17th Sunday after Pentecost
Inscrutable Mercy II
Morning Prayer with Sacrament Reserved
Why quarrel with me? Why test the Lord? Exodus 17:17
Repay no-one evil for evil. Romans 12:17
The Invitatory and Psalter
V. O Lord, open thou our lips,
R. And our mouths shall show forth your praise.
V. Glory be to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
R. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Alleluia
Jubilate Psalm 100
1 Be joyful in the LORD, all you lands; *
serve the LORD with gladness and come before his presence with a song.
2 Know this: The LORD himself is God; he himself has made us; we are his *.
we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.
3 Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise; *
give thanks to him and call upon his Name.
4 For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; *
and his faithfulness endures from age to age.
The mercy of the Lord is everlasting. Come let us adore him.
25:1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
25:2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.
25:3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
25:4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
25:5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
25:6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.
25:7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!
25:8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
25:9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
The mercy of the Lord is everlasting. Come let us adore him.
The Old Testament Lesson: Ezekiel 18:1-4
18:1 The word of the LORD came to me:
18:2 What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”?
18:3 As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.
18:4 Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Hymn: He Who Would Valiant Be Bunyan (Dreamer) Hymnal 1982 #564
He who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster,
Let him with constancy follow the master.
There’s no discouragement can make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.
Who so beset him round with dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound, his strength the more is.
No foes shall stay his might, though he with giants fight;
He will make good his right to be a pilgrim.
Since, Lord, thou dost defend us with thy Spirit,
We know we at the end shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away; I’ll fear not what men say,
I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.
The New Testament Lesson: Philippians 2:1-13
2:1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,
2:2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
2:3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
2:4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
2:5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
2:6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
2:7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,
2:8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—death on a cross.
2:9 Therefore God also exalted him and gave him the name above every name,
2:10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
2:11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
2:12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
2:13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Rock of ages Augustus Montague Toplady Hymnal 1982 # 685
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood
from thy wounded side that flowed,
be of sin the double cure,
cleanse me from its guilt and power.
Should my tears for ever flow,
should my zeal no languor know,
all for sin could not atone:
thou must save, and thou alone;
in my hand no price I bring,
simply to thy cross I cling.
While I draw this fleeting breath,
when mine eyelids close in death,
when I rise to worlds unknown
and behold thee on thy throne,
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee.
The Gospel Lesson: Matthew 21:23-32
21:23 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?”
21:24 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.
21:25 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?’
21:26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”
21:27 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.
21:28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’
21:29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.
21:30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.
21:31 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 prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.
21:32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise be to you, Lord Christ.
Sermon: A Man Had Two Sons
“Well, the preacher didn’t have to look too far to get that sermon title,” I can hear you saying. “All he had to do was look around his own dinner table.”
That is, indeed, true: I have two sons. Actually, my wife and I have two sons – the same two, as it turns out – and something must’ve gone right in our home when they were young, since both have grown into mature young men who live lives of excellence, generosity, insight, and integrity. They’re no fit topic for a sermon illustration, except perhaps as examples of how to live, and as one of my few sources of pride, joy, and hope. I cannot allow myself to despair of humanity, the world, or this benighted nation while they live, since they represent two of the finest products of each of them. I hope that their dreams come true and that they help heal the nation of its flaws and improve the common good – those are their dreams, too – as they bear witness to the powers of truth and love in a world sorely in need of them both. May we all do likewise. If it be God’s good pleasure that we should see our children and our children’s children, may they may do so as well.
It may be that the man at the center of this gospel passage was as proud of his two sons as my wife and I are of ours; we have no idea. The story is not all that developed, since Jesus appears to have just thought these characters up as a kind of exasperated fiction-riff to shut the chief priests and elders of Israel up, yet again. They come to him whining, or perhaps asking forthrightly, where he gets the authority to help people, heal them, and speak out about what God wants and who God is. At the beginning, we don’t know what their intentions are. He might, and they might, be we don’t, and nor do the people listening in.
