02 October 2011

Welcoming the strangers in the vineyard

The stairs leading to gallery in Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 2 October 2011,
the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity.

12 noon, Parish Eucharist, Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin.

Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3; 4b-14; Matthew 21: 33-46.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Ten Commandments are posted, in Victorian style, on two panels on each side of the East Window, behind the altar in Kenure Church in Rush, Co Dublin.

And the way they are displayed in so many churches in this Victorian fashion often helps to confirm a view that is current today that the Ten Commandments are a Victorian approach to morality and ethical behaviour – not at all suited to today’s thinking and values.

So often, we think of the Ten Commandments as Victorian and in terms of “Thou Shalt Not …” “Thou shalt kill …” “Thou shalt not steal …” and so on.

But so often, we forget the social construction of the Ten Commandments. Not one of them is about me on my own; all of them are about how I, how we, relate to God and relate to each other. The first four are foundational principles setting out our communal relationship with God, and the next six are about how we relate to one another.

Simply following the commandments is never going to make us free. Such an attitude forgets that the commandments are primarily about relationship and not about personal freedom.

The commandments are about our relationship with God and our relationships with one another – a point brought out clearly in our Gospel reading today.

Our Gospel reading is set at a unique and significant time in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

As we move towards the end of the Church Year, we find in these weeks that Christ is moving towards the climax of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, when he will be revealed to us in his Glory and as Christ the King.

The setting for today’s reading is the day when Christ has entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and is about to face his Trial, Passion and Death. He becomes entangled in a conflict with the religious authorities that has been simmering during his ministry. Now it erupts or reaches its crescendo, with Pharisees and Sadducees – complete opposites most of the time when it came to their beliefs and values at other times – trying to plot and entrap him with their questions.

Those who should have been leading the celebration of the coming of Christ, end up instead calling for his crucifixion.

What should have been the bright light of joy and freedom becomes a cloud of darkness over the holy city of Jerusalem.

Hearts that should have been open and accepting are found to be obstinate and acrimonious.

Those who thought they were closest to God instead become the enemies of Christ.

‘There was a landlord who planted a vineyard’ ... grapes ripening on the vine in the Hedgehog in Lichfield a few weeks ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

And as the drama unfolds, Christ uses a parable to bring home a point that turns Jerusalem upside down as the week moves on. The Pharisees, who include the leaders of the synagogues, and the Sadducees, who include the leading priests in the Temple, are found not to be serving the Lord, but to be actively working against God.

In our Gospel reading, Christ tells the awful story of a renegade group of workers in a vineyard who decide to keep the harvest for themselves. When the owner sends his servants or agents, they reject and mistreat them on at least two occasions, beating and stoning them, in some cases even killing them.

Finally, they end up killing the owner’s son in the mistaken belief that this will enable them to steal the harvest.

How could they have been so foolish, how could they have been so miscalculating to think that they could get away with being so stupid, so silly?

Could they not foresee the consequences?

But what are the implications for us today?

Would I ever really behave like this?

Traditionally, in the Christian Church, we have read this story to understand that the great wealth, the great harvest was entrusted to the Children of Israel, the Jewish people, that they rejected the prophets, and finally when Christ, God’s own Son, came on earth, he too was killed.

But that is reading the story with the accumulation of hundreds of years of latent discrimination.

And that way of interpreting the parable was not even possible for those who first heard it – before the Trial, Passion and Death of Christ – how could they have foretold what was to unfold in the coming week?

Nor is this an anti-Jewish, and certainly not an anti-Semitic, story; and we should not read it so.

So is there a way that we can interpret and apply this parable so that it is accessible and meaningful for us today, so that this parable speaks to you and me?

Well, we can agree that we don’t steal from God.

Nor do we reject or mistreat God’s messengers.

Is this so … in both cases?

If I claim that I am God’s worker in the vineyard but I do not produce the “kingdom fruit,” others outside the Church might say I am an impostor at best and a thief at worst.

The Apostle Paul tells us: “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14: 17). And in another letter he tells us: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (Galatians 5: 22-23).

God wants to produce the qualities of Christ in the midst of our community of faith. We are called by God to be a place where people find these fruits, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And if I do not welcome God’s messengers, am I close to rejecting God’s son, and God himself?

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13: 1-2).

We are supposed to care for the vineyard on behalf of the owner, and we are supposed to welcome God’s agents, even God’s Son, no matter what guises they come among us … particularly when they are strangers … so that God can reap God’s harvest.

We are called not to be “religious” but to be “fruitful.”

And that can be summed up in the two great commandments, which Christ sets out in the next chapter of this Gospel: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (see Matthew 22: 37-40).

The Pharisees and the Sadducees thought they were upholding the Law and the Prophets. But this is it … and this is the point of the Ten Commandments and the point of today’s morning’s Gospel reading: Love God, love your neighbours.

Let us enjoy the fruits of the vineyard in our Eucharist here today. But let us go out empowered to welcome strangers as angels and God messenger’s too, inspired to share our love for God and for one another.


who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit
upon your Church in the burning fire of your love:
Grant that your people may be fervent
in the fellowship of the gospel;
that, always abiding in you,
they may be found steadfast in faith and active in service;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Eternal God,
we have received these tokens of your promise.
May we who have been nourished with holy things
live as faithful heirs of your promised kingdom.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached on Sunday 2 October 2011, at the Eucharist in Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin.

No comments: