September 18, 2011

                                                                              

                                         ON GIVING THANKS AND PRAISE 

                                                                       Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                             at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 18 September 2011

        Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures:     Jonah 3: 10 – 4: 11                                                                                 Reading for the Epistle:                     Philippians 1: 23-30

     Reading from the Gospel:                      Matthew 20: 1-16

 

One thing that we should never forget is that people communicate with people.  This means that the writer keeps his readers in mind as he produces his story or poem or whatever it is he is putting on paper.  A speechwriter has to keep in mind the audience being addressed, and a preacher has to fit the contents of a sermon to the congregation to which he is ministering.  The essential message does not change.  It is how that message is delivered that varies over time and place.

It would never have done for me to have tried to get away with preaching exactly the same sermon to, say, a congregation of ex-patriate diplomats and aid workers in Viet Nam and to a congregation of Kikuyu villagers on the slopes of Mount Kenya, to a congregation of sheepherders in a  New Zealand village and to avant garde liberals in Manhattan.

And if that is true for me, it is also true for other Christian communicators.  Take Paul for instance.  If all we had of Paul was his letter to the Philippians, from which this morning’s second reading came, we might think that all was sweetness and light between him and the Philippians.  However, listen to these words of Paul.  “After all the injury and outrage, which, as you know, we had suffered at Philippi”. That is verse 2 of chapter 2 of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.  Perhaps things improved over the years in his relationship with the believers in Philippi, but certainly the way he writes about them to the Thessalonians should make us sit up and ask questions.  However, all had not always been sweetness and light in Thessalonica, as Luke makes clear in Acts 17, which tells how Paul had been forced to leave town when he first preached the Gospel there.

It is also true of the other New Testament writers.  Each of the evangelists is telling the story of Jesus for a particular audience and he couches that story in a manner that is appropriate to that audience.  And none of them was writing for you and me.  Indeed they expected the world to have come to an end centuries, if not millennia, ago.  Mark writes what might be called a detective story, dropping clues about Jesus and who Jesus is all through his Gospel, but in the end leaving it entirely up to his readers to come to their own conclusions about Jesus and even the Resurrection.  John is much more philosophical and theological, seeking to convince the leading thinkers of his day, and those who thought they were the leading thinkers of their day, of who and what Jesus is.  Luke almost unashamedly is concerned with what might be called in our terms a political and sociological piece of writing.  His Jesus is very close to the great heroes of Graeco-Roman culture, from the mysterious circumstances of his birth, through the miraculous exploits of his ministry, and the final triumph over Death and Hades.  And then there is Matthew, from whose Gospel our reading this morning comes, who is almost as equally unashamedly concerned with showing how Jesus fufils the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures concerning the Messiah, dragging in direct quotations and making subtle allusions to verses and passages that were well-known to members of the Jewish community.  Each evangelist tailors the Gospel material to suit the needs of his own audience.

And the same is true of the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures, and sometimes they are downright argumentative with one another, taking seemingly diametrically opposed viewpoints.  If you have ever visited New York City and climbed the steps across the road from the United Nations buildings on First Avenue to East 43rd Street, you will be familiar with the quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures carved in large letters into the wall.  “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares.”  That is a quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures.  Indeed it occurs twice.  But if you have ever read the words of the Prophet Joel, you will have come across the words: “They shall beat their ploughshares into swords.”  Each of the prophets was addressing a different audience, and so we have the apparent total contradiction – which should serve as a reminder not to take the words of Holy Scripture out of their context.

It has been said that you can find Scriptural back-up for any position you choose to take, and the great bigots, whether of the left or the right, have shown that to be true.  In the time of the scribe Ezra, there was a movement by those with social, religious and political clout to introduce what we might call racial purity into Jewish society.  Mixed marriages were banned, and those who had entered into such marriages were forced to divorce their spouses, abandon their children, and were declared ineligible for any advancement in their career, and were frequently forced out of office.  It is all there in the Book of Ezra. But equally there were two other schools of thought, perhaps originating in opposition to such bigotry, that urged other positions.

One is represented by that most charming of writings in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Ruth.  It is written as a novel, but as an historical novel.  It told the story of the ancestry of the Jewish Royal Family, the House of David.  It tells how David’s grandfather was not of pure blood, but was the son of Ruth and Boaz.  Ruth came from Moab, a people who were said to have originated out of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his older daughter.  More than that, Boaz was also of mixed birth in that his mother was Rahab, the Canaanite harlot of Jericho who had sheltered the Hebrew spies in the time of Joshua, one of whom she married.

