Sunday, 4 October 2020

What Becomes of the Broken Vineyard?

 This sermon was preached at our Sunday morning worship within church and on Zoom on Sunday 4th October. The Gospel that morning was Matthew 21:33-46.



What is there to say about today's Gospel? It really does seem so obvious doesn't it? Centuries of Christian teaching has, it seems, cemented its clear meaning in our collective conscience. In the parable that Jesus tells us, often known as the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, we have come to know that the landowner is God, the vineyard is the kingdom of heaven, the wicked tenants are the Jewish people, and the new tenants are us Christians. Done, dusted and simple. A nice comfortable parable that helps us feel good about ourselves.

But I don't think Jesus was particularly into telling comfortable parables. I think there must be something other going on here.

We didn't have it this morning, but if we had heard the alternative Old Testament reading for today, we would have realised that Jesus was actually telling an old, old story. In Isaiah, we hear about a landowner who had planted a vineyard, built a wall around it, put a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. In Jesus' parable, the landowner has planted a vineyard, built a wall around it, put a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. So far so good; Jesus' listeners know this story. They know how it goes.

In Isaiah, the vineyard doesn't produce good fruit. Instead it produces something that  we translate as 'wild grapes', probably something noxious, maybe vile-smelling and poisonous, and certainly inedible. In Christ's story, again, the landowner cannot harvest his crop, but, typically, there's a Jesus twist. This time, it's not that the vineyard is bad; this time, it's down to the tenant-farmers who are greedy and selfish and unwilling to share what they have grown.

In Isaiah's story, the landowner is called out as God, and the vineyard is the house of Israel; God's people. In Isaiah's version, the people were a perverted version of what they were called to be - not good grapes, but something else; instead of bringing forth sweet wine, they brought a bitter poison.

In Christ's version, that vineyard is good. God's people are still fruitful. The problem is that those in charge are preventing that fruit from being collected and being shared. The harvest is kept under lock and key, only for the in-crowd.

And so, given the twist, the consequences must change too. In Isaiah, the landowner threatens to destroy the vineyard completely; if it will not bear good fruit, it is worse than useless; not only producing nothing of worth, but also taking up valuable arable land. 

 

Image of a Napa Valley vineyard destroyed in fire in 2017

With Jesus, though, the problem is the tenants. It is they who need to go, and instead be replaced with new leaders. Those tenants, who were ordained by the landowner to look after the vineyard have become the problem, and removing them allows the harvest to be shared.

I would suggest that the traditional interpretation of the wicked tenants being the Jewish people and the new tenants being us is wrong. I think this is about leadership, and not just the Jewish leaders of Christ's day. No, we see throughout the ages that church leadership falls time and time again into that same trap of mistaking leadership of God's people as ownership of them, and has tried many times to follow the example of those wicked tenants, trying to find ways to profit from the Kingdom of God and use the harvest for their own benefit, rather than offering it to the landowner. From the selling of indulgences to trying to prevent the Bible from being translated into common parlance, from televangelists scamming faithful viewers out of their life savings to those who try to commandeer the name of Christ in the name of pushing an ungodly political agenda. It is these people to whom Christ is speaking; to the religiously powerful.

But still, do not get too comfortable. For - despite what those previously mentioned televangelists and politicians might tell you - we, mainly white anglo-saxon Anglicans, are still some of the most religiously powerful people in the world. This is a warning to us too - don't hoard the blessings you have received from God; they need to be shared.

But, there is one more twist in this tale yet. Christ has added yet a new dimension. As we know, the landowner sends his own son to the tenants who reject and kill him, but here the metaphor changes. No longer are we talking about Isaiah's vineyard and the tenants, but now Christ refers to another part of the scriptures. The vineyard is gone and the tenants are now builders. The landowner's rejected son is now the builders' rejected stone. And that stone becomes the corner stone.

We've gone from farming to building. From agriculture to industry. Christ is signalling a change. A change in tone and a change in time. Perhaps Christ has not completely done away with Isaiah's thoughts about the destruction of the vineyard. It is being dismantled but in its place a temple is being built instead, with Christ, the rejected son as the very foundation.

Times change, and with them, so must God's people. I am extremely conscious that church today is incredibly different to anything it has been for many, many years. With social distancing and Zoom, and without wine or hymns or those members of our church family who are excluded in one way or another from our worship as it currently stands, we are a different people, and I think, if we are honest, we will be for quite some time.

Perhaps we feel dismantled like that vineyard. Perhaps we feel rejected like that stone. But we are still the kingdom of God, called to produce good fruit for the benefit of the whole world, and, I believe that we are being rebuilt by God, to be able to do just that as we navigate this new world, changing from a vineyard into a temple in whatever way that may look in the times to come; a new structure with Christ as our cornerstone.

