Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Rev'd Robert Warren                                                               
Matthew 21:33-46

This Sunday’s parable is one of the “hard teachings” within the Gospels.  I’ve seen it used aggressively in congregations where established historic congregations fail to take stock of the changing face of the neighborhood or where older traditional leadership in congregations have failed to reach out the younger families looking for ministry and welcome in their local church.  It’s often used badly by young clergy.  They practice “ferocious” in the full length mirror at the Rectory as they rehearse the final lines in their sermon.  Like any edged implement it needs to be taken carefully off the shelf.  It has its purpose primarily to heal and improve - not to cut and bash.  

The setting is that of a middle eastern vineyard which forms part of the estate of a non-resident owner.  He has hired it out to tenants whose job it is to till the soil, trim the vines, and effect a reliable harvest.  The master is here a circumlocution for God.  The vineyard is Israel - a chosen nation filled with the promise of bearing the message of God’s desire to reconcile the whole world to himself.  The vineyard is fruitful and God is at work there.  Vines grow even in the poor and rocky soil - grapes are produced which would be a source of blessing for the surrounding community.  In the parable, though, the controversy centers around this fact: The vineyard is both the master’s vineyard with a particular purpose within the master’s mind and also the place where the tenant farmers live - where they raise their children and put their nameplate on the door.  

It is mine - says the Master.  
It is ours - say the tenants.

I will not be preaching this Sunday.  I’m off the hook.  

A wise preacher would encourage his or her congregation to fulfill their task of cultivating this vineyard aggressively with an eye to the richest possible harvest but to develop, above all, some genuine excitement about sharing the fruits widely.  Such preachers would encourage wistfulness and realism about keeping a light touch upon our possession of the work in the Kingdom.  Ripe grapes or heavy-headed grain late in the season - they are there to be given away, to enrich others, to feed communities and to be something beyond the bounds of our natural communities.  The vineyard may be a source of blessing to us and to our families.  It does not end with us.  If we force the issue, God will find a way around us.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Proper 21 - Year APentecost 16
Matthew 21:28-32

In Sunday's Gospel reading Jesus explains that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are getting into heaven before the Pharisees and the Scribes because they have seen the light and changed their ways.

I was staying with former parishioners from Montreal in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  They were out and I was reading a book.  A  campaign robocall came in on the telephone and was picked up by the answering machine.  An election of some sort was going on.  The candidate's recorded message was clear about the shortcomings of his opponent.  There were the usual over-the-top assaults on character but I particularly remember that opposing Candidate X had also offended by "flip-flopping" on Proposition Ten or Twelve or something.  I have no idea what the issue was but it was clear that flip-flopping, in itself, was a very bad thing.

Flip-flop.  Verb.  Je flip-flop, vous flip-floppez, il faut que nous flip-floppions.  Once upon a time, Candidate X had an opinion.  Now he has another.  He is not the man he was before.  I, on the other hand, have not changed my mind. Vote for me.

What has candidate X done?  Has he read a few more books on the subject?  His bright young intern has brought along the latest research on the topic to the morning meeting.  Candidate X has talked to his constituents and realized the economic and political consequences of Proposition Ten.  His changing opinions have even strained his relations with members of his own party.  A good Democrat or a good Republican would be the sort to believe in something like Proposition Ten.  Candidate X, though, has changed his mind.  He now believes Proposition Ten to be a complete dog.  It should be opposed.  

Bring on the flip-flopper, I say.  There's someone I can trust.  Where did we get this belief in the immutability of opinion or in the goodness of people behaving like Newtonian solids traveling through space in never-ending straight lines?  Biographers are forever trying to present consistent pictures of their subjects.  The greatness of the man and woman was somehow present in embryo from the earliest years.  In the words of Dylan Thomas

The oak is felled in the acorn
and the hawk in the egg kills the wren.

You have the right to change your mind.  Jesus is asking men and women to change their minds.  Evidence of such would be that you no longer do quite so well as the men and women you were before.  Your opponents will have a heyday.  Your wineskin no longer fits.  Those who love you will worry.  Your children may regard you with uncertainty.  But it is no weakness on your part.  It may be your greatest strength and the source of your (and others') liberation.

Why have you not changed your mind?  Are you simply not listening?

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Exodus 16:2-15 

The Old Testament readings from the Book of Exodus have been quite fruitful these last three weeks.  This week’s reading is no exception.  The topic is the anxiety which the Israelites feel in the midst of their wanderings through the desert after a dramatic escape from Egypt. Moses and Aaron are feeling the full weight of the individual and familial angst. The task of leadership becomes difficult as hitherto forbidden questions begin to be asked: Was the life we led as slaves back in Egypt really that bad?  Was there not bread back home - occasionally even meat in the pot?  We might die out here in the desert.  It could all go so wrong.  

