Intentions and Actions

Written by M. Posted in Sermons

Pentecost 17 A      Matthew 21:23-32

Preached by Martha Bayliss White, Our October First Sunday Guest, Synod Consultant to Immanuel

Grace to you and peace from the Lord, Our Father, Jesus Christ.

I’m happy to be here with you this morning, and want to provide this information by way of warning.  I’m not a preacher.  I  do work for the synod, but I am not a pastor or preacher, nor have I been trained in writing, or delivering sermons.  So perhaps we can just call this a message.

Jesus talks in this morning’s gospel about two brothers – neither of whom respond very graciously to their father’s request to get to work.   One grumbles “no way”, but rethinks that response later and heads to the vineyard to work.  The other says “sure thing” – with no apparent intention of following through on his response.  I’ve heard and seen similar responses from my two teenage kids. Jesus then asks – who is the better son?  Their initial responses don’t match their intentions in either case.  Neither cheerful disobedience or grumpy compliance are ideal responses.

I remember hearing my mother say, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions”, typically said in response to hearing one of her five daughters say, “I meant to do that...” I wasn’t sure where the phrase came from, and I’m pretty sure it’s not strict Lutheran theology, but it’s the first thing that popped into my head when I read the gospel lesson for today and thought about the intentions of those two characters.

So, with Google at my fingertips, I found a bit more information.  The earliest appearance of the phrase or something like it comes in Virgil’s Aeneid sometime around 27 BCE.  Authors and musicians have been using it ever since.  You can find the reference in works by Kierkegaard, Bronte and Karl Marx as well as Ozzy Osbourne, Pink, and Madonna.  So, it seems that it’s a common and long held thought that good intentions come more easily than actually following through with good actions or good works.  The corollary would be that actions speak louder than words – someone’s true intentions can often be seen through their behavior.

In the parable, Jesus goes on to compare the two brothers to members of the community – bringing the story into focus for the scribes and Pharisees who are questioning him.    Would you rather be cheerfully disobedient, or grumpily compliant?  I’m not sure that’s really the choice that Jesus is presenting.  Both sons in the parable are in need of God’s grace, as are all of us. The church leaders are caught recognizing their own behavior – cheerful, outwardly ‘religious’, observing all the man made rites and rituals but not carrying their intent, their love of God, through to serving their neighbor, or repenting their own sins. 

Now, good intentions aren’t a bad thing, mind you.  New year’s resolutions do, sometimes, lead to permanent changes in behavior.  Making plans to call your mom once a week, find a work out partner to hold you accountable, or start your taxes in March rather than April are all fine intentions.  But how do we connect them with what happens after the “I plan to…..”…?  I think that’s the challenge for many of us. How do we carry through with our best intentions when life starts to happen?  When that extra project pops up at work, a family member falls ill, or the busy-ness of everyday life seems to overwhelm our ability to control our own schedules?  How can we stay true to what we intend to do?  How do we help the families of Immanuel stay true to their intentions?

When a baby is baptized, parents are asked if they promise to bring that child to worship, introduce them to the Lord’s Prayer and the Bible, and a number of other faith development practices.  To the best of my knowledge, most parents respond to these questions, with I do.  Their intentions are certainly clear. Many of those families would tell you that they fully intend to bring their children to worship – but anyone with a newborn can tell you they don’t follow anyone’s schedule but their own.  Once past that newborn stage, it may be easier to bring your toddler to church, but it’s really hard to focus on worship if your 3-year old is having a meltdown.  Attending Sunday school is part of that promise as well, but if your 10-year old is on the club soccer team, Sunday mornings may get usurped by long car rides to early games in towns some miles away.

These are the realities of everyday life for many families.  So how do we match the intentions to stay connected with the church with the reality of that everyday life? How do we encourage them to follow through on their intentions to bring their children to be part of this faith community? The folks here at Immanuel have indicated that they want to be welcoming to families with children and there’s a group working on figuring out what that looks like.  Wanting to be welcoming and being welcoming don’t always go hand in hand.  There has to be a conscious and intentional effort to link the ‘want to be’ with ‘being’.  If the church wants to welcome families with children, there may be changes needed to when and how worship is conducted, where children are when it takes place and how those parents are supported as part of that process. I am here to work with Immanuel as you follow through on your intentions to become a church that openly welcomes families with children.  A church that works around the messiness and busy-ness of everyday life to be sure that families can find the support they crave while providing both adults and children with the spiritual community and faith development they both very much need.

