In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.
Jesus said, ‘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 want to talk about responsibility on this Remembrance Sunday. We live in an age and culture which has been defined by many as being dominated by people concerned about their rights, not their responsibilities. In a world where people tell us what we can have, we have come to expect that it is our right to have what we want, and neglect the other side of the coin, the responsibilities that we have.
It hasn’t always been that way in this country. Less than a hundred years ago, in 1914, teenage boys lied about their age in order to go and fight for their country. Many died nameless, and that’s important to know. Then again in 1939, more young people put their lives on the line for generations that were not yet born, and the familiar words of the Kohema Epitaph bring us up short:
When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today,
They received little reward except our gratitude, a gratitude that we meet here to continue to express.
The sacrifices that they made mean that I am able to speak to you today with the freedom to say what I think is right in public, rather than what some totalitarian government would permit. We only have this freedom because they took responsibility for their country, but what a price they had to pay. Nevertheless they did so because they loved this country and they took responsibility for it.
So what I want to do this morning is think about how we deal with responsibility, with reference to what Edward read about being taught the ways of God, and from what Leonard read from Matthew’s Gospel. Let me briefly explain what that parable is about, because it shows how the issues of human nature haven’t changed in two thousand years.
The parable is about two sons and their father. One of the sons is told to go out into the vineyard to work and he says he will, but then he doesn’t. The other son is asked to go out into the vineyard to work and he says he won’t but then he does. With the first son who neglected his responsibilities Jesus was pointing at those who called themselves religious, yet did not take responsibility for living righteous lives. They wouldn’t live up to the responsibilities they claimed were theirs.
On the other hand you had all the outcasts, those at the bottom of the pile, the ones who the religious people thought of as worthless. These were the ones who accepted the message of Jesus and who began to work for the kingdom. These were the ones who accepted God’s responsibilities.
Reading this got me thinking about how we deal with responsibilities. So what I want to do for you is to paint a few word pictures of our different approaches to responsibility. Please understand that these are most definitely not modelled on any one person. If we are honest we will see bits of ourselves in each of them, but in order to learn about the right way to be responsible, we first have to be honest with ourselves about why we take on responsibility.
The first reason we might do so is simply because we don’t know how to say no. Whenever anyone asks us to do something, if we are this kind of person we find that we can rarely do anything other than say yes. We might wonder why that is, and I suggest that it is probably because of a deep need we have to be accepted by other people, and saying no can be quite hard for fear that it might count against us, meaning that we may have to face someone’s displeasure or dislike.
If we are predominantly like this when it comes to responsibility then we are apt to be exploited by other people, and end up taking responsibilities by the dozen until we buckle under the stress with the only consolation prize being everyone telling us how good we were to have worked so hard, even if it made us have a breakdown.
The second type of approach is when we take on responsibilities because of a need to feel a hole inside where we need to have some sense of being needed, that our lives actually count for something, that we are able to give enough to make sense of our reason for existing. When we give like this we can find ourselves ensnared by fear of no longer being able to contribute, and then losing a reason to exist.
This type of person needs to hear the message that the love of God is given freely; it cannot be earned, and that they matter to God solely for who they are, not because of anything that have achieved. They matter to God like a child matters to their parent, simply because they exist.
The third reason we might take on responsibility is because we have a deep seated need to be seen because responsibility is a way to having greater influence. This third way of dealing with responsibility is the most dangerous because it gradually leads us down steadily more selfish paths, always seeking to improve our public standing.
At its extreme you can see this way of behaving take hold of members of parliament when they pounce on each other during debates if a mistake has been made, and it makes me wonder why they are there if all they want is for their own star to rise. Aren’t they supposed to be serving us?
And then I look at all three of these approaches, all of which I find in myself, and I expect if you’re honest you’ll find them in your own selves, and I contrast that with what I see in my Lord, the one who is also known by the name ‘The Servant King’. How did he deal with responsibility?
Throughout the Gospels what we see in the stories of Jesus is that he knew who he was and he was secure in his identity. He knew he had value, not because of anything he had done, but simply because of who he was. He knew that he was loved by God, and because he was secure in himself he had no need whatsoever to try and get the respect of other people.
He is perhaps the only person ever who had no need of other people’s opinions to help him decide what he should do. It is from this place of security that he serves, even though he the Word that spoke the universe into being. That’s why he’s called the Servant King.
Now we are never going to be that perfect. When we serve, when we take on responsibilities, if we are honest with ourselves we are always going to have mixed reasons for doing what we do. That is just human nature.
Some of those reasons will be selfish gain and some will be because we need approval, but if we can only begin to appreciate that, if we can only be honest about our mixed motives, then we can take a step along the path to holiness because we can kneel before God and say,
‘I am sorry. I know that this is the right thing to do, but I’m not sure that my reasons for doing it are all that noble. Help me to serve people like you do.’
And then gradually, in our honesty with ourselves, we can begin to take responsibility out of a desire to give, truly and honestly because we can see that there is a need. We will develop servant hearts. In those hearts we will find the need for recognition or justification giving way to the noblest of desires; wanting to serve others out of gratitude for how God has served us, and what he has given us.
So that’s the right way to take responsibility, but now comes the hard question. If there is nothing in it for us, no public respect and no motivation to be loved by doing it, are we far enough down the path of holiness simply to serve, to take on responsibility because there is a job to be done, and in recognition that we should give out of gratitude for what we have received?
That’s what so many of our war veterans did. That’s what so many of those fallen in combat did. For many of those buried in French cemeteries there is just a grave saying, ‘An unknown soldier’. Yet still they took responsibility and fought so that we could have freedom. What about you? Will you take on responsibility even if there is nothing in it for you?
There are many organisations that need your time, if you would give up perhaps one pastime to spare some energy for them, but there is one today that I especially need to bring to your notice, and that’s our branch of the Royal British Legion. You all have a sheet of paper that says something about what we need, but the situation is this:
Numbers have dwindled so much through the ravages of age, and despite our repeated adverts in the parish magazine no one has come forward to join. None of you have been willing to take responsibility. You don’t have to have served in the forces, you need only wish to support those that do. So here’s the situation:
Unless we have new members our branch will have to close and become a sub-branch of another branch. Do you want that to happen? It’s your branch, and only by taking responsibility for it can it survive. Who knows what it could achieve with new blood and new ideas. So this is basically your last chance to save it by taking responsibility.
Don’t do this, or anything, because you need the limelight or because you can’t say no. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. Do it out of gratitude for what was done for you. Hard times are coming on our nation and the only way through is if we re-learn how to serve each other as Christ served us. Here’s one way you can start. Amen.