europe a year earlier, and loved it, I offered myself as a tour guide and volunteered to go with them if they wanted to go to Europe.   

My parents were convinced and eight months later off we went.  The trip was 17 days and it was just the three of us. The trip went well, but during those two weeks with my parents I saw something in them I hadn’t seen before. I had previously recognized glimpses of what I saw on the trip, but being together with my parents in that unique way revealed it more clearly.  What I saw in my parents … was myself!

In my parent’s behaviors/actions/interactions I saw my own behaviors/actions/ interactions! While I had always been told I looked like both my parents – I experienced in new ways how much I acted and behaved like them as well.   Some of this was good!  Some of this was startling and annoying.  On the whole, however, I give thanks that the good traits far outweighed the bad.

Family Systems theory, is the school of thought that says behaviors are handed down in families from generation to generation. The theory suggests that families, congregations, organizations organize themselves in ways that promote or discourage specific behaviors that get passed down to successive generations. The people in the system change from year to year, or generation to generation – but the behaviors remain constant.

I recognize not only the ways I am my parent’s son, but also the grandson of my grandparents, the nephew of my uncles. I am product of a family environment that shaped me. I give thanks that for me, this is generally good; the reality is, however, it is not always so good and healthy.

The prophet Ezekiel, in our First Reading today [Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32], attempted to break the family system that occurred among the Hebrew people. “The word of the Lord came to me” writes Ezekiel “What do you mean by repeating this proverb, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’” (18:1-2)

The proverb repeated the commonly held belief at the time about intergenerational  punishment – that later generations suffered because of the sins of earlier generations. But God’s Word in Ezekiel, challenged this understanding and invited the hearers to believe that each generation was responsible for its own behaviors. “As I live says the lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.” What mattered was not heritage, but action – either living in wickedness or living righteousness.

In this way, Ezekiel offered both warning and promise to his hearers. The warning: “When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die …” The promise: “When the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed … they shall save their life … they shall surely live; they shall not die.” (vs 27-28). 

Ezekiel promised a new beginning to the people through the forgiveness of God. The people of one generation need not be punished because of the sins of a previous generation. What mattered was not who the people were as descendants of sin, but what the people did in response to God’s call of repentance.

God’s word spoken in Ezekiel, has some interesting implications if we think about what this means for us today.  

Lutheran Pastor Hank Langknecht writes: “Ezekiel’s prophecy opens the door to consideration of the relationship between contemporary descendants of white slave owners, or members of the Gestapo and the sins of their ancestors. Are they forever culpable? This passage suggests they are not.”

This summer I read an interesting book entitled: “Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil” written by Susan Neiman, an American-born Jew born who grew up in the American South and who now works as an adult in Berlin, Germany. In her book, she writes about the similarities and contrasts between Germans working off the sin of the holocaust, and Americans working off the sins of slavery, segregation, and racism throughout the history of this country.

Neiman writes of learning a German word vergangenheitsaufarbeitung ­­– which she translates as “working off the past” as a way the German people are working through the sin of the holocaust. Reading her book, I get the sense she would agree with the statement, that this generation of Germans or Americans is not responsible, and need not be shamed and condemned for the existence of the holocaust and slavery & segregation. There is no shame by virtue of heritage.

But rather, that along with Ezekiel’s cry that each generation is responsible for itself – we are judged by our own actions and inactions. Neiman’s point, is that if we do not intentionally work off the sins of our ancestors, if we do not understand how what happened back then shapes, and lives on in, and continues to effect, what happens now, then we are condemned and doomed to repeat the atrocities again and again, maybe not in the same overt form, but in subtle, sinister, and evil ways that keep alive atrocities of the past.

Today, we are not judged by the sins of our ancestors.

We are judged by our own actions, by our own inability to understand Family Systems Theory … that behaviors are handed down from generation to generation … that the root sin of racial hierarchy continues to be committed today – even if the people and forms have changed. We, as Americans are not judged by the existence of slavery & segregation in our history, WE ARE JUDGED by the ongoing existence of racial hierarchy, racial inequality, and race based violence and oppression happening today.

Let’s put Ezekiel’s message through the frame of today’s Gospel story.

In today’s gospel [Matthew 21:23-32] the chief priests and elders were looking to pick a fight with Jesus. In response, Jesus told them a parable of a father with two sons and then asked which son did the will of the father. This is a tricky parable. If we see righteousness in the son who at first said no, and then went and worked, then we would side with the chief priests and elders who so often got it wrong, and who opposed the ministry of Jesus, who said this was the righteous son.

Some commentators point out both sons were partially right and both were partially wrong. Faith is both saying YES to God’s will. We are not called to grumble, complain, and say no. We’re called to say yes. And, faith is DOING God’s will. We are not called to say yes with our lips but no with our actions.  God’s will is not optional, not something we can delay, resist, or set aside until the time is right. We are called to do God’s will.

What’s interesting in the parable is that Jesus doesn’t commend either son. He doesn’t acknowledge that the chief priests and elders are right. Instead, Jesus shifts attention to the tax collectors and prostitutes who responded to John’s call for repentance. The ones who did the will of the father, was neither son, but it was the outsiders, the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners who responded to John’s preaching, and repented, and turned to God and lived!

If our response to the Gospel story is to consider which son we are, then we are claiming a privilege in which we get to decide whether we say YES or NO to God’s will and whether we DO or DO NOT do God’s will.  Perhaps the tax collectors and prostitutes and those who heard John’s call to repent, knew they had no choice.  Perhaps they knew they were on a dead end road to sin, and knew they had no choice but to turn to God and live?

Writing on this parable, theologian Andy Evenson suggests we: “Sketch a story about a third child, [of the father] a daughter who neither makes promises she doesn’t keep nor busily tries to please her demanding parent. Rather, she shows up for dinner because she’s hungry. She might show up late. She brings a lot of questions. She’ll continue to live a flawed life. But her hunger brings her back to the table again and again.”

What if we saw ourselves today, as a third child of this parent? A third child, who recognizes our sinfulness, our brokenness, and our need for God’s grace, mercy, and salvation in our lives?  A third child who has no choice but to return to God, again and again, begging for forgiveness, and seeking strength to God’s will?

Seeing ourselves as a third child would fit with Bernard Brandon Scott’s comment on this parable … “The parable ironically employs the metaphor of the kingdom as a family because this family is not perfect but ordinary, rife with the tensions of normal families.” To live in the reign of God does not mean that we are without our faults, sins, and shortcomings, but it does mean to live with God, other people, and ourselves as accepted and responsible humans.”

The Good News today – is that in the love of God – God cloths confessing and repentant sinners with the forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ.

In Jesus Christ – is resurrection to new beginnings to those dead in sin and shame. Regardless of the sin or shame in your past, regardless of who others might say you are because of the sins of your ancestors.

Today, in the mercy of Jesus, you are invite to new life through confession and repentance.  In the reconciliation we have with God in Christ Jesus, we are called into a future that is whole, just, and joyful.

In faith, we are called to turn from our wickedness, to turn from the sin handed down to us, to turn from the sin that flows out of us. We are invited to reject, renounce, and resist the ways of evil that perpetuate inequality and oppression among God’s children. We are invited to turn to the life of Christ, who as a servant, emptied himself, and brought life and salvation to all.

May the Holy Spirit grant you the power to be responsible for yourself, your actions, and your identity. May the Holy Spirit fill you with repentance and confession, that along with the tax collectors and prostitutes who received John’s message of repentance, you may hear and respond to God’s call to life. May the Holy Spirit grant you the faith to know your new beginning in Jesus Christ – that your new life in Christ begins today.  

Thanks be to God.