The emergency winter night shelter programme is progressing well around our borough. We cannot host a night shelter within our buildings, but we can support the work of Glass Door in practical ways:
- Money – make a Lenten donation now in the envelope attached
- Knit – guests need socks, hats, gloves, scarves, to get through the cold weather this winter
What if I can’t knit? Some suggestions:
- Donate some wool
- Find someone to teach you to knit
- Visit www.glassdoor.org.uk to explore other forms of support
Watch out for parish knitting sessions, donation baskets and other reminders to be generous this Lent. “Freely we have received: freely give.”
Another sermon, another history lesson – that’s why you value Patronal Festivals so highly – visiting preachers never indulge in history.
We have got used to alternative coins and notes being in circulation at the same time, as new ones are introduced and the old ones phased out. Thus, circular pound coins are now only accepted at banks – which is why the Church will still accept them – and the new Janes (£10) are gradually populating our wallets, as the cash machines are stuffed full of them.
Consider, then, the complications of living in Jesus’s time, when there were three currencies, actively and legitimately being used in Israel.
There was the standard shekel, for every day use, but if you needed to buy a pair of doves for a sacrifice at the Temple, those shekel had to be exchanged for Temple money – money that was deemed holy, so never left the Temple precinct. We know this from the Palm Sunday accounts of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers when he entered the Temple after his donkey ride into Jerusalem. The third coinage was a specially minted Roman piece, that had to be used to pay the Emperor’s tax, or tribute.
It is this third coin which is under debate in our Gospel passage, it is this specific imperial tax which is being discussed, and which the Chief Priests, Pharisees and supporters of Herod – who probably hated each other deeply in normal circumstances – get together to try to trap Jesus. They think that they have him on the horns of a dilemma. If he says, “Don’t pay the tax”, they can legitimately turn him over to the Romans as a revolutionary. If he says, “Pay the tax”, then they can turn the people against him, and accuse him of being a Roman quisling. They are so proud of themselves, as they march up to Jesus in one of the Temple courtyards, and lay their trap in front of him.
Jesus’s answer is masterful, from many standpoints. It begins by throwing the spotlight back on his hunters, because Jesus hasn’t got one of these special tax coins in his pocket. The Pharisees have to fish around in their money bags to get hold of one to show him. Now, many have taken this to mean that Jesus didn’t have any money at any time, and that we too should eschew all cash and wander this world, living on other people’s generosity, as he did. This is a false conclusion. Jesus and the disciples did have money – they kept it in a bag which Judas Iscariot looked after – they just didn’t have a Roman tax coin in there. Why not? Because they had already paid the tax? No, because they were good Jews, and they would not have about their person a coin which broke one of the commandments. Not only was it a Gentile coin, but it had a picture on it – that of Tiberius Caesar, and a Latin inscription to that effect. Now, by asking his accusers to show him one of these coins, Jesus gently points out that these heroes of the Law were quietly breaking it by having such an object in their purse. First hypocrisy exposed!
Then comes the killer line – “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “Pay the hated tax”, says Jesus, “get it out of your system, out of your money bag, because then you can get on with giving yourself fully over to God.” In paying our taxes, we are merely contributing to the common good, which is only right and proper. But there is much more to be done in this world than to pay our tax. One coin, Jesus suggests, is all that belongs to Caesar. Everything else belongs to God, and we must give him back our tribute, our participation in his generosity.
So, where do we go now? We agree to pay our taxes, and we set out on the road to give back to God everything that he has given to us. Where do we start? God has given us everything – our life, our world, our families, our skills, our money, our time, our church – what can we possibly give back to him who supplies everything to us? What would God do with it? We can see that our taxes go towards the NHS, education, roads, social care etc etc. What about what we give back to God? Where does that go?
Well, how about a trip back in time? To the time of the prophet who calls himself Isaiah, during the Jewish exile in Babylon. It is his words that we read first this morning, and they are astonishing. This Jewish prophet is delivering words from God to the new King of Babylon, one Cyrus, King of Persia. How did this happen? Did the prophet nip round to the palace, and sound off in the inner courtyard? Unlikely. Did he stand up on a street corner, and launch into these extraordinary words? Probably not. This would have been uttered during synagogue worship, late in the evening, after work, and only Jews would have been present.
And what does the prophet say? That Almighty God, the one true God (or, as the Jewish exiles would have called him, the God of Israel) was going to use this new king to bring about his purposes in the world. It has been hard enough to come to terms with exile. Hard enough to learn that they can still pray to their God, in a foreign country, with their Temple and religious system lying in ruins back home. But to discover that their God is going to use a Gentile ruler to perform his will on earth must have been mind-blowing. Their God is getting bigger and bigger by the day. He is now the God of the whole world, of the universe, and he is able to use anyone, Jew or Gentile, to bring about anything that he wants.
