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Sun, Sep 24, 2017

The Gracious Landowner

The future is a world in which all faiths are equal. The Gospel reading today was St Matthew 20: 1-16
Series:July - Dec 2017
Duration:16 mins 27 secs
Sermon - Sunday 24 September, 2017
Lessons  Exodus 16: 2 – 15, Philippians 1: 21 – 30 & St Matthew 20: 1 – 16
Prayer of Illumination
Let us pray.
In You, O God, may we find immortality, union with Your Spirit, oneness, and fulfillment, wholeness and completion which this world cannot give.   Amen.
Last Sunday I preached at Glenalmond College.   In my sermon to pupils and staff, I began by saying that the one thing we need, the one essential thing we need in reading the Bible, is imagination.   The margins in the Bible are the widest of any book:  abundant space left for imagination.   A prosaic reading of Holy Writ is death, while a creative interpretation of Scripture’s sacred words is life.   In our Old Testament story today, we hear the account of complaints by the Hebrew people.   To Moses and Aaron, the Israelites said:
If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of
Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread,
for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this
whole assembly with hunger.
In the wilderness, the people starved:  they were desperate for food.   There is a very human aspect to this story.   When in Egypt, that constricted place, the people, the slaves, were eager to leave but when in the wilderness and hungry they blamed their leaders; it was all the fault of Moses and Aaron!   Do we blame our leaders for decisions we have made?   In the wilderness, the people starved.   With imagination, what are we to make of this ancient myth?
The wilderness is a place of testing; it is a barren place, one in which there is little, or nowhere to turn in our suffering.   Turn that around, suffering can often be a wilderness, a place in which we feel alone, powerless, vulnerable, even worthless.   Jesus faced His own challenges, His own inner demons, in the wilderness.   We all do:  we face our vulnerability alone, or so it can seem.   In the wilderness, we may rage at God, we may feel abandoned by God, or believe that there is no God.   With imagination, the story of the journey, the pilgrimage of the Hebrew people through the wilderness, is a story about human life, the tests and turmoil we face, and how we face them.  
I am struck that, in the story, besides the miraculous provision of quails and bread, God is there, present with the people.   In a crucial verse, we read, ‘The whole congregation looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.’   If read with a prosaic or literal mindset, we may take it for granted:  the people looked, they saw the wilderness and they saw a cloud.   No!   It is a mystical vision:  it is the sort Jesus had when He was baptised, the sort Cleopas and his friend had on the Road to Emmaus and the same sort that Paul had on the Road to Damascus.   These are inner visions:  visions of the soul, of spiritual imagination.   In the midst of suffering, with the inner eye, the eye of the heart, the whole congregation turned aside, looked towards the wilderness, into the deepest darkness, and there they glimpsed the glory of God, the Shekinah, the Sacred Presence.   If we stop and look, we too can see the cloud:  in our wilderness, in our suffering, in that darkest place (a cloud), we may see the Divine. 
Writing in the 1980s, Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose teenage son died of a rapid-ageing disease, said that children who are sick should pray.   Kushner said:
            They should pray for strength to bear what they have to
            bear.   They should pray that sickness and its treatment
            not hurt them too much.   They should pray as a way of
            talking out their fears without the embarrassment of having
            to say them out loud, and as a reassurance that they are
            not alone.   God is close to them even late at night in the
            hospital when their parents have gone home and all the
            doctors have left.   God is still with them even when they
            are so sick that their friends no longer come to visit.
            The fear of pain and the fear of abandonment are perhaps
            the most troubling aspects of a child’s illness, and
            prayer should be used to ease those fears.
In the wilderness, in the night, in the darkness and in the midst of suffering, God is present.   Paradoxically, in the dark and deserted place, God is present.   The story of the Hebrew people is that they saw the Shekinah, the Divine Presence, on their pilgrimage, in their suffering.   The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, said that spiritual practice is not a remote intellectual reflection on an idea or concept of God; it is a seeking after an experience of Presence.   It is a disciplined craving for union, oneness and intimacy.  
