Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Feast of Saint Francis
October 01 2023 -10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Ezekiel 18:25-28 Psalm 25:4-9
Philippians 2:1-11 Matthew 21:28-31

       + In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

       When most people think of Saint Francis, they think of his friendship with the animalia of our world. For those of you who are linguists, the word “animal” is a Latin word of the neuter gender whose proper plural form is “animalia.” Saint Francis was fluent in Latin and likely used “animalia” himself. We will honor the relationship between Francis and animalia very shortly when we bless the animalia among us. But the main message from Saint Francis, like that of Jesus, is love.

      As you will recall, the Two Great Commandments tell us to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and to love your neighbor as yourself. As I say over and over in my Baptism Homily, Christianity is about love, not doctrine. Loving others is the most important thing we do as Christians.

       To truly love, you must be humble. Humility is a very, very, difficult, extremely difficult, concept for humanity generally, particularly in the United States of America. Our culture communicates a message that sounds like this. “Be a winner.” “Be better than the next person.” “Be First.”  That’s not loving others. That whole set of ideas does not speak of love, but only of oneself.

       So many people see their lives as competition against others. They take into their daily lives the same attitude they have when they play a sport. They want to be better than the next person or the other team for their own purposes or that of the organization they represent. We see this attitude not only in business, but in entertainment, the arts, politics, and even within families.

       So, it’s not surprising that parents and schools teach children to “be a winner” and “defeat the other person.” While some may tout the benefits of competition and a win-lose attitude towards all aspects of life, they fail to consider the downside that comes with those things, namely a lack of cooperation to solve problems, the costs imposed on losers, and the perversion of human relationships.

        The win-lose mentality does not represent the values Jesus taught. What I like about Saint Francis is how different he was from that way of thinking. Francis was humble. He personified what we hear in today’s second reading. There, Saint Paul describes Jesus. In today’s Epistle, we hear, “Though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped.” “He emptied Himself”. “He took the form of a slave.” “He humbled himself”. “He became obedient to the point of death.” And for all of this, God highly exalted Jesus.

        Saint Francis was born into a wealthy family but gave away most of his money and deliberately impoverished himself to empathize with the poor. He was never a Bishop. He was never a Priest. He was an ordained Deacon and remained a Deacon, like Deacon Sharon, who is what the church calls a Vocational Deacon. The word “Deacon” comes from the Greek word, “diakonos”, which means, “servant.” The Diaconate fits Francis perfectly as it does Deacon Sharon. He was, before anything else, a humble servant of God.

        Francis is widely known for his relationship with animalia. He urged us to care for them. He preached to birds. He tamed wolves. Animalia were his brothers and sisters. The many stories about Francis and animalia exhibit a common theme. The interactions between Francis and the animalia all demonstrate that animalia have no ego, no pride as we know it.

        In the tradition of the church, we are taught to follow the examples of the saints, those who have lived holy lives, in many cases, dying for their faith. But the markers of God’s kingdom for guidance in our lives are not found exclusively in human persons. The way animalia are, and the way they live, have a message for us, too.

         Animalia don’t exploit, enslave, or oppress other animalia. That is unique to humans. What Christians call grace is present in our relations with animalia, just as it is with other humans. Grace is the inclusive and expansive power of God’s love to create and sustain relationships of mutuality and reciprocity.

        Sheep set important examples for us. Sheep are social animalia. Sheep tend to congregate close to other members of their flock. Sheep can become stressed when separated from their flock members. Relationships in flocks tend to be closest among related sheep: an ewe, that is a female sheep, and her direct descendants, often move as a unit within large flocks. Sheep are a lot like us. They like being with other sheep, and especially with their blood-related family members. We find sheep and shepherd imagery throughout the Bible in both Old and New Testaments. The tradition of the church speaks of pastors as shepherds of their flocks. But humans differ from sheep in a significant way: sheep are humble. They don’t know anything about pride. They are content just to be the sheep that God made them. They don’t, and in fact can’t, try to be a better sheep so other sheep, or their shepherd, or God, will love them more. We humans are not always like that.

        Another animal that sets a good example for people by way of humility is a dog. Our dog-daughter, Felicity Bliss Moonlight, is here with us this morning. As you can see from the front of every service booklet and on our website, she is on our staff as Minister of Unconditional Love. She lives in the Saint Cecilia rectory with me and Deacon Sharon. Her value to our spiritual and personal life is inestimable. She constantly reminds us who God is. If you read your Bible carefully, you will discover that God is kind and merciful, long-suffering and of great goodness, that God is love, and love is from God.  Felicity reminds us that the first job Deacon Sharon and I have towards you as our flock is to love all of you unconditionally.

        Dogs seek and provide companionship and affection. Dogs give and want love. Dogs say yes to you. Dogs want to please you. Dogs desire, above all, to be with you. And as with sheep, dogs have no pride, no ego. Dogs are humble. The way dogs relate to us sets a good example of how we should relate to God. The very word “dog” has “god” in it: just spell it backward. So let’s turn things around.  Just as we feed and care for our dogs, God feeds and cares for us.

