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It's a Simple Dive

“It’s a Simple Dive”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

Matthew 21. 28-32

“What do you think? 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?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For 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 and believe him.          


I am in charge of Los Angeles.  And I come here, and I feel like a little fat girl. 
That’s right, Chelsea could never do a back flip.
I just seems like we have been mad at each other for such a long time.
I didn’t think we were mad at each other; I just thought we didn’t like each other.
I promise to come around more often.
That would mean a lot to your mother.

Every time I watch On Golden Pond and find my spirit intertwined with the character of Norman Thayer Junior on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, his orneriness, his sarcasm, and doddering ways, at some point in watching the movie my wife will say, “you’re not that old.  Remember that.  You’re not that old.”

On Golden Pond is a favorite.  For many years it was an end of summer ritual.  You knew it was time for Fall when you listen to Catherine Hepburn making Loon calls or referring to “laaawn chaeras”.  There is something about summer’s end, the turning of leaves and the need to shut down a cottage that cries out for one last dive into Golden Pond.  It’s bittersweet.  Yet, the real value of the movie and its lines that ever linger in my mind, charming rusticity and Chelsemacanelse, more than the lines is the poignant reminder that families are not easy.

It is curious, Jesus could have told the parable we read this morning as two workers.  A boss turned to an employee and directed a course of action.  A boss turned to another employee and directed the same.  One employee agreed but didn’t follow through; one refused to comply, but then followed the direction.  The structure of the story would be the same.  You are given a direction: do you follow it; do you reject it?  But Jesus says, a father had two sons.  Same structure.  But really different.  Family makes it different.

There are beautiful customs in Malawi around this difference.  One is the custom that if your teenage child is not living in harmony with you, if there is adolescent angst and strife between parent and child, you send this child to your brother or your sister.  Not for a weekend or a summer, for years.  This is a custom, so you don’t ask your brother or your sister for permission, you just send the kid.  The beauty is that the brother or sister is obligated to not only take in the child, but to treat them better than their own.

The result is freedom, a fresh start.  But it is also a better place for a young person to find the limits of life, the demands of being an adult.  How many of us have found in an aunt or an uncle an uncomplicated version of a parent?  There is another Malawian custom like this one.  In the villages, the next chief is always a nephew, never a son.  We might look at this and think, this is so power doesn’t concentrate into one house, which is true.  But what it really does is allow the relationship between a father and a son to be free from the corruption of expectation and succession.  The son is free to be a son; the father is free to be a father without the weight of power. Families are complicated enough without adding power.

Someday, not yet, but someday I hope to watch On Golden Pond with grandchildren, to see how the movie strikes them as an adult, if it still rings true a few generations removed.  I also want to see the surprise and wonder on their face when they learn the daughter and the father in the movie were really father and daughter (Henry and Jane Fonda), and that they too had a bit of a complicated relationship in real life.

The parable of the two sons is like all the parables: a very simple revelation of life’s complexity.  We all need to change, to do the right thing, to be good people.  This is true.  And yet, what it means to change, to do the right thing, to be a good person in the thicket and thorns of your past, your people, your sibling rivalries and ancient grudges or disappointments, well this is quite often just as true, but a bit more complicated.  It is one thing to be in charge of Los Angeles, but it is another to be in charge of Golden Pond and your memories.

Not to make this more complicated, but the parable of the two sons has a specific audience and a critique.  This parable is told in response to the Pharisees’ question of authority.  Pharisees want to know what gave Jesus the right to upset all the apple carts. Jesus deflected their question with another.  To the question, who put you in charge, Jesus asks, who put John the Baptist in charge?  Was he a true prophet, someone to follow, or a renegade, someone to put down?

The Pharisees can’t answer.  They can’t answer because of fear.  And this is the critique.  Jesus reveals the foundation of their life, the basis of their own authority is fear.  The Pharisees need to be right, to have the right answers, and they are afraid of being wrong.  This is, by the way, a terrible way to live, a ruinous foundation for living.  No one lives well in fear.  By bringing up John the Baptist, Jesus is reminding them of his criticism.  He says, in essence, remember, remember that guy who had no need of being right, and was completely unafraid of being wrong, remember that wild man out in the desert baptizing people in muddy waters, telling them they are washed clean and forgiven.  Remember what he said to you.

You are broad of vipers and the ax is at the root.

