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Sermon: St Michael & All Angels, Thursley

Sunday 5th October 2014
St Michael & All Angels, Thursley
Isaiah 5:1-7
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-end

Emma Thompson is one of the best loved actors of her generation with a reputation for playing complicated intellectual women.  When I saw Sense and Sensibility at the cinema, the audience burst into spontaneous applause as the credits rolled.

At this year's Bafta Screenwriters' Lecture, she proudly shows the crate containing the 17 drafts of the film.  Her work takes time and attention and sheer hard work. She knows what it is to persevere to reach a goal.  Reflecting her craft and the uncertainty of the film industry she quotes the choreographer Agnes de Mille:  The artist never entirely knows: we guess. We may be wrong but we take leap after leap in the dark.

Within the life of faith we also take a leap, not into the dark, but into the light.  Jesus tells parables to help us; inviting us to consider that we might be wrong.  We don't know fully; but nor do we guess. Our leaps of faith are rooted in the attention we pay to God and each other.

We pay attention to the pressures, the delights and the responsibilities we face.  We are to listen to what God might desire for us and demand of us in the midst of that. Our lives are to be shaped by the story of Scripture - tracing the echo of God's love; recognising our failures and our longings, and discovering that God meets us there in our frailty. 

Paul sets aside his religious/inherited status in favour of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord - the love of God with us; he also knows that in the Spirit we are called to press on towards the goal of making that truth our own. Faith is a leap into the light; embracing that assurance.  The pulse of time and eternity is that we are loved; we are God's own.

As human beings we are tempted to apply false limits to God's love.  Today's parable challenges that; perhaps it puzzles us.  Jesus says something about God; and holds up a mirror to us. To do so, he draws on Isaiah's vision: it is a love song for God's people.  The vineyard is on fertile ground.  It is dug, cleared and planted with choice vines.  After care, water and attention it should yield much fruit.  Yet something goes awry.  The grapes are wild; the vineyard is laid waste.

There is a disconnect between the hopes for justice and righteousness and the reality of bloodshed and cries. We only have to tune into the radio or pick up a Sunday paper to know sharply those cries for peace and mercy ring out today. Yet God's love remains - inviting our response.

Jesus story reflects on life of God's people: planted, protected, beloved, called to worship, called to walk in God's ways.  When they wavered, as we all do. God sent his prophets to call them back into a faithful relationship. These prophets are beaten, stoned and killed.   The Son too is rejected.

Jesus doesn't offer an interpretation; he asks a question. What do his hearers think that landowners will do?  The leaders are uncompromising.  The tenants should lose everything, even their life. The vineyard should be entrusted to those who'll secure a good harvest.

That's a human response to injustice; we seek punishment and recompense.  Jesus then turns their reply around to say something about who he is and about God's Kingdom.  He is the rejected one; but will become the corner stone.  He is the one who brings new life out of suffering. Rejection is met with love. Love that brings acceptance.

The parable challenges us about how we live with responsibility. Does our discipleship, our church life, our commitments at work or at home reflect God's love or human pride and selfishness? The Kingdom of God is always bigger than the limits of our sight. Do we bear its fruit in the gifts of patience, kindness, joy?

The Chief Priests and Pharisees realise that Jesus is speaking about them, but are too ensnared by their desire to cling onto power and influence to risk embracing a loving challenge. We too should be alert to the danger of limiting the scope of love. The parable that exposes selfish desires, and exposes us to the mystery of God's love.   Love of a God who remains faithful to his creation.

Our task as Christians to to be faithful to that love.  To find assurance and hope by being rooted in it; to live out of it such that it shapes our thoughts and actions.  We will never know entirely know; got God will surprise us. We will continue to take steps forward.  Sometimes it may feel like a leap in the dark - what if I take time to listen; if we change something; if let someone else do it there way; if we blow the whistle. But that darkness is in the dazzling darkness of the light of God. 

The God who surprises us wants us to be able to recognise ourselves in this parable, not to condemn us; but in order that we might inhabit an imaginative space where by we are alert to the dangers of our human instinct to what to control the truth; to assume responsibility for the tradition in such a way that we become exclusive, or unforgiving, or prideful. 

As we learn together what it is to be a disciple we are to put the love of God at the heart of our common life. We are to allow that love to guide our steps. That is not something easy or sentimental; rather it is difficult and disruptive. It gives without limit; it is a lifelong task. We are to be faithful to trust placed in us; to be alert to those things that cloud our vision. 

Yesterday I was in Chichester I was reminded of the prophetic and costly power of that loving resolve in the face of violence. Holding in my hand the guest book of Bishop George Bell I saw the signature of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Their friendship transcended the stereotypes of German and Britain during WWII; they resisted Nazism; spoke against carpet bombing. Both men named challenged the church; both were committed to transforming division. It was a witness to love that cost one man his life.

The lines of Isaiah are on our lips. 

He expected justice, but saw bloodshed;

righteousness, but heard a cry.

That cry goes out on the blacked out front page of today's Independent: it says on Friday a decent, caring human being was murdered in cold blood. The Bishop of Manchester issued a statement described the way Alan Henning united 'people across the boundaries of nationality faith... through his humanitarian actions and by the love that drove him on'.    On the Sunday Programme he reiterated the sickening brutality of ISIS; naming them as a footnote which wouldn't undermine our resolve.

The challenge before us is to learn to live prayerful, reconciled and witnessing lives.   We bring our hopes and fears to the cross; we name them in this Eucharist. Here in bread and wine and blessing our resolve strengthened; assured of love and forgiveness.  We become a people of hope; to persevering in faith. Here we recommit ourselves to God's love and ourselves to our community.  Take a leap into the light in all that God does in and through you here.

The inscription on your sundial, which looked stunning in the morning sun as I arrived, reads hors pars vitae - an hour is part of life. May we live for love hour by hour.  May we take the risk and count the cost of that.  May we be compelled to attend and respond to and in love, where ever that takes us.