Sunday, 30 October 2011

All Souls Sermon

All Souls 2011

Almost always, when I go to visit people who have just been bereaved, I find that one of the things they most need to do is to talk about what has just happened, how their loved one came to die. If death came after a long illness, they’ll often tell me about the diagnosis and the treatments, the medical care their loved one received. If death came suddenly or unexpectedly  it might be how they heard the news which sticks in their mind, or the days leading up to it, days that seemed ordinary at the time, but are now very precious. When we’ve just lost someone, it is natural for the process of dying, which is different for everyone, to loom large and for us to need to tell the story – sometimes again and again. Being close to someone around the time of their death can be a beautiful and peaceful experience, but it can also be profoundly disturbing, leaving us with images we find hard to shift, fears or regrets which we find hard to leave behind.

One of the most important things a funeral does is to help us set those sometimes painful memories into a wider context. We have a chance to remember the person we’ve lost as they were in happier, better times rather than just in that difficult final stretch, to reclaim a lifetime of memories – not just that last one: memories of first loves, of family life, of professional achievements, of gifts given and received. We have a chance to remind ourselves that that last memory was just one short moment – the end of life isn’t the whole of life. And we have a chance to grasp hold of the fact that whatever suffering there was at the end is now over and that they are at peace.

I was particularly aware of this need at the recent 10th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Centre. The site of the twin towers has been made into a memorial to those who died on 9/11, but I wonder if the form that memorial takes will turn out to be wise in the long run. The deep square footprints where the towers stood have been transformed into giant pools, with water pouring constantly over their edges to fill them up. The imagery is clear. The falling water recalls those awful images of the towers falling, and the people who fell from them too. It’s immensely powerful, but there’s a danger, it seems to me, that it simply preserves that one awful hour as if it was eternal, as if the towers and the people are still falling, and falling forever, and that is neither true nor helpful. 9/11 was awful; the families who lost relatives will inevitably go on grieving, and all of us have been affected by it. But the fear and the suffering of those who died is over. They are at peace and ultimately safe, and that is the thing we need to affirm. I hope that someday someone will feel ready to turn off the waterfalls and let the water lie still.

The Bible readings we heard today were written by people living through times of trouble, but both of them speak confidently of the peace that lies beyond our pain. The prophet Isaiah wrote  at a time when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. Their city of Jerusalem had been destroyed in front of their eyes amid awful violence. Yet Isaiah reassures them that this is not the end. A time will come when they are restored to their own land, when God will “swallow up death for ever and wipe away all tears.”
St Paul endured persecution, and was eventually executed for his faith; he wasn’t na├»ve or unrealistic about suffering. But despite all the awful things that happened around him, he could write that he was convinced “that neither death nor life... nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We are ultimately safe, he says, because we are loved by God and held in his hands.

The Bible contains many different images of heaven – for some it’s a garden, for some a golden city, for others a place to come home to. There is no definitive picture – these images are all metaphors, not descriptions. But there is a constant theme that runs through them all, and it is that there’s no need to fear, that those we love, and we ourselves in time, will have eternal peace with God.

The Czech poet Vladimir Holan made the same point in his own way in the poem we heard. He wasn’t impressed by the idea of trumpets and grandeur. For him heaven was waking up at home, to the sounds of his mother simply going about all the tasks that went with the dawn of a new day.

Death is never an easy experience to be close to. Even if it is peaceful and expected it can leave us feeling disturbed and anxious. Watching someone we love slip away from us is bound to be painful. But Christian faith affirms that beyond the moment of dying there is a peace which is past our understanding, a light that can’t be extinguished, a love that can’t be destroyed, and hands that will never let us go. Into those hands we commend those we love and see no longer, and ourselves as well.

Resurrection by Vladimir Holan 1905-1980
(translated from the Czech by George Theiner)

Is it true that after this life of ours we shall one day be awakened
by a terrifying clamour of trumpets?
Forgive me, God, but I console myself
That the beginning and resurrection of all of us dead
will simply be announced by the crowing of the cock.