The other story from the Hebrew Scriptures is the equally delightful and very humorous account of the troubles of Jonah.  Our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures this morning comes from Jonah, recounting the final episode in the story.  Jonah had been told by the Lord God that he had to go and preach to the people of Nineveh.  That did not sound like a good idea to Jonah as the armies of Assyria, of which Nineveh was the chief city, had recently conquered the Holy Land and had marched thousands of Israelites into exile – the so-called Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.  So Jonah chose to head off in the opposite direction and we all know the story of his being swallowed by a large fish and how the Lord had rescued him from the belly of the whale, as popular belief has it.  So when he is told again to go to Nineveh, Jonah agrees to go, but he warns God that the people of Nineveh will not believe what he has to say.  So Jonah arrives in Nineveh, a city of some 120,000 people, much like the population of Port St Lucie, and very much like the preacher on the corner of US 1 and Jennings Road here in Port St Lucie he begins to preach the need for repentance.  And wonder of wonders, the people of Nineveh, from the king to the humblest artisan, all repent.  They all put on sackcloth and ashes, and even have their animals dressed the same way, including their camels!  Just try to imagine camels in diapers!  Now Jonah was upset  by all this, because he had come to Nineveh to preach fire and brimstone, and he felt that the Lord God had made him a laughing stock. So he flounced out of the city and found himself a quiet place to complain and mope until he fell asleep.  In the night a bush sprung up so that when he awoke in the morning Jonah found that he was lying in a patch of cool shade.  Well, our reading from Jonah tells us the rest of the story.

Basically, the story of Jonah is a reminder to those who are racial bigots that our God is not concerned with purity of race, but with innocence of conscience, and that he will do what has to be done to purge all people, no matter who they may be, of all that is evil.  God sees to it that our needs are met.  And he will do this in spite of our excuses and our all-too-frequent inaction   The parable that Matthew has Jesus tell for our Gospel reading this morning spells out much the same sort of idea, but taking up a different theme.  It is the story of the labourers in the vineyard.

The story is familiar enough, how a vineyard owner needed to hire labourers to bring in his harvest. Jesus simply tells the story and leaves it to us to pick up on the details.  The first detail is that the vineyard owner woefully underestimates the number of hands he will need to hire to bring in the crop.  He has to go out every few hours to hire some more men.  Since the owner is supposedly God, the miscalculation is caused by the labourers not delivering as they should.  God expects us to pull our weight, but when he finds out that we have not, then he goes and find others to help us do the work that he has given us, even though we have not lived up to his expectations.  Matthew has Jesus say that all the labourers who were in the market place were hired each time the vineyard owner came looking for labourers.  Which points to the second detail, how the owner ignores the excuse of those hired last, that no one had hired them. No one had hired them because they had not turned up earlier.  But he does not challenge them, but simply tells them that, late though it is, they will be recompensed for what they have done.  We all know how this story ends, and it does not turn out the way that those who were hired first would have wished.  But, although they claimed to have worked so hard, their job  performance had not come up to scratch.  The vineyard owner had had to hire more labourers to do the work that they showed themselves unwilling to do wholeheartedly.  In the end, everyone gets the same reward, even though not one of them had earned it.  They each get a full day’s pay even though not one of them had really put in a full day’s work, even though they might have been on-site all day.

In the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven, everybody receives what he or she needs.   It is not a matter of how long you have been part of the workforce, nor of the effort that you may or may not have put in. There is no question of seniority.  You do not get recompensed for what you have done, but for what you need.  In the world of human affairs there are those who think that they should be rewarded for decades of work, but as was once pointed out to me, forty years on the job is not forty years experience, it is simply one year of experience repeated forty times over.  In this world, if you cannot or will not do the job, the chances are you will be laid off, to put it mildly.  You will be replaced, and so you will lose the means of meeting your needs. In the Kingdom of Heaven, as the stories that we have heard this morning point out, you receive what you need, and if you do not fulfil your obligations, your lack of labour is not reckoned against you, whether you have been idling in the workplace or have been slow in getting to the work place, whether, like Jonah, you do the absolute opposite of what you have been told to do or you resent others receiving the same reward as you once you have turned your attitude around.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, praised them for what they had done for the Lord after they had accepted Christ as their saviour.  The writer of Jonah has praise for the citizens of Nineveh, once they repented and turned to the Lord.  All the labourers in the vineyard received the thanks of the owner.  No one in any of the stories deserved thanks and praise from the Master, and I would affirm that no one here this morning has really earned the thanks and the praise of the Master.  Rather, it is we who should be giving thanks and praise to the Master, not for what we have done for him, but for what he has always done for us, is always doing for us, and will always do for us.  And not just for us, but for all.  It is not who we were or are that matters, but who God is as he has shown himself in his Word spoken through the prophets and revealed in the Word made flesh, in Jesus Christ our Saviour.