A favorite character of one of the “Star Wars” films was the diminutive gnome, Yoda. Wise beyond words as he attempted to teach Luke Skywalker how to harness the power of The Force.
At one point as Luke fails again and again, Yoda exclaims in exasperation, “There is no ‘try.’ There is only do or not do.”
This might be the message of two sons in Matthew’s gospel assigned for this Sunday. Do or not do. There is no “try.”
“A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same, and he answered, ‘I go, sir;’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of the father?”
And for this reason, the “kin-dom” is opened to all who respond to the call. That is why prostitutes and tax collectors will be received ahead of stiff-necked religious authorities who quibble over theological fine points while the world goes to rot.
A while back, actually, several years ago as chapter head of our Pomona Valley Chapter of Progressive Christians Uniting, I had championed a small group of Muslims being harassed and tormented by their white, supposedly Christian neighbors.
Their fine Christian neighbors had at points thrown pig parts onto their property to desecrate it (or so they thought). These people were besieged with one legal action after another by their neighbors. “Islam” is from the root word for “peace” – salaam — but many in the surrounding community would not have it so.
Our chapter, over several months, raised some ten thousand dollars for the legal defense fund of that Muslim congregation.
Hate, vituperation, porcine entrails? Definitely NOT what Jesus would do. But that’s another sermon.
At the annual dinner of An-Noor Mosque (the name of which translates as “the Light”), my family and I were invited to receive a token of their appreciation and friendship. In accepting the honor on behalf of our Pomona Valley Chapter, I mentioned that if one had asked me several years ago if I would have any Muslim friends, I would have been at a loss for words. No, of course not. I didn’t even know any Muslims. And now, here I was surrounded by an entire group of new friends that I had come to know and admire over the past two years of this saga. What a blessing to be found through all this struggle!
One of the things I learned about Islam is that while they don’t put quite the same emphasis on theological explication of their faith that we Christians do, there is a much deeper concern for right and righteous behavior. Doing the right thing – thus the extensive code of ethical writing and rulings. Say AND do. There is no “try.”
As I oft quote Mark Twain, “It would be a lot easier to believe in the possibility of redemption if the redeemed looked a little more redeemed.”
When I headed up Project Understanding – Temple City, our ecumenical fair housing program, we had a number of participating congregations. The three or four I could always count on were the Quakers, the Unitarians, liberal Catholics who believed in the social teachings of their church and the small band of Disciples of Christ folks who gave us office space at their church. These folks put their faith into action.
They would accompany home seekers who had been refused an apartment. They would confront apartment managers and landlords with the demands of California’s fair housing laws.
Our volunteers were the incarnation of Dr. King’s aphorism, “It is always the right time to do the right thing.”
They would help put on community education events to help these gatekeepers know the law and educate managers and owners to assuage the fear that if a person of color moved in all that the other tenants would move out. Actually, no one would leave because people hate to move – and we found that no one did. And this new tenant, if they could afford the rent, would take the same care of their unit as that older, white tenant. And that was invariably the case.
Now here’s the real irony – our very first client was an Italian man. For some reason, the owner hated Italians. Go figure!
The people in our fair housing organization walked the talk. And their work often took them far outside their comfort zone. It’s not easy listening to some racist screaming at you about ruining the neighborhood. Quick – Where’s the Pepto-Bismol?
The slogan of our movement was and is: “Good Neighbors Come in All Colors.” And that’s what we worked at day in and day out. Every passing month, the blessings of God’s Kin-dom grew by the number of new people who walked through the doors of opportunity.
I’m reminded of the fictional persona, a buxom nurse with attitude, Geraldine, played by Flip Wilson – always a memorable segment and crowd pleaser of his comedy show. Her opening lines as she strutted her stuff were, “What you see is what you get.”
When our clients looked at these church folks, what they saw was what they got – God’s open arms of welcome.
The church is indeed a door into a smidgeon of eternity when the operative ethic is, “What you see is what you get.”
These were the Christians in the past who sheltered Jews from Hitler’s extermination camps. These were the Christians who stood with Catholic priests and nuns martyred by death squads in Central American countries for siding with the poor. These were the Christians who marched with Martin Luther King in both North and South.
When it came to “Do or Not Do.” They did!
It’s sometimes difficult to put into context the work we do, which often seems more humdrum than heroic. Running the copy machine, stapling, attending a community meeting doesn’t seem so exhilarating as joining a demonstration to protect LGBTQ rights or stop the banning of books at one’s local school library. Yet, little by little it all works to make manifest God’s gracious welcome to all.
As our planet is besieged by what my friend, Katherine Hayhoe calls, “Global Weirding,” it is time to move to a more responsible stewardship of this earth. I’m told that this past Friday, New York City, where our younger son and future daughter-in-law live, received as much rain in three hours as would be normal for an entire month. Christopher reports water in their basement and flooded streets. Again, the subway was awash. I’ve been wondering if Alexis made it home from work okay.
Bill Nye, the “Science Guy,” said it’s now time for “big picture” thinking. Definitely, do not vote for any climate denier. Do not vote for any who aid, abet and fund them.
The first step may be to educate oneself on where your dollar goes in the marketplace. And while there is no salvation in purity of action, at least it’s possible to avoid giving our consumer dollar to some of the worst of these culprits. Time to educate yourself. How we spend our income is a Christian responsibility. You have the “power of the purse.”
Join an environmental group like Citizens’ Climate Lobby that has been working for a sustainable energy future. Or 350.org, Bill McKibben’s group. There is no “try,” only “do or not do.”
What future do we wish for ourselves and our children and grandchildren? What they see may not be much of a future.
Letters to the editor, a phone call to a missed friend, a welcome to a new person at Sunday Service. It is all part of the essential work of the Jesus Movement. All part of the “do” of the journey.
I know, when folks look at St. Francis what they see is indeed what they get. And while some of us might be “trying” at times, here faith is manifest in action. And Love is the ethic.
In less than a week, Jai and I head off to Connecticut to marry off our youngest son Christopher and his beloved, Alexis. We have a stake in what sort of planet we leave them. What sort of politics we leave them. What sort of commonwealth we leave them. And you, likewise, for your family.
“In the beginning God created…” Light was the first gift of this wondrous event. Let’s pray that this same Light set our imaginations and will on fire that we keep it all going. Do or Not Do is the question before us. The gift of Holy Spirit is to fortify our imaginations and steel our will: To the Glory of God. Amen.
October 1, 2023
18 Pentecost, Proper 21
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-8;
Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
“There is no Try”