Saturday, 7 October 2017

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 21.33-46 Another parable of the vinyard


Matthew 21.33-46

 

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Before we look at the parable which is the focus of today’s Gospel passage, we need, perhaps, a little context: Jesus has just made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed by the crowds as the Son of David, the fulfilment of their hopes, prophecies and dreams, coming in the name of the Lord to usher in the new world order. Then immediately after that, Jesus went into the Temple and overturned the tables of the traders and claimed that space back for God before continuing his healing ministry; showing that he had authority not just over the crowds and the religious institutions but authority over nature itself.

Let’s be clear: Jesus was clearly a threat to the religious and social leaders of the day. He was exhibiting enormous and miraculous powers, the crowds were absolutely enthralled by him, his courage and boldness in confronting the institutions of power was astounding.

But we need to remember that although we invariably see the religious authorities as blinkered, they were, to all intents and purposes, the good guys of the day as they sought to teach and to give a moral lead to God’s people and hold society together. In Jesus’ own terms they were close to the Kingdom of God: what was hampering them was their inability to step outside of the longstanding tradition of closely prescribed religious rules and regulations and show a human face in implementing the spirit and not just the letter of the law but they were hard, fixed, obstinate and resistant to the new revelation of what God was doing in their midst.  Jesus had already outmanoeuvred them over the question of his authority and had told a parable about a vineyard which effectively accused the religious authorities of dishonouring God to the extent that they were at the back of the queue for admission to the Kingdom of God, behind the prostitutes and tax collectors.

And of course, this was festival time just before the Passover, when Jerusalem was packed to bursting with pilgrims: all this was played out in public. The authorities were rattled because they understood what Jesus was saying and were furious. Matthew tells us that "They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet."

Wouldn’t you have liked to have been a fly on the wall there?

So today we pick up a second parable about the vineyard: Jesus is on a roll.

Nobody around Jesus at the time when he spoke this parable heard it without realizing that Jesus’ was quoting an earlier parable spoken long ago by the prophet Isaiah: “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard. My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” (Is. 5:1-7)  Jesus quotes the description of that vineyard almost precisely in the opening verses of the parable that he now speaks. Isaiah very explicitly says, “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.” And the house of Israel has gone astray.

Isaiah’s very down to earth, very unambiguous about the problem between God and his vineyard: “He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!”

“Now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard,” the Lord says, “I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up.” In other words Israel’s evil actions or failure to act don’t simply make God feel bad about what’s happening: he’s getting ready to do something about it.

Those are hard words: words of concrete action and a determination to change thing. They aren’t mere words of anger, but the promise of angry and harsh reaction to the faithlessness of his people.

When Jesus takes hold of this very old parable through which all his hearers recognized the judgment of God held in suspension over Israel, he gives it a new twist.

Once again the owner builds and provides for his vineyard, just as in the parable by Isaiah. But this time he leaves it, fully operational, in the hands of tenants who are to care for this profitable enterprise and there’s quite clearly an agreement between the two that the future profits are to be divided in some way between the renters and the owner.

In the following story it’s clear that Jesus refers to the prophets when he speaks of those who are sent to the vineyard by the owner to “collect the rent.” It is equally clear that without fail the prophets of God are rejected, beaten and even killed. The renters have come to think of themselves as the owners of the vineyard and resent the true owner’s constant insistence on receiving his rightful due.

It seems implausible that the owner would put up for long with such treatment of the servants he sent to collect the rent. Even more incomprehensible is the fact that he sends his son as a last resort, thinking that those who rejected his servants would honour the son.

Is it possible to imagine God’s long-suffering and patience through the ages, given this mistreatment of both his vineyard and those sent to collect the rent? Or is it possible to imagine God’s willingness to send his son into the midst of this rebel group of workers? Isn’t it the height of conceit and overconfidence, in fact, when the tenants say, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.” Then at the height of their smugness “they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” It is an obvious reference to the fact that Jesus was crucified “outside the city gate.”

Today’s parable has a past, a present and a future in it:

The “past” is nothing other than the long history of God’s patient calling of his people through his prophets to be faithful, to serve him, to care for the vineyard of which Isaiah spoke with such lament: one that had been claimed for their own by the very ones to whose care it had been entrusted.

The “present” was incarnated in the speaker of the parable. It was Jesus who had come from the Father to claim what was rightfully the Father’s. It was Jesus who was being rejected, who would be killed “outside the city gates.” He spoke to the tenants, the chief priests and the Pharisees who “perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.” It would be through his suffering, death and resurrection that the “present” would be the time for reclaiming the vineyard for the Father and the shaping of the new possibility that only God could make of this vineyard. The “fertile hill” upon which this vineyard was being built anew was surely none other than Calvary.

That vineyard, then, was to be the “future” of this parable. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.” With these words from Psalm 118, equally recognized by all around, just as they had recognized the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus set forth the future: “I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.”