        Like dogs, God provides us with companionship and affection. God gives and wants love. We were made to please God. We were made to say yes to God. For all of that to happen, we need to relate to God like dogs relate to us.  Like dogs, we need to be without ego and pride. We don’t do God’s will when we act like the first son in today’s Gospel, defiantly saying “No” to God and then trying to score points by turning our lives around. We do God’s will when we say “Yes”, even if we don’t follow through. Why? God expects us to be imperfect, and the more imperfect we are, the more God loves us.

        What God values is unconditional love, like the love we get from dogs. God created dogs, and I am sure other animal companions as well, to show us what God’s love for us looks like: unconditional. We can only experience that unconditional love to and from God, and to and from other people, when we empty ourselves, humble ourselves, and say “Yes” to God.  Don’t try to exalt yourself through your own efforts. Save yourself all that stress. Instead, be humble, and God will exalt you.

       Today’s Gospel relates an encounter between Jesus and the high priests and elders of the Jerusalem temple. They were not unlike today’s church hierarchy. We still have our share of clergy who behave like those chief priests and elders. So many clergy define their success in the church in the same way people define it in the secular world, moving up the hierarchy to positions of increased importance.  I assure you, I am not one of them. I am delighted to simply be your parish priest, nothing more.

        The two sons in today’s gospel contrast pride and humility.  Look at the first son, the one who responds to his father’s request to go work in the vineyard, “I will not” but then goes anyways. This guy wants to have it both ways, to satisfy his pride. When he says, “I will not” he demonstrates pride by defiance. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve resented someone else telling us to do something we should do, and we rebel by saying “No.” That’s showing our ego, our independence, our pride. And then he goes and works in the field anyway. He’s doing that, so he’ll score points in the eyes of others, for realizing he shouldn’t have said “No”, and then doing the so-called right thing in going to work as he should have.

        Instinctively, the priests and elders of the Jerusalem temple liked this guy better, and so do most of us, at first glance. He looks like a hero. The second son, however, is the opposite. He says “Yes, I’ll go,” but then doesn’t go. Our instinct is to condemn his dishonesty. We don’t like his kind of moral character, promising to do something and then not doing it. This fellow, however, is without the rebellious pride of the first son. He says he’ll go to work.   And he exhibits no pride at all when he doesn’t go to work. He was, therefore, not able to boast that he’s changed his ways like the first guy did. His lack of rebellious pride is why Jesus says that the second guy is doing his father’s will, even though he lied to his Father. To Jesus, it was better to be dishonest than rebellious.

       When Jesus asked the chief priests and elders which of the two sons did the will of their father, they did not think as God thinks. They thought in terms of common-sense human values: the first guy recognized his mistake and turned around, while the second son was a despicable liar. He was a sinner. But again, God’s choices, what God thinks is good or bad, are very different from how we look at life.  The kind of people we think are good are not always the kind of people God thinks are good.  Why is God like that? Jesus tells us it is the sick who need a physician, not those who are healthy. In God’s eyes, the more one sins, the more opportunity there is for mercy, and mercy is what God is all about.

        What Jesus is telling us today is that God looks for, and cares for, sinners, like tax collectors and prostitutes, and even people who lie. To give you some context, in first-century Palestine, consider Jews who collected taxes for the Roman empire. They were seen as turncoats, traitors to their own countrymen who helped, rather than fought, the Roman oppressors.  Prostitutes were associated with the idolatry of the polytheistic pagan worship that flew in the face of monotheism. But in the scheme of the Kingdom of Heaven, tax collecting and prostitution are very minor transgressions.

        The Gospel tells us that the preaching of John the Baptist convinced people to change their ways, but the chief priests and the elders did not.  Their evaluation of today’s parable Jesus told them illustrates precisely that. They evaluated the situation in by their unchanged worldly values, not God’s values. Their thinking represented the Old Covenant, mirrored in today’s first reading.  To them, the first son was the one who turned away from iniquity and did what was right and just, and should therefore be rewarded, while the second son was the one who did the opposite: he turned away from virtue and committed iniquity by lying about going to work in his father’s vineyard. But Jesus said the second son was the one who did his father’s will. Why? Because that son said, “Yes,” not “No.” God wants people who say, “Yes,” even if we don’t follow through on doing what we say we will do.

        The person who says “No” is a rebel. The person who says “Yes” is humble. The person who says “Yes”, even if imperfect, is open to redemption, open to change, at God’s behest and direction, while the person who says “No” is not, even if that person later does an about-face, because pride is motivating the “about face.”  To put this all in very blunt terms, God doesn’t like big egos, people who boast, gloat, and brag about turning from sin. Those kinds of feelings are what make someone seek and acquire domination over other people and commit acts of oppression and exploitation to feed the beast that lives inside them. That beast is pride.

       The things prideful people chase with so much passion, social status, monetary success, and the symbols thereof, lead to pursuing power over others for the purpose of oppressing, subjugating, and exploiting the world around us. It is also very stressful. Look at how many hard-driving, success-oriented, power-seeking people suffer heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and other health problems. Those conditions are God’s message to us that those things are no good. But because all that striving for success leads to nefarious purposes and outcomes, our material success in this life and our status in relation to other people, are not important to God.  What is important to God is love, and love comes from humility, not being better than someone else.