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Isaiah Chapter 5:1-7
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!
Philippians Chapter 3:4b-14
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to
righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and
straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Matthew chapter 21:33-46
‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realised that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
A powerful theme knits together our three readings.... And that is this : From irresistible and vulnerable love, God planted the vineyard of creation, as an unstoppable creative outpouring of the unfathomable depths of that love. But the telling of that message of love became as sour as the wild grapes which were the fruits of the vineyard the beloved tenants were tending.
The prophetic message of the passage was that, even in the sending of the creator's own beloved Son to continue that expression of love, that tendency to reject would lead to rejection of that same vulnerable love. The stone that the builders rejected was, in fact, the very cornerstone. We missed the point.
Yesterday was St Francis' day. Have you read Chasing Francis by Ian Cron? It's a great piece of theological and historical writing, blended with a fictional story of a pastor who has lost his faith, connecting with the figure of St Francis and finding God in a new and beautiful way. In the book, Ian comments on the radical simplicity of the Gospel that Francis espoused :
“Francis was more than an entertaining street preacher. He didn't want to win people to faith through theological arguments or by reasoning with them. His way of evangelizing people was through the example of this own life. That's what gave his simple words so much gravity and impact. His life was his theology”
He also said, “Churches should be places where people come to hear the story of God and to tell their own. That's how we find out how the two relate. Tell your story with all of its shadows and fog, so people can understand their own. They want a leader who's authentic, someone trying to figure out how to follow the Lord Jesus in the joy and wreckage of life”
We've certainly known our moments of wreckage. Our loss of Carrie has been our epiphany of faith, as well as its Gethsemane. To one of the working bees at the Retreat, a man drove from Wellington, put in a day's sheer hard graft, and just as he was getting into his car for the five hour journey home, mentioned that he'd come because he wanted to meet someone who was at Peace with God.
In horror, I hoped that I'd expressed thatsomehow during the day – but looking back, I certainly can't be sure! We all carry that possibility, by virtue of the fact that this community is our community.
Another aspect of Ian's book that's deeply touch me over the hours of working the land at the Retreat, both from the seat of the digger and top of a spade, has been his simple expression of the kingdom model for church life. And I quote :
“I’d like to be known as a `come-and-see’ Christian. If someone asks me what kind of church I belong to, I want to say, `a come-and-see church.’ Come and see how we love the poor, come and see how we give dignity back to those who’ve lost it or given it away, come and see how we encounter God through every spiritual practice at our disposal, come and see how we love one another in community, come and see how we stand for peace and justice, come and see how we’ve been freed from consumerism and have become radically generous, come and see our passion for beauty, come and see how we defend the earth, come and see how we preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words. Come and see-and perhaps after a while you’ll decide to join us in the story we’re living in.”
Good, eh! Remember from the Gospel, Jesus comments, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” That's a pretty strong and challenging directive to hold up a mirror and take a good look at ourselves as a community. Not in a, “If we were a better group of Christians then God would love us a whole load more and here's all the things that we're doing wrong” kind of way. But much more because we have such a fantastic and liberating message to share.
In a vicarage garden once before, we had a beautiful stunning fig tree. Amazing, it was – looked incredible. The only real let down was the fruit. The environment was inappropriate for growing figs; not enough light and warmth, and so the figs never ripened. They appeared on the branches in their thousands, all green and lovely. But they never developed into tasty fruit. It was all show. The environment is critical. When it comes to stewardship of the Christian message, fruit is a brilliant metaphor, and it's no wonder that it's one that Jesus uses time after time. It's enduring, 20 centuries later.
Certainly, the UK supermarket fruit-and-vegetable offerings would be worth a parable or two. Supermarket fruit has been excessively bred for looks and not for taste. The apples are shiny little works of art – perfectly shaped and not a blemish on a one of them. But the trade-off is taste. There isn't any. Flavour has gone; ushered out by looks. The temptation for the Church to follow suit is considerable. For years, it seems, we've been confidently saying “Maybe if we made it look and sound better, get the visuals just right and choose contemporary songs then loads of people would come.” So, we set to work on that, spentfar too much money and time on trying to look captivating. I'm not saying that none of that was necessary. But we have to be careful to avoid ending up like English supermarket fruit.
