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Is there anybody there? Bad tenants and a more humble church

Matthew 21:33-46

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?

My sister-in-law  recently decided she was going to buy a boat…

‘Ah how exciting, a boat!’ we said…

‘Well not like that, she said, something for a canal, she said

Ah – a canal boat we said… well no, not quite she said;

May I introduce Clementine… A oil-rig rescue vessel!

And there i was yesterday taking large granite slabs from skips in Southall to use as ballast. The stone that was rejected….. the perfect sermon illustration!

“No more beating about the bush – get on with the parable!”

Parables are the primary teaching method for Jesus, picture-making stories; simple, short, and always inverting expectation; subverting the usual reading of the world around us.

This parable is complex and challenging; its violent, puzzling, and apparently full of judgement. It provokes a response, provokes action and enables listeners to recognise God with new perspectives.

Jesus is responding (for the third time) to the Pharisees question ‘by what authority are you able to speak these things?’ They are pulling rank on him… but he raises the stakes by invoking God himself! He responds to the question with a more probing question woven into a story.

Isaiah 5

It’s worth noting from the outset that Jesus is unmistakably alluding to a song in Isaiah 5. This song—from God—concerns a vineyard which is built (including a tower, hedge and wine vat) to bear fruit. But the fruit does not come – only wild grapes, God laments the way that the land and its inhabitants have been exploited, as greed and arrogance have taken over;

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
but heard a cry!

And so God allows the hedge to be taken down and the land turned back to the wild.

We must remember that for the Hebrews, land was deeply integral to God’s covenant. The land belonged to God, but Israel would remain on the land as long as they could be a blessing to other nations. Breaking the covenant, breaking Torah, (as summed up in the commandments of Exodus), meant that God broke down the blessing given to both the land and to the people of the land.

1, A True Ending?

The key to a parable is often hidden in the detail… let’s look

Jesus method is to use everyday scenes and characters –familiar to the rural and agricultural villages he visited. Everything would be familiar, and stories would unfold in familiar ways.. but then a turn; something unexpected.. something different to the norm inverts the expectation. That’s how Jesus understands the kingdom of God – it’s common place, everyday, (“in your midst”), yet radically different to what we see and expect – it turns order upside down, disorientates and surprises us!

The parable starts believably… sending collectors, (a common practice), and resentment grows, (realistic that the tenants would resent the vineyard owner who had perhaps bought up their family plots and turned them into a vineyard, a common practice at the time). But then… violence and no reprisal? That is suddenly hard to believe! And then more violence? And a idea that having by murdering the heir they would receive an inheritance? The plot has now become absurd and surreal!

Like with all of the parables Jesus allows the listeners to reflect on what they would do… (and in turn what we would do).

So a question arises – did the writers, (evangelists), add the ending – and was it necessary? Jesus way was usually to allow the question to linger. Certainly a version in the Gospel of Thomas simply stops at Jesus question, “when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” allowing it to probe.

It’s almost like we don’t need to hear the vindictive response, whoever listens the story will always provoke anger – this parable cuts deep!

2, Who is the gospel speaking to?

It may well be true that if you were a Pharisee listening in… you might think literally; ‘well the landowner is us’.. they were often landowners with many servants, (although maybe hadn’t acknowledged they too might have broken the woes of Isaiah 5 and built field upon field and house upon house – they would have exploited the land, the people, and the tradition they were charged to care for). They might have gloated at the punishment given to the tenants…

Which means many peasants listening would recognise themselves in the angry tenants.. this was their story; being exploited, unfairly taxed – like many people struggling today. The expulsion of tenants may have been a retribution they were already familiar with… a typical story of a bad landowner.

The sending of a son may appear naïve, but– in a culture based on shame and duty – it would have been a significant challenge to any wayward tenant. This could be read as further exploiting authority and religion.

