Sermon preached by Rev’d Lizzie Kesteven
Matthew 21 – The Two Sons
“Let they feet tread softly, like a saint in Heaven, unshod. For to be alone in silence is to be alone with God”
This is a quote that I was given on a card by my Mum when I was 14. And being the slightly pretentious 14 year old that I was I stuck them to the front of my A4 History binder. I haven’t clue who wrote them. Anon is the designated author. Yet I know that there was something about walking and treading softly, something about that image of heaven and saints something about God and silence that struck a chord. I think the intention of the quote from my mother was to give what she saw as a rather chaotic and gung-ho teenager the permission to be quiet occasionally. Yet strangely I have always seen them more as a call to how to walk in God’s creation. I was drawn more to the treading softly, than to the silence – strange that!
Today’s gospel reading gives us a small snippet of a picture of two sons. Both who make a decision. One says he won’t do something and then does. The other says he will do something and then doesn’t. Jesus asks in effect – Who is the better Son?
The context for Jesus is bigger than at first glance. We are in Chapter 21 of Matthews Gospel – it near the end game – so to speak. In fact we are already in Jerusalem and Jesus has entered in triumph and already upset the money changers in the temple. Tensions are high. We are in the midst of Holy Week when he tells us about the Two Sons.
It’s easy to see the tension. The High Priest who Jesus is aiming this at are in two minds. They get asked about John the Baptist and they can’t answer. What they want to say might annoy the crowds, and things are pretty agitated so that would be counter-productive – after all they will need the same crowds on their side in a few days. But to agree with Jesus would then to be to accept a new order, a game change that John and Jesus are bringing about and that would mean a relinquishing of power.
Jesus hits it all home with his story about the Two Sons. Obedience isn’t about what you say you are going to do. It’s about what you do actually do.
And that’s the crux – the difficult bit. I can identify with both scenarios. We can be nuanced here – there might be many good reasons why one of the Sons didn’t follow through – perhaps he over promised and then couldn’t deliver – I know that feeling.
The story acts as a salutary reminder to those at the time and us today that one of the hardest accusations that can be levelled at a person is the charge of hypocrisy. Practice what you preach. We see the effects of what happens if we all are like the second Son in a number of ways – we can see the damage it does to work places, to governments and to churches. It erodes trust. It makes someone or some institution seem unreliable.
As (last week) and today we think about our lives, and how to live them, in this creation season, then the charge of hypocrisy is never far away. It can be levelled at people in all sorts of ways. A famous Prince of this realm was criticised for raising awareness of climate change one day and then taking a private flight the following week. Greta Thunburg avoided the charge by trying to travel as far as possible by boat around the world. And yet let us be honest – There is perhaps a slightly unhealthy desire to catch people out – to be the person who points the finger and shouts “Hypocrite” – to take everything in their shopping basket out and examine it in detail for a slip or failure to live up to the exacting standard that has perhaps been set – so that we then don’t have to listen to a message in the first place. We have to be careful with the word hypocrisy.
However, The parable of the two sons suggests that words and actions do need to match up. So how do we do that? How do we break the debate up so that it feels less like a small collection of people having to shout loudly about the need to do this, and then being judged and discarded if they are found wanting. And it feels more like a lot of people getting on with their daily lives treading a little more softly, in a way that becomes almost unintentionally how we now live.
God’s creation is a marvellous and wonderful thing. It draws us in and it renews and refreshes us. It provides all that we need in order to flourish and grow. The good news of this creation season, and harvest, is that God has indeed provided us with everything we need in order to tread softly. We have amazing people who are working on renewables and the technology to do so. We have people who can design transport that uses less or zero fossil fuels. And businesses are re-examining in the light of Covid 19 the need to get people to travel across the globe for a meeting. We are truly and wonderfully made and completely up for the task of treading more softly. And in our own small ways, each one us knows the little that we can do that adds to the whole that makes that difference. In that way we will and can change the debate and be part of the good news that we are called to.