See, there’s two ways to read the priests’ and elders’ question to Jesus: 1) Where did you get all that? We want to learn this kung-fu, too, or: 2) Where do you get off thinking you know more than we do? They and Jesus both know that their authority is on the line just as much as his is, and even the most distracted onlooker can tell that what Jesus is doing is a threat to the other leaders of the community. Jesus has to make those leaders give a tell, as it were, show the people whether they’re on the up-and-up or just playing a power game for time. So he flips the tables on them – he’s good at this, as he’ll later show in the temple. He refuses to answer their question until they answer his question: what about the baptism of John? Was it from heaven or not? That is, was it valid, or not? Did John speak for God when he said repent, you brood of vipers, and that I was the one expected who was greater than he – the one who came to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire? What did you guys make of all that?
They take the bait, even though Jesus’s question is something of a red herring, and rather begs the question they asked him. See, they questioned where his authority comes from, and he asks them to tell him what they think about the person who said he had that authority. If they say that John was of God, then Jesus will say, “Then why didn’t you listen to him?” If they say that John was a fraud, the crowd will turn on them because they trusted John, whom the king murdered. They respected John, whom the chief priests and elders dismissed and ignored. They knew that John was a prophet, and that he was one of them, a man of the people as well as a man of God. They knew that when the king arrested him and put him to death, the chief priests and elders did precisely nothing to help, and were probably glad to be rid of him.
See, certain kinds of people in the world favor incompetent or malevolent rulers far more than they value truth and justice. They will do whatever they can think of to shore up a corrupt system from which they benefit, and put forth great effort to silence anyone who points out that corruption, or shows us who benefits from it. They tend not to see that corruption works like an acid, dissolving everything it touches – and that leaders who deceive, mistreat, and abuse one person or group would gladly do it to others, their ‘supporters’ included, as occasion serves. We see that in our own day, when journalists. whistle-blowers, and defenders of right who tell the truth about corruption and worse in the highest offices in the land are dismissed, demeaned, or ignored. We see that when those who are shown they benefit from unjust privilege challenge the very idea that they have privilege. “No one is a prophet in his hometown,” Jesus said when he was just getting started, rather sharpening the point as he did so that sometimes, one nonetheless has to be.
Jesus, the great heart-reader, knows that the leaders of his people are not necessarily bad people – some, no doubt, were, but not all. He also knows the truth in what Plato said, and many a wise person after him: that for evil to triumph, all that is needed is that the good do nothing. They all knew, viscerally, even if they could not articulate it, the point the US Declaration of Independence makes about how leaders and systems derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed,” but that power is not always just and that, depending on the system, ‘the governed’ may ‘consent’ only in terms of ceasing to struggle against a boot in their face forever. But only Jesus, like John before him, knows what to do about it and is willing to do it. The leaders of occupied Judea and puppet-mastered Galilee might’ve known as well, but did little about it – not until their final uprising under Simon Bar Kokhba some hundred years after Jesus of Nazareth walked among them. The result of that rebellion was the final Roman invasion of Judea, leading to that people’s exile from their homeland for nearly two thousand years.
Yet between obeisance and revolution lies the shadow, the shade in which Christianity grew into the religion it became, equally skilled at aligning itself with power (and even seizing power) as it was with resisting it, and believing that in doing either, it piled for itself treasures not on earth, but in heaven. It saw itself as the second of the two sons in the story Jesus told, the one who said “No!” to his father when asked to go work today, but who eventually goes. These Christians saw their Jewish neighbors who did not agree with them about who Jesus was or what he meant as the first son, the one who says he’ll do as his father asked, only to turn around and not do it. They saw that those who had the hardest lives and the most problems were the one who most readily listened to prophets, false or true. They would be the first to seek a healer, since it was they who were sick. They would be the first to stand up for justice, and with a prophet who also stood for it, since they suffered most from injustice. They would be least likely to cling to their wealth and privilege at others’ expense, since they didn’t have any. They would also be the least likely to compromise with the system or kowtow to the Man, since they got so little from the system and nothing at all from the Man. They were the most likely to repent of their sins, since they were the ones most likely to hit bottom, and hit it hard.
