Wednesday, 28 September 2011

What will he do?

This week's wrestling is with the parable of the tenants in the vineyard:
Matthew 21:33-46.

The other lectionary readings help us to remember that in the Hebrew Scriptures 'the vineyard' was God's Promised land, inhabited by God's chosen people. I think we have to beware an anti-semitic reading of this that says 'God throws out the Jews and put new 'tenants' in his vineyard: us!

So what do we learn about this owner of the vineyard? He is persistent - almost to the point of stupidity. The first slaves are beaten, killed and stoned. So what does he do?
Sends more! - and they are 'treated in the same way'.
Isn't THIS the point at which we expect the owner to bring in the bailiffs & clear the place out & either put in new tenants or sell & get out of wine-production altogether.
But no, our persistent/foolish owner sends his son, saying 'they will respect my son'. But it comes as no surprise to find that these lawless tenants kill him too.
Now what will he do?
What he should have done in the first place - sort them out. The owner is far more patient than we might expect, but in the end he wants his vineyard to produce wine.

So, says Jesus the kingdom of heaven will be given to those who produce the fruits of the kingdom.

Matthew puts this parable at the end of a very varied string of events, all recorded in Chapter 21.
First Jesus enters Jerusalem and throws the money-changers out of the temple.
Then he curses the fig tree because it is not producing fruit.
Then Jesus' authority is questioned by the chief priests and elders of the people.
Then Jesus tells 2 parables - first the one about the sons who are asked to work by their father and say yes & no, and then this one of the tenants.

Throughout these events, which of course are in the lead up to a lot of resistance to Jesus, and finally to his arrest and death, there seems to be recurrent themes about bearing fruit, being part of the life of the kingdom, and doing what is required.
Jesus tells this parable against a background of questions about who is and who is not a part of the kingdom, who is on God's side, who is living the right way in the sight of God.

And Jesus is clear in the parable - God is endlessly patient, he is not going to give up on people if they fall at the first hurdle in following Jesus. Yet God is looking for a harvest for results, for the fruits of the kingdom, for people who seek God's will and do it.
There may be wrestling ad difficulty - there will even be persecution and death - but God wants us to be people of faithful fruitfulness, who never lose sight of God's kingdom.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

A diversion

This week I am not preaching on Sunday - but I will, instead be preaching on Saturday, at the induction of my friend, Rachel, to be warden of the URC's St Cuthbert's centre on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.see here for more details

My part is to reflect on the passage about Jacob's ladder:
Genesis 28: 10-17

Here is a first draft of what I'm likely to say:

“Way way back many centuries ago: not long after the Bible began,
Jacob lived in the land of Canaan, a fine example of a family man…”

Except that in the reading we just heard we catch up with Jacob long before Andrew Lloyd-Webber & Tim Rice get hold of him. This Jacob is not a fine example of anything – except perhaps a rather slimy, cheating piece of work. Jacob is the younger twin, the second-born, and not the one who is supposed to inherit the lion’s share of his father wealth and blessing. But first he tricks his brother Esau into promising him all his rights as first-born (by catching Esau when he’s hungry and offering him a bowl of stew); then, with the help of his mother, he tricks his father into giving him his blessing by cooking his dad’s favourite goat dish and using the skin to make his arms seem hairy like Esau.

So in the bit of the story we just heard he is leaving home partly to get away from his murderous brother, Esau and partly to go and find a suitable wife. This time it’s Jacob who’s hungry and alone and probably wondering whether all this conniving was really worth it.

And then God appears to him in a dream. He sees a vision of a link between heaven and earth – but not a way for him to claw his way up to a prime position in heaven as he’s tried to claw his way into prime position in the family. This link between heaven and earth is populated with angels, God’s messengers. Jacob’s ladder is the way in which God stoops to communicate with earth – it is proof that God has a love for people and a plan for their lives, and if Jacob will just stop scheming for a moment he might hear what God has to say. You see, up til now in the story Jacob hasn’t much time for God at all – in fact at one point in talking to his father he refers to ‘The Lord your God’. Jacob doesn’t see how God has any part to play in his plan for his life – until this point when God speaks to him and promises ‘I shall be with you to protect you wherever you go’. The promise to bless Abraham, his grandfather, and Isaac, his father, now becomes a promise to bless Jacob himself.
And when Jacob wakes up he realises ‘surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it’.