However in later years, as Christianity gained influence, another reading took centre stage.. The landowner was God and the (beloved) son Jesus. This interpretation said that the responsibility of salvation was given to the Jews, but they mishandled it… and now it is given to ‘others’; the church! Tragically this reading has allowed both anti-semitic actions in the historical church, and fostered an arrogance that came when the church regards itself sole custodian of God’s gospel.

Jews, So who’s who? It’s not clear.. the parable is actually open to many interpretations… and it is the listeners only (or evangelists) who suggest an ending,

40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They (not him) 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.”

But Jesus neither confirms nor denies their response, he simply allows the parable to germinate inside the minds and imaginations of those around him… The point is given if the fruit does not grow, (Isaiah5) or if the workers are arrogant or abusive, then the landowner will try to be reasonable, and try again, always gracious always ready to give… but eventually the kingdom is shared elsewhere. (But to where?)

The question is turned over to us too, as contemporary listeners of Jesus’ words… we all become ‘the other’….and we too are asked about fruit. How do we respond to the radical call of God’s reign? What harvest emerges in our lives?

With its focus on grace, patience and rejection, what would this parable have to say to the troubled relationship we have with our child, or parent, or awkward friend? What does it have to say to our inability to forgive others, or ourselves? What does this parable have to say to our reflections on criminal justice, ecology, business, politics, education and health? What relevance would it have to guide our responsibility to helping people in society who, (some say), have brought their troubles upon themselves?

Think on this for a moment

3, Fruits of what? We spoke already of the gospel being given to the church.. and began to ask.. how effective that actually might be? Negatively it can breed a complacency and protectiveness around ‘the gospel’, which makes the same Gospel ineffective? Who looks after God’s mission; the church or God?

I was recently at a training event about Mission and Evangelism – (it was pretty painful)…. Missio-Dei, is a mission-theory that simply says ‘mission is finding out what God is doing in the world – and joining in’, but that didn’t go down so well among some colleagues. “It must be believers who bring the gospel!” But I ask you, how limited or expansive is the Gospel? When we consider groups like Friends of the earth, Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics, Art that inspires, Amnesty Oxfam, Readifood, Communicare, kindness in the community. Is this the Gospel? What is God doing – breaking down borders?

The logic of saying God only works in the church echoes an arrogant from the past; ‘you cannot trust God with Mission! We know better.’

43 “And so I tell you,” added Jesus, “the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.”

The actions of the landowner show a remarkable goodwill and trust towards the tenants, even when they create such havoc and use such violence. Owner/God show compassion and mercy, ready to give and give again – endlessly naïve – endlessly generous? (Jesus reaching out to the Pharisees?)

We cannot control God. The church cannot contain God. And we cannot control mercy. (two weeks ago we heard… “are you envious because I am generous?”

Ultimately the parable points towards the kingdom of God, its surprising and ever-giving emphasis on mercy, grace and trust, yet it remains realistic about the world and those who seek to exploit it;

In coming to reclaim what belongs to his Father, the Son sets out to restore the world to its divinely created order. Jesus brings wholeness to a broken world, providing glimpses into the kingdom of heaven. This is what God’s creation is supposed to look like.

But the restoration of God’s creation meets opposition from those with a vested interest in the brokenness of the world.

This final cornerstone reflection (Psalm118) becomes a reminder too that all things will be ‘judged’ in the light of Christ, (all things, made through him and for him – as our Eucharist prayer says), a ‘judgement’ which will cause many to stumble. It’s worth reminding ourselves that this judgement refers to understanding and reconciliation – it calls to account those who have exploited and abused both people and the earth. Judgment is the inversion of world order where oppressors are bought low and the humble lifted high. This cornerstone has been rejected, but will in the end become the most significant thing of all, the centrepoint of all creation. The light by which all is truly seen.