After that we’ll remain lying down a while…
The first to get up
will be Mother…We’ll hear her
quietly laying the fire,
quietly putting the kettle on the stove
and cosily taking the teapot out of the cupboard.
We’ll be home once more.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Bible Sunday: Words that matter

Bible Sunday              Last after Trinity 11

Today’s readings are all about words; the way we use them, for good or ill, the way they shape us and influence our behaviour. Words matter. Our ability to communicate is one of the things which distinguishes us from other animals. Birds can sing out warnings or territorial claims or mating calls. Chimpanzees can be trained to a basic level in sign language, but only to communicate fairly immediate things. Whales can sing to each other across the deep oceans to keep in touch. But no other animal can communicate like people do. No other animal can tell stories, make laws, negotiate peace treaties, discuss abstract ideas, write poems or newspaper reports – or preach sermons come to that.  Because of that, of course, that no animal can spread gossip, tell lies, trade insults or spin sob-stories to manipulate others either. Words are a great gift, something that makes us human, but they also a great danger.

In today’s Old Testament reading God warned his people, through Moses, to be careful about what they said. They mustn’t give unjust judgements, being partial to the poor or deferring to the great. They mustn’t slander people. On the other hand, if they see something wrong they shouldn’t keep silent about it – if they do that they are just as guilty as the one who did the initial wrong. Moses spoke these words while the people of Israel were in the wilderness, wandering towards the Promised Land. They’d been slaves in Egypt for centuries, told what to do by others, unable to control their own lives. In their new land, though, they would form a new community, running their own affairs, setting their own standards, developing their own culture, making their own laws. It was no good if that new community was just the same-old same-old, a repeat of all that was bad in Egypt. It needed to be strong and holy, reflecting the God who set them free, who rescued them from Egypt, and the way they used words, the way they speak to each other and about each other, would be the key to shaping that new way of life.

In our second reading, Paul writes to the Thessalonians about the words he and his companions have used among them when they came to proclaim the gospel. They didn’t speak to please their human hearers, but to please God. They didn’t feed people empty flattery or try to manipulate them emotionally. They weren’t bothered about getting praise or reward. They shared themselves, genuinely, because the Thessalonians had “become very dear” to them. We don’t know the details, but it’s clear that someone in Thessalonika was rubbishing the ministry of Paul, casting doubt on his integrity, and he wanted to set the message straight. He knew how easy it was for words to be used destructively, and he didn’t want that to happen to this church he loved so much.

And then there is the Gospel – a very baffling passage in parts. But this too is about words. The Pharisees – ultra orthodox enthusiasts for keeping the law of Moses – come to Jesus. One of them asks him a question. “Which is the greatest commandment?”  I don’t know what they thought he would say, but his answer is actually a bog-standard, absolutely mainstream restatement of two passages of Scripture, words which would have been utterly familiar.” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” “
There was nothing new, shocking or unexpected about his answer. This was straight from the textbook and gave the Pharisees no ammunition at all to attack him with, but he follows it up with a question of his own, which hits the nerve he knew it would.

It probably all seems a bit obscure to us. In fact I wouldn’t blame you if you’d switched off completely when we got to the second half of the Gospel reading. What is all this stuff about David and the Messiah and who calls whom a son? It all seems irrelevant to us – and that’s because it is. It’s about things which really don’t bother us at all. But it was very relevant to the people of Jesus’ time.

Jesus knew that those around him were expecting a Messiah, a leader of some sort. For hundreds of years they had suffered under one superpower or another. Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome – there was always someone stomping about their land in army boots, issuing orders at the point of a sword. This surely couldn’t be what God wanted. Surely he would send someone to help them. But who? What kind of person? There were all sorts of wildly different ideas – a military hero, a holy teacher, a politician? Everyone constructed their own pet theory, and backed it up with bits of what the scriptures said – odd verses from what we now call the Old Testament. Different groups sprang up, each convinced their interpretation was right. The Pharisees evidently put great store on the Messiah being a descendent of the great king David. But the reality was that you could construct almost anything from the prophets, whose words about the future were vague and enigmatic – they wrote in different times and places, for different reasons. They weren’t even trying to create a coherent picture with their words.

We can’t be sure whether Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah, or what he understood by that word, but what we can see is that he didn’t have any time for the tidy-minded schemes of the Pharisees. It’s all a bit technical, but Jesus presents them with a verse from the Psalms which upsets their idea that the Messiah is David’s son.. How come David calls him Lord if he is his son? He would always be inferior to David as the younger generation. Jesus’ argument probably doesn’t impress us at all. So what? we might say. But it does impress the Pharisees; in fact it silences them completely.

