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A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock

on 2023.1001.A.Pr 21.Showing Up

Frank was a member of the parish in South Carolina. In his active work-life, he managed a plantation in the southeastern part of the state. (Note: in modern times, a “plantation” is a large farm –an estate, if you will -- albeit with historical roots.). In the flesh, a retired Frank looked and sounded the part. His craggy, tanned, sixty-something face was highlighted by snow white hair and a winsome smile. His voice was a soft and buttery drawl. His walk was not hurried, almost a lumbering-yet purposeful pace: a stride that also matched the tempo with which he lived his life.

Like so many men, Frank married into the church. His wife was a stalwart presence among us. So, as part of the unofficial dowery, Frank moved away from the rural plantation to the capital city. Among the many changes that a married life entails, in Frank’s case his marriage included accompanying his bride to church – every Sunday! It was, from all outside appearances, a voluntary act. Frank never exhibited any passive aggressive protest to what was for him a new experience. Quite to the contrary, Frank gave every indication that he was pleased to be in church. He participated freely in our worship life, tellingly adapting quickly and seamlessly to the up-down gymnastics that the Episcopal liturgy requires. All in all, Frank and his bride made themselves present to us. They showed up so consistently that the pew in which they sat quietly and implicitly became recognized as “theirs”.

So it was that at coffee hour one Sunday after worship, Frank was standing with a bunch of men. (That parish had a goodly number of men – young and old -- who took their place among the visibly counted.) In what I recall was a gentle and sincere gesture to check in with Frank, to see how things were, he was asked about his background and how this Episcopal parish experience was going. With his disarming smile and his honey-thick accent, Frank made this confession, one I will never forget.

He said, “Well, you know, I keep showing up; and pretty soon I got religion!”

"Showing Up” definitely has consequences. And the reasoning behind the expression is this: If God gives us what we need and cannot provide for ourselves, and if what God gives is “Holy Communion” with the Creator of heaven and earth, then it only makes sense to emphasize the centrality of showing up. Given that it is said that “showing up” is 90% of what life requires, here’s a question: Why is “showing up” so hard for us?

I think Frank knew the answer, and in his unadorned way expressed the reason. There are consequences to showing up; aren’t there? “Showing up” can lead to being changed in the deepest of ways. In fact, “showing up” in the context of worship, prayer, and the spiritual life just might make a person “religious”. And that state of affairs could easily get out of hand, a bit like being a little bit pregnant.

[Jesus said,] Tell me what you think of this story: A man had two sons. He went up to the first and said, 'Son, go out for the day and work in the vineyard.' The son answered, 'I don't want to.' Later on he thought better of it and went. The father gave the same command to the second son. He answered, 'Sure, glad to.' But he never went. Which of the two sons did what the father asked? [The Temple leaders] said, "The first," [to which Jesus pointed out,] John came to you showing you the right road. You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn't care enough to change and believe him. [Matthew 21:28-32] – The Message

"Even when you saw the changed lives of those losers, you didn't care enough to change and believe him.”

Why? Perhaps, it was precisely the change in those “low lifes” that caused the “beautiful people” to go AWOL. They couldn’t afford to “show up”.

Here’s the obvious (albeit, piercing) question from this parable. In terms of the two sons in Jesus’ parable, which one are we? As Jesus said to the Temple crowd, “What do you think?"

My own, personal response is that I tend to be a little bit of both sons. Although I never dared to be so bold (or foolish) as to tell my father, “No, I don’t want to”, I did have my moments that caused me to realize that such outright rebellion was not a sustainable state of affairs. So, I “showed up”. But there were times when I imitated the second son, said the “right” things and charmed my way out of working.

"What do you think?” Which son are you?

In offering our answer, it is crucial to recognize what Jesus is saying in and through this parable and its historical context. In Matthew’s telling and timetable, Jesus is already heading toward the Jerusalem climax. In fact, in just five more, short chapters (which is about four or five book pages), Jesus will have begun the events of Holy Week. What this means is that the tension surrounding Jesus’ life and significance is already in the works; and in Matthew the ones tightening the screws are the members of the Temple hierarchy and the religious establishment.

My point is that in his narratival way, Jesus is saying that the Temple leaders are the first son. Israel, God’s own covenanted people, have not “shown up” to witness what God is doing in Jesus. In our common language, they are the empty suits who talk the talk but have no intention of walking the walk. And conversely, Jesus says that the drug dealers and the sex traffickers, who initially rejected the father’s presence and direction, sobered up in light of being with the father. They “showed up”.

Jesus so cleverly concludes his quick analysis of what the parable is saying and to whom it is addressed by proclaiming: 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 [all this], you did not change your minds and believe him. [Matthew 21:32]

I think that the key to this parable’s power and meaning rests ironically in the Lord’s last words: “…you did not change your minds and believe in John the Baptist.”

Remember who John the Baptist is and what his message was? John was the Messiah’s herald, the one who came as prelude to the Savior’s presence. He came announcing the Lord’s Advent with these specific words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” [Matthew 3:2] And Jesus’ indictment of the ones who had covenanted with God to reveal the God-life to the whole world was what? They did not “change their minds…”. They did not “repent”. They did not turn their viewpoint around, their expectations, their way of thinking so that they might “believe” what John was saying. They did not change their minds to receive what God was giving and doing in Jesus, largely because they could not dare to “believe”: Belief meaning to “give one’s heart to”.

To the question of which son you and I are, the point is that each of us has covenanted with God in our baptisms. We have promised to be Christ’s Body in the world, and “with God’s help” to follow Jesus in word and deed. How’s it going?

The answer to this question relates to the issue of “showing up” and risking getting “religion”, as Frank confessed. His “showing up” allowed the truth of God’s love and life to sink in and take root in him. Some people seem to get this God-life quickly. Others of us need more time. In either case, we need to “show up” in order to receive “the gifts of God for the people of God” and also to share what God gives us.

In this light, I close this sermon by repeating the phrase that ends a Twelve Step meeting. They say, “Keep coming!” Keep showing up. God’s not done with us yet, and there is work to be done. Amen.

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