How do we end this morning?… with four questions maybe – questions which reframe the deep question at the heart of this parable, and ask something of us;

  1. What does the Gospel of Christ look like, feel like, taste like, smell like – what are you looking for?
  2. And how gracious do you truly believe God is in evoking, provoking and waiting for this kingdom to be received and understood?
  3. Who hold the keys of this kingdom; who truly are its prophets and activists – working both in the church or outside of the church?
  4. And finally, The wicked tenants try God’s patience. Do we really dare to let God be God? In our lives, our world, our desires and our hopes.. will we look, and recognise, and be transformed—as Christ inspires us—to see the fruit-bearing kingdom emerging in our midst?

 

Gary Collins October 2017

 

Creation2016

Crossings, Connections and Compassion

There are, throughout France, Spain and Portugal, winding paths that cross fields, towns, industrial areas and woodlands, cut across major highways, railway lines and go right through shopping malls. They are not obvious, you have to follow small yellow arrows painted on lampposts and walls to find your way. Those who walk these paths are walking to a different drumbeat, a slower rhythm; calmer, harder work, more connected with the landscape and with fellow travellers. You can only take enough food for a day or your rucksack will be too heavy. To follow these paths is to bear witness to a different way of living, as the trucks and busy shoppers rush by. In 2012 Rosemary and I walked one of these paths from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, and on Friday night we got back after walking from Lisbon to Porto. We hope to complete the walk to Santiago next year, starting in Porto.

Today I want to make some connections, some of which I will simply leave hanging in the air for us to reflect on and do with what we will. And then I want to think about what rhythm it is that we walk to, what compass we hold to direct us as we make the journey of our lives. I am very struck by the depth of both of today’s readings to help us as we think about this. The OT reading from Exodus is a famous passage where the Israelites, having escaped from slavery in Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, are now starting on their journey through the wilderness to the promised land, led by Moses and Aaron and more importantly, by God, YHWH Himself. But they are hungry! They start to complain bitterly, ‘send us back to Egypt! At least we had food there!’ YHWH promises he will rain food from heaven for them. In the story, quails come up in the evening and cover the camp; in the morning something flaky falls to the ground, manna, for the Israelites to eat. They are literally being fed from heaven. It is, bread from heaven. We didn’t read on this morning, but the story goes on to tell us that they just received enough for each day. If people tried to collect for the next day, it went rotten. I hope you’re starting to make connections. Journeys. Bread. Just enough for the day. ‘Give us this day…’

Jumping on to today’s gospel reading, we find the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. It is so connected with the Exodus reading. And so startling. But to understand it, we have to step back 2000 years to an agrarian economy, where people just queue up for work for that day and hope for the best. The context, the background to Jesus’ parable, is the grumbling of the religious leaders of the day about Jesus’ open-hearted attitudes towards the poor and people who were ‘sinners’. ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard…’ This landowner goes down to the market first thing in the morning and hires workers for his vineyard…and then he goes again, and again, hiring more workers each time – five times in all! The last time, it’s only an hour before sunset but there are still guys hanging around so he hires them too. And then, he gets his manager to pay all of them the same wage! Not surprisingly, the ones who have worked all day are not too pleased – why are those who worked only an hour getting the same as us?? Listen to the landowner’s answer: ‘Friend, I am doing you know 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?’ (vv.13-15)

Each of Jesus’ stories, or parables, has at least one shock in them that would certainly have made the hearers sit up and take notice. This parable is loaded with shocks, each one like a hammer blow, breaking up the hearers’ ideas of what is right and just. The first shock is in the first line, it’s the landowner himself who goes out early in the morning to hire labourers. Landowners were rich, they had people to do that for him and we know he had a manager because he crops up later in the story (v8). What kind of a landowner goes out himself to hire these common, poor people? And then, to add insult to injury, we find this landowner going out 5 times throughout the day! What’s he doing? Can you hear the muttering? ‘What’s he talking about? Didn’t he hire enough the first time? Ridiculous!’ But then, to add insult to injury, this extraordinary man pays the same wage to everyone, regardless of how long they worked! His listeners are on their feet now, shouting, ‘Jesus, you’re off your head! No-one does that!’ But this landowner has a different logic, he dances to a different tune, walks to a different drumbeat. He is quite right, it is up to him to do what he likes with his money, and he agreed the same wage with everyone. So what is his motivation?

