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

s060g14   Sunday 27   5/10/2014

‘to collect his produce’   Matthew 21.34

This is a very awkward parable.   It gives the lie, again, that we are saved by faith and not by works.   God is looking for some produce.   But you would think that there would (a) be produce that the religious alone would be able to give to God and (b) the religious would be happy to give of that produce.   But as happened at the wedding in Cana - they had run out of wine. (1)   The tree had no figs on it. (2)    As Slim Dusty sang: ‘But there's nothin' so lonesome, so dull or so drear / Than to stand in the bar of a pub with no beer.’ (3)

Let us be clear, if the produce required was devotion, orthodoxy and tithing, the religious of Jesus’ day had these in abundance, and gave them willingly to God.   They even tithed their mint, dill, and cummin. (4)   I would certainly struggle to emulate their level of devotion, orthodoxy and tithing.   If our ‘christianity’ simply offers a correct style of devotion and orthodoxy; if we scrupulously tithe ‘parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme’ instead (5), we are failing to see that devotion, orthodoxy and tithing are not the produce required.   We too have run out of wine, we have got it all wrong, and we want God to accept our produce and not the produce others give.

The other surprising thing in the parable is the level of violence inflicted on the slaves of the landowner, it seems out of all proportion to the legitimate and reasonable expectation of the landowner, when the devout and the orthodox were already worshipping so diligently.   They really didn’t hurt anyone; mostly others were invisible to them, like poor Lazarus at the gate, easy to ignore completely. (6)

And the other telling statement comes when the son is sent: ‘let us kill him and get his inheritance’.  They want religion to be theirs, not God’s.  

I have often thought when I have solemnly offered the collection at the altar of God and said the words: ‘All things come from you, O Lord, and of your own do we give you’ (7) whether we actually mean what we say.   Mostly the contributions have our own names indelibly printed on them and we want to control where our funds are applied :-)!   How many arguments in congregational councils emanate from this?

The violence of the devout and the orthodox towards the servants of the landowner points to the underlying violence of the religious towards other people.   If we fail to be inclusive and affirming of others, our religion might seem innocuous enough, but not doing harm is hardly what will improve the world.   As the old saying goes: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.’ (8)

I think we are failing to see the import of this parable - that our religion is vain when others are excluded - when we fail to affirm and include people different from ourselves.   As the sceptic proclaims: ‘Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities!   All is vanity.’ (9)  That which is self-absorbed is a waste of time, and this is as true at the corporate level as it is on the personal level.

I have often thought that the bible is really a chronicle of the history of the failure of religion to guarantee people lives of health, wealth and happiness.    It is only when we seek the good of others and society in general that a peace might come which is a precondition to shared health, wealth and happiness.  Health, wealth and happiness is shared or it is illusory and temporary.

The wicked tenants want the inheritance for themselves and do not our churches, one after another, claim sole possession of the Spirit, truth and salvation?   Both the church and the kingdom are God’s and they belong not to any subset of humanity, however defined, but to all.   If our church does not, as her primary and fundamental reason for existence, affirm and include all, then for all our pretty clothes and rituals, we have ceased to be God’s.   We are contributing to the continuing sectarian violence in the world - in the name of God - rather than offering a solution to it.

We as the church claim to be speaking in the name of God, and when we do so we need to be absolutely clear what God wants as distinct from the eccentricities of our particular tradition - otherwise our proclamation is by definition divisive and sectarian.   We have used the name of the divine to justify our own spiritual selfishness.   No wonder this incurs the wrath of the landowner.

I am very grateful for a comment on a recent sermon which brought up the issue of gate-keepers and how the churches have taken on this role themselves.  Having met numerous gate-keepers in parish ministry, I reflect that these religious people are only doing as they have been taught.   There is little point in criticising individuals when the church as a corporate entity obviously hasn’t got her message clear.  

I am reminded again how our ‘holy communion’ is only given to those who are baptised and confirmed; people who have confessed their sins, listened to the word of scripture, endured a sermon, professed their orthodox faith, prayed, greeted their fellow worshippers and given an offering.   Then, and only then, are they considered worthy to receive the communion.   It is all about gate-keeping, not communion.   This serves to indicate the magnitude of the task before the church.

Individuals who take on the role of gate-keeper are invariably disagreeable people who may bully others into following them, but they have few friends.   And those lovely words of Jesus immediately spring to mind: ‘I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends’.  (10)   We would do far better teaching people how to be friends with others rather than teaching them the intricacies of faith, worship and morality.

If we haven’t got the message of affirmation and inclusion ‘front and centre’ we can lament that the majority of the thinking population don’t bother about church, even treat us with distain, but we can’t criticise them for it.   We’ve had their attention for centuries and failed to make the message plain.

As I continue to struggle with learning to play my cello, I reflect how difficult it is to learn even practicing each day.   A lesson once a week is essential, but real learning comes when I join other musicians on Monday nights in an adult learners’ orchestra.   And I reflect that this is true corporately too.   The Anglicans and Methodists (11 .. to take but one example) might find temporary encouragement in working closer together, but real music will be made when faiths get together and work towards a common goal of the affirmation and inclusion of all - for this is the godly produce that secular humanists often see more clearly than the religious.

If our religious devotion, orthodoxy and tithing is to dissemble our real spiritual selfishness, then do we not trivialise God and consequently fully deserve wrath?

1.  John 2:1-11
2.  Matthew 21.19
4.  Matthew 23.23
6.  Luke 16.19
7.  1 Chronicles 29:14
8.  perhaps attributable to Edmund Burke
9.  Ecclesiastes 1.2
10.  John 15.15