My second year at Wake Divinity I took up recreational archery in order to blow off some steam while I was serving as a hospital chaplain. We would meet a couple times a month to practice hitting targets. Our coaches would remind us, feet shoulder width apart with your non-dominant foot pointed toward the target and your hips turned to the side. Shoulders back, bow arm straight. Knock your arrow, pull back the string until it was touching the corner of your mouth. Breathe in, hold, and release. I knew the form, cold. I could recite it, play it over in my head, but if I got so bogged down in the words in my head and didn’t settle into my breath, practice would be off. The form for archery requires embodiment, when I was grounded in my body, when I stilled the frenetic thoughts in my mind, and connected to my breath, my spirit, my accuracy improved dramatically and I would hit my target consistently. The actions speak louder than words.
Liturgy, like target practice, allows us the familiarity of repetition. We know what to expect. It’s comfortable. We know the right things to say and the right times to say it. It’s easy to say the words of the Confession & Forgiveness or to confess our faith using the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Words many the world over know from memory. But, repentance, living out that faith, is not a spectator sport. It requires action of the mind, body, and spirit. God calls us to a life that is embodied fully and a faith that isn’t just lip service. Actions speak louder than words.
This morning we find Jesus as he is confronted by the religious authorities in Jerusalem. Jesus had just had a very busy weekend! He had ridden into the city on the back of a donkey as the crowds shouted Hosanna and waved palm branches. He had just cursed a fig tree because he was hungry and he flipped the tables in the temple, cleansing it, not of the Jewish faith, but of the corruption he found there. Jesus was, afterall a devout Jew, but he had just caused a lot of ruckus in the city. When Jesus shares this parable with the temple authorities, they’re already pretty angry with him. And so on this day, Monday of what we now consider Holy Week, they ask him point blank…who gives you the right? …And Jesus doesn’t answer; he asks a question of his own instead, one that puts the religious leaders in a bit of a bind, and to save face they too refuse to answer. Actions…and inactions…speak louder than words.
That’s when Jesus tells this story. One about a father and two sons. One who says the right thing then doesn’t act on it and another who doesn’t say the right thing, but has a change of heart and does what he was asked. Jesus concludes the story by informing the religious elite that they are like the second son, the one who knew all the right words to say and then let his commitment to those words wither and die in the wake of his inaction. It’s a statement that likely sealed Jesus’ fate: crucifixion, a public execution by the state.
Jesus reminds the religious elite that in spite of knowing the right words, when the Good News of God’s kin-dom was before them, they neglected to act, refusing to move beyond words, into action. And in spite of social systems that screamed otherwise, do you know who Jesus declared are like the first son? Tax-collectors and prostitutes, the ones that had been pushed so far to the margins that they sought refuge in the literal wilderness. And there they received the greatest gift they could have imagined. A community who made space for them, rather than a system that exploited them and financially blocked them from access to God. When these, the ones that society and religion alike had written off, heard the Good News of a God who loved them desperately, now matter how hopelessly lost they felt, or how little those in authority thought of them, they went beyond platitudes, beyond, repetitive speech, and embodied the repentance they spoke of and in so doing, are promised God’s kin-dom ahead of the religious elite. Actions speak louder than words.
The work of repentance, of embodying the confession and the creeds takes work every single day. To quote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” Jesus’ words are sobering. They should make us uncomfortable because they should inspire us to ask…”which son are we?” as individuals and as the church. Are we the son who rests on his laurels, saying the right thing and then doing nothing to back it up? The one who says yes, then refuses to embody repentance? Or are we the second son? The one who maybe doesn’t look, sound, or act like part of the “in crowd,” the one that maybe doesn’t have the “right” words, but still embodies God’s love? The one who recognizes that God’s love isn’t confined to a building, but is also found in the streets of the city and in the wilderness too?
Jesus didn’t oppose the Jewish faith, but he did oppose religion that stopped at saying the words, without embodying them in body, mind, and spirit. Actions speak louder than words. When we stop at words, pretty and familiar though they might be, we miss the mark, the realization of God’s kin-dom here on earth. But just like the first son who said the wrong thing, but then changed his mind, we are also able to use our own action to have a change of heart and embody repentance even when we mess up. Actions speak louder than words. Thanks be to God.