Amen

Sunday, 13 September 2020

On Forgiveness

 This sermon was given at our Holy Communion services on Sunday 13th September. The Gospel that morning was Matthew 18:21-35.



St Peter gets a bad rap, doesn't he? He always seems to get the wrong end of the stick in his interactions with Christ. Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see he often just doesn't understand what seems obvious to us, or he drops clanger after clanger. Nowhere is this more obvious than at Easter when he cries out his unwavering commitment to never betray his friend and saviour, only to do exactly that three times after Christ's arrest.

 It's even more ironic, then, that we find it is Peter who is questioning the limits of forgiveness in our Gospel this morning. I wonder if he looked back upon this conversation on forgiveness when he heard that cockerel crowing that day?

 I think sometimes though that hindsight can be unhelpful. Sure, it can help us see the irony in a situation such as this, but also, I think it can cloud our judgement. In our Gospel, we see Peter posing a question that seems to be born of frustration - "how many times do I have to put up with this nonsense, Jesus?" - but I'm not entirely sure that's where Peter is coming from here. I think there's a clue in a more modern phrase...

 "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

 Forgiveness normally is a one-time thing. If we're feeling magnaminous, then maybe we might forgive a second time. Any more than that, and we're foolish; we're being played.

 But here's the thing, Peter doesn't ask whether once, twice, or even three times is enough when testing the limits of forgiveness. He reaches for something radical, something that represents the nature of God - he suggests seven times might be a good number. The number seven represents perfection and completeness in scripture, and so, in suggesting forgiving up to the seventh time, Peter is striving for perfection. I don't think he's frustrated at all in this question; I think he's aiming to become more like God, to become more perfect.

 But Jesus turns the whole concept on its head. "Not seven", he says, "but seventy seven". Or, as some translations interpret, "seventy times seven". Perfection is not good enough when it comes to forgiveness; Christ says be better than that. Forgive beyond perfection - forgive eleven times better than perfection. Or ten times perfection times perfection again. That's how many times we should strive to forgive.

 



 We can get hung up asking whether it's seventy-seven or seventy times seven that Jesus means here, but that is to miss the point quite spectacularly. Christ pushes Peter past the uncountable. There's effectively no difference between the numbers; the point is they are so high that we'd lose count. We're not supposed to be keeping a score. Indeed, if we are keeping a count of how many times we forgive someone, are we really forgiving them at all? Or are we just making marks on the prison wall until we reach the magical tally point at which we can finally write them off, safe in the knowledge that our own slate is clean?

 But the parable Christ tells next seems to put a nail into that coffin. Our own forgiveness seems intrinsically linked to the extent in which we ourselves are willing to forgive. Jesus shows it with a similar hyperbole to what we have already seen. In the parable we heard, the first servant is forgiven ten thousand talents' worth of debt. In today's parlance, that's probably about eight and a half billion pounds. However, when this servant refuses to pass on even a tiny fraction of that forgiveness, shaking down their own debtor for one hundred denarii - no small sum at roughly fourteen thousand pounds today, but peanuts compared to the billions he himself had been forgiven, that servant finds his own forgiveness is forfeited.

 Jesus' connection between forgiving others and finding forgiveness ourselves should not surprise us. We state it every time we pray the prayer he taught us himself: forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. These things are linked, and if we can find ourselves practising radical forgiveness, we shall find ourselves radically forgiven too! Even more forgiven than our own capacity to forgive.

 But before I finish I need to clear a misconception. Forgiving is not forgetting. Our actions, even when forgiven, have consequences, and so should those of others. I can forgive someone for stealing from me without entrusting them to house-sit when I go on holiday (should we ever go holiday again!), and equally, we can forgive those who hurt or abuse us without subjecting ourselves to that hurt or abuse any longer. None of us are Christ, and we are not called to take on the sins of the world. What we are called to do is forgive, as we ourselves are forgiven - until we have lost count of the times we have lost count, and then again, and again, and again, and...

 Amen

Saturday, 15 August 2020

The Master becomes the Student (The story of the Canaanite woman)

 This sermon was preached at our Sunday morning service on Sunday 16th August. The gospel that morning was Matthew 15:21-28



Today’s gospel is difficult. Difficult because it presents us with a Jesus who – at least at first – doesn’t seem particularly Christ-like.

Jesus in this passage is parochial. His concern is for his people and his nation. He’s got a mission to the House of Israel, and that is where he believes his focus needs to be. He's not concerned about helping the Canaanite woman who begs for his aid. She is not Jewish, and she is, seemingly, not worthy.

I’m sure you’ve heard it before that different Gospel-writers had different focuses. John, for example, was particularly concerned with writing a theology about Christ, and Mark was writing for the benefit persecuted Christians in Rome. Matthew – who wrote our passage today – was particularly writing for a Jewish audience. Perhaps this makes Jesus’ viewpoint here more understandable; it’s an expression of solidarity for and by the in-crowd.

