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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Matthew 21:23-32
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA
September 25, 2005

In the last presidential election, one of the candidates – I can barely remember his name – was branded (fairly or unfairly) a “flip-flopper.” In a stroke of visual publicity genius, the opposition started showing up with cheap flip-flops in their hands, holding them above their heads and clapping them together to drive the point home. “He’s a FLIP-FLOPPER.” It sounds a little silly now, but then it was said as if that’s the worst possible thing a person could ever be.

In the gospel lesson today Jesus takes some people to the woodshed for NOT being flip-floppers. The religious high-and-mighties are stuck. Chances are that even if they want to change their minds, they can't. It's enough to make Jesus angry. You don’t want to make Jesus angry. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” He doesn’t tell the leaders they won’t get into the kingdom, but they’re going to have to take a number. While the people they look down their noses at get bumped to the front of the line.

Changing your mind. Changing your beliefs. Just changing in general is a really hard thing. Change too much, and people call you a flip-flopper. Change too little, and people say you’re closed-minded. (I can hear it now: “Daaaadyyyy. You’re acting like it’s still 2015. You’re so old-fashioned.”) And yet, the world is changing all around us, every day, faster and faster. What’s the saying? “The only thing you can count on is change.” You might flip-flop on political issues. You might flip-flop on social issues. But is it ever OK to be a flip-flopper in your faith?


Jesus didn’t preach many sermons, but he did tell a lot of stories. When the preachers came to split their gray hairs with him, he took their indignation and turned it into a children’s sermon, a story.

“What do you think?” he asked them. “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 his father?”

This is NOT a lesson in practical parenting. This is NOT a lesson on how to treat your mom and dad. If that’s what you’re looking for, it’s a lesson on how to drive your parents crazy. Most kids already know how to do that. “Dad, I’m going to go to college. Dad, I’m going to drop out and find myself. Dad I’m pretty sure my self is in Europe. Can you give me some money to find out? Dad? Dad?”

Jesus tells the story of the two sons as an opportunity for grace. Even the disrespectful son can change his mind from, “I will not,” to “I will.” He won’t erase the disrespect, but he will, in the end, do the will of his father. Between the lines, Jesus is telling the leaders there’s still time to change their minds – if they want to, if they choose. They can become faithful flip-floppers, and that’ll be OK. Or, they can hold onto their stubbornness and take their places at the end of the kingdom’s line.

What is this saying to us?

Number one: It says God forgives. It says even though a person might make God angry, God forgives. God is blessedly inconsistent in God’s outlook toward us. And that’s good. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” wrote Emerson. The mind of God is so much greater, and capable of so much more than our little brains and our hobgoblins. God is biased. God is biased in our direction. God is biased toward us when we do manage to pull our minds out of our own foolish little consistencies. God’s mind can change, even after we’ve done things so stupid we’ve managed to anger the Almighty. God forgives. God can change.

Number two: The parable says we can change. There’s a T-shirt that says, “Change is good. You go first.” There are so many staunchly conservative religious groups in the world today. They scare me. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, whatever. Religious groups who have their minds so securely fixed, who are so certain God agrees with them – and them alone – are dangerous. They defy the good news of the Gospel. They fight the idea of repentance. They arm themselves, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally, arm themselves against the idea that people can change.

Jesus’ message to the religious leaders is NOT that they can’t get into the kingdom. His message to them is, though, that they’re going to have to wait. They’ve got to wait their turn until the people they hate, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, take their place at the front of the line. Maybe – maybe – Jesus places the leaders at the end of the line, NOT to shame them, but so they’ll have time. Time to think. Time to listen. Time to listen to what the folks in front of them have to say. Time to hear the voices of the people they won’t allow in worship. Time to hear how these people’s children cry, just as their own children do. Waiting at the end of the line, they’ll have time. Time to change.

When beliefs turn so harsh, when we become so rigid that we dismiss people as unimportant, it’s usually when we don’t think we have time. We don’t have time to listen to the complaints of the customers. We don’t have time to visit a hospital. We don’t have time to read a book with a different point of view. So we cut corners – we cut out the corners of thought – and start thinking in straight lines, black and white, right and wrong, my way or the highway. What the scripture is saying is the highway to the kingdom has a lot of corners; it curves around and through places we don’t like to go. The highway to the kingdom takes us past neighborhoods we don’t want to see. The way of Jesus takes time. Time changes us.

A fundamental belief of Christianity is that the resurrection of Christ gives us eternal life. No matter what happens in this life, we’ve got all the time in the world – and then some. Stop for a moment; think about that. You’ve got all the time in the world – and then some. You’ve got eternity, promised in the waters of baptism and sealed in the blood of Jesus Christ. Even if you’re afraid you’re really one messed up human being, you’ve got time. You can change.

Jesus said to the religious folk: “John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds….”

God can change. God can forgive. God can move from anger to mercy. God can change. Can we?


John Brichetto – one of the saints of this church, now in heaven – used to tell a story on himself. He would tell the story of the worst business decision he ever made. During the Korean War, John was stationed in South Korea as an officer in the Air Force. Another Air Force buddy decided he was going to set up a business after the war, and was going to export back to the States the funny little shoes the Koreans wore. “Aww, are you crazy?” John asked him. “Nobody’s going to want to wear those silly things. Pieces of rubber with an attachment between the toes. No way.” So he passed on the offer. After the war, his buddy started exporting those shoes. He called them… “flip-flops.”

Repentance is another name for a spiritual flip-flop. And if we’ve already made up our minds about everything, if we don’t think we need the gift of repentance, God will let us pass on the offer. But that would be a mistake.

We can change our minds. And God can change our hearts.