Just over a week ago, Matt and I were downtown when we ran into an actual street corner preacher at the corner of Georgia and Granville. It had been a while since I had seen one, so I was paying attention to his shouts over the sounds of buses and the crowds of people. It was a bit hard to make it all out, but it sounded like he was reciting excerpts from the Book of Revelations, from perhaps the King James Version of the Bible.
As we began descending into the City Centre Station, Matt turned to me and asked, “Does he really think that this is effective? Can’t he see everyone doing their best to ignore him?” I considered Matt’s question as the sounds of the street corner preacher receded from our ears. I began to wonder whether the goal of the man shouting on the sidewalk above was not to change hearts and minds as much as it was to provide a witness to be ignored of what he believes is God’s word so as to condemn us to judgement. I wonder if the goal of the street corner preacher was to ensure that we could not proclaim ignorance so that the sin is our own.
In the days since, as I’ve reflected on that street corner preacher, I found myself thinking of another story—that of Jonah and the great whale. Now, I know that we aren’t reading that story this morning, but I beg your indulgence to follow the scenic route of this train of thought.
For those not familiar with Jonah, you could describe him as God’s most reluctant prophet. One day, while minding his own business, God spoke to Jonah and commanded him to travel to a distant city to proclaim God’s judgement upon them. The problem was that Jonah didn’t particularly like the people of that city, and Jonah rather liked the idea of God judging and destroying them. So, Jonah refused to go so that their destruction might be ensured.
But God is more stubborn. Jonah refused to go, so God sent a whale to swallow Jonah up. Day and night passed over and over again as Jonah was trapped in the belly of the beast. Until one day the whale spat him up, and as Jonah gathered himself up and looked around, he found himself in the very city where God had commanded him to go!
With great reluctance, Jonah found an insignificant corner of this great city, and did the most half-assed job of being a street corner preacher the world has ever seen. Drawing as little attention to himself as possible, he mumbled out a warning of God’s judgement for their sins and wrongdoings. Jonah then quickly retired to a hill overlooking the city and sat, watching and waiting for God’s judgement to fall upon them all.
But, as much as he wished his warning would fall on deaf ears, it did not. Against all odds, against his best efforts, word spread to every person in the city, and all the way to the king. And hearing Jonah’s prophesy, they all repented! The king ordered everyone to put on their sackcloth and to sit among the ashes, and over their repentance to God—even the cattle took part. And to Jonah’s great horror and disappointment, God heard the people’s repentance and God welcomed their change of heart and God spared them and their city.
As I thought about the street corner preacher outside the Canada Line, as I thought about Jonah and his reluctant prophesy, I found myself wondering. What if everyone listened and headed the message? How upset would he be, then, if it worked? How troubled would he be if his words carried as much weight and authority as he wished they did?
In our Gospel reading this morning, we find Jesus nearing the climax of his ministry. We find him between the events we celebrate on Palm Sunday, when he entered the Holy City on the back of a donkey, and the events of his crucifixion. Jesus is stirring things up. He has been attracting crowds. He is definitely getting noticed, and not just by the people, but by the powerful.
As he is teaching, the religious leaders approach Jesus and challenge him. “By whose authority do you do these things,” they demand. “Is it God’s authority,” is the unspoken part of their question. Through a clever exchange of words and counter questions, Jesus refuses to answer. Instead, he offers them the parable of the vineyard owner and the two sons. The first refuses to do his father’s command, but then later changes his mind, and does. The second son agrees to do what his father commands, but then doesn’t do it. “Which son does the father’s will?” Jesus asks. And the answer is apparent to all who hear.
The religious leaders demand to know what authority Jesus claims, but through his parable, Jesus corrects them, Jesus corrects us. Whose authority is the wrong question, we must ask whether we are accomplishing God’s will.
Are we doing God’s will? Nothing else really matters.
It is not enough to know and proclaim God’s word. God could raise up stones and replace every shouting street corner preacher, or every comfortable pulpit preacher for that matter, to proclaim God’s word if necessary. It is not enough to know God’s word. We must do God’s will. In fact, the only thing that matters is whether we are doing the will of God.
This is a real challenge to Protestants like us, where our emphasis on faith alone as necessary for salvation leads us to believe that all we need to do is have faith. That all we need to do is know God’s word. But faith without works is dead, and if we are not doing God’s work, then we will find that there are many others who enter the kingdom ahead of us.
Jesus’ words come to us in our place of comfort and assuredness as Christians. Are we like the son who says all the right words? Are we like the street corner preacher, so confident in the authority of our words that we feel nothing else is needed? Or are we like the son who actually does God’s ill, even if we go astray and get lost a little on the way?
Put another way, as we look out at the world, who is doing God’s will? Who is feeding the hungry? Who is clothing the naked? Who is giving shelter to the stranger in our land? And is it us?
Every Sunday, our ushers bring up the basket of food that we collect for St. Augustine’s, and I feel its weight in my arms—some Sundays I wonder that the basket itself doesn’t fall apart under the strain. Week after week, Stephen brings us back word about how much the donations of food are deeply appreciated and how great the need is in our community. And its not just the food—but the financial support that we are able to provide each year for sustaining this vital feeding ministry in our neighbourhood.
This past August, just over a month ago, the P— family, who we helped sponsor for resettlement with our partners at Flourishing Foundation, marked their one-year anniversary of arriving in Canada. And they are thriving! Excited by what is possible, this year our parish council agreed to help sponsor two additional families, again with Flourishing Foundation, and we wait for word of their arrival any day now, into the anxious and loving arms of their families already here in the region. In anticipation of the possibility of touching even more lives and offering new beginnings to even more families, our parish council just voted this past month to work with Flourishing Foundation again as we try to sponsor three families in 2024.
In recognition of all the different organizations in our city that are also doing God’s will in the world, our outreach committee works tirelessly to raise money and distribute it to support their work. Through events like the Boulevard Sale and the Christmas Bazaar, this community raised and distributed $8,500 dollars last year, supporting organizations serving homeless youth, women escaping from the sex work, Indigenous youth here in Vancouver, and a variety of homeless ministries and programs.
This community is also committed to and engaged with the work of reconciliation. Just yesterday we marked the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which falls between two of our programs in our Being a Good Ancestor series, as we seek to learn about the history of this country and the history of the people who inhabited this land, and act to create a new future together.
Do we always get it right? Absolutely not. We are still finding our way to the vineyard. But we are trying to find our way there. We are trying to do the will of God in the world. We are still seeking to bear the good fruit God calls from each and every one of us.
Preached by the Rev. Adam Yates