Good morning. Perhaps you have noticed that some of the familiar phrases in our worship are different. Things like – God be with you – instead of the Lord be with you. Or what the reader is now saying at the end of the lessons – Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people. Perhaps some of you haven’t noticed at all – perhaps some of you have heard these phrases when you’ve worshiped in other churches.
Maybe you don’t give it a second thought. Maybe you don’t like it all. Maybe do. They are from the most recent supplemental to our Prayer Book – its called Enriching Our Worship – so these words are authorized by The Episcopal Church – rest assured, I’m not wiley niley rewriting our liturgy.
But why make these changes at all? Why does the church even go through the bother of writing a supplemental? Why did we stop using the 1928 Prayer Book? No one seems to miss the 1662 version….
When I was in college – at the Boston equivalent of the Peabody in Baltimore – New England Conservatory – one of our undergraduate requirements was a class in contemporary and modern music. Many of us in the class grumbled and complained in analyzing contemporary music – with its atonalities and strange rhythms and harmonies.
And I remember one day Prof. Hoffman (God rest his soul) entertained one of our complaints and said – you know, each year when I walk through the doors of NEC and am confronted by the enormous, larger than life-size marble statue of Beethoven I think to myself – is this a school of music where we learn to create new music? Or is this a place where we pass and bear the traditions – are we a conservatory - or a museum?
How about us? Are we, the church, a living breathing – changing thing – a group of people who come alive in new ways – as we discover new ways - that maybe rattle us – sometimes delight us – sometimes challenge us? Or are we here to bear a tradition – because it is a comfort to retreat to a place where we know what to say, what to do, what to expect – and that certainty – is where we place our faith?
Each lesson this morning asks that question – does your faith lie in what you know, what you are sure of? Or is your faith in God?
By what authority are you leading us into this empty desert? – the Israelites ask Moses.
By what authority are you doing these new things in the church? – the priests ask Jesus.
I’m sure everyone started out really excited when they left Egypt. They were no longer slaves! They had been released by the power of God! Not too long ago they saw the parting of the Red Sea! I bet even Moses had that – we just won the big game feeling – as they started on the beginning of a journey they could never have imagined.
But now all the excitement and anticipation is gone – and has been replaced with – uh on– we made the wrong decision. What were we thinking that Moses could take charge? What were we thinking that we even left? At least as captives we knew where our next meal was coming from. Even Moses is unsure of what he’s doing and what he’s supposed to do – terrified they are about to throw a coup. And from our vantage point – such vast time inbetween – it can be almost humorous, we know the outcome after all – oh, those complaining Israelites. But – it definitely wasn’t funny at the time. The people were starving. They were dying of thirst.
Who here has not started on some sort of adventure – and you have that excitement and that anticipation – that eagerness to get where you think you’re going. And almost without knowing it – you’ve solidified the outcome in your mind. You are sure of what to expect on the other side – and the journey itself is secondary. And as you move towards your goal, when things are going along well – great, God is with me! But when things crop up – or don’t go as planned – unexpected – or start falling apart – is God here or not?
We rarely entertain our doubts when things are going well, right? Its when things don’t go our way – that’s when we join with these ancient people in their desert of doubt – and ask is the Lord among us or not.
So what I hear us being reminded of today, my friends, in-between these two stories, is that is the most important place to be! That is the place St. Paul writes about in this letter. That place of uncertainty, not knowing – that is the place where you work it out – because that is exactly how God is at work in you!
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you! Is Moses scared – of course he is. Are the people scared – of course they are. What they “do” in the midst of doubt is what matters – they do not give up – they keep trusting – they keep putting one foot in front of the other – they assemble leaders – and follow them to springs.
This is what Jesus tells the priests in his story – there are two sons, they kinda seem like spoiled brats (although we really don’t know any of the reasons why they are reluctant). One tells his dad – no, I’m not going to work in the vineyard today. The other tells him – sure dad, I’ll go – but then he doesn’t. We don’t know why they doubt what their father is telling them to do – I’m sure his dad had a very good reason for wanting them to work. And Jesus asks – ok, which one of these did, for all intents and purposes, the “right” thing? The first one – the one who said no, but then changed his mind, did what was asked of him anyway – maybe reluctantly, maybe joyfully. Jesus doesn’t tell us, which tells me, it doesn’t matter what you say – it matters what you do. Actions speak louder than words – when it comes to following their father’s will.
The priests do not like that Jesus is coming into their house of worship – which they have made a restricted museum – and is stirring things up – with his teaching and his preaching – with his new words – and new gestures – and new ways of naming God’s unconditional and forgiving love for tax collectors and prostitutes.
They are so scared of losing their authority – by letting go of their rigid ways – that they argue and grumble with each other over how to even answer Jesus’ first question. They don’t want to work anything out – they just want Jesus out – so everything can go back to the way it always was. Their fear and trembling at losing their power – closes their hearts and minds to the humility of being able to see who even stands before them.
When I hear – work out your salvation with fear and trembling – I don’t hear it as if I’m supposed to be scared of God. As if God is ready to pounce on me with judgments about all the mistakes I’ve made or words I wish I could reclaim. Our God is a loving God. What I hear Paul saying is – its hard. Its hard being in that place when things fall apart – doubts set in – and the fearful and trembling part is that we do not know where God will lead us. That is the beginning of humility. We do not know what can happen, how long it could take. And that is also liberating. It is liberating to let go of our rigid hold – or the burden of preconceived ideas and outcomes – and let God do what God is going to do.
Which is why – by the way – it is good for us to practice in small ways – for an hour in worship. When we do something new together – say new words – read new prayers – allow new holy language to cross our lips – we can choose to take note of our reluctance, or excitement. And then get curious – pay attention. Paying attention is the spiritual work – and the beginnings of working out whatever it is God is up to – within us.
Where is your faith this morning? Are your doubts leading you someplace important? Are you the authority in your life? Or is God? Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people. Amen.