Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, September 28, 2014

Are We Sent People?
…Fragrant with the Love of Christ?
[Matthew 21:28-32; 2 Corinthians 2:14-15; Philippians 2:1-13]


Let us pray.  Holy and Gracious Father, it’s amazing you invite US to be laborers in your kingdom, instruments of your love, vessels of your grace, members of your team. Train us and empower us to do your will in the world. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.
            Are we “sent” people?  What does it mean to be “sent” by God?  If we look at the brief parable in Matthew 21 we meet a man who owned a vineyard and had two sons. It was customary in the Middle East in Jesus’ time for sons to work on their father’s land. I imagine this was also true in Robeson County, in the early days of this congregation. The father naturally asked both sons to work in the vineyard.
            Son #1 said: “I will not;” but later in the day he changed his mind and went to work.
            That son’s initial refusal to do what his father asked DISHONORED the father… but in the end he obeyed and accomplished what his father asked him to do.
            Son #2 said:  “I go, sir;” but he never showed up and never did the work.  Naturally, that son’s polite and courteous reply HONORED his father initially, but when he didn’t follow his words with actions, he also disgraced his father.
            Jesus then asked the scribes and religious leaders of the temple in Jerusalem:  “Which of the two did the will of his father?”   That was an easy answer for them:  “the first son.” 
            The TWIST in Jesus’ parable is what Jesus says next. The scribes and religious leaders believed themselves to be first sons: the “obedient ones” who observed Jewish laws and pleased God.  However, in the verses immediately preceding this parable, they had challenged Jesus, asking by whose authority he spoke and acted.  They failed to SEE and PERCEIVE that Jesus came from God and spoke for God.
Jesus continues:  “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
            WHAT????? Jesus was comparing the tax collectors and prostitutes to the first son, who INITIALLY dishonored their father by refusing to obey, but when given an opportunity to repent of their sins with John the Baptist and believe in and follow Jesus, they were able to recognize that Jesus was from God and spoke for God. They were drawn to Jesus like a magnet; whereas, the cynicism of the scribes and religious leaders blinded them to Jesus’ divine calling and mission.
            Even though the scribes and religious leaders daily promised God they would “work” in God’s kingdom, they actually failed to show up by failing to see and perceive God’s presence in BOTH John the Baptist and in Jesus.  Although “called” and “sent” by God, they were NOT fragrant with the love of Jesus Christ, but bore the stench of selfishness, and were bent on destroying the One sent by God as their salvation.
            How sensitive are OUR NOSES to the fragrance of Christ’s love and to the stench of ego-driven self-destruction? Is your nose trained to recognize the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ?  Can you recognize the odor of ego-driven human agendas, which protest against the need for humility and self- sacrifice?
            Neither of the man’s sons were 100% in the right, just as all of God’s children stand in need of mercy and forgiveness, but the late arrivers to grace seemed to have had their minds and hearts in the right place, compared to the ones who were life-long believers and synagogue goers. 
One commentator notices:  “We mistake our own arrogance for faith.”   That was the primary stumbling block of the scribes and religious leaders then…and now. Sometimes life-long Presbyterians, life-long Baptists, life-long Methodists mistake our own arrogance for faith. Longevity, Tradition and Privilege… do not equal faith.  
            The tax collectors and prostitutes were not blind to their faults and brokenness.  The same commentator expresses what many of us may feel:  Letting the “losers” into the kingdom of God first is shocking, unjust and impractical!  After all, how could a church exist if every single person was a broken, decrepit rule-breaker!  No work would get done at all!  It would create “mayhem and moral chaos.”
            However, the Bible is NOT a book of church order. In fact, we see and perceive a whole new way of being in Jesus Christ.  For Jesus, no church can continue to exist if people who consistently break the rules and come back saying, “I am sorry,” are NOT fully restored to membership.  For the church of Jesus Christ what it means to obediently follow the rules requires FORGIVENESS and RESTORATION of sinners, each and every one without exception, whatever the sin.
            The interpretation of Jesus’ parable is NOT that the first son was a saint; heavens no!  He was rebellious from the start, but his heart softened… and he obeyed.  The second son was also no saint, despite how obedient he appeared to be on the surface.  Like many of us, our mouths (and maybe our hearts) are in the right place every Sunday morning, but Monday through Saturday we simply forget to extend the love of Christ beyond our households.