It doesn’t matter that we don’t really get the logic. The point is that Jesus has shown them that their interpretation of scripture is partial and because of that it is dangerous. They have cherry-picked the bits they wanted, and ignored the bits that were inconvenient, that don’t fit. When you look at scripture as a whole, says, your neat theories just don’t add up. For every verse that supports your view of who the Messiah will be, there’s another which challenges it. That’s the reality. They’ve got themselves into trouble because they have taken scripture literally, and tried to make it into a tidy instruction manual, just as people still try to do today. It’s a recipe for disaster – now as then, not just because it can lead to appalling cruelty and oppression, stoning people who disobey the law for example but also because it will end up confusing and disappointing those who try to do it. As Jesus points out to these Pharisees, if you think you’ve got God sorted, that you know his mind for certain, you are almost certainly missing something.

The problem is that the Bible just doesn’t fit together neatly. It contains the thoughts of many people in many ages and circumstances. There are several different creation stories in the Old Testament which don’t agree with each other, for example. There are two different accounts of the birth of Christ, which can’t be jammed together (even if that’s exactly what we do in our nativity plays). There are parts which affirm God’s universal love and salvation – like the story of Jonah which proclaimed that even the hated Assyrians were God’s children – and there are parts which suggest that only Israel is really loved by God. Just as the people of Jesus’ time constructed many different pictures of the Messiah from the words of scripture, so we can make an argument for just about anything we want from the Bible. People have justified slavery and apartheid from the Bible, and they have opposed slavery and apartheid from it too. They have lifted women up, and put them down. They have argued for and against acceptance of homosexuality. They have gone to war on the strength of its words and embraced pacificism because of them too. They have expected the Bible to have “THE answer”, a simple, one-size-fits all solution to whatever quandary they are in, but that’s just not possible, not unless you ignore the bits that don’t fit. Those who treat the Bible as an instruction book like this can seem to have a very high view of scripture, but it is actually a misuse of the Bible, and, I believe, an act of great disrespect to this hugely varied and rich document.

Today is Bible Sunday, a day when we celebrate the Bible, the word of God. I’m a huge fan of the Bible – that’s why I keep trying to think of ways to encourage you to read it, through the “story of the week” on the pew sheet, through providing pew bibles, through Lent courses and sermons. I want us to take it seriously. But that’s not the same thing as taking it literally. In fact it is quite the opposite. To take it seriously means reading it for the rich wealth of experience it contains, thousands of years of people’s attempts to know God, to know one another and themselves. As we do that, we will hear God speaking – maybe saying “do this, just as your ancestors did”, but maybe leading us to be aware of  the mistakes we shouldn’t repeat, the ways in which we’ve grown and moved on, as we learn from their mistakes.

The Bible invites us to step into its world, not because we’ll find magic answers to the problems of our own world, but because in doing so we are able to see our own more clearly, to get a different perspective. God speaks to us through it not as a dead and dusty document, but as a Living Word, a word for now, a word for us, as we let its ancient words echo around our own lives.

Words are powerful. They change us and they shape us, for good and ill. The words of this book can change and shape us most powerfully of all. So let’s read them – with delight and with care – so we make sure it is the Living Word of God’s love we are hearing when we open this precious book.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Trinity 16: Getting Changed

Trinity 16 11

“I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord…” says Paul to the Christians at Philippi.  If I were Euodia or Syntyche, looking down from heaven now, I would be really fed up. They only get one mention in the Bible, these “co-workers” of Paul, probably leaders of churches meeting in their houses in Philippi. They have obviously done a huge amount of good, struggling beside Paul in the work of the gospel, as he puts it, but it’s what’s gone wrong which is the thing which gets noticed and remarked on. Paul didn’t know that his letter to the Philippians would be preserved for two thousand years – he wasn’t writing for publication at all, but today all we know of Euodia and Syntyche is this squabble. Wouldn’t you just be kicking yourself if you were them?

Leaving aside their feelings though, I am actually quite glad that their spat has made it into Holy Writ. It reminds us of the reality of community living. It is easy to get idealistic about the early church, to imagine a time when everyone was filled with love for one another and a passion for truth and justice. In every generation there have been Christian groups who have tried to recapture those imagined early days through revivals and reformations. There’s nothing wrong with that – we need to discover the Gospel afresh for our own age. But those attempts never really work because they are based on a fantasy, not on reality. Euodia and Syntyche and their unnamed squabble perhaps do us a good service here. They remind us that we need to be realistic about our flaws – flaws which people in every age have shared - if we are actually going to achieve anything. We need to admit where we go wrong if we want ever to go right.

That’s not a counsel for despair. This letter tells us that despite their squabbles, these early workers with Paul made a difference for good in the places where they were. Paul calls them his “joy and crown”. Perhaps it was even the fact that they tried so hard to stick together and resolve their conflicts rather than giving up on each other which was the real testimony to the power of God working in them.

