The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s060g08 Sunday 27 5/10/08
'to collect his produce' Matthew 21.34
It seems we are having a run of gospels about the Lord's vineyard.
The people who are described as the tenants of this vineyard, the ones who beat, killed and stoned the slaves of the owner are those who persecuted the prophets the religious authorities. The ones who would kill the son are again the religious authorities the ones who purported to know and love God with all their hearts and souls. They were the ones who, if the owner was actually interested in 'his produce' their worship, devotion, tithes, their religiosity they were certainly already giving these things to the landowner.
So the vineyard cannot be the church and the produce cannot be our worship, our devotion, our tithes, our religiosity.
When I was in theological college last century :-) - one of the questions debated at length was: 'Did Jesus intend to found a church?' I've forgotten the arguments or the conclusion I came to :-)!
But one of our foundational statements is that God created heaven and earth of this there is no argument among those who believe in a creator God, even if some believe that it was done in six days when others believe it was done in six aeons. So there can be little doubt that the vineyard is God's creation and not some privileged sub-set of it like the Church.
But over the centuries the various traditions of the church have distanced themselves from the world in which we live. I have been re-reading: 'The Church in Crisis A critical assessment of the current state of the Church of England' Charles Moore, A. N. Wilson and Gavin Stamp (1986) where Charles Moore speaks of the 'conservative Anglo-Catholics who want the church to be a strict and sacred society in defiance of the world'. (p48) I suspect that the same could be said of the Evangelical and Charismatic traditions of the Church. Each of these views those in the world as people who have to become like them to be acceptable and to attain eternal salvation. They have set themselves up as heavenly gate-keepers, and so it is no wonder that congregations are plagued by individuals who set themselves up as heavenly gate-keepers too. Others have to live up to the traditions of the particular congregation. No wonder the 'church' is dying and quite frankly it deserves to!
As I went to worship this morning, I began thinking how prevalent this desire to be a heavenly gate-keeper is. I think of the proliferation of denominations, all purporting to offer entry into the heavenly kingdom in the age to come, if only people are faithful to **their** doctrine. But it is not just denominations, individual parishes, indeed individual congregations proliferate and woe betide the minister who suggests that they join together for worship even for the occasional fifth Sunday service. And I wonder: Why should this be so?
Clearly there is a perception of power conferred on individuals in their membership of a congregation. If one runs for political office be it federal, state or local government, one has to endear oneself to a sufficient number of voters. It is so much easier to assume a position of responsibility in a congregation. One doesn't really have to be elected or be **nice** to anyone. One can take on a job and one can hold on to it for life because no one else is interested enough or game enough to put themselves up, no matter how poorly the person might fulfil the duties or how much better qualified the newcomer might be. I vividly remember in a past parish a young married mum and her family came to worship. She had a background in journalism indeed she is now the editor of an international sporting magazine. She offered to 'do' the parish paper. When I raised this at parish council, one of the members suggested I was wanting to favour my friends!!! So the same old person continued to produce the same old paper and no one was edified. Obviously there is a power involved in all these jobs and any effort to change means that power might shift. So change, even rationalisation, is fought against.
I have been thinking that the parlous state of the Church is God's efforts to break down these power plays and bring the church into the real world God's vineyard.
And I cannot but draw the parallel between the difficulty of shifting someone out of their religious delusion in the mental health setting and the resistance to any move which might diminish the power of a person in a supposed position of authority in a congregation, parish or diocese. There is no wonder that the congregations I have been involved in are aging and there is little or nothing the minister can do about it. And then members of a congregation look with envy at the seeming success of the Pentecostal churches when all these do is allow others to exercise their ministry rather than demanding that others only admire and prop up the decaying edifice of the Anglican Church and the ministries that exist already.
The existence of the multitude of denominations, parishes, and congregations is testimony to how we fail to perceive the gospel of God's love for all. Indeed it is a denial of this fundamental tenant of our faith and a denial of our own failure to make this fundamental to our worship and proclamation.
If we have difficulty 'helping' people change who are supposedly rational we can assume that it is likely to be far more difficult to help someone change who is not as rational.
And I don't know what the church is like in other countries but in Australia, the churches are a significant political force to be dealt with. I don't imagine I would be far wrong if I suggested that the church school system educates perhaps 30% of all Australian children with most of their funds coming from the government. Similarly, most social welfare work is done in Australia by church groups, again financed by the government. The church can indeed come across as an alternative society, ready to take any money from the State, but criticise the elected representatives (it's a national sport in Australia!) from their unelected position seemingly invulnerable to criticism.
The evidence of child molestation by those in the church (as well as those in authority in the community) is testimony to the way 'love' and self-gratification are so easily confused.
I want to suggest that the produce that God wants to collect is that which is produced in the vineyard with brothers and sisters working alongside each other in equality and harmony. While we are busy setting up an alternative to society and certainly the authorities in Israel in the time of Jesus had a good deal of justification wanting to separate themselves from the alien Roman rule we are meant to work with others not against them.
It means that we have to give up our positions of power and authority and take our place alongside others to contribute to the well-being of society. And as soon as I say this, I must confess that in my experience, this is done far more frequently in hospitals and schools than it is in churches. In my 'other' job as a chaplain to the local police, I often think how frequently the police have to live by the commandment: 'to love one's neighbour' far more than the average person in the pew.
During worship this morning I heard again those words of Jesus parable, the father of the two sons, asking both of his sons to go and work in the vineyard. The father isn't interested in either of the son's relationship to him, the important thing was that they worked in society alongside others in equality and harmony.
And I thought to myself: Is this what forgiveness is all about? Are we as 'christians' forgiven when we don't do as our Father asks? Is forgiveness withheld from others because they are not 'christians' when they don't do any better than us??? It seems to me that we are in fantasy-land if we believe this.
A far better fantasy for me is best expressed in the words of John Lennon: (Lyrics from www.lyrics007.com)
Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one.
Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"