Sermon in Ankara for Trinity XVII (4th October 2020) - The Revd Patrick Irwin
Today’s readings are concerned with new beginnings. In our first reading we heard the Ten Commandments. For us the Ten Commandments are as ancient as the hills, and may seem rather negative, but when they were issued they were strikingly new. In recent weeks we have heard of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and the bickering journey through the wilderness, disobeying God and quarrelling with Moses, and sometimes even wishing that they were back in Egypt. Yet they are free, and the Ten Commandments are a code for free men and women who have control over their own lives. One of the commandments is to observe the Sabbath and abstain from work on it. Imagine telling that to an Egyptian overseer intent on making his slaves produce bricks every day of the week!
What a contrast this makes with the Israelites’ life in Egypt, where there may have been bread but there was no rest and no freedom! This newly liberated community has been given a code to cultivate its members’ love for and obedience to God, and their compassion for their neighbours. Interestingly, there is no mention of loyalty to any human ruler. Leaders, of course, there were, as in any human community, and the Israelites were in no doubt that Moses was their leader, but his role is not a concern of the Ten Commandments. The code is concerned to inculcate loyalty and obedience to God alone.
The Ten Commandments are a code for the Israelites as a nation of free men and women, and it tells them both how to treat God and how to treat their neighbours. Jesus neatly summarised them as teaching love of God and love of neighbour, and so indeed they do. Their universality and conciseness have made them hugely influential in the history of the world, but they too had a beginning, as a code to guide a newly liberated and uncertain people along the way to God.
In his book Beginning to Pray Metropolitan Anthony Bloom describes how he was nearly caught by the Gestapo in wartime Paris. “During the German occupation of France,” he writes, “I was in the resistance movement and, coming home from the metro, I was caught by the police…What took place at that moment was this: I had a past, I had a future, and I was moving out of one into the other by walking briskly down the steps. At a certain moment someone put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Stop, give me your papers.” At that moment…I realised that I had no past, because the real past I had was the thing for which I would be shot…I found myself standing there like the lizard who had been caught by the tail and had run away leaving the tail somewhere behind, so that the lizard ended where the tail had been.”
Paul as he writes in Philippians was in a similar situation. He had been walking from his past into his future when God, as it were, put a hand on his shoulder and took him from a past and future that he thought he understood to new life in Christ. Paul describes his past in terms of his family, nationality, and faith, and his accomplishments. So would we all. Paul is now free of his past, not because he is suffering from amnesia (indeed on occasion he is happy to make mention of it) but because his belonging to Christ is more important than his background. That he is a follower of Christ matters more than all of his past. That Christ recognises and welcomes him is more important than all his past achievements.
Paul uses the imagery of a race to describe the Christian life, and this makes his point well. An athlete who keeps looking over his shoulder will not win the race. He needs to keep his eyes on the prize, the goal to which he is heading. Just so are we Christians to run the race of life with our eyes on God ahead of us rather than on our past failures or successes.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus tells the Parable of the Vineyard. As we hear its familiar sentences it is easy to forget two moments of apparent craziness. That the owner of the vineyard should sent his own son to treat with men who had already mistreated or killed his slaves is as astonishing as the belief of the tenants that by killing the owner’s son they would obtain the inheritance rather than be punished for their crime. Traditionally the tenants represent the leaders of the people of Israel, who had been entrusted by the owner, God, with the care of the vineyard, Israel, but killed successive messengers of God in the form of the prophets. Then God sent his Son, Jesus, and he was killed. It is interesting, and a tribute to Matthew’s skill as a raconteur, that it is Jesus’ listeners rather than Jesus himself who spells out the tenants’ doom. Such a punishment would have been expected by Jesus’ audience, but Jesus himself does not describe it.
The parable pictures well the way in which successive messengers of God and finally God’s own son were treated, and the listeners’ reply indicates that the Jewish religious leaders as tenants will be replaced by the Christian church. So indeed the early Church was to understand it, but we may stop to observe that God’s response to his Son’s death was not to unleash the legions of heaven on his murderers, but to restore Jesus to life. The outcome was not massacre but Resurrection. That too might seem crazy on God’s part, as crazy as sending his Son in the first place to such dangerous people as ourselves, but it is a divine craziness for which we are profoundly grateful. We humans, who are complicit in the death of Jesus, are offered a new beginning. Armed with our code of behaviour, the Ten Commandments, so helpfully summarised for us by Jesus, we may indeed run the straight race through God’s good grace, as we set out afresh in the power and the light of the Resurrection.