Sunday, 2 October 2011

A cathedral exhibition of a find that redefines Anglo-Saxon culture

The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest-ever find of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver

Patrick Comerford

As summer came to a close, I was back in Lichfield to visit Lichfield Cathedral and the exhibition in the Chapter House of the “the Staffordshire Hoard on Tour.” Even before it opened, the exhibition was a sell-out. It was a unique opportunity to discover the secrets of the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found, giving visitors an opportunity to learn too about the arrival of Christianity in the English Midlands and about Lichfield’s patron, Saint Chad.

Lichfield Cathedral traces its story back to the same time scholars believe the Staffordshire hoard was hidden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest-ever find of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver in England, and is so beautiful it is said it brought tears to the eyes of the experts. None of the experts who examined the hoard has seen anything like it before, and all are impressed by the quantity and dazzling quality of the pieces. Deb Klemperer of the Potteries Museum said: “My first view of the hoard brought tears to my eyes – the Dark Ages in Staffordshire have never looked so bright nor so beautiful.”

The hoard was discovered in shallow ground in a field near the village of Hammerwich, on the outskirts of Lichfield, two years ago on 5 July 2009. It has turned out to be the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork yet found. It is without precedent, eclipsing the 1.5 kg hoard found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial in 1939.

Dr Leslie Webster of the British Museum describes the hoard as “absolutely the metalwork equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells.” She says: “This is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England as radically, if not more so, as the Sutton Hoo discoveries.”

Dazzling gold and silver

A folded cross was one of the few religious items found in the hoard

Experts would regard any one item found in the Staffordshire Hoard as a spectacular discovery, but there are about 3,000 items, nearly all of them martial in character. They have been dated to the 7th or 8th centuries, placing their origins in the time of the Kingdom of Mercia. They include spectacular gem-studded pieces decorated with tiny interlaced beasts that originally decorated princely Anglo-Saxon swords. There are dazzling gold sword hilt collars, pommel caps, weapons and helmet decorations, coins and crosses, and many gold hilt plates, some with inlays of cloisonné garnet in zoomorphic designs. It all adds up to 5 kg of gold and 2.5 kg of silver.

Dr Kevin Leahy of the British Portable Antiquities Scheme says the quantity of gold is extremely impressive and that, “more importantly, the craftsmanship is consummate, this was the very best that the Anglo-Saxon metalworkers could do, and they were very good.” But the contents of the hoard are unbalanced. “There is absolutely nothing feminine. There are no dress fittings, brooches or pendants. These are the gold objects most commonly found from the Anglo-Saxon era. The vast majority of items in the hoard are martial – war gear, especially sword fittings.”

A military collection

He points out the significance of dozens of pommel caps – decorative attachments to sword handles – and that Beowulf contains a reference to warriors stripping the pommels from their enemies’ swords. The sword pommels alone amount to the largest ever discovery of pommels in a single context, with many different types – some previously unknown – supporting the idea that the pommels were made over a wide range of time.

The largest cross, which is missing some decorative settings, may have been an altar, processional or pectoral cross

The only items not obviously martial are two or three crosses that were folded casually. The largest cross is missing some decorative settings, but otherwise remains intact. It may have been an altar, pectoral or processional cross, but the cross was folded, either prior to burial “to make it fit into a small space,” or as a sign that the deposit was buried by pagans.

6, A small strip of gold, folded in half and inscribed on both sides with an Old Testament quotation

One of the most intriguing items is a small strip of gold, folded in half and inscribed on both sides with an Old Testament quotation in misspelled Latin: Surge Dne disepentur inimici tui et fugent qui oderunt te a facie tua (Surge Domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua). “Arise, O Lord, and let thy enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee” (Numbers 10: 35); or “Rise up O Lord; may your enemies be scattered and those who hate you be driven from your face” (Numbers 10: 35, NRSV).

Dr Michelle Brown of London University believes the lettering style dates from the 7th or early 8th century. On the other hand, Professor Elisabeth Okasha of University College Cork says elements in the script are similar to later inscriptions from the 8th or early 9th century.

The gold strip may have been fastened to a shield or a sword belt. But Dr Nicholas Brooks of Birmingham University believes it is the arm of a cross and that it dates from the same time as the gold and garnet pommels and other sword jewels in the hoard.

Differences among experts

The gold items in the collection are the very finest in Anglo-Saxon workmanship

The experts are still debating when the pieces were made, the date they were placed in the ground, and the significance of most objects. Theories about the reason for the deposit are many, and experts differ about whether those who left the hoard behind were Christian or pagan.

An eagle and fish, and a seahorse, among the gold items in the find

Professor Brooks suggests the hoard may have belonged to the Mercian court armourer. Dr Michael Lewis of the British Museum thinks it may have been buried as a religious deposit or as “a treasure chest that got lost, or they couldn’t come back for it.”

A helmet cheek piece in the exhibition, and a blue and white stud displaying intricate workmanship

Dr Leahy says swords were singled out, with most of the gold and silver items removed intentionally from the objects they were attached to. He suggests the gold fittings may have been removed to depersonalise the objects, removing the identity of their owners, and that the blades may have been reused.

He says the hoard may be a collection of trophies. But it is impossible to say whether they are the spoils of a single battle or a long series of battles. He suggests the deposit “may have been tribute to heathen gods or concealed in the face of a perceived, but all too real, threat, which led to it not being recovered.”