We can usefully learn that lesson all over again, today. We are not the only people that God can and will use in this world, in this community, to bring about what he desires. God would love it if the Church were at the forefront of everything, but the world is bigger than us, and our broken, separated state enfeebles us to intervene, sometimes. But we are called to explore what it means that the things of God are to be given back to him. King Cyrus, back in the 6th century BC, was called to restore the people of Israel to their own land, and to allow them to take all the treasures of their Temple with them. And he did! We today are called on to look not just at what we would call our own, but at everything around us, as a source of worship, prayer, generosity and challenge. God can, and will, use anything at our disposal, for his good purposes. Thus, God gave us brains and tongues and hands and eyebrows to communicate, to work through problems, to share what we know with those who do not yet know it. God gave us hearts of love and eyes to see other people and other things, so that love can pour forth from us to them. God gave us time, time to work, time to sleep, time to eat, time to do whatever we want, while also having time to spend with others, to help others, to support others, to encourage others. God gave us skills – different ones to each one of us – so that we can put up shelves or grow plants, or paint walls or organise events. And God combines that love, that time, those skills, that awareness of the world together with his Holy Spirit to send us out to bring about his purposes – that people will live together well, that people who have little will have so much more, that people who are excluded will be brought into the whole, that people who are weak are made strong. It is so much more than money. In fact, Jesus only talks about money for Caesar, not for God. Everything, including money, is to be given back to God.
Jesus passes through this potential trap with grace and a bigger picture of God than the Pharisees and supporters of Herod had ever considered. Their God had just got a whole lot bigger.
May we, as we give back to God this morning our worship and our prayer, our cash and our time, discover just how amazingly huge our God is, and just how much he demands of us. We cannot be half-hearted in response to the God who has put us in this amazing world. We cannot begrudge anything to the God who has redeemed us by the life, death, and resurrection of his own Son. We cannot skimp on our generous response, when God has poured his Spirit into our hearts, to enable us and provoke us to use our brains, our skills, our time, to fulfil his good purposes on this earth. May we know joy, day by day, as our God gets bigger before our eyes, and may we respond with ever greater gratitude in all the multitudinous ways that God has put at our disposal.
What is it about vineyards and the Bible? They are all over the place. People plant them, steal them, neglect them, rescue them – all sorts of different efforts are made to keep them and avoid the ultimate disappointment of losing one. Israel is compared to a carefully planted vineyard, and depending on its behaviour, those vines are successful or given over to briars and wild animals. Jesus uses several vineyard examples for the Kingdom of Heaven, and goes so far as to say that God the Father is the vinedresser and he is the true vine. So why?
If you think about it, it is obvious. They didn’t have tea, and they hadn’t discovered coffee, whisky wouldn’t arrive for many centuries and lemonade was a glint in no one’s eye. Wine was the drink that was safe, that could be kept from month to month, year to year, and supplemented the local water supply all year round. The wine they made was thin, low in alcohol, bitter – Hannibal and his men used it to crack heated rocks as they crossed the Alps with their elephants – one up from vinegar sometimes, but essential. The village vineyard was necessary for the maintenance of life in the area. If the vineyard failed, the coming year would be very difficult indeed.
But the image of the vineyard is stronger than that. Vines are temperamental things. They love nothing better than growing tendrils for miles, twisting up together over a long stretch, putting out big leaves and generally creating chaos. Vines take a lot of work. Through the wonders of Radio 4, I can reliably inform you that a vineyard of 1500 vines takes three months to prune, which they do between December and April, so that the vines can start growing again once the spring warmth returns. And once growing again, tendrils have to be cut back, leaves which could obstruct sunlight from bunches of grapes have to be removed, and new shoots vigorously discouraged. The person who looks after a vineyard is very busy indeed, and necessarily a micro- manager.
All the stories of vineyards in the Bible use this daily care as an image of the loving care of Almighty God for his people, one who is interested in the smallest details of their lives as well as the big picture. Which is why the disappointment of the owner of the vineyard can be so great, when the grapes go wild, or the harvest is not handed over. All that has been invested in the crop is to no avail, all that love and effort gone to waste.
But there is something else going on in the story that Jesus tells about the vineyard. Firstly, the landowner is an absent landlord, a reflection of a much-resented trend in Israel at the time of Jesus. Rich people were buying up land and living off the profits, in Rome, in Athens or in Alexandria. The idea of the village vineyard was threatened by these practices, and the future of some villages was in doubt. Now that does not give the tenants who have worked the vineyard all year the right to abuse the landowners slaves, and certainly no reason to kill the son and then claim the inheritance on the demise of the landowner. But it does talk of distance, of a divergence of priorities between the landowner and his tenants.
