"I will not"-Sermon for Proper 21, Matthew 21:23-32
As some of you likely know, for 7 years I directed one of the weeks of summer camp at Camp Allen, which is our wonderful Diocesan Summer Camp Program for youth and children. In particular, it was one of the weeks for the high school aged kiddos. And, friends, I loved every bit of my time with those students. And, I mean that entirely. I am all in on Camp Allen. And, if you have a child who is camper aged, which begins the summer before 3rd grade, I strongly urge you to consider it…recognizing that camp is not for all families or all kiddos. My own children are 3rd generation campers, as their grandmother, my mother, Ellen, attended Camp Allen in the 1950’s. About half way between summers each year my kids will complain of suffering from being “campsick”. Camp is loads of fun…the blob is my favorite activity…and if that means nothing to you…google it…videos of people blobbing will surely provide a few moments of genuine entertainment. But, camp is way more than just fun. Camp is about friendship building, about stretching yourself as you try new things, and, perhaps most of all, about deepening one’s relationship with God in Christ. I have seen camp literally transform lives, as kids who live very challenging lives at home and school, find hope and support by leaning into the grace of God that suffuses each day at camp and by building relationships with counselors and staffers and adult leaders whose sole focus for the week is loving their campers entirely. I was always blown away to see how just a week, which feels like such little amount of time, can make such a ginormous difference in helping kids thrive through the other 51 weeks of their year. Thus, friends, again, I am all in on Camp Allen.
And, I share this Camp Allen “commercial” with you…that they didn’t compensate me to make…to admit…to vulnerably share with you…that each year, without exception, in the months leading up to my week of directing camp…I did not want to go. Now, remembering that I was going as an adult director and not a camper…it is important to say…the week, as Jonathan can attest, despite all of its wonder and glory, was also a whole, whole lot of work. The spiritual formation that I so wanted to be fun, engaging, and meaningful for 60ish high school students…the pastoral care for staff and campers who came to camp with all sorts of wounds and personal challenges…the interpersonal work required to always keep the peace and be sure each child succeeded in all things…and just a week of lots of heat and little AC…was altogether truly daunting. It’s definitely not a vacation week. Thus, there was, again, always a point a few months out from the first day of camp…and I am not joking or exaggerating…where I was performing robust mental gymnastics…trying desperately to figure out any way I could just bail. I could just say, like the first son in the short parable Jesus sets before us today, “I will not!” I will not go back to camp.
Now, just in case you were worried, also, like the first son in Jesus’ parable, in the end, I always relented. I rolled up my sleeves…got to planning…and entered the part of God’s vineyard that we call Camp Allen. And, as I hope my opening commercial suggests, blessings always abounded, and I wouldn’t have traded the week for the world. And, honestly, I have always connected that experience of really not wanting to go back to camp and then being so glad that I did…to this very parable that, again, Jesus sets before us today. Thus, I have always considered…based on my own experience and feelings…that the initial response of the first son…telling his father that he would not go work in the family vineyard…to be just, plain honest. I believe he really didn’t want to go…just as he said aloud.
Now, I have always had pretty romantic notions of what it would be like to be an actual farmer…making a living with my own two hands, getting to spend each day in the great outdoors, filling my lungs with fresh air, putting food on the table for my family that I helped produce, learning the ways of the seasons and the weather, studying and understanding the patterns of livestock, participating in the feeding of the world around me…really to me this all sounds quite lovely. And, I do believe farming, plants, animals or both, is noble, meaningful and utterly life-giving work. However, setting my romantic notions aside, I imagine farm workers across this country would be the very first to tell you, the work they do is unimaginably hard…physically, financially and otherwise. So, again, I imagine that the first son’s negative response to his father’s request that he spend the day laboring in the vineyard was entirely honest…even if not what his father wanted to hear…and, even, if he knew deep down that for his father’s sake, for those others who depended on the vineyard’s sake, and even for his own sake…he should just say yes…roll up his sleeves, enter the vineyard, and do the work.