There's a signpost on Gill Street for a marketing firm that says, “Image is everything”.Not in our case. That was St Francis' point.
Are you a squeezer of avocados? You can tell with that touch if they are - Unlikely ever to ripen - Or, have passed the point of no return, and are rotten inside Oh dear, those are good metaphors for discipleship, eh. Feeling like stony ground, or gone beyond the point of our faith being a delightful nourishment, and in need of resurrection.Compassion gone hard? Lost the bite and gone a bit mouldy? But texture and fragrance.... fruit is created for taste. What does the community taste like?
In so many ways, it tastes pretty wonderful, I think. It is Eucharistic; around this tableeveryone is fed; no distinctions. Every person is equally important – so it is fantastic that you are here; that you chose to come and worship; that you added to the flavour of the fruit salad. When YOU are not here, the community is diminished. YOU make a difference. But how well do we share the fruit bowl round as the Body of Christ?
My concern is that there are not so many ways in which the wider community is truly engaged with the
opportunity to taste the fruit of our cathedral life; you know, putting a toe in the water; sussing us out; wondering if perhaps this whole Christianity story has something they are seeking, can relate to. Perhaps people who are looking for “a community at Peace with God”. We have to keep rediscovering ways to be a “come and see” people; ways which might, one day, lead to a journey of faith. Or might not. Ways that have nothing to do with fundraising or sustaining the institution; ways that are not so much about us, but are very
much about the least and the last in Taranaki.
To better grow such fruit as a cathedral, I think we need to tune in again to the simplicity of the St Francis way. Spend less. Live more simply. For every dollar we spend, we have to work harder to fundraise, to get to square one. If it's spent on institutional maintenance (and much inevitably must be), then it's a dollar less with which we can really help the marginalised in our community. Don't forget there's a basket at the back where you can drop in a tin which will go to foodbank. Just one extra tin in the weekly shop; we might not even notice the difference – but what an expression of love if that basket is groaning with tins each week, and it takes two people to stagger up the aisle with it.
We may need to declutter. Accept that we may not ever look as flash as we could if we put much more time into our image, but that's OK. Much more important is the flavour. Over the next few weeks, we will be working through a simple audit amongst our staff and ministry team, to work out how much of our time, money and effort is spent on sustaining the institution, and how much is devoted to actions of love for our community. We will then work on that balance... and that will inevitably lead to some changes – but that's OK. The Gospel message we've heard today – the call to serve up the best tasting fruit, to the Glory of God, will be a constant reminder to us.
During these weeks of sabbatical, I've had the chance to audit how I use my time as your dean. Much of that is going to change. I'll be keeping admin and desk work to just two days a week (there's so much admin that this can easily stretch to five, and still be incomplete... It means I'll be less epic at answering emails and churning out admin, I'm afraid), but it means that the remainder of my time can be poured into being at large in the community, one-to-ones or small group work, nurture and spiritual care of people in need; and productive meetings which are heading somewhere! I am aiming to be less busy and a bit more available. That's going to need some prayer :-)
Finally, beginning in November, we will be trying out a new drop-in on Tuesdays, opening at 7.30am. People will be able to get a delicious hot crepe/pancake with a range of scrumptious toppings, and a hot drink, all in for a dollar (or free, if times are hard). The Hatherly Hall will be set out cafe style with lovely tables, and members of the church family (myself included) ready to take the orders and to wait at the tables – and maybe to have a bit of a chat about matters spiritual. Just a gift of love to our city in the spirit of the Feeding
of the 5,000 (although I don't think quite so many will come, but who knows). Not a fundraiser. It's about meeting people, welcoming them across the threshold and being a “come and see people”. The breakfast drop-in will be a great opportunity for people to catch up for a face-to-face over a cuppa, and to enjoy a simple meal made with love.
Interested in helping? Brilliant – please do. Let me know if you'd like to be involved. It'sgoing to be a great slice of team work. Because remember, from the Gospel, “The kingdom of God has been given to a people who produce the fruits of the kingdom.” Amen!