Now far be it for me to suggest that there are people here who until now have not realised that God is in this Holy Island of Lindisfarne: the clue here is in the title. But for Jacob it seems there is no hint of the divine presence until his dream. Yet perhaps the really surprising thing is not, in any case, the geographical place that God is found, but the fact that God is found in the life of a lying, cheating, scheming, non-religious, disrespectful no-hoper like Jacob. Even in the worst of us, even at the hardest times, God is in this place; God is at work; God is with us wherever we go.

I pray this place, this ministry into which Rachel is entering, all those who come into contact with St Cuthbert’s Centre, each one here and each one who comes may know the truth that God is in this place, so that it can be like Jacob’s ladder, joining heaven to earth, through the grace of God.
Thanks be to God.

All being well, after this we will sing no hopers, jokers and rogues - a folk song I just love and which fits this occasion wonderfully.

Monday, 12 September 2011

It's not fair!

I realise it's only Monday - but struck by an item of news about modern day 'slavery' and inspired by a reflection by Anna Carter Florence on the hardship of waiting here
I've just sat down and written a first draft of the sermon.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard:
it’s NOT FAIR!

This last week a disturbing story emerged of workers allegedly held in slavery on a traveller site in Leighton Buzzard. In 21st century Bedfordshire, grown men were picked up in vans and promised labouring work and somewhere to live at £40-£80 per day. But when they got to the caravan site they were put in small sheds or rundown caravans with too little food, had their identity papers taken and their heads shaved and were made to work with no pay – whilst being told that of they tried to run away they would be beaten up.

And all this in a neighbouring county to ours. At first I could scarcely believe it – and then as news of the case grew it became clear that this is not the only place in our country – today! - where this has happened.

How desperate and vulnerable do you have to be to say ‘yes’ to someone who pops up out of the blue and offers you work? Well, apparently the men were picked up from soup kitchens and day centres for the homeless, and the mentally ill. You and your life have to be pretty much at the bottom if an unknown job in an unknown place with unknown people looks like a good choice. Desperate people, with very little in their lives, desperate for work.

There are people like that in Jesus’ parable. When we hear the story, it is all too easy for us to sympathise with the workers who were hired first – they work hard, all day – in the scorching heat. They have toiled and slogged and earned their daily wage. And then they find that the slackers who have only worked since 5 o clock in the evening get exactly the same wage. Like children, the workers grumble about the landowner’s decision ‘It’s not fair!’.
When I was teaching, I once did an assembly on this parable – and as I entered the staffroom at break, nearly 2 hours’ later, my fellow teachers were nearly ready to lynch me because they had been so incensed by the unfairness of the story. It is not fair on those who worked harder – we can see that, feel it on our bones. The union reps in the staff wanted me to understand that we needed pat differentials in life, to help us all to feel valued for the work we did! The way the landowner acts in this story - it’s just not fair.

But just for a moment let’s look at the story another way: from the point of view of the desperate workers who had no work. All day long they had been in the marketplace, waiting to be hired. Each time someone came looking for workers, they might have stood up a bit straighter, tried to look ‘hire – able’, strong, hard-working, reliable, tough. And each time they weren’t hired we can imagine how their shoulders might have slumped.
Early in the morning, the fittest looking ones are hired & go off to work, knowing they will be paid that day and have something to take home to their hungry families. At nine o’ clock, some other lucky ones had gone off – to at least do most of a day’s work. At noon and at 3 the same person had come back and hired a few more. But by five there were just the most desperate left. No point in going home early, no money in their pockets, no food to share with anyone. Another day with no work, no pay, no hope. Just the sort of desperate men who might jump at any offer of work – however uncertain they are about the offer. Then the question ‘why are you standing here idle all day?’
“because no-one hired us”,
‘then go into my vineyard and work til evening’.
After a couple of hours it’s pay time. No wage has been agreed – they line up not knowing what they might get – what fraction of the daily wage they might be given. And they are given the whole day’s wage.
Unless we’ve done that kind of piece work we can only imagine how it feels to unexpectedly get the full day’s wage. But then those who have worked half a day – and even all day in the hot sun – get exactly the same agreed daily wage. Much grumbling ensues: and the landowner asks the grumblers ‘are you envious because I am generous?’.
Would you begrudge the desperate men their daily bread?

