We commence our journey through these days of Advent, leading to a destination that is not so much a finish line as it is a starting point, not so much a goal, as a waypoint on our Christian journey. A new beginning, but also a continuation. But do we need to continue the reactions and fears of the past in our own spiritual lives and our own reading of scripture? Perhaps we might understand the words of Jesus in a less literal but also more ‘revealing’ way. Advent is a good time to ask those questions…. our entire life long is the time to answer them.
Christ is a strange sort of King. By worldly reckoning kings should be dripping in jewels, living in enormous palaces with hot and cold running servants. Privileged, pampered and powerful. But the Kingship of Christ is not of this world, and not of such indulgent and transient standards. Indeed, Christianity itself cannot be judged by the corrupt and superficial measures that our society employs. For the Gospel of Christ, the Kingship of Christ turns the world upside down.
As Christians we are not called to be curators and our faith is not to be locked in a museum. Our faith is not a refuge or hiding place, or a port in a storm, but a source of challenge, of renewed energy and the courage to imagine and to create a better world. Our faith must live and grow and change and prosper – we must leave our world and our faith a little better for them having passed through our hands, for one day we too will be asked to make an account of what kind of stewards we have been.
In this service we make an act of commemoration but not celebration; we hold in our prayers those who have died and suffered in two world wars, in countless regional conflicts and in peace-keeping duties around the world. We mourn their loss and their suffering; the failure of politics and diplomacy that led to their sacrifice on the altar of human pride, obstinacy and indifference, and we also confess the darkness in our own hearts that all too often gives way to anger and seeks retribution. We pray that humanity may, before it is too late, consign war to the sins of history, and instead walk the ways of conciliation and peace.
At ‘All Saints’ we commemmorate those who the Church has held up to us through long years of tradition and prayer as somehow having an exceptional degree of holiness, sanctity, and virtue. Some of course are legends, myths of the Christian tradition, but many were real people, who have lived and hoped and dreamed, laughed and cried, loved and lost. They might also have been selfish, like us, sinful and imperfect like us, very very human, like us. But there was something. A spark – something compelling that spoke of hope, of forgiveness of peace. At this time of year we also commemorate ‘All Soul’s’ – those who were not particularly famous, nor are they generally held as examples to many but we remember those who are so inextricably linked with us that they may well have been amongst the most important influences in our lives.
Jesus issued the two great commandments: that we should love God with all our hearts and we should love our neighbours as ourselves – on these two hang all the law and the prophets. In other words, this is it, the Christian faith pared down to the absolute essentials. Such simple sentences to say and to remember, and yet how difficult to actually live up to. Moreover, before we even start, what does it mean to love God, and quite what is entailed by loving our neighbour? What do we mean by God, and who do we mean by neighbour?
Supermarkets and the efficiency of the international trade in foodstuffs, mean that our tables and fridges groan under the weight of delicious fresh food whenever and from wherever we want. But a casualty of that surplus has been our keeping of Harvest. The older of those among us will remember when the Harvest Festivals of the past were a much more important part of local and church life. But much of that has gone, with multiple harvests, products now available throughout the year, and if the harvest is poor then the supermarkets can always import. In this way many people, especially in towns and cities, can increasingly feel disconnected from the land and from our farmers and farms. Thankfully here in western County Clare, our farmers and our farms are still close and dear to us.
In Matthew’s gospel the story of the wedding banquet is not really about a social event, but is an analogy of the the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom does not happen by itself, but through the dedicated work of its people. To play our part in the creation of the Kingdom, we need to imagine what God’s rule and justice might look like and then seek to live according to that way and not the ways of the world that surrounds us. As Mahatma Ghandi once said ‘Be the change you would like to see in the world’. He also reminded us that “Whatever you do will be insufficient, but it is very important that you do it.”
Jesus tells us a parable of the vineyard, its owner and the faithless and wicked tenants. On the face of it the story seems fairly simple, about greed, betrayal and murder, but this is about far more than property disputes between a landowner and some ruthless tenants. For Jesus’s listeners the parable struck at the very core of what it meant to be Jewish, what the prophets should mean to them and how to build a relationship with God. For Christians since that time the story has all too often been misinterpreted and warped, with disastrous consequences for Jews and Christians alike. But there is something profound, uplifting and emancipating here – if we listen carefully.
The readings today present a challenge to all of us – perhaps especially to those who feel overly secure and established in our church attendance and dare I say it – perhaps a little too confident in our faith or at least taking it too much for granted. We are warned that whilst we may engage in the outward forms of religion, whilst our faith may show on the outside, we need to ask ourselves how much we have been changed, converted on the inside? How much of our life, how many of our decisions and our choices are taken because of our faith rather than despite it? Might it not be that there are those who may be judged on the surface to be less worthy, are in the eyes of God closer to his ways, closer to the paths of his son than we by comparison chose to follow. It is a question from the very beginnings of the Jewish faith, long before Christ came into the world and it continues to challenge us as we seek to follow in his ways.
It is all too easy in our daily strivings, in our aspirations and the enjoyment of what we are and what we have – to leave God out of the equation. To somehow think that our life is somehow in a separate existence, rather like the labourer’s in the vineyard – in a world of exchange and negotiation, of worldly concerns and worldly solutions. Where we owe everything to our own efforts, perhaps a bit of luck and good or bad genes and to what we have been able to wrestle away from an impersonal world of work. But that is to forget, as the eminent American protestant theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich said, that God is the very ‘ground of our being’.
Forgiveness is a much mis-understood notion. All too often Christians can be accused of being a naïvely misguided patsy if they advocate forgiveness, or hypocrites if they display any anger. On the one hand idealistic, unrealistic and culpably weak and on the other hand unwilling to live the gospel they profess. So where are we to find some sense of balance, and the true virtue of which Jesus speaks?
The essence of prayer is not asking but offering, not self-seeking but self-dedication. That is not to say that our own personal griefs and doubts and fears should not be placed before God, quite naturally if we have embarked on a conversation then all manner of concerns will rightfully crop up. What we do know, and this relates to the experience of any who have truly been through the wonderful highs and the most terrible lows of human life, is that in the last resort we pray because we must, because the needs and yearnings of our hearts cannot be hidden away or repressed without damaging the very core of our human natures.
Our cross may be one of drama and obvious pain, or it may be a burden borne quietly and without complaint over many years. It may be one big task or many smaller ones. It may be presented suddenly as a clear choice, or we may look back and realize that is what we have been carrying all along. We may feel that it is something thrust upon us or something we have chosen to do. But of one thing we can be sure, all Christians, all disciples of Christ have a cross of some kind to bear.
A lot of people have said a lot of different things about Jesus, probably the man about whom more is written than any other in history. But in all that clamour, in all the debate, in all the speculation and claim and counter-claim across time, and across different cultures and creeds – the vital question he asks of each of us is – ‘Who do you say that I am?’. The answer says as much about ourselvesves, as it does about Jesus. Some questions are defining, some answers decide how we live the rest of our lives.
In the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman did her challenge actually teach the teacher? Did the ‘dog’ teach the master? Anyone who has taught will tell you that we can learn, as much as we impart, from those whom we teach. It’s certainly an intriguing thought that Jesus may have been caught unawares and his thinking changed by her challenge, that she brought him up short and reminded him of the true implications of his own teaching and that of Isaiah, to which he referred so often. And her rebuke still calls to us today.