Sunday, 27 September 2020

Saying the right thing
at the right time, and
putting it into practice

‘This is Sam. Sam stays in Dublin. Be like Sam.’

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 27 September 2020

The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XVI)


9:30: Morning Prayer, Castletown Church, Kilcornan, Co Limerick

11:30: The Parish Eucharist, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick

The Readings: Exodus 17: 1-7; Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16; Matthew 21: 23-32.

He said to his sons, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today’ (see Matthew 21: 28) … working in a vineyard in Platanias, near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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

It looks like the new Covid-19 figures mean we are facing a new series of pandemic lockdowns in the coming weeks.

We all agree that everything must be done for the sake of public health. But when it comes to our own lives, I and many like me are slow to change our own lifestyles, to bear our share of the burden.

We find it difficult to make the practical connections, the links, between what we say and what we do.

It is important that the church says what we believe in, but also that churches does what we believe in, that there is a consistency between what we say and what we do.

To illustrate that there must be a connection between our words and our deeds, the insurance group AIG has responded to the latest lockdown in Dublin and has paid for a new set of advertising hoardings with an image of the Sam Maguire Cup and the slogan, ‘This is Sam. Sam stays in Dublin. Be like Sam.’

To be consistent with what we say and what we do, the Dean of Trim, the Very Revd Paul Bogle, and I have had lengthy conversations in the past week and decided that it would send out all the wrong signals if we went ahead with the Harvest Thanksgiving service he was to preach at in Rathkeale next Friday (2 October 2020).

I hope we can still mark the Harvest and give thanks for it at our services next Sunday in Askeaton and Tarbert. But it is important that the Church is not only heard saying the right thing, but seen doing the right thing at this time of great public crisis.

In our Gospel reading this morning (Matthew 21: 23-32), Christ answers his critics with a two-part question. And as they are left mulling this over, he tells the parable of a father who sends his two sons, a willing son and an unwilling son, to work in the family vineyard.

It is a sharp contrast between being and doing.

The two sons remind me of that T-shirt I have joked about for years and that eventually I bought a few summers ago in the Plaka in Athens with these words:

‘To do is to be’ – Socrates

‘To be is to do’ – Plato

‘Do be do be do be do’ – Sinatra

The American publisher Cyrus Curtis (1850-1933) once said: ‘There are two kinds of people who never amount to much: those who cannot do what they are told, and those who can do nothing else.’

But the two sons illustrate a serious dilemma:

Those who respond negatively to what they are asked to do, may eventually do it … and recognise their initial wilfulness.

Those who say they are going to do something they are tasked with, but then refuse to follow-up, to deliver, to do, refuse to recognise their own wilfulness yet persist in their sinfulness.

How often have you responded to people because of their words rather than their deeds and found you have completely misjudged them?

The two sons are asked to go to work in the family vineyard.

One son says: ‘I will not.’ In a Mediterranean village culture, in which there is no such thing as personal privacy, this son’s reaction to his father shames the father publicly.

The other son says: ‘I go, sir.’ In public, he appears to be what a good son should be.

But the tables are turned when we learn that the son who mouths off actually goes to work in the vineyard, while the son who seems at first to be good and dutiful turns out to be disobedient.

So, those who say they are compliant and say they are doing the right thing have headed off to do things their own way, while claiming they are doing what God wants.

On the other hand, Christ tells all present that even prostitutes and tax collectors who appear to be disobedient might actually end up with a true place in the vineyard. In today’s context, who are the people I keep excluding from the kingdom yet are being called in by God?

Paradoxes aside, most of us are not like one son or the other … most of us are like both sons, and wrestle with their responses and their approaches throughout our lives.

Have you ever received an invitation to a party, a book launch, a wedding, with those four little letters at the end: ‘RSVP’?

Have you ever been one of those people who, anxious not to offend, sends back a reply saying yes, I’ll be there, and then … and then something else crops up, and I fail to turn up?

It has happened to me. I have been invited to parties and book launches, ignored the RSVP line in the bottom corner, and then, at the last moment, turned up. And, I have to confess, I have, at least one or twice, accepted … and not turned up.

On which evening do you think I was most appreciated, most welcomed?

An obvious answer, I think.

It is more forgivable to be socially awkward than to be wilfully rude.

When we strive with the demands of Christian living, with Christian discipleship, it is easy to be like one of these sons.

There are times when we may find it difficult to do what God is asking us to do. We wait, we think, we ponder, but eventually we answer that RSVP and seek to do God’s will.

We say ‘No’ countless times, and then realise how worthwhile it all is: labouring in the vineyard should be hard work, but it leads to a good harvest and good wine.

I have to be careful to distinguish between God’s will and my own will. When they coincide, there are countless blessings. But when they are in conflict, I need to beware of pretending that one is the other, that I am answering the Father’s call and doing his work, when in reality I am doing what I want to do myself, and telling others what I want rather than what God wants.

In the words of the Collect of the Day, we pray that we may all, each one of us, that we may ‘both perceive and know’ … but these two are not good enough on their own; instead, we pray that we may ‘both perceive and know what things’ we ‘ought to do’ … so that with God’s grace we actually do them.

Being and doing come together; we know what to do, and we do it.

In The Great Divorce, CS Lewis claims: ‘There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done”.’

In the coming weeks, it may be a real challenge, but it is important that the church is heard and seen to be doing the right thing for the good of all. Our words and deeds must be consistent.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Doing and Being … advice on a T-shirt in the Plaka in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 21: 23-32 (NRSVA):

23 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?’ 24 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. 25 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?” 26 But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ 27 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.

28 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29 He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31 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. 32 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.

‘John came to you in the way of righteousness’ (Matthew 21: 32) … Saint John the Baptist in a fresco in a church in Piskopiano, near Iraklion in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green (Year A, Ordinary Time)

The Collect of the Day:

O Lord,
Hear the prayers of your people who call upon you;
and grant that they may both perceive and know
what things they ought to do,
and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Collect of the Word:

Grant, O merciful God,
that your people may have that mind that that was in Christ Jesus,
who emptied himself,
and took the form of a servant,
and in humility became obedient even to death.
For you have exalted him and bestowed on him
a name that is above every name, Jesus Christ, the Lord;
who lives and reigns with you in unity with the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God of mercy,
through our sharing in this holy sacrament
you make us one body in Christ.
Fashion us in his likeness here on earth,
that we may share his glorious company in heaven,
where he lives and reigns now and for ever.

Hymns:

630, Blessed are the pure in heart (CD 36)
593, O Jesus, I have promised (CD 34)

An icon of Saint John the Baptist in a small church in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

‘Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink’ (Exodus 17: 6) water from the rocks at Ballybunion, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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