We might recognize an undercurrent of anxiety in our community here in Clermont-Ferrand.  Topic headings might well include:   

- The distance from family members - both young and old - who must face life transitions far away and without us.  
- The loss, in some cases, not only of an income but frequently the vocational world of one spouse who must retool and mourn the loss or suspension of one of the things upon which his or her self-worth was based.  
- Places which were strange, foreign or incomprehensible were once seen on television or in National Geographic.  Now they are all around us.  Our children’s education is in a different mode, perhaps even in a different language.  We don’t understand how the bureaucracy works or even, for that matter, how the shops are set out.  How are we going to find what we want to eat? 

And so there are a few (slightly stretched) analogies between the way some of our lives feel and those of the people of Israel in the desert.  What the heck are we doing here, anyway?  Do we know if it’s even going to work out?    

In Sunday's passage from Exodus the challenge is addressed by Moses and Aaron.  Recourse is made to faith in what God promises: The people will eat both bread and meat because God can provide even in out-of-the-way places.  The second point is a challenge: The people will need to change their diet.  Quails and Manna is the plat du jour.    

God is faithful.  We will have enough.  God provides, but the people must learn to delight in the food which he gives. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Rev'd Robert Warren
Exodus 14:19-31

God has rights of salvage on us. Our life is not our own.

There is a story deep within us. Ask your children about the crossing of the Red Sea - they know the story well. The people of God emerge on the other side - safe and owing their salvation to God who brought them to the far shore. The events of the crucifixion and resurrection take place at the time of the Jewish feast of Passover which looks back to the Exodus events. Jesus might have needed to raise his voice at the Last Supper what with the noises of crowded Jerusalem streets below filled with
Passover pilgrims.

“This is my body. This is my blood”.

God is our deliverer. He brings his people from death to life. Because it’s a familiar story, we tend to think of it as our own: The Exodus is Israel’s defining story. Easter is the Christian beginning. But it’s a story that has made strangers of us as well. Our life has been granted to us. We are not its builders. Like all who might flop on to the shore after a narrow escape we see with clarity, for a little while,
what could have been our lot. We are thankful - for a while. The yearly celebration of the Passover meal in Judaism had, as its purpose, the regular reminder that we are still that same people - eating their meal in haste so that they could be moved by God when they needed to be moved. The weekly
celebration of the Christian Eucharist reaffirms this same fact - that we do not belong to ourselves - we are a saved people, rather than an accomplished people.

When we are commanded to give and to love and to forgive, why should we? Do we have no right of possession? Do we not have a right to reasonable boundaries? Have we no justifiable grudges?
There is a story, deep within us. It's a story which defines us in terms of something other than the retention of our rights and comforts. With the waters of the sea restored calmly behind us, our life remains a new enough thing - enough of a gift - that it can be placed at the service of others and made available for the purposes of God - for mercy and forgiveness, courage and self-sacrifice.

"Should you not have mercy....as I had mercy on you?"

Friday, 5 September 2014

The Rev’d Robert Warren  
Ezekiel 33:7-11

There was a choice of Old Testament readings this Sunday and the Rector’s eye fell upon Ezekiel 33 as somehow being “just the ticket”.  Oh, here we go:  wickedness, sin and death.  Clergy are a jolly lot, aren’t they? As the 10:30 AM services at the Royat chapel kick off again for the year might we suspect that a new era of fiery preaching (in a tasteful Episcopalian mode bien sur ) is about to begin?  

Know this, first of all: The passage relates to a growing self-awareness on the part of the people that all is not well with them.  The preaching of the prophet in troubled times has hit a nerve.  They say “Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?”

They have come to believe there is no remedy for what ails them.  

God’s question to them - through the words of the prophet Ezekiel - is this:  Why should you die in your sins?  It is not necessary.  It is not the pleasure of God that men and women should find no remedy.  

So it usually goes with the people of Israel in their lower moments.  Life is Egypt as slaves,  life under the occupation of foreign oppressors, life lived with a corrupted religious life or under the leadership of violent and corrupt Kings - it’s just the way it is.  It’s their lot in life.  They’ve made their beds somewhere along the way and now need to lie in them.  Bring on, then, successive and eternal chapters of the same damned thing.

And the question - “why” - well, it’s a child’s question, isn’t it?  Our kids ask it from the back seat of the car with the innocence of believing that one can always redraw a picture if it’s no good.  

Still, it’s a tantalizing question.  The question that God asks the people through the prophet Ezekiel might even nag us.  What is it that ties us down to weakness, failure, sin and unhappiness?  Do we not know of a better way?

“Why’ does it need to be the way it is?