Wednesday, September 28, 2011


The Vineyard Gate


The Gospel for this week is yet another parable set in a vineyard. Strictly, it is an allegory since it is not simply a story with a message, but one in which the participants can be directly correlated with the people to whom, and about whom, the story is told.

On the surface, the parallels are not hard to see. God is the owner of the vineyard. The tenants are those entrusted with witnessing to his lordship. The slaves are the Old Testament prophets sent by God, time and again, to recall his people to faithful obedience. In the face of their repeated rejection the landlord’s own son – Jesus – is sent to the vineyard. His murder at the hands of the tenants brings God’s wrath upon them, and custody of the vineyard is placed in other hands.

Who exactly are these first tenants? It is easy to misidentify them as the Jews, and hence suppose that the new tenants are the Christians. The lesson from Isaiah puts us right on this score: “the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel”. It is not the tenants, but the vineyard itself – God’s fertile ground – that is to be identified with the Chosen People. The first tenants are the leaders of Israel. Forgetting their obligation to God, they claim the headship of Israel for their own nationalistic purposes. It is in order to rescue Israel, not to abandon it, that God sends his Son. This means that the new tenants do not mark a radical break with the past. Rather, they are called to be more faithful stewards of the same God.

Paul’s Epistle for this Sunday can be seen to reflect this interpretation of the allegory. He emphatically underlines his own Jewishness, and neither discounts nor disowns it. But, he says, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss  . . .  because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.

The continuity between Jew and Christian is essential to the Gospel message Paul preaches. It carries this implication, however. If the ancient Pharisees forfeited their spiritual inheritance because of arrogance and complacency, a similar attitude can rob modern Christians of theirs.

Monday, September 26, 2011


Genesis 28:10-17
Revelation 12:7-12
John 1:47-51
Psalm 103 or 103:19-22

Michaelmas is the traditional name for the feast of St Michael and All Angels which occurs on September 29th. Though the nature and existence of angels is a topic that barely features in contemporary theology, and figures even less in contemporary professions of belief, the world of angels is long established in the Christian religion, and has an enduring place within it. It is not just that Michaelmas has survived in modern calendars, or the fact that a surprisingly large number of churches have Michael and All Angels as their dedication. In almost every modern version of the Eucharistic liturgy the ancient profession is repeated. "Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels  and with all the whole company of heaven who forever sing this hymn -- Holy! Holy ! Holy!"

But what ought we to think about angels and archangels? Thanks to modern science, we know just how little we know about the created cosmos. Human beings are one of the wonders of this creation -- animals with a spiritual, emotional and intellectual life that far surpasses all the other animals. Yet, it would be the height of presumption to suppose that this puts us at the top of all created beings. God is a spirit. Why should there not be spiritual beings who are not animals?

Psalm 103, set for this festival, describes angels as "mighty ones" who minister to God and do His will. Even so, the Psalmist does not hesitate to instruct them -- "Bless the Lord"  and he tells them to combine their praises with those of "all His works in all places of His dominion". This vision of a vast array of beings -- stretching from the simplest insects to celestial beings far surpassing us -- provides a context for human worship both humbling and inspiring. It is captured magnificently by the 17th century Anglican poet, John Mason.

How shall I sing that Majesty
Which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
Sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
Thy throne, O God most high;
Ten thousand times ten thousand sound
Thy praise; but who am I?

Thy brightness unto them appears,
Whilst I Thy footsteps trace;
A sound of God comes to my ears,
But they behold Thy face.
They sing because Thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
For where heaven is but once begun
There alleluias be.

Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
Inflame it with love’s fire;
Then shall I sing and bear a part
With that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
With all my fire and light;
Yet when Thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Proper 21: The Sunday closest to September 28, RCL
Proper 21: The Sunday closest to September 28, RCL

This week’s Epistle includes the most beautiful passage in all of Paul’s letters – his theologically deep and poetically compelling affirmation of the incarnation of God in Jesus, a unity of human and divine made possible by Christ's perfect obedience. The climax of this magnificent hymn looks to a time when ‘every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’.

There follows, however, an instruction to the Philippians that seems to conflict both with the Lordship of Christ, and with Paul’s well known insistence on faith before works --  ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ Surely the Good News is that, since Christ saves us, we are relieved of the burden of working out our salvation for ourselves? Paul, of course, does not mean to deny this, and so he immediately adds to his instruction this essential qualification – ‘it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’. But doesn’t this just compound the problem? Is it God at work, or is it us?