John didn’t much care for the Pharisees, you see.

The parable of the two sons, because it is about family and the complications of the past, is meant to remind the Pharisees and the people of how hard it is to change, especially when everyone is looking, and your reputation is on the line.  You never could do a back flip.

If I were to take a poll, if I were to quiz you today and ask, so fear, do you want to live in fear?  We would all say, no.  No thanks.  But if I kept going, it might get a bit muddy.  What about the fear of being wrong, being seen as wrong, being revealed as mistaken?  Are you afraid of being wrong?  Some might say no, but a good number of people would be honest enough to say, I am afraid of making mistakes, being in the wrong.  I don’t want to be embarrassed.  Which is fair. 

And if I pressed a little more and asked about the need to be in the right, to be vindicated, to be recognized or understood as a good person, things might get even murkier.  Is being right important to you?  Most would people answer, it depends.  Most people don’t need to be right always, but most people want to be seen as right where it counts.  Being in charge of Los Angeles is great; but to always be wrong on Golden Pond, that hurts.

If we dig past the fears and the complications of family, our parable today has yet another layer, a bedrock level so to speak.  Beyond the need to be right and the fear of being wrong, past the entanglement of siblings and parents, generations of expectations and traditions, beneath the definitions that incarcerate and the ideas that delude us, is a very basic truth: it's hard to change.  At the bottom of our parable is a son who realized his mistake and changed his life.  This is hard to do.

This is probably a bit too heretical, but for me, John the Baptist and Friedreich Nietzsche had the same message.  And the message is this: it is hard to do, but you can change.  You can change your mind, make up your own mind.  In fact, that is the key.  You choose; you act; you change.  If you don’t want to change, if that is your choice, then that is your choice.  But if you want to reach beyond fear, if you want to stand above the entangling cords of your past, then only you can do it.  It can’t be done for you or to you.  You must rise and take the step. 

You must find the courage in your heart.  Don’t stand behind a tradition or an ideology or the borrowed definition of respected people.  The tax collector, the prostitute, they enter the kingdom of God in front of you.  This is the message of John the Baptist.  No pretense, no propriety, no good or evil, just you rising above the fray of your fears and saying, “this is what I am going to do.”  That is what the tax collector did; what say you?  I am going to overcome fear.  This is what the what the prostitute says; what say you?  The first son realized he was wrong; he changed his mind; what say you?

To be your own authority, your own justification, your own acceptance, to be yourself this is what the daughter in On Golden Pond couldn’t quite achieve.  She could never do a back flip.  It’s a simple dive. It’s a ridiculous thing; but it’s the heart of the story.  She couldn’t face her fears.  The fear was not the dive; the fear was that she could make up her own mind, go beyond the need of approval and the opinion of others, to let the dead bury the dead.  The tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom of God first because they have no worry about what other people think about them.  They know they are seen as less.  That fear has been cast aside.

When you are a tax collector or a prostitute, according to Jesus, you are first because you’re not bound by the fear of being wrong or the need to be right. When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.  You are despised and derided, and yet, you keep going.  Your life doesn’t end. This is how our life becomes grounded in freedom.  

To take the step beyond fear of being wrong and the need of being right is not easy.  It’s not easy but it is necessary if you want to be free.  You may not have childhood memories of a pond beside Lake Champlain where your father was a sullen literature professor, and your mother was a bit of a nut.  You may be an only child or one of many.  Childhood might be golden for you, or it might be dark.  Each of us comes to the will of God from our own path. Everyone hears the call of tradition or the truth of life: “go here and do this.” We all hear this.  This is the voice all hear, and this is the choice before all: you must choose.  We must choose for ourselves.  Will I live beyond fear?  Will I strive to make up my own mind or settle for a place in the horde? Do I accept the definition given to me or do I make up my own mind, change my mind? Will I face fear and live?

Chelsea could never do a back flip. In the end it didn’t matter.  It’s just a dive off a dock into the lake.  It’s a simple dive.  Go into the vineyard and work. It’s a simple direction.  This is easy.  But every dive is complicated, every direction is a fight with yourself until you have chosen to live beyond fear, to live trusting your faith, your word, your will.  Beyond fear, life is a simple dive.  Amen.   

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

November 20, 2022
Matthew 21:28-32

Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

Senior Pastor & Head of Staff

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