Community living is hard, whether that is the community of a local church, the community of a family, the community of a neighbourhood or a workplace,  the community of a nation, the community of Europe which is having such problems at the moment, or the global community. It was ever thus.

I’m reminded of St Benedict,  the founder of the monastic traditions of Western Europe. As the Roman empire collapsed in the 5th century, he sought refuge in the hills outside Rome, looking for peace and solitude to pray. Soon, hearing of his wisdom and holiness, others came to join him and rather against his will, they formed a community around him, an early monastery. They might have admired him as a holy man, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. Jealousies and resentments festered. Twice some of the monks even tried to poison Benedict , which seems a rather extreme way of making your feelings known!
Benedict survived, but clearly something had to be done. So he wrote a Rule, a way of life for the monks to follow, and that Rule in some form or other has become the foundation stone of most of the monasteries of Western Europe ever since.

Most of it is simply common sense advice for getting along together, observing a healthy rhythm to life, balancing time for work, prayer and study. It sets out the way in which monks were expected to treat each other, with respect and courtesy. They elected their Abbot, but having elected him they were expected to obey him – there’s no point giving him authority if you don’t trust him to use it. They all had a say in the running of the monastery, but when a decision was made, that was it. They took a vow of stability, staying put in that community for life – you couldn’t just flit from community to community as the mood took you. It was a seriously challenging commitment. It still is for the many religious communities that follow it. And Benedict knew that living up to it would mean an equally serious commitment to knowing yourself, tackling your own failings, growing and changing. If someone else irritates us and gets on our nerves, it is never entirely their fault; their behaviour is usually touching a raw, perhaps wounded nerve in us, which we need to find healing for too. Following Benedict’s rule means committing yourself to “conversion of life”, as the rule puts it. It is a tough demand, and it doesn’t surprise me that monastic communities, like many other experiments in community livingoften fail or run into difficulties , as do the communities of family, neighbourhood and nation – it is much easier to blame others than to accept that we need to change ourselves.

And that brings me neatly onto the Gospel reading where we meet a man who also needed to change – quite literally in his case.

Jesus tells a parable about a Royal wedding. Royal weddings are always about the future, the continuing of dynasties, the next stage in the life of a kingdom. Prince William and Catherine Middleton found that out when they got married earlier this year. Speculation started instantly about when they would start a family and provide the next generation of heirs to the throne. Whether they, or we, liked it or not, their marriage wasn’t just their marriage; it was an event which will affect the course of our nation’s history. In the Gospels, Royal weddings are meant to help us think about the future of one particular kingdom – the kingdom of God.

In Jesus’ story, the wedding guests aren’t just being invited to a party; they are being invited to be part of the future the king has planned for his nation. But what’s this? They all refuse to come. It’s all a bit ridiculous, frankly, and those who first heard the story would have known that. Refusing the king’s invitation in an era when kings ruled absolutely and often brutally, was suicidally foolish, as the ungrateful guests discover. Please note that we aren’t supposed to read this as a description of the way God is – it is a story, meant to make us think, and no more than that.

But if those guests won’t come, the king knows there are plenty of others who will.  His servants are commanded to invite any Tom, Dick and Harry they find standing around the streets and soon his hall is filled with people – good and bad, says the parable. The only thing they have in common is that they want to be there and to share in the future they are being offered, unlike the first guests. Mark and Luke’s version stops with this happy scene, but Matthew puts a twist in end of this tale, and it is a twist which I think the story really needs, even if it is sometimes a difficult one to understand.

The king spots one guest who isn’t wearing a wedding robe and, furious, he throws him out into the outer darkness.  Again, we need to remember that this outer darkness is just a part of the story. It’s not a description of life after death. It’s always tempting, with Jesus’ parables to take them too seriously, to assume they are giving us a point by point description of the way things are. They aren’t and we get ourselves into serious trouble if we over-analyse them or forget to read them in the context of the wider message of the Gospels. That’s why it’s important, also, not to get worried by the red-herring of why this man hasn’t got a wedding garment. Is he too poor?, we worry. Perhaps he didn’t have time to go home and change? I f that were the case it would be completely unfair to judge him - but it would also make a nonsense of the story. We are clearly meant to understand that he could have got changed if he’d wanted to – he just didn’t.

The point Jesus is making is that although this guest is at this feast in body, he is not there in spirit. He isn’t willing to lift a finger actually to be part of what the king is planning for the future. He won’t get changed, literally, and that shows the king that he isn’t going to be any use practically as the work of the kingdom gets underway. He’ll come to the party, but he doesn’t want what it celebrates to make any difference to his life.

