What Counts Is What You Do

Matthew 21: 23-32

“What do you think? Jesus said and then told them a parable. A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” The son answered, “I will not;” but later changed his mind and went. The father went to the second son and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. “Which of the two, “Jesus asked, did the will of his father?” Matthew 21: 28-31

Have you ever noticed how much of our lives are influenced by the telling and hearing of stories? There are those family stories we like to tell our grandchildren about how their parents were at their same age. Chapter stories we read to our young children at bedtime. Old worn stories that good friends love to share over and over. Perishable stories in the news that command our attention one day then are brushed aside quickly by the next day’s news stories. And enduring stories told across the generations.

The stories that fill our lives have a meaning and power beyond anything we usually recognize. All stories reveal underlying assumptions about the way the world works, and what is important in life and what is not. Our stories answer questions like: What is right and what is wrong? Who succeeds and who does not? What is possible? What is not always what it seems? We learn and live by the stories we hear, and by the stories we tell.

Whenever Jesus had his teaching challenged, or was asked a tricky question, or wanted to make a sharper point to his listeners, he seldom responded with an abstract statement or a three point argument. He almost always chose to tell a story. And those stories, parables as we know them, had a way of making everyone think – and then think again. Because the implications of Jesus’ stories often hit home in an unexpected way, disarming his listeners and striking a nerve, causing people to discover a truth.

In today’s story, Jesus is responding to some priests and elders of the temple who question his authority in front of a crowd who have been listening to this itinerant rabbi. It is a tense moment, the established authority challenging this new guy who talks about God so personally. Jesus did not have their kind of credentials, but he did have something just as persuasive – a story to tell. He began by asking, “What do you think?” The story couldn’t be simpler. A man has two sons. He went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” The son replies with the first century equivalent of “No way, Dad!” What parent hasn’t experienced that one time or another? But after the father has left, for some reason the son changes his mind and does go to work in the vineyard. No explanation is given, all we are told is: “But afterwards he changed his mind and went.”

In sharp contrast, when the father asks his second son to work in the vineyard, this one cheerfully agrees to do as the father asks. Except this son does not go to work in the vineyard. Again, no explanation is given. Now he may have had every good intention to go to work in the field… but…maybe he just put it off, procrastinating to another day. Haven’t you ever done that?

At the end of the story, Jesus poses the question, “Now which of the two sons did the will of their father?” The answer is pretty obvious, right? Has to be the first son, the one who changed his mind and actually did go and do what his father asked.

Given the choice, if we were to identify with one of the brothers, it would probably be with that first son. But if I were to put myself in the place of the second son instead, I hesitate to judge him too harshly. Because I know too well about good intentions that go unfulfilled.

Most of the time we strive to live our lives well and want to do the right things. But we don’t always do what we set out to do. There is so much that can get in the way. So we live daily with our failed good intentions. For the most part I don’t believe it is intentional, though I am reminded of the old saying:

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  It’s a part of human nature to make promises to others and to ourselves that go unfulfilled. But, here is the redeeming part, it is also a part of human nature to change our minds.

When I started writing this sermon, I was headed in the direction of the title and intended to emphasize the importance of doing over saying. That’s certainly there in Jesus’ story. But then I began to see another lesson within Jesus’ little parable – about the opportunity and the grace that can come with a change of mind.

The Bible is full of wonderful stories of people who changed their minds. People like Esau, Jacob, Ruth, Nicodemus, Peter and Paul…who realized possibilities for good when they changed their minds and their lives took on a new direction.  I was listening one day to NPR radio in my car when David Shalleck, a chef you may know from PBS shows was being interviewed about his book, Mediterranean Summer. Though I don’t have much interest in cooking, his story was so interesting I found myself sitting in my car in the driveway to hear the whole interview. Shalleck had left a good job at a fancy restaurant in San Francisco to embark on a culinary quest to discover what it really means to be a chef. He eventually ended up cooking for a wealthy couple on their ship in the Mediterranean, ergo the title of the book. But the best part of his story came early on in his journey to find himself as a chef.

