The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s058g14  Sunday 25  21/9/2014

‘go into the vineyard’  Matthew 20.4

This parable gives the lie that God is about my personal relationship with the divine and that we are saved through faith and not by works.   God sends us into the vineyard to be useful.

The landowner in the parable goes into the market-place a total of five times to hire labourers for the vineyard, this is how important this is.   The Jewish practice, which we would feel we would struggle to emulate, is that men pray three times a day with two others on specific days.   ‘Shaharit .. "morning light,” Mincha, the afternoon prayers named for the flour offering and Arvit or Maariv .. from “nightfall."   Musaf "additional" recited by Orthodox and Conservative congregations on Shabbat, major Jewish holidays (including Chol HaMoed), and Rosh Chodesh and a fifth prayer service, Ne’ila “closing" is recited on Yom Kippur’  (1)   If we think prayer is important for the exercise of our religion, then clearly the landowner thinks being in the world is more important.

It is the vineyard that is important.   The divine has an endless supply of individuals and the personal welfare of each and every one of them actually is far more dependent on the relationships within the vineyard rather than in the personal relationship each has with the divine.   God loves each and every person - that is a given.   But this means precious little if a person is not affirmed and included in society.   So if billions of people live lives of poverty, illness and premature death because of a church ban on safe and effective contraception, the fact that God loves each and every one of them is actually pretty irrelevant in their day to day misery.   If half of the population are marginalised by a doctrine of the subordination of women, the fact that God loves them as equally as men effectively means naught.   If people who express their intimate affections with someone of the same gender have to live lives of denial and fear of alienation and condemnation by parts of the church, the fact that God actually loves them is as fantastical as suggesting that Jonah lived three days in the belly of a whale. (2)

So just as we are called as individuals into the vineyard, so the church is called into society.   We cannot claim to be the church while we are not a part of society.   It is not that we have to be movers and shakers in it; we don’t have to make a great contribution.   We are simply called to be a part of society; to take our place to give and to receive, to love and to be loved; to affirm and include others and to be affirmed and included by others.

Those curious words in the gospel of Mark come to me: ‘When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake.   He intended to pass them by.’  (3)   No doubt after a night straining on the oars, the disciples would have thought Jesus would at least get into the boat and take his turn rowing!

So it is the vineyard that is important - not the progress of the boat or assisting the disciples rowing.   It doesn’t matter if it is temple, synagogue, mosque or church.   It is the vineyard that is important, not the mode of worship, the language used or the name given to the divine. 

If the church isn’t seen to be a part of society - the world is entirely justified in concluding that the church doesn’t believe her own Lord, her own scriptures.

And I want to suggest that far from fearing that the distinctive nature of the church will be lost, going into the vineyard actually means that we can, for once, be ourselves.   We will no longer have to pretend to be someone other than who we are.   I note bishops who retire actually making statements about what they believe rather than what the church orthodoxy dictates.

And it comes to me that this is the primary imperative of christianity - to be part of society rather than separate from it.   This is the message of the incarnation, and it is incarnation which was the real trigger for the crucifixion.   It is incarnation which really scandalises the orthodox and the devout for it is precisely the opposite direction that religions, much of what passes for christianity as much as any other, wants her followers to take.   Religious people will kill rather than allow of a God who blesses people other than them and their devotees.

And I want to suggest that the miracles of the gospel all depend on going into the vineyard - that nothing happens while we are in our holy huddles praying feverishly - like the disciples in that boat trying to row against the wind.   God cares about the billions living in poverty, illness, premature death, the marginalisation, alienation and condemnation of everyone who isn’t a straight committed Anglican of my particular variety - so why would God bother to perpetuate my personal predilections?   God cares about the living conditions of billions - the question is - do we?

For the miracles that God really wants depend not on God but on humanity.   God wants people to be able to live lives not blighted by poverty, illness and premature death, marginalisation, alienation and condemnation, and especially that these are not perpetuated by the rich and acceptable in any name for the divine.

We proclaim a God who loves - but if it is just us whom God loves - the millions of others would be entirely justified if they reasoned that our ‘god’ looks more like a tormenter and a demon to them!

We think that the parable tells us that God treats everyone equally - but this is not actually true.    Yes, everyone who goes into the vineyard is rewarded equally.   But those who don’t go, don’t get paid!   This is how important it is!   If we spend our lives praying by ourselves, worshipping OUR god, reading OUR bible, these might be the real reason we haven’t gone into the vineyard.   We haven’t got to the market-place to allow ourselves to be recruited with others.   We would prefer to not get our hands dirty.

And when we consent to be really incarnated into society we will find many of the storms of life do cease, especially the storms around our delusion to convert the world into straight committed Anglicans of my particular variety.   Instead of rowing the boat against an adverse wind, keeping the church in an eternal adversarial ‘relationship’ with society, we might find our passage is more like ‘Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.’ as a Subud follower once told me was his philosophy.  (4) (5)

When we pray, we pray to the God who is not passively sitting on the divine throne in heaven just waiting for a few individuals to grace heaven with their endless requests.   No, we pray to a God who is always out and about hiring others, wanting all to be included and affirmed into society.

As  a hospital chaplain, there are, of course, mornings when I also think - Oh bother, I’ve got to go to work again today!   Yet like everyone else, when illness or hospitalisation happens - all we want to do is get back to work.   So much of our own sense of personal identity and worth comes from the vineyard.   This parable affirms that this appreciation of our personal worth is given and blessed by God.

2.  Jonah 1.17
3.  Mark 6.48