The vineyard wasn’t destroyed. Instead, it was given to others who would return to the owner the share of the fruits rightfully due him and it’s you and I, the ones gathered here and those others gathered all around the world, who are the “future” which Jesus spoke of. It was for us that he was crucified and rose again. It was for the sake of a kingdom no longer bounded by geographical lines or genealogical heritage, but by faith fostered by the Spirit in the saving death and resurrection of the one who spoke this parable, that the events following the speaking of this parable took place. For Jesus spoke this parable in the very shadow of the cross, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday; during the time between the ecstatic welcoming of the Son of David into the Holy City and the time when the cry “Crucify him” would become the shout with which he was thrown out of the city. There, outside the city gate, death itself would be overcome. There the sin of rejecting this vineyard’s owner would be atoned for and “other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” would be put in charge of this “vineyard on a very fertile hill.”

So how does this parable of Jesus apply to us today in our world some twenty-one centuries later?

We too silence the messengers of God to us, especially when they tell us unpleasant things about our lives. That what we are doing isn’t right. We all have those people who come to us and are honest with us about things which are imperfect in our lives.

The prophets of God in our lives are not usually priests or bishops. Rather, the messengers of God to us are usually must closer and nearer, like a wife, a husband, a child, a parent, a longstanding friend: those who have the willingness to be honest with us.

And deep down inside, we often want to silence the honesty of God’s messengers to us. We’re like the Pharisees in that we want to silence the voices of the messengers of God to us or to our nation, or about our nation. Yes, we often want to silence those messengers from God who tell us the truth about our country and how it’s perceived by our friends and allies as well as our enemies abroad.

We’re to be the channels of God’s care: the way we care and exercise concern for others is the “rent” owed by the tenants: “He looked for justice and for righteousness.” Isaiah said. 

These are the fruits which he still looks for when he calls for the rent in his vineyard today. These aren’t outdated ideas. They continue to call us to care for our neighbour in the forms that we call “love.” That is not a sentimentally emotional word about “feeling good” toward our neighbour; about “wishing the best for those who are suffering;” about “warm feelings” toward the needy. The “fruits of the vineyard” have to do with the way we live our lives daily in our various neighbourhoods: in our homes, at work, in our hobbies, in those random chats in the post office or at the bus stop.

Perhaps James was thinking of this parable when he wrote in his letter, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” 

The master still owns the vineyard and we, the church of today, are the ones the welfare of the vineyard has been passed on to. But the servants of the Lord keep coming, asking of us the recognition that God still owns the vineyard and that we are still only the people who have been temporarily entrusted with its care.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 21:23-32 The authority of Jesus


Matthew 21:23-32

 

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. “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.

Jesus has just made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed by the crowds as the Son of David, the fulfilment of their hopes and prophecies and dreams, coming in the name of the Lord to usher in the new world order. Then immediately after that, Jesus went into the Temple and overturned the tables of the traders and claimed that space back for God. Then he continued his healing ministry; showing that he had authority not just over the crowds and the religious institutions but authority over nature itself.

Is it any wonder then, in the light of all this exhibition of power, that we read the opening words of our passage today: “When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’”

Jesus was clearly a threat to the religious and social leaders of the day. He was exhibiting enormous and miraculous powers, the crowds were absolutely enthralled by him, his courage and boldness in confronting the institutions of power was astounding. Of course they would want to question his authority.

And the questioning comes out of the security they felt in their own authority. They were the leaders. The Chief Priests were in a spiritual lineage that went all the way back to Moses. The Scribes were the most learned theologians in Jewish society. The Elders had years of experience and had the unquestioning respect of the people.

We need to remember that although we invariably see the religious authorities as blinkered, they were, to all intents and purposes, the good guys of the day as they sought to teach and to give a moral lead to God’s people and hold society together. In Jesus’ own terms they were close to the Kingdom of God: what was hampering them was their inability to step outside of the longstanding tradition of closely prescribed religious rules and regulations and show a human face in implementing the spirit and not just the letter of the law.

These were the religious insiders.  Although the parallel is not exact, these people were in some senses the churchy people, and there’s a difference in style between what he says to the outsiders and what he says to the insiders, what he says to the poor and to the rich. The words to the poor lift them up. The words to the rich challenge them and critique them. The poor and the sick and the meek inherit the earth. The rich and arrogant will be the last to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The first dialogue that Matthew shares has Jesus involved in a bit of ding-dong with a rabbinical crowd. Jesus rarely used this approach much to the surprise of listeners who said, “He doesn’t talk like the teachers of the Law, but he speaks with authority.” It’s a rare moment when Jesus participates in the traditional rabbinical style of argument. The rabbis say to him “where do you get the right to say and do this stuff!” Jesus responds in this debating style, “Where did John get the right to do what he did?” And then, the rabbis begin to debate, amongst themselves, “If we say “from God,” then he’ll say, “why didn’t you believe him?” And if we say, “from men,” the crowd won’t like it and they’ll attack us.” So they couldn’t come up with an answer. And Jesus tells them, “I won’t give you one either.” He understood his audience: they were the religious in-crowd, so he met them on their terms and debated with them as they were used to debating with each other, and when it came to it, they were speechless and defenceless in the face of a very simple question. They claimed authority and power and privilege over the people, but their chief concern was to protect their standing in society and to protect their reputations. They felt threatened by Jesus because his authority was of a completely different kind to what they were used to: it was worked out in his welcoming of sinners and prostitutes; it was worked out in his welcoming of children; it was worked out in his welcoming of the outcasts and those on the margins and ultimately, the authority of Jesus was worked out in a life of service, not ruling; a life hallmarked by betrayal and personal sacrifice, rejection, torture and a criminal’s death on the cross. That is where the authority of Jesus lay: not in some sort of power game full of rules that brought with it prestige and wealth and the respect of the people.