Last Sunday, we were challenged by Scripture to each one reach one with the love of Christ.  That was our goal and those were the words on our lips. The question is whether or not we remembered to go out into God’s field and do the work. Did we pick up the phone, knock on a door, drop a note in the mail, or speak to someone on the street?
            There’s a bit of each son in all of us.  We’re rebellious when God asks more of us than we want to give. Likewise, we are forgetful of the commitments we have already made.  We are ALL sent out each Sunday to be God’s hands and feet in the world, sharing God’s love and embracing the needy in concrete and caring ways.  We don’t mean to get distracted, but the time passes, another week flies by, and we don’t reach out with love.
            Let’s talk about the Scripture in II Corinthians which is the focus of the PC(USA)’s liturgy for Evangelism Sunday.  The Apostle Paul wrote numerous letters to the Christians in Corinth, because that particular church experienced a lot of conflict and “mixed voices” about how and where God was leading them.
            In his first letter to this church, he offered a number of “correctives” for some of the problems they were facing.  In this letter he assures them of his love, but also says that he does not want to make another “painful visit” as was his last visit, but promises to come to them again as soon as he is able.
            It was Paul’s calling to go from church to church proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and then leaving the on-going work of the church to local Christians.  His letters were critically important, because he offered encouragement and also some critique of what was happening in particular congregations at particular times. As we read the New Testament, we need to be aware that all of Paul’s letters were written at a particular time for a particular context and we need to be careful how we translate these letters into the present. The Presbyterian Women are studying this second letter of Paul’s to the Christians in Corinth for this entire year.
            In this passage for today Paul talks about the “fragrance of knowing Christ.”  That’s a topic we don’t hear about in sermons very often. How do Christians “smell”? What is our aroma as people come in contact with us on a day-to-day basis? That’s a bit scary!  When I was joking with friends lately about certain “smells” – like cat litter boxes…and outdoor trash, I admitted that I am not particularly sensitive to smells.  In fact, having lived in other countries where the cuisine was different and animals roamed the streets more freely, and trash was gathered differently, I have learned to ignore a lot of smells.  When we were living as missionaries in Lahore, Pakistan, we lived down the street from the Lahore American School and when I would walk the girls home from school every day, Rebekah, whose olfactory senses are particularly acute, would hold her nose as we passed by an open lot where a lot of trash was thrown regularly. I urged her not to be so obvious about her discomfort and to please take her fingers off her nose.
            But Paul is speaking metaphorically.  He is suggesting that the aroma of Christ is one of sincerity, authenticity, integrity and humility.  Christ was REAL, loving, self-sacrificing and 100% devoted to doing God’s will whatever the cost to himself.  I am sure you have met people who exuded the aroma of Christ…that’s probably why you are sitting here today, because you have experienced people of sincerity, sent by God, in whose presence you also felt the presence of Jesus Christ. I know that’s why I am standing here preaching in this pulpit, because of countless people whose lives spread the fragrance of knowing Jesus Christ and I was attracted to them and thereby attracted to having a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus Christ.
            Unfortunately, the aroma that draws us to Christ is the very same aroma that suffocates people who are perishing, because they cannot let go of their selfish agendas and want to hold fast to their sins. If a person doesn’t know Christ, the aroma of Christ is frightening, because there is a “sacrificial component.” Those persons do not want to relinquish control of their own lives.  For there is no doubt about it, a commitment to Jesus Christ requires re-birth – a total death to self, a losing of self in order to gain Christ as the LIFE living in us. But for those of us who have crossed that great divide, there’s nothing attractive about living for ourselves alone. Been there; done that. Christ invites us into Christ’s being. In Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence.  What more could anyone ask?                
          Let us pray.  Lord… our life is in you.  We cannot imagine a life without you. And as a result, we pray earnestly that all we say and all we do would radiate the love of Jesus Christ, and when work needs to be done, which it ALWAYS does, may we show up as willing, sincere, grateful workers. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.

David Lewicki,“Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 21:28-32,” Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Vol. 2, Chapters 14-28, (Edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson), p. 174.