Matthew’s version of this story tells us that being a Christian is not simply about getting a ticket to the banquet, a seat at the table for ourselves. It is about being involved in the making of God’s kingdom – being part of his work. And that means being prepared to get changed, not physically into fine clothes, but into the people we are meant to be. We need to let God change us inwardly, showing us where we need to grow, where we need to repent and make amends, where we need to learn to love and to be loved, to forgive and be forgiven, to give help, and to accept it. It doesn’t matter how old or how young we are, how sorted or how messy our lives are; this applies to all of us. When we stop getting changed, we stop growing. If you are the same person as you were a year ago, or ten years ago, if you are still carrying the same resentments, repeating patterns you know aren’t healthy, if you know no more of the Bible now than you did then, then there is something that needs changing – through prayer, through talking with someone you can trust, through taking the action you’ve been putting off (we usually know what we need to do, we just don’t do it somehow.)

We all need to get changed, just as the wedding guest needed to get changed and Euodia and Syntyche, enmeshed in their squabble in Philippi needed to get changed. I’m sure they’d rather be famous for something else, but actually they have given us a precious gift, a glimpse into the reality of what it means to live in community, with its challenges as well as its joys. We don’t know what happened to them, but let’s hope they heeded Paul’s words, and learned to think on whatever was honourable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable, so that the God of peace could change them. And let us hope that we have the courage to do the same.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Harvest 11: seeds of hope

Harvest 11

What do you think of when you hear the word Afghanistan?
Probably you think of soldiers, bombs, the Taliban, ruined buildings, dust and barrenness, noise and conflict. What you probably don’t think of is gardening. That’s why one of the projects which will benefit from the Diocesan Poverty and Hope appeal really caught my attention. Some of the money we donate today will go to a project which helps Afghan women to plant gardens – what could be more appropriate for Harvest?

It’s a project which is run by one of Christian Aid’s partner organisations locally, which particularly focuses on working with Afghan women – last year’s harvest appeal went partly to work they were doing teaching women to read and write. Under the Taliban education for girls was banned, so many women are illiterate. This year, though, it is the garden project that is the focus. STARS, the partner organisation, has helped women set up kitchen gardens, to grow food for their families.  It provides them with seeds and equipment, and most importantly with training and encouragement. Seven million Afghans – a quarter of the population are still dependent on food aid, simply because of the effects of decades of conflict. People have been displaced, their homes destroyed. Life has been so insecure that no one has known what is round the next corner – everything has been hand-to-mouth. That’s no good. If Afghanistan is to have a secure future, people have to be able to feel they can provide for themselves.

One of the beneficiaries of the project, Maynour Sultani has been able, with the help of STARS to establish her own garden, growing food for her family of eight – like all of us who grow things, she sometimes finds she has too much all at once, so, again like us, she is able to share that excess with her community – rather like those bags of apples and beans and so on that have been appearing by magic in the church porch over the last couple of months! It’s not just been about the food for Maynour, though. It is also about self-respect and independence, the sense that, for the first time she and the other women of her community, have a bit of their own power to help themselves and their families. She said this. “From the beginning, the women have done it all ourselves. We learned how to grow the plants, we watered and weeded them and we pick the vegetables for our families. The men are away from home working all day- labouring in the fields or helping with the harvest. The situation in the village now is getting better than it was. In the past we faced many difficult times and experiences, and these days are more peaceful and plentiful.”

As the quote from her daughter which I included in the service sheet reminds us, this project also helps the next generation to grow up healthy – I’m sure many parents here wish all children sounded as enthusiastic about vegetables. She knows what she has missed and the variety of tastes, the sheer sense of plenty is clearly a delight to her.

What struck me about this project is how diverse and how deep are the effects of something as simple as growing some plants. Who’d have thought that putting some seeds in the ground – one of the simplest things we can do – could be so important?

Of course to those of us who are enthusiastic gardeners this shouldn’t come as any real surprise. We know why we enjoy it. We know the thrill of seeing that first little shoot come up from the ground, the first buds appearing on the fruit trees. We know the sense of fulfilment when you get to pick and eat your own food from your own patch. It may not be as perfect to look at as something cling wrapped from Sainsbury’s, but the sense of satisfaction, of connection with the earth is unbeatable. It usually tastes better too.

