Practicing Faith

This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on September 27, 2020. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here. 

Matthew 21:23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the sex workers are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the sex workers believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

The funny thing about interactions with Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, is that there are just so many questions. All throughout, we see Jesus being asked questions by so many people, including John, Pilate, The Sadducees, chief priests, elders, and more. With the exception of two, Pontious Pilate and John, all the questions being asked are self-serving. They’re either trying to convince Jesus they are good, trying to catch Jesus in a lie, or trying to get something from Jesus. They’re pointed questions. So we shouldn’t be surprised when a pointed question gets a pointed response. 

Today, a question was asked by the chief priests and elders, who were setting him up with one of those pointed questions. And Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He knows what they’re up to. So he turns to a parable. 

This kind of parable, which we just read, compares two people, two sons. In describing both, the son that says he will act but doesn’t and the son who says he won’t act but does, the hearers are being forced to choose which one of the sons they are. Jesus already knows, believe it or not. 

What is something you are good at that you wouldn’t be successful at if you didn’t practice and invest in it?

Just imagine saying you’re an artist, but you’ve never picked up an art medium, or saying you’re a soccer player without showing up to the field to take penalty kicks. It feels off to claim we are something that we don’t invest in through our actions.

Have you ever met someone who claims to be something, a Christian, a feminist, etc. And then you watch the way they live, and you don’t quite see it? We don’t have to name names, but this is kind of the point Jesus is making here. There are people who claim to obey God. They go to church, and tell people they are religious, and do all the right things to be seen as a good follower. But then they fail to invest in it, to live in the ways of Jesus. And on the opposite front, there are those people who you’ve never seen wearing an “I am Christian” name tag, who don’t often talk about their religion, yet it’s very clear whose teachings they follow, because you see how they live.

We all have a choice how we want to live. We can choose to live inwardly, following the right steps to be seen as whatever we want to be seen as. Or, we can choose to live outwardly, actively engaging with our faith.

A few months ago, I was nominated by the bishop to be a part of a fellowship for faith and community empowerment. The goal is to equip clergy to engage both their church and community through growing in partnerships, networking, and focusing on projects that serve both church and community. We had our first meeting last week, and our guest speaker was our bishop, Grant Hagiya. 

One of the points he made was the importance of letting our light shine, of knowing that we have something important to offer the world, and making a point to let people know about it. He said this: “We can be humble, but the Gospel doesn’t need to be humble. We cannot hide this faith that needs to be shared.”

So throughout this project and fellowship, those of us participating are being asked to let our lights shine, as well as the light of our churches. This might feel a little awkward at times for those like me, who may feel uncomfy talking about themselves in that way, but as the bishop said, we have to show the world the Gospel, and that means letting our light shine, practicing what we preach. 

A part of the problem I see with faith, is that too often it is seen as something we covet, versus something we do. The phrase “I have faith” seems to give permission to us to simply hold on to whatever it is we have faith in. But what we learn today from Jesus is different. You see, those chief priests and elders, the religious elite, they seemed to have been acting this way, as if their faith was an object, versus an action. But Jesus told them no, that’s not how this works. That’s why he told the parable. 

At the end of the passage, we learn that those same religious elite had not believed John when he had come to them, so they dismissed him. Yet the ones who were marginalized, the ones seen by society as worthless or second class, they believed John, and they helped him, therefore playing the role of the son who acted in the parable. These, Jesus says, these are the ones who will go before you in my kindom.

How have you seen faith lived out?

Today’s scripture shares an important parable that relates to that very notion. Jesus outlines a story of two sons. The first son is asked by his dad to help him. The son says no, but then changes his mind and helps later on. The second son is also asked to help, and initially says yes, but then never follows through. Jesus asked those who heard the parable which of the two sons did the will of their father. And the answer? The one who actually did the work. 

A fundamental part of faith is that it requires action. It requires us to do something about our faith, because faith is not a destination, but a journey. Faith requires us to let our light shine, to let others know through our actions that we are committed to doing what we said we would do, as people of faith. 

What is something you can do to show that you are a Christian? How will you practice your faith?

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