The religious leaders had never seen anything like that before and had no idea how to respond to it.

In that encounter, we have a lesson for all politicians and religious leaders and all those who hold positions of authority in society today. The claims of the Gospel are intense and all of us in political and spiritual leadership are called to moments of decision that will have profound impact for our future. Are we prepared to stand up for what is true and right in the eyes of God and to live out our ministries by the standards of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Or will we seek to deny the truth in order to protect our power and position and status in the eyes of society, or our electorate, or our congregation? Spiritual and political leadership demand courage to do what is right - often at the expense of personal gain and popularity.

The challenge to us in this passage is the extent to which we are prepared to develop our gifts and position in this community to love and to serve those in need rather than to seek prestige and honour and respect from others. That’s the ultimate value that underpins the work of God’s mission, as Jesus goes on to outline in the second part of this passage with the parable he now goes on to give his hearers.

Here’s it’s a story about two bad boys. Boys don’t change much, so the story stands the test of time. The father asks the boys to work in the vineyard. One says—he will, but he doesn’t. The other says he won’t, but he changes his mind and does. “Which one, “Jesus asks, “did what the father asks?”  But, there’s a catch to this parable that is easy to miss: Jesus wants his hearers to make a choice between the sons; which one has done the right thing and which one has done the wrong thing. The choice is simple: a son who disobeys his father by saying ‘No’ to him, but then changes his mind and a son who says ‘Yes’ to his father, but then doesn’t go on to do what he said. Which is the better son?

To us, the choice is obvious: the better son is the first one, who first says ‘No’ but goes on to do the right thing. But that wasn’t the obvious choice for his first hearers because the first son who said ‘No’ would have brought real shame and embarrassment on his father by disobeying him. Yes, he went on to do the right thing in the end but in terms of undermining the social standing of his father in the eyes of the community, the damage had been done in his initial refusal to obey. So, in reality, the behaviour of the first son was no better than the second son: they were both equally guilty in the eyes of their father.

But Jesus wants the religious people to choose between them; they are both equally sinful – but which one is more likely to be redeemed in the eyes of the father? In the light of that, there is only one choice to make: redemption and forgiveness is available to the son who at first disobeys and embarrasses his father but is not available to the son who mocks his father,  and continues to mock him, by his refusal to do what is asked of him.

So this isn’t a parable about the choices we make so much as a parable about the need to honour the Father and to give him his due.

And the key word in this passage comes in verse 29: “But later he changed his mind and went…” The phrase ‘changed his mind’ is not a particularly good translation of the Greek. A more literal translation would be to say: “Later he changed what he cared about and went…”

And that is the key idea here. When this son said ‘No’ to his father, all he really cared about was his own comfort, his own way of living. But later, he changed what he cared about and chose instead to care for the honour of his father and then went out into the vineyard to work for him.

At the heart of this passage is a simple question: What do you care about? What do I care about? Are we like the religious leaders to whom Jesus is talking, whose primary care is for social standing and personal reputation and the comforts that come with a lifestyle of relative privilege? Or is our primary concern going to be for the honour of our Father God who asks us to go out and work for him in the vineyard of his Kingdom? If our primary concern is for the honour of God, we’ll be called out of our comfort zone and we’ll need to undertake some work for him. But that’s what he asks of us.

And the message of this parable is that, if we respond to the call of the Father and change our concern from us to him, then we will be acceptable to him, regardless of what we have done in the past. All of us have said ‘No’ to God in the past. But as soon as we say ‘Yes’ to him, the past is washed away and no longer counts against us in his sight. It doesn’t matter what our past contains: all that matters is the ‘Yes’. And that’s why Jesus is then able to say what he does in verse 31: “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

The religious leaders to whom Jesus was speaking were still locked into their ‘No’ to God and so, until they changed their concern, there was no hope of them entering the kingdom of God. But the sinners and those on the margins of society had changed their concern and turned their ‘No’ into a ‘Yes’ and so they were perfectly acceptable to God

What about us? Are we too fearful of saying Yes to God? Do we think the secrets of our past or the shame of our present life is too much for him? That’s not the message in this passage and that’s not the message of the Christian Gospel.