The Christians also know that a revolutionary becomes a conservative exactly one day after the revolution. Once you have a stake in the system, you do all you can to preserve that system – particularly if it’s tied to the power and grace that saved a wretch like you. It was in trying to institutionalize that power and grace that the Christians made their ultimate and lasting compromise with the power and glory that was Rome, the results of which are still with us today. We’re a much-divided, hydra-headed worldwide web of institutions that tries to weave patterns into people’s lives that make in those lives fundamental changes for good, for justice, for mercy, and even for love in a world sorely in need of those things. As such we’re always part of, and yet not part of, the world.
Yet in many ways Christians were wrong to read themselves as the heroes of this story; they are not, or not necessarily. The actual heroes of that story are those whom Jesus represents by means of the second son, the soi-disant “tax collectors and prostitutes” who will enter the kingdom ahead of the chief priests and elders. Why? Because the tax collectors and prostitutes were most aware of the flaws in the system and of the flaws within themselves, and wanted lives different than they had but didn’t know how to get to them in order to survive. Both professions, as it were, are often ones that those in them chose, and choose, not from moral weakness or personal turpitude, but in order to survive, accepting the compromises, deceits, and self-deceptions necessary to make that happen while attempting to maintain a shred of dignity and independence from the world that drove them to them. It can damage a soul to live that way, and if along comes a healer who can free you from the burden of your sins as well as your needs, and can tell those who lead your world that they should’ve been doing this already, you will follow that one to the very end. Those who would most benefit from an ethic of love-your-neighbor-as-yourself, and know it, will always be first in line to turn the world over in order to install that ethic in power and keep in there.
You see, that was the work the older son said he’d do but that the younger son actually did, in the gospel story: to obey the two great commandments to love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets, whether as a signpost, a sign of the times, or a side of beef. The more you know you need those commandments in your life, and at the heart of the systems of your world, the sooner and the harder you will work to put them there.
It’s important for me to say this, too: the chief priests and elders are not condemned because they were Jews, or because they were religious leaders, but because they were weak, exploitative, and frauds. Jesus’s charge against them is that they said one thing and did another, promised to live by the two great commandments and then didn’t do so. Further, they resisted the baptism of John and the healing, releasing ministry of Jesus when they helped people live by those commandments better than the system of sacrifice and atonement those leaders practiced at the temple in Jerusalem. That temple was itself as much a monument to the tyrant who built it as it was a re-creation of the ancient one built at God’s command by a much more righteous king. Jesus knew that, as did most of those who listened to him that day.
Paul knew it, too, and wrote of it to the church in Philippi, as we also heard this morning. This passage is often called the oldest gospel, since it’s one of the first written texts to tell anything of the good news of Christ. It tells the people to have within them the mind of Christ, and to live and act accordingly. The things one is to do – console in love, share the Spirit, have compassion, act selflessly and with humility, put other’s cares before one’s own – are at the heart of an ethic of righteousness, and all of our world’s major religions, at their best, advocate for it. Acting in these ways shows that one lives the live of the second son in the gospel passage. By contrast, simply claiming that one believes in something, and seeks to make everyone else do so, shows that one lives the live of the first son.
It’s a common misreading of this part of Philippians to say that it advocates making the whole world bow down to Jesus as to a conqueror. It asks one, instead, to bow the knee of one’s heart and live as he wanted people to do. In how you live will the world see what you believe, no matter what it is you confess with your lips. For, as the passage we heard from Ezekiel says, when the wicked turn from wickedness, they save their lives – and the Lord takes no pleasure in the death of anyone. It is what you do when you have the chance to do good or do ill that makes all the difference. Act as Jesus said to, and the world gets better. Act against that, and the world gets worse. Amen.
A Statement of Faith, A Song of God’s Love (1 John 4:7-11)
Beloved, let us love one another, *
for love is of God.
Whoever does not love does not know God, *
for God is Love.