And, of course, in the end, that is exactly what this son does. He says he won’t…but he actually does the work requested of him. And, simply said, perhaps what Jesus is then suggesting to his audience comprised of his own religious leadership and to us today, in this parable, is that it never too late to do the right thing. Friends, my experience is that doing the right thing is seldom easy and, further, the desire to avoid what is hard is utterly human. So, despite all the consternation and hand-wringing and going back and forth and justifying making the easy and comfortable choice…at the end of the day…I believe Jesus is saying to us…what matters the absolute most…is whether we show up in the vineyard in the end or not.
Like all parables, Jesus is speaking to us in metaphors. Jesus is not actually talking about farming here…about harvesting grapes for food or drink. Instead, Jesus was simply using what was ordinary and commonly understood in his day to make a theological point about what it looks like to live a good and Godly life…a life full of meaning and purpose…the very life we were created by God, in the very image of love, to be. Thus the vineyard that both sons are asked to work in represents many different things…like making hard and good choices about how we spend our time and our money…like how we choose to parent and lead…like finding the courage to speak up and speak out when we see people being abused or taken advantage of…like getting honest and naming what we need to change about ourselves to be better humans…like honestly examining the ways we relate to, use and share the earth’s resources…like slowing down enough to really see the people around us who need our attention, our care, a listening ear. And what matters the absolute most at any given time is not what was…but what will be…because whatever we have said, done, argued, justified, or chosen in the past…does not have to dictate what we do or don’t do next…even who we are, as our most essential selves, moving forward.
Friends, this is a parable of grace. And, when we think of grace, we might first and correctly think of God’s forgiveness for human sin…for our sin. We may think first and foremost of the fact that through Jesus’ faithful, loving sacrifice on the cross…we have been and are forever reconciled to God. And, that is, indeed, grace. But, the gift of grace is not just a “get out of eternal jail free” card, and grace is surely not a means of justifying future poor choices. Instead, the forgiveness and reconciliation we receive by the grace of God alone is intended to be spiritual power to be different moving forward…the power to be unbound by our past choices that we regret…the power to overcome self-interest and greed…the power to courageously, sacrificially move out of our comfort zones, take risks, be vulnerable and enter the vineyard…especially when we don’t want to…or flat our said we won’t. For really knowing and believing in God’s all-consuming and unconditional love, which is the substance of grace, is the very source of all the encouragement…all the power…we need to overcome that understandable human desire to avoid what is hard…and enter the various vineyards where our good hearts, bodies and minds are so desperately needed. For, God’s grace assures us that our past does not have to define our future…that each day is, indeed, a new day to be different…that it is never too late to do the right, the good and Godly, thing.
And, a final note, from my camp directing days that I have already, at least, alluded to…which is that my experience is that the good choices, empowered by grace, to enter whatever particular vineyard sits before us…that God, our Mother and Father, is asking us to enter into…often does require hard work. All the challenges that felt overwhelming months out from camp did actually exist. It was hard to be away from home and work for a week. The heat was often overwhelming. There were kids who came to camp and to me who were suffering greatly back at home and those needs had to be addressed…and the solutions where never easy and always complicated. Keeping 60ish high school students engaged, growing and getting along with each other was a never-ending challenge. But, despite my desire not to enter into all of that…despite the “I will not” that I definitely said in my head if not out loud...once actually in the vineyard…blessings always abounded. God showed up and lives where transformed…including my own. And, I never, even for a moment, regretted one second of time spent there. Grace abounding…not only in finding the fortitude to show up…but grace abounding in the vineyard. For, God always goes with us into the places God asks us to go.
Jesus does not report to us how the first son, the “I will not” son, actually felt at the end of his day laboring in the vineyard. He may have been bone tired…mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted…but my guess is he did not regret his decision to go…not for a second…nor will we. Amen.