In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul said, ‘For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’   Through imprisonments, tortures and inner struggles, Paul said, ‘To live is Christ, and to die is gain.’   The persecutor Saul came to discover Christ within him; within his own soul he saw the Shekinah, the Holy of Holies.   Dwelling in his own wilderness, his own darkness, Paul saw the Divine.   Metaphorically, mystically, his soul was fed with quails and bread, fed by the Spirit who feeds us all.
The nineteenth century mystic, George Matheson, sought meaning in his moments of suffering.   For Matheson, it was not simply that he sought God in suffering, but that his suffering meant something and led him further on his inner journey.   Matheson said he sought the joy of harvest; in other words, that from the buried grain of his life harvest would come.   In prayer, he said:
            Reveal to me the meaning of my failures.   Teach me
            the track of the path I deemed trackless.   Show me
            the angel sitting on the tomb of my buried self.   Show
            me that the man with whom I wrestled at Peniel was
            a man from heaven….Show me that there was manna
            in my desert, which even Canaan did not hold.
For Matheson, our wilderness experiences are as formative and as much of God as those on the mountain top.   It is a profound theology of absolute trust.  
When now we turn to the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard.   On the face of it, read literally, unimaginatively, it may appear to be about economics, workers’ pay, zero hour contracts or bad management.   No.   The parables of Jesus are about one thing and one thing only:  God.   Jesus was intoxicated with the generosity, the magnanimity of the One He called Father.   The parable is a story that for all people, whoever they are, however worthy or marginalized in society, God’s acceptance, embrace and love are unconditional and shared in full measure with all.   At a time when the Roman Emperor was deemed the son of God, when deity resided in the powerful, Jesus told the beggar, the blind, the child and the woman, the Kingdom of Heaven is within you, the Shekinah is within you:  you are a God-bearer.   Read literally, the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard makes no sense; it doesn’t work.   Metaphorically, it is a story about God’s unconditional love for all:  for Jews and Gentiles, for those who have followed Jesus for a long time and for those who have just started out on the journey.   Like the quails and the bread, all shared equally, God’s love is shared equally.   Just as the Parable of the Prodigal Son is better rendered the Parable of the Forgiving Father, so the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard is better as the Parable of the Gracious Owner.
In our time, for me, this parable is a lesson about God’s relationship to the different world faiths.   Whatever claims each may legitimately make about antiquity, whatever the rich and cultured heritage each may present, God’s love for each one is equal.   On Tuesday last, together with others from Mayfield Salisbury, I attended a Service of Worship at the Mandir, the Hindu Temple in Edinburgh.   Standing side by side with Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and other Christians, we worshipped and meditated through the chants and ritual of Hinduism.   It is possible to find true unity despite great apparent differences.   Unity is spiritual; it is of the heart.   It is not narrowly doctrinal, which is of the head.   With sympathy and love, it is possible to worship together:  all share in God’s love equally, all pursue inner peace, shalom or the Buddha nature.  
The curse of religion is exclusivity:  exclusivity is a sin.   The Jewish scholar, Laura Bernstein, writes:
            There is no uglier blemish on the face of religion than
            the running sore of exclusivism, filled with all the poison         
            of religious arrogance and egotism……
The world will one day belong to those who realise, as
Hinduism teaches, that they are divine.   Those who, as
Buddhism reminds us, are truly awake, enlightened, and
compassionate.   Those who, as Islam declares, strive
for justice and peace.   Those who, as Judaism proclaims,
seek righteousness and mercy and walk humbly with
God.   Those who, as Christianity announces, live and
love in the world as Jeshu did.
Jesus was intoxicated with His consciousness of the One who fills all things, all worlds, all world faiths; who feeds each one equally and who is to be found not only on the mountain top but mysteriously, mystically, in human suffering.    Amen. 
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Mayfield Salisbury Church Memorials 1914-1918

  • Because God is both knowable and unknowable the tension of the symbol, the multilayers of the myth and the openness of the poetic are all vital to our desire to celebrate the Mystery to whom we relate and in whom we have our being.
    Mark Oakley

  • You must love him as he is: neither God, nor spirit, nor image; even more, the One without commingling, pure, luminous ...