 During an internship at a restaurant in London he cooked a meal for the legendary American chef, Alice Waters. It did not come out well at all. In fact it was a disaster. Mainly, Shalleck said, because of his lack of discipline and focus. Several months later, while he was doing another internship at a three-star restaurant in Italy, he was given the choice one day of filleting a fresh water pike, which he didn’t know how to do, or baking one of the restaurant’s signature cakes, which he did know how to do. He made the easier choice.

The owner of the restaurant, a renowned chef, called him aside and challenged his decision. “David,” she said bluntly, “You took a risk and left a fancy job in San Francisco because you wanted to be a real chef, someone whose cooking is a vision into his soul. David, you need to ask yourself, what happened to that person?”

Chastened, Shalleck walked back to his room as the village clock began to chime three in the afternoon. In a flash like a message from on high, he recalled the words painted in large letters under the clock which read in Italian: “It is time to do well.” And right there and then he made up his mind to live truer to his quest.

“How My Mind Has Changed in the Last Decade” was the intriguing open-ended question that the vocational magazine, The Christian Century, once asked a wide assortment of people. The resulting essays were fascinating. Frederick Buechner, a person who you have probably noticed I love to quote, was in his late fifties at the time and the changes he wrote about were not just in his mind. They included changes of heart and changes of self, and, changes about how he understood God working in his and our lives. He wrote: “We find by losing. We hold fast by letting go. We become something new by ceasing to be something old…Out of Nothing God creates the Beginning…Out of each old self…the new self is born. ” (A Room Called Remember, p. 190)

What Buechner is talking about is trust in a God who keeps recreating us day after day after day. The opportunity is always open for us to change our minds — opening a door that hasn’t yet been opened, taking a path you haven’t yet gone down. It is never too late. You are never too young or too old. It’s about the richness of life in all its possibilities when you say yes to a new beginning.

I read a book by an author named Dan Wakefield entitled, How Do We Know When It’s God? Wakefield is a writer who spends lots of time shuttling between the East Coast and the West Coast turning novels into screenplays. He talked in this book about the other books he’s written and how they all seem to center on beginning again. His first novel, Going All the Way, ends with the word “Begin.” His second novel was called, Starting Over. Wakefield tells about a friend of his named Ann Brower, who carried a little prayer with her that Wakefield found helpful. It reads,

“Lord, help me to believe in beginnings, to make a beginning, to be beginning, so that I may not just grow old, but grow new each day, to this wild, amazing life you call me to live.”

You and I are in charge of our lives. It might not feel that way sometimes. There are days when we don’t feel in control at all, when we have to simply respond all day long to the demand and needs and desires of others. But we still have responsibility for our lives to make choices that will make a difference in our lives.

So a final story I once heard tell. It is rather fanciful, but it gets pretty close to an important point contained in Jesus’ parable.

You have no doubt heard it said: “You can’t change a leopard’s spots,” or “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Wrong! If you believe in God, you have to think differently about the future possibilities of spotted leopards and aged dogs. Concerning leopards, I know next to nothing. But concerning dogs, I’ve met quite a few…pet dogs, show dogs, hound dogs, guide dogs, racing dogs.

I knew one racing dog once, down Florida way, a greyhound. He lined up on the track with all the other greyhounds. Gun went off. Dogs went off around the oval. Chasing a mechanical rabbit toward the finish wire.

Then one day out of the blue, this one greyhound retired. Called it quits, just like that. I didn’t know him well, but as luck would have it, I got invited to his retirement party. Talking to him afterward, I said: “Do you miss the glitter and excitement of the track?”

“No,” he replied.

“Well, what was the matter then?” Did you get too old to race?”

“No, I still had some race left in me.”

“Well, was it you couldn’t win?” I asked.

“I won over a million dollars for my owner.”

“So, what was it then? Did you get crippled?”

“Oh no,” the dog said.

“Then why?” I pressed.

“I quit,” he said.

“You quit?”

“Yes, I just quit.”

“Well, why did you quit?”

“I quit the day I discovered that what I was chasing was not really a rabbit.” Then he looked at me seriously and said: “All that running, and running, and running…and what I was chasing, it wasn’t even real.”

Old dog. New trick. A whole new life, just like that. That is what is possible when you change your mind and change your heart. Yes, that is exactly what I believe is possible.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.