You see it’s all too easy to see this parable as one which is not fair to those who work all day. But what about those who wait all day? How hard is it to spend all day not knowing whether you will be chosen or not, and beginning to suspect that you might have missed your chance. And wondering what you will eat that night.

And we know that Jesus told this parable because he had people coming to him and wanting to know who was going to enter God’s kingdom, and how, and what reward his followers could expect.

We know that when we hear this parable we burn with the unfairness of life, in which those who work tirelessly for God and for others have to bear the sting that God loves a wretch who turns to God after a life of debauchery just as much as he loves each one of us. We work in the heat of the day, and get no more reward than those who don’t.

But have a heart for those who wait, for those who are desperately unsure of their reward, for those who only find out at the last moment that all will be well. Give thanks to God for God’s generosity, which extends grace to all and to each: do not be envious because God is generous, but be glad because you know your reward. And trust the grace of God to see that all will be well for all God’s children.

Friday, 9 September 2011


OK -back on track with the lectionary:
Matthew 18: 21-35
and here's a first draft...

Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness ‘How many times should I forgive?’.
What a good question.
She let me down again – should I forgive her again?
He really hurt my feelings this time with what he said - how can I forgive him?
The crime is so awful, the implications so enormous – where is the place for forgiveness? in the story of the Twin Towers & 9/11, or the death in custody of Baha Musa, or the shootings carries out by Raoul Moat.

What difference would it make to this world if we really took forgiveness seriously? How many times should I forgive?

So Jesus tells one of his parables. A parable about forgiveness.. or maybe unforgiveness.

A slave owes his king 10,000 talents. A talent was about a year’s wages for a labourer. This is a huge sum. Even if the man lives on nothing and gives all that he earns to the king it would take him 10,000 years to pay him back. This slave is in deep, deep trouble. Jesus doesn’t tell us how this man has racked up that kind of debt – but he wants us to know that when the king threatens to sell the man, his wife & children and everything he owns it will still not make more than the tiniest dent into the amount he owes.
He cannot pay this debt.
So he begs ‘have patience me and I will pay you all I owe’.
No he won’t. He can’t. He can never earn enough to pay the king back – not in a month of Sundays (or approximately 10,000 years).

But the king has pity, releases the man, and, says Jesus, forgives the debt.
But then Slave number 1 bumps into Slave number 2, who owes him a hundred denarii. Now a denarius is the daily wage for a worker – so in other words, Slave 2 owes about 100 days’ or 4 months’ wages. So he begs ‘have patience me and I will pay you’. It may take a year – or even two – but he should be able to pay his debt off, because it’s 4 months wages, not 10,000 years wages.

But Slave 1 – because he is nasty and unforgiving- throws Slave 2 into prison until he pays off the debt.

So Jesus shows us what unforgiveness looks like – pretty stupid, actually, fairly inhuman, if we’re honest: a man who has been forgiven 30,000 times what his mate owes him refuses to be moved by almost exactly the same plea that got him off his huge debt ‘have patience me and I will pay you’.

As so often with Jesus’ parables this is a ridiculously exaggerated story – no-one, surely would be so stupid as Slave 1.

But he gets his come-uppance.
His fellow slaves are as outraged as we are by his awful, mean, nasty behaviour and tell the king what has happened.
Then the king summons Slave 1 and points out ‘I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me - you should have been just as forgiving’.
And then the king does something strange – maybe we miss it because we’re so pleased to see horrible Slave 1 get his just desserts – the king hands Slave 1 over to be tortured until he has paid the whole debt.

What debt? Didn’t the king forgive Slave 1 – so he wiped out his debt. Except he didn’t, did he?

We call this story the story of the unforgiving servant or the unforgiving slave – but we could call it the story of the unforgiving king – because when the king hears what Slave 1 has done he re-activates the debt which he is supposed to have forgiven.