Still, for us on the outside – gentiles and foreigners to Jesus’ community – Jesus’ words and attitude here still hurt. They offend me. We would do well to remember this, by the way. Our expressions of belonging, and our common experience can easily become exclusive to the detriment of others on the outside, whether we mean them to or not.

I think we need to read this story like we’re on the inside instead. That’s who it was written for – insiders. Let’s try this:

 

Jesus left St Michael’s in Flixton, and went away to a small town in northern Lebanon where he had been invited by a local group of Christians to preach and hopefully perform some healing miracles at their small church. As he and his disciples were driving towards the church, a woman from a nearby Al-Qaeda camp ran towards the car carrying the group, shouting. She was ranting about demons and pleading for mercy. Jesus was taken aback, and sat watching as the woman ran closer and the car edged on.

"Send her away!", his disciples pleaded with him, fearful of the commotion that was being caused, and the repercussions that might take place.

But Jesus did not tell her to leave. He called out of the window to her instead: "I’m sorry; I’m busy. I’m here to preach in the church shortly. I don’t have time to help you."

As the car continued on its journey, the woman ran in front of it, and knelt down in the road, causing the car to stop in its tracks. "Lord, help me", she begged.

"I’m here for the church," Jesus called back. "It isn’t fair to keep them waiting for me; I’m already late. I’m here to provide spiritual nourishment to them. You wouldn’t give your daughter’s food to the dogs here in the street, would you?"

 

 

I’ve not changed much in my retelling  – just the perspective. I’ve even kept some of the original themes of being out in dangerous lands, and an encounter with a potential mortal enemy that are present in Matthew’s version, but are so easy for us to miss 2000 years, and many, many miles later. The story is easier to swallow this way, however, isn’t it? With us on the inside? It is the same story though; it’s just that we’re not used to being on the outside, are we?

I think one of the difficulties of this passage for us in suburban 2020 is precisely that; it turns things on their heads. We’re forced to place ourselves with the outsider, and we soon are made to see that the religious authorities are not as good to us as we thought they were being when we were inside the tent. You may well remember a news story from only a few months ago, where an Anglican priest-in-training was denied a job as a curate in an English Parish church. His rejection letter referred to his “obvious gifts”, but still it stated it was not worth entering into a conversation with him about the placement. The reason given? The parish was white, and the curate was black. The curate, Augustine Tanner-Ihm went on to win the coveted 2020 Theology Slam, by the way – a competition organised by the Church Times, SCM Press, LICC and the Community of St Anselm to find the most engaging voices thinking theologically about today’s world. Augustine was an outsider, and those inside the church thought they were helping him out by telling him that his face wouldn't fit. We in the church need to always place ourselves with those outside the doors. We need to be conscious about who is unable to get in. Who are we preventing from access to Christ? This passage with Jesus and the Canaanite woman forces us into that position.

But, it’s not just in this way that the passage is turned on its head. I said at the beginning that I didn’t think Jesus was particularly Christ-like in this passage, and indeed, it is not Jesus, the Rabbi, the Teacher, who teaches here; it is Jesus who learns. The master becomes the student.

That’s an odd thing to think about Jesus, isn’t it? Jesus learning? But, if we really think about it, we know it must be something that happened. There are different theologies as to at what point in his mission, Jesus became the Christ, but we surely know that Jesus was not born knowing fluent Aramaic or how to walk. He was not born with his theology fully-formed – we only need to read the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer upon finding she is pregnant, to see how his mother’s view of God and the world clearly impacted on Jesus’ worldview. And here, in today’s passage, we have another woman - another ignorable woman - teaching Jesus a lesson; helping Jesus the miracle worker on the road towards becoming Jesus the Christ. And thank God she did; for in this passage, Jesus’ worldview suddenly widens – no longer is his mission purely for the House of Israel, but he realises the spiritual nourishment he brings is for all people. There is food falling off the table, such that it can be eaten from the ground – enough to feed thousands and thousands. Jesus learns that there is more than enough of God to go round, and it is time, in the words of the famous quote, to build a bigger table; one for all peoples. In today’s passage, Jesus realises he is the messiah not just for the Jews, but for all of us. For the insiders and the outsiders.

That Canaanite woman, the outsider, helps Jesus to open up the doors, and bring us all inside. And if we think about it, how typical of our God is that? God, it seems, really gets a kick out of allowing a nobody to help him change the world; to open the doors for all of us nobodies. 

Our job today is to keep those doors open, in whatever way we can in today’s world. There are still people outside, and they have much to teach us about God. After all, if an outsider can teach Jesus about the kingdom, surely we can learn something from those outside too?

Amen.