So look again at Jesus’s audience: chief priests and the elders of the people. Look again at the chapter number: 21 – this is going on just after the first Palm Sunday, in the Temple courtyard, in the middle of Jerusalem. This is Jesus setting a challenge to the religious and political leaders of his country – “dare to arrest me, dare to put me on trial” he is saying, as he starts his parable with the exact same words as Isaiah 5. The chief priests knew exactly what he was up to – in Isaiah, one crop of wild grapes is sufficient for the destruction of the vineyard, but in Jesus’s parable, there is a string of slaves sent to the vineyard to bring back its harvest – the tenants of the vineyard have had time and opportunity to give their due payment to the owner, but have refused each time, and now murder is on their minds.
Jesus has the chief priests exactly where he wants them – reacting strongly to a parable that is as much about themselves as it is about the rest of Israel – and so, in the Temple precincts, he talks about a new temple, a new building, with him as its head and strength, the one on whom the new building will depend for its stability and endurance. And this is too much for the chief priests, but that Palm Sunday crowd still surrounds the Messiah, and they are not letting any religious leaders get anywhere near their hero.
But what about us? We have not rejected the overtures of the landowner. We have come to worship, we are here, offering the best of ourselves in our praise and adoration, seeking God’s help through prayer, desirous of meeting him once again in bread and wine. How do we fit into this parable? In many ways, we don’t. It is not about us, rather, it is for those who would obstruct the ways of God and keep to themselves the power and the access to the generosity and fullness of God. It is up to us to ensure that that never happens – welcome, openness, generosity, sharing – they all prevent any desire to cling on to what we have in Christ, as what we have is too precious to do that.
The parable does speak to us about the endless love of God, his grace in waiting and waiting for us to produce the fruit of care, support and encouragement that he expects from us. The parable suggests an expectation of harvest from us, his people, an expectation that should not be disappointed.
So what do we take away this morning? We could leave the parable and concentrate on what Paul has to say to the Philippians, which is both wonderful and mind blowing. Or we could look afresh at what Jesus has to say about the new temple that he is building, for we are a part of that, built on the foundation of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. How do we fit in to this structure? Are we pulling our weight? This building, this new temple, is dynamic, ever-changing and growing as God’s love transforms us day by day. There is a lot to do here, and it will happen if we pull together in prayer, in imagination and in a full deployment of our God-given skills.
May God give us grace to bring forth good fruit, and to be active labourers in his vineyard, to his praise and glory.
There is no service at the Barn this Sunday, but we are joining St Luke’s in the Avenue at 11am for their celebration of their patron saint, St Luke. There will be full Junior Church provision, and a bring and share lunch afterwards.
There are some interesting and important angles on the Christian life in today’s readings.
In the Romans passage this morning St Paul refers to the commandments – you shall not commit adultery, steal, murder, covet. Personally I find these relatively easy to keep. I do not covet that flash BMW parked across the road and I would certainly never steal it even if I did. I have never seriously contemplated murder and adultery isn’t even on my radar! But the next bit “Love your neighbour as yourself” sometimes that is the really hard part I find. Be honest, don’t you, at least sometimes?
But what a wonderful World it would be if everyone really followed the new Commandment Jesus gave to his disciples and to us. If everyone loved their fellow human beings as themselves. If everyone thought about others’ needs and interests, how great it would be, how easy it would be to love one another. If everybody followed Jesus example, there would be no conflict, no war, no terrorism, no family disputes, no misery. Everyone would live in peace and harmony.
Do you remember the old John Lennon song “Imagine”? Bits of it make no sense to me at all, I certainly do not wish to imagine there is no heaven and above us only sky. I would not want to be without my faith. How could either of these ideas make me happy? They couldn’t. But his basic premise “Imagine all the people living life in peace, sharing everything with no need for greed or hunger” is not far from the ideal Jesus wanted us to follow. Imagine – Lennon said – it is easy if you try. Oh, yes, it is easy to imagine, but how difficult to bring to reality.
There are many people out there who are lovable and easy to get on with and to care about, but there are an awful lot who are not, who are nasty, mean, spiteful, rude, cruel, filled with hate and awfully hard to love. It is not easy to love them, but Jesus tells us we must. We must love the human being in there behind all the nastiness. And then we get another message coming through from these readings today. We should try to change them. Through our love we should help them to see the wrong they are doing, help them to see the love of Christ and have hope in him. The Ezekiel passage says we should take no pleasure in the death of a wicked person, but our aim should be to make the wicked turn from the error of their ways and to find new life. The same principal is found in Jesus’s words – try to get them to change.
So one of the major points of today’s message is that we need to care about everyone. As Christians, we need to be involved in the cares and needs of the World. We need to help where we can, do what we are able to help anyone in need and to help them to share the feelings of joy that we have. But there is a subtleness in all this. We are called to love, but not necessarily to like. Every person is a child of God, created by God, we need to love and try to see the image of God in them. But we are not called to necessarily like the person they are – if they are mean or cruel or just plain horrible, we are not called to like their unpleasant personalities. But we are called to try to encourage them to change to become more kind, more charitable, more just, to be better people, prepared for the coming of the Kingdom, prepared to meet God – because then they may become more likeable and, kinder and shine forth more of God’s love in their hearts. And show they are children of God.
