Getting Beyond Thou Shalt Nots

The Rev. Robert P. Travis

17th  Sunday after Pentecost Sermon – 5pm, 8am and 10:00am Church of the Ascension

Proper 21 RCL Year A 10/1/2017


Scripture Text:

Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32

Psalm 25:1-8

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

Sermon Text:

Today we have the chance to see

The development of Jesus’ teaching

From that of the prophets before him,

In fact, of the teachers of Israel.

It should motivate us to think

Not of what we should not do,

But rather of what we are doing

Positively, to follow the Lord.


In the passage from Ezekiel,

We hear the classic call to repent,

To turn away from doing things that are wrong.

“Repent and turn away from all your transgressions;

Otherwise iniquity will be your ruin.”

This is part of a greater argument,

Of how much God desires that we will live,

How God does not desire the death of sinners.

But sometimes that is all we are taught,

And we can be lead to think

That all God cares about is a series of thou shalt nots.

It’s easy to hear “When the righteous turn away

from their righteousness and commit iniquity,

they shall die for it;

for the iniquity that they have committed

they shall die,”

And think following God is all about

Not doing the wrong thing, not committing


But even in the Old Testament prophets

There is prophecy that points to the more positive

Side of this message.

Even in this sentence, there is the hint

That if the righteous turn from their righteousness

To commit iniquity,

That their righteousness at first was full

Of good actions.

That is confirmed with the statement

That follows,

“when the wicked turn away from the wickedness

they have committed

and do what is lawful and right,

they shall save their life.”

Do you hear that,

When they do what is right?

That speaks to the words of another prophet,

Micah, who speaks to the positive aspect of following God

When he says, “what does the Lord require of you,

But to seek justice, to love mercy,

And to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8)

I love that passage,

Because it tells us so simply,

What we are asked to do as followers of God.


Still so many of us, focus solely on the things

That we are not supposed to do,

And we can miss out on the more positive message.

One man I discussed the gospel passage with,

When confronted by the two sons,

The one refusing the father’s wishes,

And the other saying he would follow,

Said this passage clearly challenges us

To compare ourselves to one or the other son.

And that is true,

Jesus was using the comparison of two sons

In this short parable,

In part because the history of Israel has plenty

Of important stories like that.

Think Cain and Abel,

Jacob and Esau,

Moses and Aaron to name a few.

He also used the image of the vineyard,

Because the vineyard was a common symbol

For Israel.

So the leaders he was talking to,

Would immediately recognize,

The connection that they were to have in the story,

And the call to work in the vineyard,

As a comparison to what God was asking

Them to do among the people of Israel.

This man I was talking with,

Heard the story, felt the connection,

And immediately was drawn back to a time

In his life that he regretted,

A time when he was drawn into doing things

That he considered sinful and wrong.

He said that made him compare himself,

To the son who said he would do what the father

Asked, but did not.

When I told him failure to keep from doing

the wrong thing was not the point here,

it took some convincing.

I believe that is because we get so caught up

In not committing sins,

That we miss the positive aspects of serving God.

Here the father asks both sons

To go into the vineyard to work.

The one says he will, but does not,

And the other says he won’t but does.

Jesus asks, which one did the will of the father?

He doesn’t ask which one kept from doing

The wrong thing.

The forgiveness God so freely offers us

For the things we have done wrong is wonderful,

But it is there to open the door,

To our doing what we were always called to do.

Forgiveness without later good actions,

Is as empty as son saying he will follow a command,

Even saying it respectfully, using the title sir,

But then not doing it.

We are called to do something,

In the father’s vineyard,

Even if we are reluctant to agree at first.


So what was God asking of the religious leaders

Jesus was talking to?

What is God asking of us?

What does it mean to walk humbly with God?

For an answer we have

This great passage from Paul,

Which is called the kenosis hymn in Philippians.

Kenosis means self-emptying,

And scholars believe Paul was quoting,

A hymn sung by early Christians about Jesus.

He is the example for us to follow.

As Paul says,

God is at work in us,

Enabling us “both to will and to work

For his good pleasure.”


Jesus, “emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death–

even death on a cross.”

The religious leaders set themselves up

As examples of righteousness, by strictly not doing

What they believed everyone was not supposed to do.

But Jesus humbled himself into service.

He gave himself up for a positive purpose:

“Jesus’ authority (which they were challenging him to defend), in contrast (to theirs),

is affirmed by the integrity of his words and actions,

as well as by its outcomes: gathering and restoration,

healing and cleansing,

release from demonic powers,

restored sight,

table fellowship with sinners,

and preservation of the least ones –

all examples of the “fruit”” of righteousness. (Stanley Saunders on


We like him, as his followers,

Are called to give up ourselves in similar way.

We are children of God,

But we are not to exploit that gift,

But to give of our abundance to God’s glory.


This weekend there are a number of specific

Ways we are asked to empty ourselves

To go into the vineyard and work for him.

Our Mission: Outreach group is asking us

To share with them the priorities

We are feeling called to engage in by God.

At the same time, we are making a special effort

To help people who need our help.


Welcome House our local homeless shelter,

And the only one like it in the area,

Has hit a major hardship, when the state cut

A significant source of their funding,

Fourteen months after they had applied,

And were expecting to receive it.

They faced a $72,000 shortfall,

And with some hard work were able to make up,

Some of that amount,

But are still short $20,000 to get them

Through the next few months.

They have asked for area churches to help.

And so we are taking up a special offering,

In the basket in the back, for donations of support.

We are already committing a gift of $350

A tithe on a special gift we received as a church,

To seed this effort.


A local Barber, Pedro of the Jordan NewStyle

Shop next door to the church, is heading down

To Puerto Rico in a couple of weeks,

And hopes to bring all he can carry

In food and clothing to help his family

And others who are struggling to recover

From the recent hurricane.

While this is a small effort to make

In the midst of a great crisis,

I told him we will help collect food and clothing

To send with him.

And we have our stewardship time,

About to begin, when we are asked

To recommit our lives to God in this Church,

To pledge to support the work of the church

With our time, talent and treasure

For the coming year.


All of these three efforts represent

Concrete ways we can follow Jesus’ example

And enter the vineyard to work for the father.

Like Jesus we humble ourselves

by giving what we have to the fullest extent.

He gave himself for us,

Opening the way for us to receive

The abundant life that God is providing for us.

While we are grateful for the forgiveness

He so freely gives when we fall short,

He is calling us to more than simple repentance.

The other side of repentance is positive action.

Let’s show humble, generous actions that identify us

As followers of the humble,

Generous Lord Jesus.



The Rev. Robert P. Travis

Father Rob goes by Father so that he remembers his duty to the people of God whom he serves. He’s been ordained since 2006, serving in Florida and Tennessee and before that served as a youth minister in Long Island, NY. More details