Trying to figure out what that looks like will come from the information we are gathering from the families who are in worship here most Sundays, as well as families that you’ve not seen for a while.  We’re taking advantage of the nursery school population to ask them about their experience with faith communities – be it here or elsewhere, what their challenges are, and how a church – any church – could help shepherd them through a trying time in the life of a family.  We’ll be reaching out to groups that use the facilities – scout troops, among others – to reach families with older children.  Each of these groups can provide insight that will be useful to determine how best to move forward to welcome families in these different demographics. And encourage them to follow through on their intentions. The information being gathered will be sorted and analyzed, and trends will start to appear.  Already we’ve heard some familiar refrains about the obstacles that families face when it comes to being here on Sunday mornings.  Working with the follow up team, we’ll have the opportunity to look at how to bring families together here at Immanuel, how to make it easier for those families to become part of this community – what it will take in terms of staffing, programming and other resources.

You may wonder why I care about what’s happening here at Immanuel.  It’s not my church.  I don’t know many of you.  Let me tell you a story that may explain why. 15 years ago, I desperately needed a connection – I was a new mom, recently laid off from work, pregnant with my second child, with little family close by.   I wasn’t sure where to go, and I didn’t know anyone in a similar situation.  It turns out there was a group of mothers with young children who were members of my church.  They met one midweek morning each week to bring their children together and enjoy a little adult company.  I was looking for, and found that connection I was seeking through that group of moms.  It strengthened my connection to the church because we had a connection with one another.  Sunday morning worship fed my soul, and allowed me to see ‘my people’ as well – other women in the same place I was in, other moms juggling a diaper bag, an infant seat and a toddler, hoping to make it through the service without having to leave.  Other moms who were probably just as tired as I was, who understood and shared that understanding with a glance or a smile.  I felt God’s grace, as well as the grace of other moms, when I was in church.  It got me through a rough patch and has continued to provide support as my children get older.

As my kids grew, they developed their own connections to the community.  Sunday school provided more opportunity to get know other children in the church, as well as the stated lesson about Jesus or the bible.  Their desire to attend church increased as they realized ‘their people’ were there.  Opportunities for social activities sprung from the church as well.  Families developed relationships around their same aged children and that strengthened the community.  The opportunity to carry the word out to the world, while enjoying the fellowship of friends is a powerful experience.

Church is about intentional community – our intention to come together in shared faith.  I am a member of my faith community in Holliston.
* I go for worship
* I go to deepen my faith
* I go to be reminded of the grace that’s offered to me
* I go to see my friends, who are part of that community
* And I go to bring that feeling back out into the world with me, to spread the good news I’ve heard, with others.

And this happens not just at my church, it happens at lots of churches, and it can and does happen here at Immanuel. That’s why I’m here.
That’s why this matters to me, even if it’s not my church, because I know that there are many seeking community and seeking to be reminded of the grace they know is offered here. I know that community and grace can be had in abundance in a healthy, vital church.
I know that Immanuel can continue to be that place of health and vitality and I know that the people of Immanuel can make changes to get there.  We’re in the process of listening to the people in and around the church, to be able to welcome them here, amidst their busy-ness, and help them follow their intentions to be part of this faith community.

Jesus, in his parable of the two sons, makes it clear that both are children of God, both are in need of and deserving of God’s grace.  May we also remember that we are all in need of and deserving of the grace that is so freely given by God.  One of the hymns suggested for today’s service (ELW 712; Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service) offers us instruction to go forward and do just that, and I’d like to end my message with those words:

Called by worship to your service, forth in your dear name we go
To the child, the youth, the aged, love in living deeds to show;
Hope and health, goodwill and comfort, counsel, aid and peace we give
That your servants, Lord, in freedom, may your mercy know and live.