Having the mind of Christ -- a sermon for Proper 21a.
SJF • Proper 21 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Be of the same mind, having the same love being in full accord and of one mind. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
In last week’s sermon I spoke to you about the double-mindedness and indecision of Hamlet the melancholy Dane, in contrast to the relative single-mindedness of Saint Paul the Apostle. Just as Hamlet wrestled with the question, “To be or not to be,” so too did Paul wrestle with the question of whether it was better for him to give up his life and be with God or continue to struggle along with his fellow Christians to build up the church for which Christ died. And it didn’t take him long to come to the decision to do the latter.
This theme of single-mindedness or decisiveness — making up your mind and then following through on your decision — lies at the heart of all of our Scripture lessons today. It’s important to hear those lessons because making decisions and being firm in your own mind once you’ve made a decision can be very difficult.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with or recall comedian Jack Benny — he was very popular in the days of radio comedy, and I have to admit I am just old enough to remember his popular early TV show from my early childhood. Over the years he had created a character notorious for his stinginess — he drove a car that was at least thirty years old, and squeezed many cups of tea from a single teabag he would bring to restaurants where he would order a cup of hot water.
One of his most famous comedy “bits” — one involving making decisions — was broadcast on his radio show. He’s returning home after an evening rehearsal — walking instead of taking a taxi, of course, because he’s too cheap — when a mugger comes up to him and says, “Your money or your life.” This is followed by several moments of silence, as the studio audience begins to giggle and chuckle; finally the mugger repeats, “Say, Mister, I said, your money or your life!” To which the cheapskate Benny finally replied, “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”
+ + +
Most of us would not have to stop to think about such a matter — and of course that’s what makes Benny’s comment comical. And yet most of us face situations in our lives where reaching a decision simply isn’t all that easy. You may recall another favorite comedy portrayal of indecision with a character having a little angel on one shoulder and the little devil on the other shoulder — each of them a miniature replication of the person him or herself — and both of them arguing in one ear and then the other the various urgings of what to do or not do. So foreign and yet vivid can our own thinking become that we may project it out onto such imagined angels or devils on our shoulders. Sometimes indecision can feel like that — and the more important the matter the more likely we are to find ourselves in such a quandary of double-mindedness.
+ + +
It is a distressing situation in which to find ourselves, Because we want to know what it’s best for us to do. Sometimes we do know, but don’t really want to acknowledge it — which is why Ezekiel has worked himself up into such a temper addressing the house of Israel: surely they know better, well aware that the transgressions they have committed are transgressions. After all, they’ve had the Law of Moses for a thousand years and the words of other prophets for hundreds of years by that time, and they have the own sorry example to look back on, their own history — what happened time and again when their leaders turned aside to worship false gods. From Solomon on, most of the leaders forgot the Lord and turned aside to do what ought not be done. And the land and people suffered for it.
And so Ezekiel appeals to them to turn from the folly of their transgressions and make up their mind to follow the Lord — who, in all fairness, will save and restore them if they mend their ways. For when they have set their mind on God they will also have a new heart and a new spirit — one mind, one heart, devoted to God.
+ + +
Today’s gospel presents us with another form of double mindedness: those two sons who, when their father tells them to get to work, both have a change of mind, a change of heart — one for the better and one for the worse. It is important to note that neither one of them is a picture-perfect son to their father. That would be one who would both say he would do what he’s told to do, and then do it. But surely Jesus favors the son who changes his mind for the better and does his father’s will in the end, in spite of that initial back-talk. It is after that example that the tax collectors and prostitutes have turned towards God at the preaching of John the Baptist, changing their minds about their bad decisions, and turning their lives around to devote heart and mind to God.
Meanwhile, the chief priests and elders are caught in a two-minded dilemma. They failed in their ministry of inspiring the people to righteousness, and wrote off the tax collectors and prostitutes as beyond salvation. Along comes the layman, this unordained uneducated man John, whose powerful preaching cuts to the heart and soul and inspires those deemed hopeless sinners by the self-righteous to change their ways.
So Jesus puts the authorities on the spot with his pointed question — one they cannot answer without incriminating themselves. For if John was God’s agent, why didn’t they accept him? And if John was simply acting on his own, how to explain the people’s acclamation of him as a prophet who has changed their lives? Either way the evidence is against them. And so the ones who should be teachers are stumped like the dunce in the corner.
+ + +
Finally, Paul offers us the best way forward: the best answer to the double mind is to have in oneself the single mind of Christ. For the mind of Christ, which becomes ours through the Spirit of God and our adoption in baptism — does not equivocate, does not balance on the one hand this and on the other that, is not pulled from side to side by contrary temptations and urges for good or for ill.
Some of you may recall another figure from the 1950s, Harry Truman, who became President of the United States just at the end of the war, succeeding Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and then was elected President. At one point in those tumultuous post-war years, the country was going through great economic problems and realignments — not unlike what we’re going through today. And Truman called upon a series of economists to get advice about what he should to — again, much as we find today. And the economists came to him and said, “Well, you could do this on the one hand, or on the other hand you could do that.” Time and again it was the same message. “Well, on the one hand, you could do this; but on the other hand, you could do that.” Finally Truman famously said, “Will someone please bring me a one-handed economist!”
Now, far be it from me to compare Harry Truman with Jesus Christ. But there is another famous thing that Harry Truman said that does apply: “The buck stops here.” He had that on a little sign on his desk in the President’s office. And “the buck stops” with Jesus. He is the One to whom we are all called to turn — both as our Savior and as our Example, in single-mindedness.
The mind of Christ moves right forward — doing the will of God the Father without veering or delay or detour. And that same mind can be in us, the mind of the one who though he was in the form of God did not grasp at divinity to exploit the powers that were his by right, but emptied himself, in a single-minded decision, to the cause for which he came among us: to live and die as one of us, in obedience to his Father’s will, to save us and redeem us. If we have that mind of Christ, then God will be, as Paul said, “at work in us” as God was at work in him — giving us with one heart, one mind, the hope and assurance of salvation. To him, Jesus Christ our Lord, be the glory, now and for ever.