The past is gone – the present can be healed. All God wants is a ‘Yes’, so we can let him yet further into our lives so we can experience his love and his healing power.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Sunday sermon: Matthew 20.1-16 The generous vinyard owner - a parable of God's generosity


Matthew 20.1-16


 
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Does anyone know what the average wage for a Premier Division footballer is?

It’s a great game isn’t it judging people on the basis of their wage or salary? We often measure someone’s worth on what they earn don’t we? Or, as in the case of the footballer, we might raise our eyebrows and make some comment about the madness of a system that pays obscene amounts to some people who seem to add little in real value to society in comparison to those who do, such as nurses, the police, care-workers or prison officers who are paid a pittance in comparison.

When we play that game, if we’re still in work, the essential rule is to compare what we earn - or used to, if we’re retired – with what someone gets who we perceive has less value to society than we do, particularly if that person earns more than us but is less skilled, or educated, or productive. “I work three times as hard for a third of the money!”

Oh yes, if you want to get people upset very quickly, all you have to do is start talking about earnings, and of course, despite the legislation we still don’t have equal pay do we?

And what about if we stop talking in a general sense and make comparisons closer to home? How many times have you heard the lament of the older man who thinks he lost out to someone inferior because of anti-discrimination laws? (In our house we call that sense of entitlement “black-lesbian-in-a-wheelchair syndrome” because it encompasses all the disadvantaged groups in one persona.)

Well, the older man, in the parable’s terms is the man who started working at dawn or nine o’clock and those who anti-discrimination laws have sought to protect are the ones who started at three or five o’clock.
 
 
Money, salaries, equal pay for equal work, anti-discrimination laws: these ideas cause all kinds of tensions within us and it’s with this same sense of discomfort that we approach this parable of Jesus for today.

 When you examine the parables of Jesus, they’re enormously creative. Many people would claim that Jesus is one of the greatest story story-tellers who ever lived and his parables illustrate that point. Why? Because Jesus’ parables are always from everyday life and because of that they speak to people’s personal experiences. They’re from the market place, the farm, the family, the fishing boat, the building site. Well, today’s parable is about another of life’s common themes: salaries, wages, and a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. 

In short, the story goes like this: there was this man who was a landowner owner and his property included a vineyard and he needed workers to harvest his grapes. He went to the village square at six o’clock in the morning and hired workers who went out and worked all day for twelve hours until six at night. But that wasn’t enough to get the work done, so some more workers were hired at nine o’clock and they worked for nine hours. Then more were hired at noon and worked for six hours; more at three o’clock who worked for three hours; and yet more were taken on late in the afternoon and worked for one hour.  Well, that’s the market economy at work so there’s nothing particularly odd about the story so far – until the landowner decides to pay everyone the full daily rate. Well, surprise, surprise, those who had worked the longest felt hard done by.

Well, we’ve all been there haven’t we? We put in the full effort while someone who works with us is a known skiver but is paid on the same rate. Where’s the justice in that?

What is the purpose of this story? The parables of Jesus are always earthly stories with heavenly meanings. So what is the heavenly meaning of this earthly story for us today?

This is a parable about faith, I think: it’s about people who come to faith in Christ at different times in their lives and who receive the same reward because that’s the deal. The workers who came later weren’t skivers and that’s where the modern comparisons break down. There’s nothing in the story to suggest that they somehow worked with less enthusiasm or commitment.

In John’s Gospel Jesus said, “I came that you shall have life in all its fullness.” What he didn’t say was, “You can only have that fullness of life if you are a cradle Christian. Those of you who came to faith later in life? Well, that’s a shame, because you only get a proportion of what I offer depending on how late you came to faith.” Remember the thief on the cross? You don’t come to faith much later than that, but the promised reward was there for him too.

The deeper meaning of this parable should be clear to us: God is inviting people to be in a relationship with him and he comes looking for us. We’re the people in the market place. In the parable the landowner not only seeks workers, but does so repeatedly until the end of the day, picking up those who were there at the crack of dawn and those who came later. This parable encourages us to see God in the same way, as the one who seeks perpetually with his offer of abundant life made through Jesus.

What we seem to struggle with in the parable, to have the most difficulty accepting, is the landowner’s extravagant generosity. What we often fail to see is that all God’s gifts to us – his generosity and his grace - are undeserved. St. Paul told the Christians at Ephasus this very thing, “For by grace you have been saved …. Not through your own good works, in case any of you should boast.”

When Jesus says, “I have come that you may have life in its fullness” there’s an implied contract there and there was a contract in the parable too: while some people got more than they expected, no one got less. No one got ripped off.

Matthew must have made his point well because we seem to have internalised the moral: we tend not – at least not that I’ve ever noticed – to bemoan the fact that those who come to faith later get the same benefits as those who came earlier but it must have been as issue for Matthew’s community. Jewish converts to Christianity could claim that they had been God’s children all along. There were obviously new converts who had come later and were equally welcomed under God’s grace. There must have been some chuntering about that or this parable would not have been included in Matthew’s Gospel. But we seem to have learnt from it.