And Jesus tells us this story to help us to think about forgiveness. Perhaps we wonder if Jesus tells the story to show how God forgives. We often assume that any ‘king’ in a parable is automatically meant to be God. But surely we don’t want God to treat us like the king – who forgives but then changes his mind.
So how does God’s forgiveness work, and can it help us with our forgiveness?

Jesus tells Peter to forgive not just 7 times, but 70 times 7 – in other words – stop counting! Forgive, keep being ready to forgive, never give up on forgiveness. But the parable also tells us that forgiveness must be real, and lasting and ‘from the heart’. You can’t just say you forgive someone and then take it back later.

And the parable also reminds us that when we stop to take in how much we have been forgiven, it will make our much smaller amount of forgiveness that much easier to offer. When we recognise that God, compared to the King on the story, is even more generous, even more loving and forgiving, with a grace that lasts and never gives up on us... When we know how we are forgiven, then we know we can afford to forgive. God’s forgiving love can change us into people who can be forgiving – truly, deeply, once and for all – people who offer a forgiveness which lasts – and which changes lives forever.
Thanks be to God.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The gift of baptism

Yes, I'm cheating: having not preached last week I'm using last week's lectionary readings as they fitted so well with the baptism that I'm conducting. Thought that after holidays I could be allowed to cut myself some slack!I also shortened them slightly for the sake of the 2 grandfathers who are reading them and the congregation, most of whom will be the 'baptism party'.

Sermon notes for Sept 4th (baptism)
Romans 12:9-13
Matthew 16:21-26

I was delighted to hear the first reading – the one from Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning, especially at Harry’s baptism.

Here’s the Bible my Godparents gave me the day I was baptised – aged just under 3 months. You can see that like it’s owner it’s showing signs of wear & tear!
And here inside my Godmother, Marjorie, wrote (verses from Romans ch 12).

It might seem an odd present for a tiny baby: I remember as a child being a bit jealous of my brother – who had a silver egg cup and spoon as a Baptism present, and would use it whenever we had eggs for breakfast! But as I’ve grown, I have treasured this Bible and especially those words from Romans. I feel it’s a present I’ve grown into, rather like baptism itself.

Harry is enjoying himself today, I hope, but I doubt he really understands much of what’s happening and we won’t expect him, young as he is, to remember today. But he will have his baptism certificate and candle, along with any other presents from today, so that he will know that he has been baptised. This means that whenever he wants it or needs it, the church will be here for him – many different denominations, throughout the world – Harry will be part of the worldwide family of God.

Throughout this baptismal service we will keep talking about following Jesus Christ and being part of his church. You might wonder what following Jesus really means: obviously it was one thing for the fishermen that Jesus actually met and talked to and said ‘follow me’ – and it means something slightly different for us today.

In part, being one of Christ’s followers means changing the way we live – being forgiving to others, sharing what we have with those who don’t have enough, showing hospitality – and doing all this as people who are full of love, hope and joy. These are the things that the letter to the Romans talks about.

But you might be wondering what can make us trust God’s love in the first place – what evidence have we got that God actually loves us? The best sign that God loves us comes to us in Jesus. In Jesus Christ, God became a human being like one of us. To show us the true extent of God’s amazing love Jesus came prepared to suffer and die on the cross. This was hard for his first followers to understand, as we heard in Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus tells his followers that we have to do the same as he does – to be prepared to put other people first, to ask ourselves what God wants us to do with our lives, not just to go after what we want.

So in baptism, Harry will be accepting God’s love – a free gift of grace which has been there for him since the day he was born. We, too, can remember that we are God’s special children – each one of us.

And then, in the bread and wine of communion we will remember Jesus’ gift of his life given up for us – his body broken and his blood poured out as the greatest sign of all of the greatness of God’s love.

Everyone is welcome to share in the symbolic meal as together we remember Jesus and promise to become part of his life in the world today. Strengthened by God’s love we can go out to be God’s people in the world, following Jesus Christ and putting others first.

So may God touch each one of us this morning, in the name of Jesus. Amen