The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
: Isaiah 5.1-7; Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-46
Last summer I was in California and whilst in the Napa Valley was able to stroll in some wonderful vineyards, through the carefully tended rows of vines, each bearing bunches of ripening grapes
There’s something beautiful about vineyards, wherever you are in the world, and whether or not you’re a wine connoisseur. And having seen them in South Africa and Australia, Italy, France and even Kent, as well California, there’s something seductively familiar and comforting about them.
Back in 1934, Gabriel Chevallier wrote his famous satirical novel, ‘Clochemerle’ which you may have read. It’s the story of a secluded, rustic, wine-growing village in the Beaujolais region of France, where traditions are long-established and nothing has changed in years, until, that is, the inhabitants are exposed to all the new ideas and products of the modern world in the shape of a public lavatory for the men. The presence of the pissoir ripped the community apart and exposed a great deal – if you’ll excuse the pun - including all the politics and opinions and hypocrisy that the former sleepiness had been able to supress.
We’ve heard a number of parables over the last few weeks which involve this whole notion of the vineyard. It’s a familiar feature in scripture, whether it’s Naboth’s vineyard being eyed up by Jezebel and taken possession of by underhand means or the wonderful song of the vineyard from the prophet Isaiah, our First Reading, which has, so beautifully, echoes of psalmody in it. The vineyard is a powerful metaphor for the nation and the people and the kingdom to which we are looking.
But just as in sleepy Clochemerle, things can easily be disturbed and what was all calm and lovely all of a sudden becomes disrupted and disturbed. And it is Jesus who we are reminded of today in the gospel who is the disturber, the disrupter. Jesus, the stone rejected by the builder is the one who caused people to trip up, to stumble and fall. This passage from Matthew is one of mixed metaphors really – the vineyard and the cornerstone – but what we see is how the idyllic is challenged, the fantasy is disturbed by the presence of God.
Stephen Spender, one time Poet Laureate, was a controversial figure. His sexuality resisted categorization – what was he – well he seemed to be a bit of everything – he was simply Stephen Spender, he defied being pigeon-holed and therefore diminished by people. But one of his poems is called ‘The labourer in the vineyard’ and it ends like this
With outspread fingers is a star whose rays
Concentrate timeless inspiration
Onto the god descended in a vineyard
With hand unclenched against the lake's taut sail
Flesh filled with statue, as the grape with wine.
Jesus, who describes himself as the vine, Jesus who takes wine and calls it his blood, who places himself in the cup and asks us to drink, is the ‘god descended in a vineyard’, who enters the world to disrupt it.
Paul was ok. He was from a clear cut background. He could easily describe his roots as we heard in our Second Reading.
‘a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.’
And then he meets Jesus and all of this solid certainty on which his life is built is discarded
‘For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.’
I was all set to become a civil servant. I was reading for a degree that would give me skills that would be helpful in the pursuit of a ‘good job’ as my mum would describe it. I’d managed to box God up at the back of my head and deal with that. Then, somehow, God escaped from the box and disrupted my life and my plans with an irresistible call to ordained ministry. All my good plans – turned on their head by this disruptive God, the trip hazard in so much of our lives.
This is Black History Month and we’re engaging with it in a new way. This evening you can watch the first of our four special online services, one each week for the next four weeks in which we will be hearing members of our congregation and the congregation at St Hugh’s tell their story.
There’s something disruptive about doing that, listening to one another speak about what life is like for them, what it has been like for them. It’s disruptive when new movements arise like the #BlackLivesMatter movement which came to the fore this year, in the midst of this crisis and made us all think again and made us think hard. Some people would like to push it all away, not confront the issues – but we are not such people, and not such a congregation. If we claim to be radical then disruption is part of our nature and we rejoice in ‘the god descended in a vineyard’ the one who comes among us and trips us up in our complacency. Black Lives Matter and that may be disruptive truth to some – it should be welcome truth to us.
The labourer stands there ‘outspread fingers’ as a star, the fingers of the nailed hands on the wood of the cross, holding him there to disrupt our understanding of God. But this is the God who loves us, who is incarnate amongst us, who makes himself known in the breaking of the bread, who gives himself in wine poured out, who breaks down the vineyard walls and shatters our complacency, who shows in his loving that your life matters and your life matters and my life matters and black lives matter, to God.
‘Flesh filled with statue, as the grape with wine.’
This is the God who draws us and welcomes us and feeds us, who knows us and loves us, this is the God to whom you matter.