In this the love of God was revealed among us, *
that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us *
and sent his Son that sins might be forgiven.
Beloved, since God loved us so much, *
we ought also to love one another.
For if we love one another, God abides in us, *
and God’s love will be perfected in us.
A Collect for 16th Pentecost (Proper 21)
O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
A Collect for Sundays
O God, you make us glad with the weekly remembrance of the glorious resurrection of your Son our Lord: Give us this day such blessing through our worship of you, that the week to come may be spent in your favor; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A Collect for Openness and Guidance
We praise your abiding guidance, O God,
for you sent us Jesus, our Teacher and Messiah,
to model for us the way of love for the whole universe.
We offer these prayers of love
on behalf of ourselves and our neighbors,
on behalf of your creation and our fellow creatures.
Loving God, open our ears to hear your word
and draw us closer to you,
that the whole world may be one with you
as you are one with us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A Prayer after St. Alphonsus
O Jesus, you are present to us in the blessed sacrament. We love you above all things, and desire to receive you into our souls. Since we cannot at this time share your sacrament, let your spirit dwell within our hearts. Let us welcome you as one already with us, making us one body and one spirit, never to be parted from you. Amen.
Closing Hymn: Guide me O thou great Jehovah Williams Hymnal 1982 #690
Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
hold me with thy powerful hand;
bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
feed me now and evermore;
feed me now and evermore.
Open now the crystal fountain,
whence the healing stream doth flow;
let the fire and cloudy pillar
lead me all my journey through;
strong deliverer, strong deliverer,
be thou still my strength and shield;
be thou still my strength and shield.
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
bid my anxious fears subside;
death of death, and hell’s destruction,
land me safe on Canaan’s side;
songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee.
I will ever give to thee.
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.
The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.
Hymn: Spirit of the Living God Daniel Iverson, alt.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.
In memoriam John B. Lee, Jr., February 19, 1935 – September 18. 2020, brother of Ray Lee. Please keep the Lee Family in your prayers.
In memoriam Rev. Richard Pollard, October 17, 1946 – September 18, 2020, priest colleague of Rev. Wilkins, Diocese of Pittsburgh. Please keep the Pollard family and St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon, PA, in your prayers.
About Episcopal Worship and this Service
We give thanks this morning for our reader, Kris Taweel; for our organist and music director, Beresford Coker; for our post-production and web team, Linda Lee, Lee Mericle, and Joyce Walker; and for our video compiler and editor, Gabriel Wilkins.
Resources (available for free online)
These resources contain the prayers and worship services used in The Episcopal Church and by Episcopalians in their daily devotions.
Book of Common Prayer, www.bcponline.org
Enriching Our Worship 1, https://www.churchpublishing.org/siteassets/pdf/enriching-our-worship-1/enrichingourworship1.pdf
Enriching Our Worship 2, https://www.churchpublishing.org/siteassets/pdf/enriching-our-worship-2/enrichingourworship2.pdf
Hymnal 1982: https://hymnary.org/hymnal/EH1982
Hymnal 1940: https://hymnary.org/hymnal/HPEC1940
Lift Every Voice and Sing II: https://hymnary.org/hymnal/LEVS1993
Wonder, Love, and Praise: https://hymnary.org/hymnal/WLP1997
This source shows the readings assigned for use in Sunday worship and for daily office use for each day of the year, with links to online biblical texts.
Links to church websites – National, Diocesan and our church’s website.
The Episcopal Church: www.episcopalchurch.org
Episcopal News Service: www.episcopalnewsservice.org
The Episcopal Diocese of Washington: www.edow.org
St. Mark’s, Fairland: www.stmarks-silverspring.org
A Prayer in Times of Sickness and Contagion
Heavenly Father, giver of life and health, source of all wisdom and peace: Comfort and relieve your servants who suffer from sickness or fear, give your power of healing to those who minister to their needs, and let your grace be with all those who work to protect us from contagion and disease. May we be strengthened against any weakness, sickness, fear, and doubt, and place our confidence in your loving care through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
 Or Venite, Psalm 95