Right at the end of the parable we have the clue: ‘Are you envious because I am generous?’ This landowner is generous and compassionate. The reason why he goes himself to the vineyard is because he is actually concerned for the people who will work for him. And he goes again and again to check if there are any more hanging around because he is generous and full of sympathy for the poor – he worries that they might not get work. And he pays them the same amount as the labourers who worked all through the day is because it is ‘the usual daily wage’ (9,10,13, actually a denarius). He knows that if they get less than that they won’t be able to feed their family. Compassion rules his economics. But it’s not fair! Hang on. This is not the cry of the underpaid: no-one is underpaid. This complaint is from the justly paid who cannot tolerate generosity, what is called grace, the free, generous and shocking compassion of God.

The vineyard stands for the kingdom of God here, and the landowner of course stands for God. Jesus is telling us that God is like that. Let that picture erase any misconceptions we may have about God: that he just rewards us for what we have earned, how good we have been. No, God is far, far better than that. In many ways this parable is a kind of microcosm, a summary of the life of Jesus – it’s what he did. His invitation to follow him, to enter the kingdom of God went out to all – to the religious leaders who lived and breathed the scriptures, like the labourers who spent all day in the vineyard – and to ordinary people – and to the scum of society, the rejected and the poor – even to a thief dying on a cross next to Jesus, the ultimate last minute – all are welcome, all invited into the kingdom. I like the way that this parable brings it together.

Did you find any connections? Again, enough for the day. Enough for the day, echoing the wilderness experience in Exodus, the Lord’s prayer. Another connection is the grumbling: those who spent all day in the field in the parable, and those who complained about no food in the wilderness: ‘The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness’ (Exodus 16:2). Did you notice the landowner’s strong rebuke of the moaners? ‘Take what belongs to you and go!’ (14). Pretty short shrift! These men were trying to censure the landowner, they were trying to dictate to him how he ought to behave, forgetting that he is the landowner, the guy with all the cards in his hand! The parable is a rebuke to the religious leaders who were trying to dictate to God how to behave. Me first! He vindicates the gospel against his critics.

So what do we do with all of this? Firstly, let this parable enlarge our understanding of the width of the generosity and compassion of God. God is like that landowner, Jesus tells us. And what we believe in our hearts will affect how we behave. If we hold the view that God is some tight-fisted tyrant who rewards us only for what we do right and punishes us for the rest, that will form how we behave: it usually leads to either smug self-righteousness if we are convinced we do what is right (like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day) – which at worst, leads to violence against those we perceive to be ‘sinners’; or it leads to despair if we think we are hopelessly bad.

The theme of receiving only what is needed for the day is an important one too, from both readings, echoed in the Lord’s prayer and on our experience walking crazily long days in Portugal and Spain. I’m not going to enlarge on this as I haven’t time but it’s a rebuke to our economics based on acquiring as much as possible and banking for the future. I just leave that with you.

But if we hold this view of God, that he is compassionate, kind and generous in a way far beyond our just desserts, that we are freely loved by Him whether we are early or late to the party, then that will affect our attitude towards ourselves and to other people. It can be hard to hold on to this. While we were walking, we were aware of news in the world – the Mexican earthquake, the battering of hurricanes and storms in the Caribbean and Florida, the escalating tensions over North Korea. I guess the lesson from the Camino is simply this: ‘we continue our journey. We wake up in the morning and walk the next bit’ That’s all we can do! We carry on, holding faith. Faith is not the same as certainty, in fact it might even be its opposite. It might be full of doubt. Our faith in a loving, compassionate and generous God, and all that flows from that, does not rest much on reason or rationality but because we choose to trust the words and actions of Jesus and to say: Sometimes there is more darkness than light but I have hope in something, in someone much, much better.

