Sermon by Pastor Joel Crouse
Sunday October 1, 2023
Well, that was quite a week in our Parliament. The Speaker of the House of Commons resigned, a mea culpa from the Prime Minister, headlines around the world that linked together two unfortunate words - Canada and Nazi. I know you will know the details, but just quickly. Two Fridays ago, Ukrainian President Zelensky spoke before Parliament. After his speech, the Speaker of the House paid public tribute to a man he called a “Canadian and Ukrainian hero” in the chamber, and not one but two unanimous standing ovations followed. What also followed was a lesson in why we should always study history, because as it happened, the man served in a Ukrainian division trained by the Nazis and commanded by the SS. It took a while for people to figure out what had happened - but soon the full weight of the mistake became clear. Russia used the false claim that Ukraine is a Nazi state to justify its invasion; now they had video of Zelensky applauding someone who served under the Nazis.
It was a mistake. It’s clear to anyone who saw his comments on that Friday that the Speaker meant only the best. But sometimes good intentions are not enough: sometimes we need to own up to our failure, apologize and face the consequences. So by Tuesday, the speaker had resigned. However it came about, he owned up to his mistake. The Speaker must have the faith of the members of the House of Commons, and he had lost it. We can judge his mistake as foolish and feel sympathetic to the situation he found himself in. But he also had to rise to the standards of the position he held.
That’s really what our gospel is about this morning: do we put our money where our mouths are? Do we do as we say? Do we live as we claim to live?
In the gospel, Jesus offers up a parable to deal with questions about belief. The chief priests and elders of the people, as we’re told, are giving Jesus the gears, challenging his authority. Jesus asks them a simple theological question: “Do you think the baptism of John came from heaven or human origin?” The elders wrestle with this question amongst themselves. What to say, what to say? If they say the baptism was divine, then Jesus will ask why they didn’t then believe what John had said about Jesus? If they say it was of human origin, then the crowd might turn on them. So they came back with no answer at all: We do not know. They took the weak middle road to cover their butts.
Jesus then follows up with an easy parable. The first son refused to work in his father’s vineyard, but then changes his mind and goes. The second son says he will go, but then does not. Which did the will of the father? The first, of course, the elders answer.
The focus of this parable is usually on the first son – the stand-in for the taxpayers and the prostitutes – who sees his error and corrects it in time. The lesson here is just that - doing the right thing in the end matters more than the place where the person started. You can change the path you are on.
But the second may be even more relevant to us these days. We live in a world of words, more than at any time in history. There is no cost to words. We can read pretty much whatever we want with the click of a button. We can clarify nearly every question with a Google search (Though I am not vouching for the answer). And we spout off as much as we choose, on Facebook, Twitter, our own blogs, on comments on other blogs and to other people’s tweets. Our words cost nothing to say. Take little effort to publish. And are easily tossed, then lost on a mountain of more words. Who can blame us for becoming careless with them?
But all our words-for-free age has really done is expose how often we are also careless with the things we believe, the truths that we say we value. We claim to want to be kind, and then we post insults on Twitter. We claim to support equality, and then we shut up when insults are made because we don’t want draw attention to ourselves. We speak too much when it doesn’t matter, and we speak too little when it does.
This bar, let me tell you, is especially high for those of us who sit here each Sunday, listening to the words of the gospel, praying for social justice. Words, all of them empty, if the action doesn’t follow.
That is only part of the problem with how the chief priests and elders responded to Jesus’s question. They were more worried about the reaction their answer would cause, than about speaking what they believed. There are many examples in the gospel of Jesus taking questions of faith and wrestling with them, but always when the questioner answered honestly. By saying “We don’t know,” the priests weren’t even true to themselves.
There is no other way around it – we must be willing to confront what contradicts our own beliefs, what is morally wrong, or sexist, or homophobic, or racist – with real answers, with clear words. If we truly believe what we pray for each Sunday, we cannot be mute the rest of the week. When I meet young people who are so vocal in their opinions, I am proud of them. But I also worry that they will become adults who learn to be polite when the situation calls for something stronger.
We are powerful tools to be forces of change. We are called to do the labour in God’s vineyard. God does not want us to sit on our hands. God encourages us to be active workers for love, peace, and hope in our lives and in the world. Amen.