So, although the parable doesn’t say so explicitly, it would be right to see this as an ongoing story: the landowner will be back the next day and the day after looking for more workers to bring under his patronage because that is the nature of God.

So, where does that leave us? We’re all here today because at some stage we have come under the patronage of the landowner: God sought us out and we signed up, so to speak. For some of us, that’s been a lifelong process and we’ve grown into that faith: we can’t remember a time when we didn’t have that faith in God. Others of us came to the same faith in a variety of different ways and there may have been a point in time when we can date the moment our faith began.

But how did it happen? These things don’t happen in a vacuum: there were triggers along the way; something we read, something someone said to us that lodged in our minds. There may well have been many of these triggers over time which didn’t come to fruition all at once but which built up over time until it all fell into place. We rightly recognise this to be the work of the Holy Spirit but the Holy Spirit, while she works in the lives of people does that through other people. That’s us: we are the triggers for others. We talk to people, invite them to things, lend them books, whatever and the Holy Spirit does the rest.

To use the language of the parable, we may have been taken on at dawn or at nine o’clock or at midday but there are others still waiting to be brought to the market place so that the landowner can find them waiting for him.

“I came that you may have life in all its fullness.” Isn’t that something we should want to share?

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Sunday Sermon - Matthew 18.21-35: Forgiveness


Matthew 18:21-35
 
 

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

A priest was called away for an emergency. Not wanting to leave the confessional unattended, he called his rabbi friend from across the street and asked him to cover for him.

The rabbi told him he wouldn't know what to say, but the priest told him to come on over and he'd stay with him for a little bit and show him what to do.

The rabbi comes, and he and the priest are in the confessional. In a few minutes, a woman comes in and says, 'Father, forgive me for I have sinned.'

The priest asks, 'What did you do?'

The woman says, 'I committed adultery.'

The priest says, 'How many times?'

And the woman replies, 'Three.'

Priest: 'Say two Hail Mary's, put £5 in the box, and go and sin no more. You are forgiven'

A few minutes later a man enters the confessional. He says, 'Father forgive me for I have sinned.'

'What did you do?'

‘I committed adultery.'

'How many times?'

'Three times.'

The priest says, 'Say two Hail Mary's, put £5 in the box and go and sin no more. You are forgiven'

The rabbi tells the priest that he thinks he's got it, so the priest leaves.

A few minutes later another woman enters and says, 'Father, forgive me for I have sinned.'

The rabbi says, 'What did you do?'

The woman replies, 'I committed adultery.'

The rabbi, getting it off pat, says, 'How many times?'

The woman replies, 'Once.'

The rabbi said, 'Go and do it two more times, We have a special this week, three for a fiver.'

So, it’s worth getting this out of the way at the start: how are you at forgiving? It’s a struggle isn’t it?

Forgiveness is a process, like grief; it has stages that can be observed and described, though no two people go through the stages in exactly the same way. It’s a bit like this: we hurt, we hate, we heal.

We hurt; that is, we allow ourselves to feel the depth of an injury that has been done to us; we don't minimize it, or try to sweep it under the carpet. And sometimes we wallow in it.

 We hate; that is, we blame the one who has hurt us; we don't excuse what’s happened or try to understand where the other person was coming from, or recognise our own fault in the events. Often we let it eat away at us and we plan petty acts of revenge and endlessly rehearse the event or conversation in our minds so that we come off better.

Finally, when we’re ready, we heal; we let go of the pain that’s keeping us stuck in the past, and move on.

Those stages sound simple, but they always happen inside a storm of complicated emotions. Particularly when the wound is deep, forgiveness comes slowly, and in fits and starts, if it comes at all. Forgiveness may be the hardest work that you and I will ever do.

But what’s the alternative?

Well it’s obvious and most of us here will recognise this scenario: we don’t forgive and we end up obsessed and stuck in the past when most of our family and friends have moved on from support and sympathy and heartily wish that we would too because our obsession, important as it is to us, is starting to seem self-indulgent to those around us. “Not this again. I’m tired of hearing it. Get over it. Let it go. Move on.” Of course, they may not say it but they’re thinking it. Or if we’re honest, sometimes we rather like that feeling of being the hard-done by victim and we can fall too easily into that role in the hope of more sympathy – but the outcome is the same: people get bored with the story.

And, of course, it’s a danger to our mental health and can lead to depression and other complications. An unresolved sense of injustice eats away at our mental wellbeing and makes us emotionally tired and vulnerable.

How many of us are stuck in that cycle of anger and resentment? "No matter what, I will never let go of how you wronged me. I will take this anger, this hatred, to the grave!"

There is no freedom in such hatred because that anger and resentment controls us. It takes over our being, our soul.