If the hoard dates from AD 650 to AD 750, it may be booty from a spectacularly successful raiding party from Mercia, sometime around AD 700. Dr Leahy is not surprised that the hoard was found in south Staffordshire, which was the heartland of the 7th century Kings of Mercia, including Penda, Wulfhere and Æthelred. “This material could have been collected by any of these during their wars with Northumbria and East Anglia ... Here we are seeing history confirmed before our eyes.”

No longer the ‘Dark Ages’

These insights mean we can no longer think of that era as the “Dark Ages.” Anglo-Saxon England gave modern England its laws, its parish boundaries, and the language of Beowulf that has evolved into modern English. But it also gave England metalwork and manuscript illuminations of dazzling intricacy and beauty.

The garnets in the find indicate the Anglo-Saxons may have traded as far away as Bohemia or even Sri Lanka

An analysis of the garnets in the find indicates that these Anglo-Saxons may have traded with places as far away as Bohemia or even Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The detail and beauty of the metalwork, like the colourful patterns on pages of the Lichfield Gospels, show the intimate links between cultural life in Ireland and the Anglo-Saxons at that time.

The detail and beauty of the metalwork are evidence of the intimate links with cultural life in Ireland

By the time the Staffordshire Hoard was deposited, the Anglo-Saxons were nominally Christian. Mercia was one of England’s largest kingdoms, stretching from the Humber to London, with its kings and chieftains waging short, ferocious wars against their neighbours and against each other.

The Lichfield Angel was on display in the Chapter House as part of the exhibition

Canon Pete Wilcox, Canon Chancellor of Lichfield Cathedral, says the Chapter House was an appropriate venue for this exhibition. The cathedral’s origins date from the same time scholars believe the hoard was buried, and Lichfield Cathedral has its own exquisite Anglo-Saxon treasures – the Saint Chad Gospels, which predate the Book of Kells, and the Lichfield Angel, both of which were on display as part of the exhibition.

A window in Lichfield Cathedral tells the story of the arrival of Christianity in Mercia, one of largest kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

As Ann Parkhill, a cathedral volunteer from Ireland, guided our small group around the cathedral and the exhibition, she pointed out that Tamworth was the administrative capital of Mercia, while Lichfield was the religious heart of the kingdom that developed around the shrine of Saint Chad and became a diocese.

Appropriately, the Saint Chad Gospels were opened at the reading for the Sunday before the exhibition opened, which included the words: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13: 44).

An accidental discovery

Terry Herbert found enough gold objects over a five-day period to fill 244 bags

The field on Fred Johnson’s Farm where the hoard was discovered is close to the Roman staging post of Letocetum and Watling Street, a major Roman road that continued in use in the Anglo-Saxon period, acting as the demarcation line between the Anglo-Saxon and Danish-ruled parts of England in the 9th century.

The first pieces were found by Terry Herbert, an amateur metal detector. Over a five-day period, he found enough gold objects to fill 244 bags. The excavation that followed recovered more than 3,000 artefacts. Archaeologists pored over every inch of ground without finding any trace of a grave, a building or a hiding place. Duncan Slarke of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery recalls: “Nothing could have prepared me for that. I saw boxes full of gold, items exhibiting the very finest Anglo-Saxon workmanship. It was breath-taking.”

The announcement of the discovery caused a media sensation. A website set up to showcase the finds had over 10 million hits in its first week. The first exhibition at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery attracted 40,000 visitors, with queues forming for several hours. Parts of the hoard then went on display in the British Museum in London and in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent, before many items were taken to the British Museum for cataloguing, cleaning and conservation.

The tour visited the Shire Hall in Stafford, before going to Lichfield Cathedral, and then moved on to Tamworth Castle. About 100 items go on exhibit in the National Geographic Museum in Washington from 29 October to 4 March. National Geographic will feature the hoard and its discovery in a new book, Lost Gold: War, Treasure, and the Mystery of the Saxons, in a television special for the National Geographic Channel next month and in next month’s edition of National Geographic Magazine.

The Staffordshire Hoard then goes on permanent display in Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent. The history books are being rewritten; never again can we think of the Anglo-Saxons in the same way.

16, The history books are being rewritten

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in October 2011 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).

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.

Collect:

God,
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.

Workers in the vineyard who keep the harvest for themselves

A windmill in Skerries, with the tower and spire of Holmpatrick Church in the background (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 2 October 2011,
the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity.

10.30 a.m., Morning Prayer, Holmpatrick Parish Church, Skerries, 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.

Have you noticed the Ten Commandments that 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 this morning.

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.

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.

‘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)

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 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 this morning’s Gospel reading: Love God, love your neighbours.

A windmill in Skerries and the tower of Holmpatrick Church frame a view of the Martello Tower and the Irish Sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Collect:

God,
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. Amen.


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 Morning Prayer in Holmpatrick Parish Church, Skerries, Co Dublin.

Living by the two great commandments

‘There was a landlord who planted a vineyard’

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 2 October 2011,
the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity.

9.30 a.m., Holy Communion (The Eucharist), Kenure Church, Rush, 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 here in Kenure Church.

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 this morning.

And I hope to discuss that further in my sermons later this morning in Holmpatrick and Balbriggan, when I also look at our Gospel reading and the parable of the wicked workers in the vineyard.

‘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)

It is a parable that warns us about the consequences of stealing from God and of rejecting or mistreating God’s messengers.

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 this morning’s Gospel reading: Love God, love your neighbours.

Collect:

God,
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. Amen.

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. Amen.

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 Kenure Church, Rush, Co Dublin.