 

Richard Croft

Exodus 16:2-15, Matthew 20:1-16

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DaZzled!

Exodus 3:1-17. Matthew 16:21-end.

The bible is odd isn’t it… sometimes when we look upon the words we might ask how they got there. How many times were the stories told before committed to writing, how many generations were they passed through?

The story of Moses and the burning bush is one such occasion. We are told that Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up….” It’s all rather diplomatically spoken, “i must turn aside”.

But an newly discovered early document reveals that what Moses really said was closer to this, “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaarggh!”

The story of the burning bush is iconic. It’s a deeply instilled image, it speaks of wonder, awe and mystery right before our eyes. It speaks of something bewildering, confusing and yet deeply divine. It speaks of what the bible calls holiness, (or something other).

But what does wonder, awe, mystery mean to us in our lives?

Well today we are on day three of our Dazzle festival, a celebration of community, imagination and ideas. We hope that members of this congregation can join us at many events through the week. And that as we work with outrider anthems, local theatres, pubs and local activists that we can begin to explore something together about our lives as a community and our hopes for a future of partnership, creativity and love.

Dazzle is a festival which we have said is ‘in conversation’ with Outrider’s ‘Festival of the Dark’.

But a church dealing with darkness? Surely that’s not right is it.. aren’t we all about light? The light of the world, the light of God?

Is there a tension here? Shouldn’t we be careful ‘of the dark-side’?

Well the church here at StJ&StS is well aware of ‘Realistic Christianity’ we discuss it once a month in sermons, and try to live it every day. We recognise that risk and discovery go hand in hand. Nothing happens if without some kind of risk.

The first step of realistic Christianity is realising that life is more complex than simple black and white categories. A religion with no capacity to speak of darkness is not a religion dealing realistically with the world or its people. Darkness is all around us, it invades our lives, sobers us and tempers us. It slows us down and hinders us. It is a place known well by G-d, a place known well by Christ. Our lives are all affected by darkness of one sort or another, so why do we avoid speaking of it in church?

When we spoke with Jennifer a few month back we spoke of the need for ‘a conversation’ about the dark. For those of us familiar with being human, (most of us) we quickly realise that darkness is part of what makes us human, and there are many forms of darkness – grief, depression, trauma, but also uncertainty, unknowing and fear. We might throw the word mystery into the mix here as well.. When we think about darkness we also think about what Jung called shadows – the parts of ourselves we repress.

Let’s get back to Uncertainty, unknowing….\

One of the design themes in DaZzle is based upon the Dazzle Ships of the first and second world war. These designs were not intended to camouflage in a classic sense, instead they were intended to dis-orientate an enemy ship; is it one ship, two, is it coming forwards, backwards, moving sideways? It shifted perception, challenged the knowable.

Dazzle-Ships-22
Dazzle Design

The closer we are drawn to God the less we know; we are caught up in a wonder beyond words, a dazzling splendour, the glory of humanity, a cloud of unknowing..

Moses later in his life was to encounter God directly again, but as one he could not gaze upon, instead God was a dark cloud over Mt Sinai, a realm of wonder – but terror too. God would not, could not – be contained.

And here in this moment we read that Moses drew near to God and saw a burning bush, something impossible, something beyond reasoning. And Moses his his face because he knew one could not look upon God and live. And a name is requested, ‘who shall I say?’

אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה‎, ehyeh ašer ehyeh, “I am, who I am” I am, I exist, I am being, I will be.

God cannot be named, wonder cannot be contained.

The ‘I am’, being…The event, not the name, The impossible, not the visible.

The ‘I am’ is the source and ground of all being, of all things; light and dark, angels and atoms, stars, planets, children, artists, politicians, cleaners, forests and homes. The ‘I am’ of being calls Moses to speak a word of liberation – a word of freedom.

So what of Dazzle?

Pseudo-Dionysius speaks of the luminous mysteries of God lost in a dazzling obscurity of silence. Denys who then inspired many contemplative and mystical traditions spoke of the Dazzling Darkness of God; in other words all we can know of God is so enthralling so captivating, yet so beyond our knowing.

To hear God reduced and contained in simple arguments about provability and non-provability, existence or non-existence, or reduced to neat simple statements about ‘if only you had more faith’, is a million miles away from this splendid awe we are speaking of….

The ‘cloud author’ says God ‘lives in the cloud between knowing and unknowing’.

Denys; “The truly divine knowing is that which is known by unknowing”

But what this darkness is calling us too is not stupidity, but wisdom. When we speak of unknowing we speak of how we cannot contain or control. It may be God, (or our ideas about God) or it may be people, and their infinite, beguiling and sometimes frustrating mystery. It’s like trying to examine a poem under a microscope – how does this collection of words affect me so deeply? Poetry and art and imagination transcend the rational.

Rachel and I – 25 years anniversary. What a mystery! I see I understand, but the mystery grows deeper; the cloud of unknowing is enticing!

What lies at the heart of this broader understanding is not about dominance but about reverent bowing before love. The unknowing of God is all about the compulsion of love.

If we seek understanding, (and we should – Anselm) then we have two choices; to allow understanding to be read as control and domination, (tell the Earth), or we allow it to be the starting point of more wonder.

So we are moving beyond only knowledge – towards wonder and devotion.

But unknowing is also not the end of the story…

In the dialogue, the God of mystery reaches out to humanity – there is a connection;
“Moses, Moses!” a personal / phenomenological encounter.
“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” A call from history.
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry” – The call of justice.
“I will be with you” a gift of encouragement.

Unknowing does not mean a faith beyond us. We encounter the mystery, the delight, the fun and action of faith in our daily lives. We live and move and have our being in God.

But what of the risk of uncertainty?

We see in the Gospel dialogue a simple description of the tension between sensible security and the risk of letting go. Peter represents here the desire, (very reasonable) to keep everything/everyone safe. Stick with what we know, lets stay safe. We might say in churches ‘Lets keep out theology secure’ don’t let doubt creep in’.

But Jesus offers a startling rebuke!

This is not his way. Typical to everything Jesus has been about he turns toward risk, unknowing uncertainty. He is determined to enter his own cloud of unknowing as he heads towards Jerusalem.

Jesus inverts our expectations – again;

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Jesus knows where he has come from, he knows the scripture, he has read of Moses and the cloud. He knows of the pain-filled laments of the prophets, the dark prayers of the broken psalms. He knows that uncertainty, darkness and doubt are part of the story, they are Israel’s history with Yahweh, their God.

He knows that to follow the divine way is not to stay in certainty, but to embrace risk. He knows that pain may well come, (and it does in silence, loss and even abandonment). But he trusts also what CS Lewis called ‘The deeper Magic’ that in the midst of loss comes the greatest surprises of all.

Life returns in the most unexpected places.

So DazZle is about this; looking again – for a time – into our lives. Art, imagination and creative – even provocative – ideas do this. They call us to think, to reflect, to wonder and maybe remind us of a love which captivates and enthrals beyond understanding and knowledge… a love which is hopeful and compassionate; a love which dreams new dreams for our children, our families, our streets and our communities.

And what are we to take from this?

When we see someone in need, when we seek to improve our community, to enrich the lives of those around us, to care, to give, to share, we are moved by the rich and wide depths of our humanity and the image of God seen within that.

We are all in thrall to this love, it confronts us, challenges, entices us in a dazzling darkness. We are called to live with risk and love and passion.

So come along this week, lets think about our world, and the people who share it. And let’s give thanks to the source of being, who goes beyond light and dark, and who holds all in a radiant wheel of broken and hope-filled love.

 

Gary Collins