There’s a wide range of human behaviour in all of that and I hope you recognise some of it. But we’re talking theory here so let’s look at two simple examples:

Samuel Weisenthal, a survivor of the Nazi holocaust, tells a story that raises this question about as strongly as it can be raised. Weisenthal, a Jew, was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. One afternoon he was assigned to clean a hospital for wounded soldiers and a nurse walked up to him, ordered him to come with her, and led him upstairs to a bed in which a young soldier, his head wrapped in stained bandages, was dying. He was maybe twenty-two, an SS trooper.

The soldier, whose name was Karl, reached out and grabbed Weisenthal's hand. He told him that he had to speak to a Jew. He had to confess the terrible things he had done. Otherwise, he could not die in peace.

He had been fighting in a Russian village where several hundred Jews had been rounded up. His group was ordered to plant full cans of petrol in a big house. Then they marched two hundred people into the house, crammed them in so they could hardly move. Next they threw grenades in the windows to set the house on fire. The soldiers were ordered to shoot anyone who tried to jump out of the windows.

The young soldier recalled, "Behind the window of the second floor, I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothing was on fire. By his side stood a woman, doubtless the child's mother. With his free hand the man covered the child's eyes, then he jumped into the street. Seconds later the mother followed. We shot....O God....! I shall never forget. It haunts me."

The young man paused and then said, "I know that what I have told you is terrible. I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. I know that what I am asking is almost too much, but without your answer I cannot die in peace."

There was silence in the room. Weisenthal tells us what he did next, "I stood up and looked in his direction. At last I made up my mind, and without a word, I left the room."

Do you recall one of the most famous photos to come out of the Vietnam War--a small girl running naked down the road with an expression of unimaginable terror, her clothes burned off, and her body scorched by napalm? The man who coordinated the raid on this child's village in June 1971 was a 24-year old U.S. Army helicopter pilot and operations officer name John Plummer. The day after the raid, Plummer saw the photo in the newspaper and was devastated. "It just knocked me to my knees and that was when I knew I could never talk about this." The guilt over the raid had become a lonely torment. He suffered periodic nightmares that included the scene from the photo, accompanied by the sounds of children screaming.

The girl in the photo was called Kim and she survived 17 operations and eventually moved to Canada. In 1996 Plummer heard that Kim would be speaking at an event not far from his home.

"If I could talk face-to-face with the pilot who dropped the bombs, I would tell him we could not change history, but we should try to do good things for the present." Plummer, in the audience, wrote her a note, "I am that man," and asked an officer to take it to her. At the end of the speech, he pushed through the crowd to reach her and soon they were face-to-face. "She just opened her arms to me," Plummer recounted. "I fell into her arms sobbing." All I could say is, "I'm so sorry, I'm just so sorry."

"It's all right," Kim responded. "I forgive. I forgive."

Two very different examples with two very different outcomes but did you notice that they added something new to the discussion? We had the need for forgiveness and the need to forgive.

Recently, scientific studies are catching up with religious concepts. Over the last few years, studies have been taking place on the concept of forgiveness. Recent research shows that holding on to anger increases your chances of a heart attack as well as cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other illnesses.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, boosts your self-esteem and lowers your blood pressure and heart rate. Forgiveness also helps you sleep better at night and boosts a positive change in your attitude. "Forgiveness is a decision you make to give up your anger and feelings of revenge," declared psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons. He added that forgiving is not forgetting; it is letting go of anger and hurt and moving on.

"Forgiveness has remarkable healing power in the lives of those who utilize it," added Dr. Fitzgibbons.

Today’s Gospel story pretty much sums up all of this but Jesus adds something new to the discussion: he tells the story of the unforgiving servant – a story made up to make a point. We come here week by week and we make our confession to God in a general sense. (It’s left to our private prayers to go over the specifics.) Then we ask for God’s forgiveness. But this story makes it clear that if we don’t come to God as those willing to forgive others we can’t assume that same forgiveness from God. It’s very much a two-way thing: in asking for God’s forgiveness we have to be as willing to forgive those who we believe have done us down otherwise we’re asking for something for ourselves which we aren’t prepared to do for others and there’s a hypocrisy in that which we need to address.

In John’s Gospel Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life in all its fullness.” Today’s Gospel story makes it clear that forgiveness, receiving and giving, is part of that fullness of life that Jesus brings. It takes two to fall out. It takes one to forgive.

You are not excusing the action.

You are not ignoring the wrong, the sin committed and the person responsible.

What you are doing is setting yourself free from the weight of harm that you have carried, maybe for far too long. Forgive. Let it go. Release it. Throw it out. Take back the God-given power you have for your own life. For some, the time is right. For others, it will take time and healing. Perhaps you need to talk with someone, but take control.

Forgiveness is not weakness. It is not passive, not gutless. Forgiveness is healthy. Forgiveness is freeing. It may take time. It may be one-sided. But it will release us. It will set us free to experience more that fullness of life which Jesus promised.