Love is much needed in the world. As Christians, we experience the gift from God of love in Christ Jesus—a gift that we should not just keep to ourselves to hoard and treasure like a miser, but a gift that we should freely share with others. And in sharing that we need to be seen to shine as beacons of light in the World.
The world has a great need for light. The light of kindness, of understanding of tolerance and love. Light that which enables us to serve God well, to behave as Christians, as messengers of the light, as worthy recipients of the love we have received through Jesus. We cannot live in darkness – imagine your home without light bulbs or even candles. It would not be long before you stumbled over and hurt yourself, broke something valuable, felt lost and helpless.
As a Christian, please sit there and try to imagine living life without the light which Christ has brought into your life. Imagine nobody ever told you about Jesus, imagine being left in spiritual and moral darkness without His light. Imagine! (Pause) Sadly, there are an awful lot of people out there who are in that state. In this once Christian country there are many young people who know nothing about Jesus, and not because they have chosen not to follow him, but because they do not know about him. Two or three generations ago one could pretty well have guaranteed that almost anyone in this country would have at least known the basic principles of Christianity. But during the Twentieth century and since that has dissipated. I once read that the First World War should be known as the war that killed Christendom as the horrific impact on so many families of that war meant that some people started turning against God; felt that a loving God could not have allowed something like that to happen. And with the changes in society in the last century many people felt less socially obliged to go to church. They started not to teach their children about God, did not send them to Sunday school and this, coupled with such damaging phenomena as Sunday morning sports, meant fewer and fewer people knew about Jesus. I read something somewhere that said that within three generations this country had turned from God and returned to being pagan, Godless, knowing little and caring less about Jesus. And in the media this week was news of a report that claimed that less than half of the population now have any form of religious belief, only 41% count themselves as Christians, only 15% of the population count themselves as Anglicans and only 3% of 18 to 24-year olds think of themselves as being members of the Church of England. Not only depressing and worrying, but this might also account for the lack of courtesy, consideration, love for one’s fellow people that seem to be much more prevalent now than when I was a child.
But can one blame human’s inhumanity to human on a loving God, who has given us free will? As God’s message to us is to love one another then presumably no, we can’t.
So let us look at the Gospel passage in a bit more detail for a minute. This passage was intended to give the early church some guidance on how to deal with conflict and broken relationships. And it makes clear that the first step toward understanding and reconciliation is the ability to listen and heed what is being said to us when we are in the wrong. It requires the person who is at fault to acknowledge his or her wrong and be given the chance several times to make things better. But if they don’t or refuse to do so, Jesus is quite clear, the offender is to be treated as someone outside the community. Now this is not rejection, Jesus loves all sinners. He is not telling us we should reject such people, but that we should try to be reconciled with them and get them to repent of their sins. His entire ministry revolved around bringing outsiders into the kingdom by reconciling them to God. But I think he is telling us as individuals and as a church, that we should not be pushovers; we should have standards and not just ignore it when people will not admit their offences, admit when they are wrong and have hurt others. If it appears that we are being told to exclude people in this passage, perhaps it is only acknowledging publicly that an offender has already placed himself or herself outside our circle by refusing to admit when they are wrong. There must a price for arrogance, self-importance and being offensive to others. While continuing to love someone who has caused offence, there is nothing wrong with walking away from them if they will not change. The hope and prayer is of course that they will be motivated to take steps to change and come back. And we should always regard him or her as a mission field to try to welcome them back.
Reconciliation is vitally important to ending conflicts. Without reconciliation we cannot move forward, hope for spiritual growth, be fully at ease in our acceptance of Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross for us. By the Cross Jesus reconciled us to God, it is our responsibility, when we accept that, to also accept that we must work for reconciliation with our fellow humanity.
Jesus isn’t really interested in who is right or who is wrong. He only cares about getting broken relationships sorted out. However, much someone has hurt or offended us, however much we feel we are in the right and they in the wrong, however much we might feel it is for them to make the first move, we are not really following our Lord’s example if we do not ourselves make that first move, to which we hope they will respond. It may not be easy, it may take a lot of prayer and a biting of tongues, but we have to do it. It is not easy to be a Christian in many ways and this can only be one of them. And it cannot be easy to be Jesus.
So, in our lives as Christians, we are called to forgive, to love, to care for everyone, because Jesus does and, in accepting his forgiveness, we need to forgive, to be reconciled with others who accept his forgiveness. Because, if he can forgive so much, we can forgive as well. Hallelujah!
Intercessions 10 September 2017