Sermon: Palm Sunday Evensong

Mavis Wilson
Sunday 29th March 2015
Choral Evensong
Mark 12.1-12
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A very fruitful vine covered the south wall of my old Rectory and each year in September and October it produced increasing numbers of bunches of sweet red grapes which provided not only gifts for all kinds of people who called in but was also the dessert for many a healthy meal. In this diocese we can boast the largest vineyard in England at Denbies in the foothills of the Surrey Hills near Dorking which has interestingly changed its name from a vineyard to Denbies Wine Estate. Perhaps that sounds more impressive than the humble vineyard!

How things sound and are heard – with whose ears - is always important. With whose ears was Jesus’s story of the vineyard and the wicked tenants heard?

Vineyards and grapevines were a familiar sight in Palestine and often their owners did not cultivate them themselves but left other people in charge and only returned from time to time to gather the rent, regularly paid in kind. If you were a first-century Jew you would often have heard people compared to vines and vineyards. You would have heard the Jewish Scriptures frequently refer to Israel as being a vine that God planted. As a first century Jew you may have recited Psalm 80 in your morning prayers in which the Psalmist says to God, "You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land." You would have heard tell of your history of how God had brought Israel out of Egypt and planted her in the Promised Land.

You would also have heard the words of the Hebrew prophets who likened Israel to a vine or vineyard. Quite probably you might have chanted these words of Isaiah: "my beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes You may have been haunted by the words of God spoken through Jeremiah: "I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?"

Precisely because a first-century Jew would be very familiar with the symbolic meaning of vine and vineyard, Jesus’s story of the evil tenants has immediate resonance to the ears of his listeners. But why did the religious leaders get so angry? This story comes in Mark’s gospel in the context of conflict with the religious leaders about Jesus’s authority, In his story is Jesus   implicitly daring to suggest that the religious leaders have failed in their attempt to care for Israel, God’s vineyard. Unlike the owner who constructed it so carefully setting a boundary around it and a watch tower to guard it, have they neglected it and allowed it to run to rack and ruin  No wonder their hackles rise. Who is this man Jesus to question either their success in their task or their motivation? What right or authority does he have to demand an acknowledgment of his claims on their attention or assent?  Their ill feeling boils over, exacerbated by the memory of Jesus having rather got the better of them when they couldn’t answer his question about where John’s baptism came from which Mark places just before this passage. They creep away seething and plotting to get rid of him one way or another.

Other listeners at the time might have heard the story in another way. The apparently outrageous and ill-conceived decision of the owner of the vineyard to send his son after the first messengers had been beaten and killed would possibly have been heard as simply the last resort in the face of the violent and rapacious tenants, who may even have thought they had a right to the inheritance as sitting tenants if they got rid of the heir.

For the listeners to Mark’s gospel in the early church however, it would have been heard perhaps in a more similar way to the way in which we hear it- as a reference to Jesus and the rejection which he faced not only from the religious authorities but also, in the hour of his passion, from his followers, even some of his disciples. You will notice that the anthem to-night puts the words of the prophets lament into Jesus’ mouth in the context of his passion O vineyard, my chosen one I planted you. How are you changed from sweet to bitter to have crucified me and released Barabbas.

What resonance might this story have for us now who call ourselves followers of Jesus and why is it set as a reading for Palm Sunday evening? How might we, how should we hear it?

Some of you may have read a recently acclaimed first novel by Jessie Burton –The Miniaturist

Set in sixteenth century Amsterdam it tells the story of a very young woman who marries a wealthy older merchant. As a wedding gift her husband gives her an ornate but empty dolls house which is a miniature replica of the house in which they live. She gradually buys pieces of furniture, figures and objects to furnish the house, but other objects for the house also mysteriously appear as gifts. The real point is that the miniature house exactly reflects the strange events, unusual inhabitants and dark secrets of the family house itself. It is a microcosm of the outside world both revealing and reflecting reality.

We too are a microcosm of the world. We contain within ourselves a plethora of thoughts, emotions and characteristics some of which are known to us, some are known to other people around us, some we try hard to keep secret and some are hidden, deeply buried within ourselves. For that reason we can easily fool ourselves about how we might hear Jesus’ story of the wicked tenants. We who shouted Hosannas this morning surely will never be those who deny Jesus? We want to be on the side of Jesus, we want to be faithful, but inside us there are all kinds of self-preserving tendencies, desires for comfort, potential for cynicism and even murderous thoughts which might easily erupt into the shout ‘crucify’! Maybe there really is someone else whom we secretly want to see crucified, removed from our path, got out of our way, someone who doesn’t value us or who blocks the pathway of our success and importance - in hating them we crucify the Lord again.

Holy Week offers us the possibility of pilgrimage. It is a chance to travel the journey of Jesus’ pain, suffering, uncertainty and loss and recognise that we each carry those things too. If we can honestly name them, offer them to him as we travel with Jesus, letting go of them in repentance and faith, then we will find ourselves also sharing in the mysterious love, deep compassion and healing which the Christ offers us from the Cross. Holy Week is our chance to come again and offer him the all that we are and to welcome him with thanksgiving into the tiny part of his vineyard which is our life, to give him authority again over all that we are.

It is very possible to come to church on Palm Sunday and not to come again until Easter Day. That is the way to avoid the heart rending pain of the events which we remember but will also mean missing out on the depth of joy and glory of the resurrection day. So at least do set time aside to read the Scriptures each day and make space to come to church on Good Friday.

We need also needs to hear this story in the wider context of the time beyond Easter. The vineyard of which Jesus spoke and with which those first century Jews were familiar is no longer simply the representation of Israel but of the whole world. In his incarnation, Cross and resurrection Jesus came to claim and to bring in God’s kingdom in the whole of creation. How can we join in completing in that task? How can we affirm the authority of Jesus Christ in our world to-day even amidst the rhetoric, noise and general mayhem of the General Election coming soon?

No political party has a monopoly on Christian values, so we are required to make a careful and hard judgement about how we will vote. We need to look and see where the causes of Jesus are best represented in justice, care for the poor, blessing of the sorrowful, healing of the sick, love for children, welcome for the needy, care for the creation and hope for the dying.  In so far as we see these things in the political aspirations of our MPs, in the leadership values of those in authority and in our own lives we welcome the Son into the vineyard of this world and pray that he will be able to claim it as his own. May that prayer and attitude be ours as we face the future of our country and world.  Amen