Let us pray. Our God of forgiveness, too often we carry resentment and hurt deep within our hearts. We feel weighted down and there is little joy in our lives. Reveal to us the freeing possibilities of forgiving. May we find wholeness when we let go of all that weight of hurt and resentment. Through Christ, the Forgiver. Amen.

 

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Sunday sermon: Matthew 15.21-28. The Canaanite woman - and a bit of CS Lewis.


Matthew 15.21-28

 
 
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

 

So, St. Peter is showing a new arrival around the Kingdom of Heaven and all is going well until they arrive at a large wall.

 

“What’s behind here?” enquires the new arrival.

 

“Well,” says St. Peter, “I need you to keep your voice down. This is where the American Fundamentalists are. They believe they’re the only ones here and we don’t like to upset them.”


As Christians we hear a lot about God’s grace and this passage is all about God’s grace: we know that it is through that grace that we are saved and “not through good works lest any man should boast.” as St. Paul writes to the church at Ephesus. What we may be less clear about is whether there are limits to God's grace: a question echoing through time – and through Scripture itself.

It’s very tempting to say that there are no limits, for the word “grace” itself would seem to contradict that. If “grace” is the defining description of how God deals with humanity, then grace would seem to overcome all boundaries.  However, if we aren't careful we find ourselves following a theology which suggests that God saves all, regardless of who they are and regardless of what they’ve done. That doesn’t seem to be what Christianity is teaching.

Difficult isn’t it?

In the Old Testament, with Abraham, the limits of God’s grace began to become clear. His descendants were identified by the tribal ties of blood and by specific ways of living and worship, the boundaries of which Moses drew quite clearly under God’s guidance.


Even so there was always an awareness that God’s grace could reach far beyond such narrow confines. Today’s psalm (67), although we didn’t read it, is clear that God can be identified by the way he relates to “the nations of the earth.” The Psalmist says, “May God be merciful to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us, that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.” That doesn’t mean that all would embrace Judaism and the prophet speaking in the First Lesson for today insists there will be foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love his name and to worship him. . “. . These I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer…………. for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” This becomes particularly relevant in our Gospel reading this morning as a Gentile woman approaches Jesus for help.

So we turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans: Paul is frustrated because the Jews have failed to recognize the Messiah. In today’s reading he changes course. “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles,” he says. Israel’s rejection of the Gospel, as Paul declares it, has led to the reconciliation of the Gentiles and beyond them to the whole world.

Though Matthew stresses that the primary mission of Jesus was to the “house of Israel,” in today’s Gospel a non-Jewish supplicant draws him to a more inclusive vision. This supplicant is a woman – one who is not to speak to a man in public. Not only does she approach Jesus, though, she nags him, she makes a public scene around him. This story of courageous faith and boundary-crossing should challenge the church today.

The woman is a Canaanite, a foreigner to the kingdom of God, an intrusion into the tidy boundaries with which the disciples were comfortable and within which Jesus focuses his ministry. This woman comes alone to Jesus, crying, “Have pity (“mercy”) on me Lord, Son of David.” a term which would hardly have meant much to anyone other than the Jews. Yet she has such an address on her lips from the beginning suggesting a degree of knowledge and understanding of Jesus that he and the Disciples should have taken more notice of from the outset.


Since illness was thought to arise from demonic attack, she begs release and healing for her daughter. Jesus meets her request with stony silence and this peculiar initial unresponsiveness to her appeal is very strange. There’s no answer to the question “why?” There is only this strange, surprising silence from Jesus. Not so from the disciples who demand, “Get rid of her, for she keeps yelling at us.” Maybe she’d been nagging them before she got to Jesus, and they’d had enough. The woman certainly seems to have got under the skin of the disciples. Still Jesus remains unmoved and again he rebuffs her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In no other miracle story has a petitioner been treated so harshly. Jesus has a clear goal, an all-consuming passion about where he is to direct his attention and his energies. The woman is not in that vision because she’s a Canaanite.

But the woman’s not having any of it. Now she’s in conversation with him and she won’t let the opportunity pass by. His silence had been upsetting, but now his words open a new door. She’s bold, brave and challenging and she presses her case with force. She’s been reduced to desperation, certainly, but she won’t give up now. She hangs on for all she is worth.

And then something dramatic happens: this woman, disadvantaged, an outsider because she is a Gentile and a woman who’s alone in public, challenges this rebuff by worshiping Jesus (something no disciple does prior to the resurrection). She started with the plea, “Have mercy on me,” but now she kneels before him in worship and supplication: “Lord, help me,” she says. “You are my only hope. You can’t turn me down. You’re the only one I can turn to.” 

Then the most extraordinary thing happens. This merciful One, this man filled with grace, this Prince of Peace, speaks in terms that sound harshly rude, and no matter how we want to put a positive gloss on it, Jesus is speaking as an Israelite spoke of Gentiles. “It is not right to take the food of children (Jews) and give it to dogs” (Gentiles).  They were “dogs,” and there is no way to change that offensive sense. Yet the woman grabs hold of even this rejection and turns it into a response against which Jesus can no longer argue! “Yes, Lord,” she says. “I know. I am not of your house and lineage. Nor am I worthy to approach you as I have. Even so I still make bold to say that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table and I ask only that you let me have the crumbs that fall from your table.”