Of course there are also the plants that fail. Every gardener knows that for every seed that germinates and makes it through to maturity there will be many more which don’t. Pests and diseases, high temperatures, low temperatures, drought and flood – the number of threats that little seedling faces is huge. It can be hugely frustrating when a plant you’ve nurtured turns up its roots and dies. But we still carry on. We keep trying.

There’s a traditional saying that “those who plant a garden, plant hope”, and it’s perfectly true. Putting that seed in the ground, knowing all the obstacles it will face, is a profoundly optimistic statement. It’s not that you think that everything will go your way, but that you believe it is worth the risk. It’s worth taking a chance on some of your efforts failing, because the rewards when they succeed are infinitely precious. “Those who plant a garden, plant hope”. Gardening is a commitment to the future – it requires an attitude of hope, hope which is strong enough to sustain you as you wait, because in gardening nothing happens instantly. Sometimes it can take a very long time indeed to see the fruits of your labours. Sometimes you know that you will never see them at all – but the work you do will bring blessings to those who come after you. Another gardening proverb says that "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in."

Gardens and growing things teaches us a lot about ourselves, so it’s not surprising that in the Bible they are often used as ways of helping us think about life and God. In today’s Old Testament reading we heard a beautiful, but sad elegy to God’s love for his people. They are like a vineyard that he planted. He put in endless labour, but the vines yielded wild grapes, small and sour. All his work seemed to have come to nothing.

The people who first heard these words would have thought about God rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, bringing them through the desert to the Promised Land. Truly God had been with them, had chosen them, had planted them. But now everything was going wrong. They had been conquered by the Babylonians. Jerusalem had been destroyed and the people taken into exile thousands of miles from home. The image of the overgrown, ruined vineyard would have been a vivid reminder of the reality of their experience. Rather like the images of Afghanistan we have been so used to from the TV news, everything seemed to have been devastated. Isaiah links the physical devastation to the moral disintegration he sees around him.  “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”  

God mourns profoundly for his people here, and if all we had was this passage, then we would be entitled to feel rather hopeless. If even God can’t make the world work right, then what hope is there for us?  But the good news is that this is just one snapshot of one moment. Later on in his prophecies, Isaiah speaks of a time when the people will be once again planted in their land, and that is exactly what happened. All seems bleak now, but this is not the end of the story.

It is not the end, because God is a gardener, the original gardener, who planted that garden in Eden. Like all true gardeners he just can’t help hoping, trying, re-planting, pruning, weeding, coming back for another go. However ready he sounds to give up on his people, actually he doesn’t.

The Gospel story echoes Isaiah’s words. Again there is a vineyard which is heading for disaster. Those who are supposed to look after it for its owner refuse to share its produce. They have come to believe that it is theirs to do with what they like. They beat the owner’s slaves and kill his son. But the truth is that the vineyard does not belong to them;  ultimately the owner has control. He will take it away from them, says Jesus, and give to those who will look after it properly.

The Christians for whom Matthew is writing would have heard this parable as a message of reassurance. Many of them were originally Jewish, but were gradually finding themselves cut off from their community of origin, accused of betraying their inheritance by following this man whom Jewish leaders had crucified with the help of the Romans. Others were Gentiles – they had come from pagan backgrounds and were vulnerable to the accusation that they weren’t really entitled to be counted as children of God. What right did they have to share in the inheritance of his love? Jesus’ words told them, though, that it wasn’t your tribal identity, your historic sense of belonging that mattered – the fact that you had been on this land since time immemorial - it was how you treated the gifts that you were given.

Our circumstances are different, of course, and we need to be careful not to use this story as an excuse for anti-Semitism. It isn’t a case of Jews, bad, Christians, good. If we think that we simply repeat the same failing that the parable highlights, of believing that God’s kingdom is ours to own and to control. But however we apply it today, this story still contains a powerful message of reassurance. It tells us that God is not defeated by human sin and failure. Even when the slaves have been beaten and the son is killed, the future still belongs to the owner of the vineyard, not the tenants. We don’t have the last word – and that’s a very good thing. This parable, grim as it seems on the surface, is about hope. What you see now is not necessarily what you get it tells us. The wreckage of selfishness and greed and violence which we are often so aware of is not the end of the story.  

The women of Afghanistan, as they plant the seeds that your offerings will fund, are living demonstrations of that hope. In a land wracked by decades of trouble, where hope must often seem absurd, they believe enough in their future, in the support of God, in the love of others, to sow a new beginning. As we give what we can to help them we are privileged to share in that hope, and maybe to find some for ourselves too when the fields of our lives seem barren and bare.