    Meister Eckhart

  • The purpose of our life is God's glory. However lowly a life is, that is what makes it great.
    Oscar Romero

  • Faith may justify bigotry or fanaticism, as Church history tragically witnesses. It needs a safeguard. If it is not animated as it were by the greatest of the theological virtues (love), faith can become defective.
    Thomas Norris

  • Dry not, dry not, your tears of love eternal! Only to eyes that fail to weep does this world seem so dull and dead. Dry not, dry not, those long, sad tears of love.
    Johann von Goette

  • The post modern paradigm manifests itself as a unity which preserves diversity and diversity which strives after unity.
    David Bosch

  • There is only one assertion that requires no evidence. Children are a sacred trust...Unless we care properly for our children, we shall never build a better world.
    'A Good Childhood’ The Children’s Society

  • These are only hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses; and the rest is prayer.
    'The Dry Salvages' T.S.Eliot

  • According to strict truth, God is incomprehensible, and incapable of being measured.

  • Myth is a story about the way things never were, but always are.
    Thomas Mann

  • In the darkness ...The child of your love - and now become as the most hated one - the one You have thrown away as unwanted - unloved ..... The darkness is so dark .... I have no faith.
    Mother Teresa

  • I love the Bible. I owe my faith and my life to the Bible and its liberating message. It is in the Bible that I first met Jesus ... I too am included in God's embrace.
    Gene Robinson

  • It is this great absence that is like a presence, that compels me to address it without hope of a reply ....
    R.S. Thomas

  • Faith is not a proud self-consistent philosophy. It involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can't be solved by analysis. It is therefore a living response to the grace of God as revealed in fragile lives.
    Mark Oakley

  • Any religion which does not say that God is hidden is not true.
    Blaise Pascal

  • The contemporary Church is losing aspects of its wide and generous memory and therefore condemning itself to become a 'swimming pool Church' - one that has all the noise coming from the shallow end.
    Mark Oakley

  • For all your doctrinal headaches take Paradox.
    Mark Oakley

  • The true vision and the true knowledge of what we seek consists precisely in not seeing, in an awareness that our goal transcends all knowledge and is everywhere cut off from us by the darkness of incomprehensibility.
    St Gregory of Nyssa

  • Death, death be hanged, the Lord has promised me that I shall live. This I believe!
    Martin Luther

  • We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life have not been put to rest.

  • Religion is the flight of the alone to the Alone.

  • Stupid clergymen appeal quite directly to a Bible passage directly understood ....
    Soren Kirkegaard

  • What is the point of the arts of reading and criticism as long as the ecclesiastical interpretation of the Bible, Protestant as well as Catholic, is cultivated as ever?
    Friedrich Nietzsche

  • A figure like Ecclesiast, rugged and luminous, chants in the dark a text that is the answer, although obscure.
    Wallace Stevens

  • Myth is the poetry of the soul.
    Sara Maitland

  • Our loss of the ability to think mythically, poetically, allegorically, creatively, theologically, and artfully is a greater threat to our religious experience than anything good scientists have to report ...
    Sara Maitland

  • In general, Zen attitude is that words and truth are incompatible, or at least that no words can capture truth.
    Douglas Hofstadter

  • 'God' is a one word poem
    Rowan Williams

  • What is today? Today is eternity.
    Meister Eckhart

  • Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things.
    Meister Eckhart

  • The most powerful hunger we have, mostly suppressed and misdirected, is the hunger for God.
    Miroslav Volf

  • We frequently judge that things are as we wish them to be, for through personal feeling true perspective is easily lost.
    Thomas a Kempis

  • Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.
    Rabindranath Tagore

  • God is the beyond in our midst.
    Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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