18 September 2011

The kingdom of heaven and the labourers in the vineyard

‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went ... to hire labourers for his vineyard’ ... grapes ripening on the vine in the Hedgehog in Lichfield last month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 18 September 2011, The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity:

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

Exodus 16: 2-15; Psalm 105; Philippians 1: 21-30; Matthew 20: 1-16.

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

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been enjoying many walks in the countryside, both in Ireland and in England. And during those walks, it’s been difficult not to notice that this has been a particularly good summer for farmers.

Most of us, probably, have been disappointed with the summer weather – or the lack of it. It is true, though, that every cloud has a silver lining. It may not have been a good summer for walking on the beach or making sandcastles. But, even though it’s three weeks until the Harvest Thanksgiving Service here in Holmpatrick [4 p.m., Sunday, 9 October], it has already been a truly good summer for those in the fields bringing in the harvest.

It seems farmers everywhere have been blessed with a good harvest. It has been one of the most beautiful sights over these past few weeks to see those fields rich in green and golden hues, with the farmers busy baling and fetching.

I like to balance my regular walks on beaches in this area with my country walks. And, in the last few weeks, watching the bounty in the fields and the blessings of the farmers, I could hardly resent someone else’s blessings.

A good harvest is a good example of how we can work with God in the task we have as partners in his creation, co-creators, realising the fullness of God’s creation. Realising that responsibility, taking that role seriously, depends on the creative generosity of God and on our creative labour.

And bread and wine provide perfect examples of that co-operation between God’s creative generosity and the rewards that come with human labour.

The seed is planted in the field. But without the sunshine and the rain from heaven it cannot become the wheat that God plans for it. Without the farmer’s labour in the field it cannot be harvested. And without the work of human hands, the grains of wheat cannot become flour and bread.

The vine is planted in the soil, but without the sunshine the rain from heaven it cannot grow the grapes. Without the work of the labourers in the vineyard, those grapes cannot be harvested. And without the work of human hands – or feet, as the case may be – those grapes never reach their potential for producing wine.

‘In the morning you shall have your fill of bread’ (Exodus 16: 12) ... bread in the window of Hindley’s Bakery in Tamworth Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Notice how many aspects are brought together in one: the Creator and the Creation; God and humanity; food and drink; agriculture and industry.

Food and drink – both are dependent on God’s gifts and on human labour. How appropriate it is then that they are the sacramental elements for our celebration of the Holy Communion, the Eucharist.

Throughout his earthly ministry, Christ interacts so often with people as they share these simple elements of bread and wine – meals with the disciples; meals with Zacchaeus the tax collector and Simon the Pharisee; meals with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus …

The work of the past sustains us in the food of the present and brings us the promise of the future. And so, the three Eucharistic prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, in their opening addresses to God as Father, first praise him and thank him for all his work in creation.

In the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in some of the Eucharistic texts used in the Church of England, and in other traditions, there is an adaptation of traditional Jewish table-blessings, drawn in turn from the Bible, as we say at the Taking of the Bread and Wine:

Priest: Blessed are you Lord, God of all creation:
through your goodness we have this bread to offer,
which earth has given and human hands have made (Ecclesiastes 3: 13-14).
It will become for us the bread of life (John 6: 35).

All: Blessed be God forever (Psalm 68: 36).

Priest: Blessed are you Lord, God of all creation:
through your goodness we have this wine to offer,
fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
It will become our spiritual drink (Luke 22: 17-18).

All: Blessed be God forever (Psalm 68: 36).

[See also Common Worship (Church of England), p. 291.]

This has not been a good summer for walking on the beach or making sandcastles ... sandcastles on the beach in Bettystown, Co Meath, last month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

God’s blessings are abundant. Even when we mumble and grumble, moan and groan, murmur and complain!

Did you notice how in the Old Testament reading the freed slaves mumble (Exodus 16: 2) against God in the wilderness, as they wish to return to the fleshpots of Egypt, in the same way as the workers who have been in the field all day murmur about those who have arrived late and been paid a full day’s wage (Matthew 20: 11).

The Greek verb γογγύζω (gongootzo) means to murmur, mutter, grumble, or to say anything against someone else in a low tone. It implies people are talking among themselves secretly as they complain and let one another know about their discontent.

In the wilderness, the people are murmuring against Moses and Aaron, but in reality they are mumbling and grumbling against God. And yet God answers them by showing his bounty and his generosity.

In the vineyard, the labourers are mumbling and murmuring about their fellow workers. But, in resenting what others have they are murmuring and grumbling not just about what they have been given, but against the one who has given to them, the one who has been generous in abundance to others.

We live in a society where begrudgery is part and parcel of what is culturally acceptable as attitude.

It is acceptable – instead of giving thanks for what we have been given – to resent what others receive.

And yet, should we ever envy someone else’s blessings? Should we ever mumble about the abundance others appear to have when we know not what problems they have to live with?

How often do I begrudge others what they have, rather than thanking God for the blessings I have been given?

There is a well-known saying: “Before criticising a man, walk a mile in his shoes.”

The first expression of this saying that I can find in modern literature is in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel about southern racism and discrimination, To Kill a Mockingbird. This was her only published novel, but it became an instant best-seller, won her immediate acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize the following year, and in 1962 it became an Oscar-winning movie.

In the story and in the movie, the narrator’s father, Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck, says: “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

This has been a truly good summer for those in the fields bringing in the harvest ... fields of green and gold in Co Wicklow earlier this month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In his generosity, the owner of the field takes on those who were unemployable, those who were the long-term unemployed, or those who were unemployed because they were outside the normal social boundaries.

Why had the owner of the vineyard not taken them at the earlier stages of the day? Because they were not there? Because they were socially invisible? Because they were outsiders? Because they were old, disabled, or minding their children and unable to come to seek work?

We don’t know. But they still had the same needs as everyone else who was working that day. They still had to pay the rent and put food on the table. And who knows what life was like for them when they went home and closed the front door?

Would it have been better that they were not recruited? That the harvest was left without being brought in?

And yet, even the murmurers and grumblers in the field held on to their day’s pay. When the owner hears them murmuring, he corrects them, but he does not take away what he has already given them. Why, they might even have been brought back to work again the next day.

The murmurers in the wilderness still have their hunger met with the bread of heaven. And in such abundance, that on Friday they are given twice as much as they need so they can have a day of rest on the seventh day.

God’s generosity comes to us in abundance, and his response to our needs is so often one of unexpected bounty and generosity

The Lord hears our complaints, whether they are justified or not, and the Lord hears the cry of the poor.

The response to God’s generosity, as this morning’s Psalm reminds us, must be to give thanks and to make known his holy name (Psalm 105: 1), to rejoice, and to delight in being in his presence (see verse 4).

The word Eucharist (εὐχαριστία, efcharistía) means “thanksgiving” and as a verb, εὐχαριστῶ (efcharisto) means “to thank.”

And so when we come to the table at the Eucharist, to receive the Holy Communion, we gather to give thanks in God’s presence, to praise him for his holy name and thank him for his generosity and his marvellous works.

And appropriately we say thanks with bread and wine, fruit of the fields and work of human hands, the work of the Creator and the Created, the work of fields and factories. And there we find God’s presence among us.

And when hearts seek the Lord, and find that God responds, our response should not be one of begrudgery or murmuring, but one of rejoicing, one of praise, one of thanksgiving.

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


Almighty God,
who called your Church to bear witness
that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself:
Help us to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may be drawn to you;
through him who was lifted up on the cross,
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at Morning Prayer in Holmpatrick Parish Church, Skerries, Co Dublin, on 18 September 2011.

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