You can almost imagine the frisson of shock rippling through the crowd.
But after a pause that must have seemed like a lifetime to the crowd, in a startling turn of events, Jesus replies: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And we’re told her daughter was healed at that moment. He who had fed five thousand from Israel only a short time before and who would feed another four thousand only a short time later, grants to this woman the “crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

He who was feeding Israel, to whom he was sent, gave an appetizer, as it were, to a Gentile woman in the “crumbs from the master’s table.”

She comes with no appeal for justice, no claim based on her rights or merit: only a plea for mercy and undeserved help. She’s nothing to bring to barter for her daughter’s wellbeing. She simply brings the faith and confidence that in Jesus alone she finds hope for herself and her daughter. In this way she broke through the barriers that could have hindered her. In this way she signalled the way to the future as Gentiles flooded into the church, being carried on waves of faith that in Jesus salvation had come. 

There are two ways of looking at this event. Firstly, the Canaanite woman is a personification of those nations that would hear the message of the Gospel. The courageous faith of the woman is the second major theme. But neither of these captures the shock and surprise of the exchange between the woman and Jesus. The woman’s brash courage actually seems to convert Jesus and develop his understanding of his mission. In Matthew’s Gospel we’ve so far seen a Jesus who has limited his mission to the sons and daughters of Israel, yet here he crosses this self-imposed boundary to bring merciful healing to a Gentile.

The woman seems to bring to him the full implications of his mission.

This is important because we’ve already seen Jesus feed a Jewish crowd and shortly we’ll see Jesus feeding another crowd, but this time the crowd is a crowd in a Gentile area, not a Jewish area. This woman really seems to have forced Jesus to rethink his mission and that mission changes as the Gospel story unfolds and as Jesus broadens boundaries in ways unimaginable to the disciples around him: it took an immense struggle to expand the thinking about the limits of God’s grace on the part of Jesus’ disciples and those who followed them, but it began here as Jesus reappraised his mission.

Sadly, that struggle has not yet been overcome. Over and over again the people of God have had to recognize how old limits are pushed out by the grace of God to include still others. Sometimes the struggle has been obvious: racial divisions, gender differences, issues of sexuality, national and cultural differences have had to be overcome time after time in order to recognize the far-reaching nature of God’s grace. But we keep wanting to establish limits on that grace and God, in his turn, keeps pushing back on them.

We like neat, cosy, clear-cut boundaries to our lives, and God’s grace challenges them at every turn. Today the deepest meaning of the Gospel is often seen in the courage of the “outsider,” who is driven by loving concern for innocent victims of disease or injustice: Bonheoffer, Luther-King, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu and others. Often they’ve been met by stony silence or rude rebuff by Jesus’ followers.

The great faith of this mother who breaks all boundaries out of love is a model and challenge for our time. The Canaanite women would not accept the idea that Jesus was only sent for certain people. Her faith melted that barrier. It calls all of us to receive what Jesus has to offer and to push the limits and boundaries ourselves as we present that same Jesus and what he offers to others. We need to make the church a place to which a modern Canaanite woman, disadvantaged, despised and marginalised within society can come with her plea, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  And we need to make that church a place from which the word goes out, as from the Lord himself, “You have great faith. Your request is granted!”

We can’t afford to be triumphalist in relation to God’s grace. I regularly meet Christians who are so certain that they know the mind of God that they are incredibly confident about the fate of others come the final judgement. People they have never met, including a fair few Christians, are all consigned to eternal damnation in their view because those people don’t accept to the letter a particular understanding of Christianity.

I’m a great fan of the writer C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. For those of you who are unfamiliar with them, Lewis writes a series of what appear to be children’s adventure stories, set in the land of Narnia, the most famous of which is “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. However, Lewis wasn’t simply a children’s writer but a theologian, and the Narnia stories are a Christian allegory: in “The Last Battle”, which is a story dealing with the end times and judgement, there is an exchange between Aslan, the Christian God figure, and Emeth, a follower of the God Tash, who is surprised to find himself on the right side of Aslan’s judgement. In this allegory of the Christian story, Lewis is suggesting that God’s grace is, indeed, extended beyond the limits we might expect, but that is down to God’s grace and not our judgement. God may well choose to act towards others in ways which surprise us and it is not for us to decide who’s in and who’s out.

Emeth says to Aslan: “Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine, but a servant of Tash.” Aslan answered “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. If any man swears an oath to Tash and keeps the oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he knew it not and it is I who reward him.” Emeth replied “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.” “Beloved”, said the Glorious one, “unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

I think many of us would do well to ponder on that idea. Unless we find ourselves behind a big wall in God’s Kingdom, we might just be surprised who else is there.

Amen.