The Gospel throws some light on this issue. In another vineyard parable two sons react differently to their father. One appears to be rebellious, while ultimately doing as he is  requested. The other appears to be dutiful, but does his own thing. Jesus asks his hearers to decide which of the two sons is the obedient one. It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is obvious. The ‘rebel’ is obedient because, in the end, he decides to act as his father instructs. Both decision and instruction have key parts to play.

So it is with us. It would be difficult to improve on Paul’s opening advice ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’. True discipleship means being of one mind with Jesus. But a crucial part of the sentence is the very first word -- ‘Let’.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


The Laborers in the Vineyard -- Lawrence W Ladd (1880) Smithsonian American Art Collection

Proper 20: The Sunday closest to September 21, RCLExodus 16:2-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Jonah 3:10-4:11Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30

Matthew 20:1-16

The whole of this week's Gospel comprises a single parable – the Parable of the Laborers in the vineyard. At one level the parable is easy to understand, since, unlike some others it has a beginning, middle, end, and  punch line. But it is much harder to say just what its message is.

Occasionally people have thought that it has direct application to the workplace and implies that Christian bosses ought to pay their workers equally. Or that Christians should support equal pay for company workers. But Jesus makes it plain that he is talking about ‘the Kingdom of heaven’ which is to say, the way God deals with us, not the way we deal with each other. If this is indeed what the parable aims to illuminate, to many minds there is still a problem. The vineyard owner says to the one who complains ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong’. But how can it be just to give the same reward for radically different amounts of work? Don’t the laborers who worked all day deserve more?

These questions have familiar religious parallels. How can it be just for God to treat decent people who have been faithful Christians all their lives, in just the same way as cheats, child abusers and serial killers who express repentance on their death beds? What is the point of being decent if it makes no difference in the end?

The Epistle from Philippians points us to an answer. If, as Paul affirms ‘living is Christ and dying is gain’, then the benefit to us of God’s redeeming work in Christ is  ‘inestimable’(as the BCP General Thanksgiving expressly declares). Nothing can improve upon it. This remains true regardless of how God treats other sinners. Knowledge of salvation should dispel all envious glances at those who ‘got away with it’. How could we want more than to live ‘in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’ for as much of our lives as possible?

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Legend has it that in 326 AD, during a pilgrimage she made to Jerusalem, Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, discovered  the True Cross of Jesus . She ordered a church to be built at the site of the discovery. On Sept 14 635 AD a portion of the Cross was carried into the newly consecrated 'Church of the Holy Sepulchre'. Since that time Sept 14  has been a red letter day in the Christian Calendar. Holy Cross Day invites us to meditate on the deeply mysterious fact that God chose an instrument of tortured death to be the means of salvation.

Stand Holy Cross, between my God and me,
and cast a shadow
where my heart can hide its frail morality
from God's perspicous light

The Cross of Christ provides the shade I need
to see, with sinless eyes, God's sabbath day.

And, as horizons widen shore to shore,
as light on light enlightens more and more,
this greater vision brings a deeper peace
where sin and sorrow cease.

Stand, Holy Cross, between my God and me.

Collect for Holy Cross Day
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Michaelangelo's Day of Judgment in the Sistine Chapel
Exodus 14:19-31Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11,20-21
Genesis 50:15-21Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13

Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

In one way or another, the readings for this Sunday are about judgment, tolerance and forgiveness. In keeping with the contemporary liberal democratic world, most mainline denominations have been anxious to cast off the Church’s historical reputation as ‘judgmental’, and embrace instead a non-judgmental inclusiveness that reflects Christ’s injunction to love not only our neighbors, but even our enemies.

The passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans provides some support for this attitude. The disagreement he writes about is not one that concerns us today – whether or not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. But the advice he bases upon it, has much wider application. Though we ought to be firm in our own convictions, we ought not to judge, still less despise, those who disagree with us. The Gospel passage puts the same thought in the wider context of those who harm us. Forgiveness is ‘seventy times seven’ more important than retribution, a truth that we all have reason to welcome, if we are not to fall into the rank hypocrisy of the indebted slave.

Contemporary opinion finds all this easy to agree with – but in its rejection of ‘judgmentalism’ a key element in these readings is often neglected. The point is not to deny that human beings are under judgment for what they believe and do. Who on the anniversary of 9/11 could think this? Rather, Christians ought to be careful – even in this case -- that they are not trying to pre-empt God’s judgment. ‘Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” Paul writes, “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God”. The story of the hypocritical slave, let it be noted, ends with his being “tortured” as an act of justice.

In the past Christians have been too ready to usurp God’s justice. Nowadays they are more likely to make the error of presuming upon God’s mercy. The difficult thing is both to witness to the solemn truth that “each of us will be accountable to God”, and to do so in a spirit of love rather than loathing.