Privilege of Faith
Preacher: The Revd Rob Ryan, Cathedral Curate (2010-2012)
19 October 2008, 10:30 (Trinity 22)
Well, good morning!
First I need to thank you for the incredibly warm welcome I have received from you over the last few weeks since my ordination and joining the staff at this great cathedral.
My family were struck by the warmth of the welcome at the community tea. Well ... actually that’s not quite true - my boys were struck by the quality and amount of cake!
I’m still in the process of wondering if this is true and what is happening if I’m honest - and if anyone had said to me when I started training that I would end up at a cathedral ... well there would have been a laugh or two! But seriously thank you.
I will be here for the next 3 or so years and have come to realise how much of a privilege it is to be part of this place and part of quite a great team (do you know ... each of the chapter individually asked me to say that and offered various sums of money which I will claim later!)
Before I start to share some thoughts on our readings I wish to make a plea ... I don’t wish to offend, but if I do, or if you think I speak heresy ... please bare this in mind ... I am only the curate! As a curate I am here to learn. I know very little!
It is a privilege to be able to worship in this building and to be able to walk where Christians have walked for centuries - and I am sure it is a privilege that you are incredibly aware of as well! these surroundings, the history, the stories ...
And privilege is a word that connects our readings which were wonderfully read to us today.
Israel felt privileged. Israel were privileged as the chosen race, they had the special relationship with God. The one God, the creator of the universe and Israel were like that. But ... Israel seem’s to have forgotten how special that relationship was and become complacent.
Jesus talks about this in this parable. Clearly the vineyard here he is speaking of is the same as that outlined in Isaiah with almost identical language of fence, wine press and watch tower. Israel’s role, as the tenants, according to Jesus was to care for this vineyard. What a privilege ... to be trusted by God.
But ... as tenants they seem to have lost the plot. They seem to have forgotten who this vineyard belongs to. They seem to have decided that it is their own. It’s almost as if they worship it rather than God.
A few years ago I worked as director of Gillingham YFC. My role, as an evangelist, was to share the gospel with young people which we did through a variety of activities. Jade was one such young woman I shared with. Now at GYFC we did not do many of those big meetings things which we think of with the word evangelist - you know ... big stage, lights, music, speaker and then an altar call. That just wasn’t out style for most of our work. But this was one such event but with the difference that the altar call was ‘if you are interested in Jesus come back in the morning for breakfast and we will chat’.
Jade had been worshipping creation and a set of rules. In this parable Jesus suggests that the leaders of Israel have been doing the same. They’ve lost the plot, they have forgotten what its all about, they think they own the vineyard and want to keep it to themselves. Worshipping the creation, not the creator.
This parable is amazing because Jesus is so blunt in it. Imagine that scene in the temple, the tension, the excitement - who is this man having a go at the priests and the Pharisees in their own place? The Pharisees realised he was ‘’aving a go’ so surely others would have realised too.
More radically, Jesus is answering that question of ‘who is this guy?’Jesus is being quite clear - He is the son of the vineyard owner! In verse 37 I detect a bit of Jesus humour and maybe even sarcasm. It jumped out at me because it’s quite odd! ‘Finally he sent his son to them saying,”they will respect my son.”’ Doesn’t that double use of ‘son’ strike you as odd? why not ‘finally he sent his son saying ‘they will respect him’. That’s how we would normally talk. My view, and its only a view for you to check out and consider, is that Jesus is labouring this word to make a point. I wonder, when Jesus told this parable if it sounded like ... placing that emphasis on son.
Paul picks up on this theme of privilege in his letter to the Philippians. Another amazing passage where we gain an incredible insight into what Jesus means to Paul. I don’t know about you, but as I start to read these words of Paul I want to slap him! It’s a clear indicator that I have lived in Medway far too long and been influenced far too much by those days when I was allowed to stand on the terraces at Gillingham Football Club! But back to Paul ... talk about big yourself up!
Verses 4-6 read like a CV for a top job in the world of Judaism. He’s pulling out his pedigree, he’s showing how hot in the Hebrew world he is - he was circumcised on the 8th day and so a real authentic Jew. There’s more, he’s descended from Israel, not a convert as some of his listeners would have been. Still more - part of the tribe of Benjamin, the one tribe that stayed pure and had a reputation for courage, calling himself a Hebrew of Hebrew’s - one of the elite! I mean come on ... how big is this man’s head! But there is more ... a Pharisee - so he kept to the letter of the law and a persecutor of the church out of his zeal for God! Some commentaries say he was the model Jew - no ... he’s stating far more than that, Paul is stating he is the model Jew. The top dog - was there anyone else anywhere that could possibly match his credentials!
Then, instantly he turns this on his head by saying all of that is unimportant. As he made that turn, changed his tack I imagine the sharp intake of breath caused the oxygen to vacate that room! The room with no oxygen becomes a vacuum as he continues in verse 8 by saying all that pedigree stuff before was rubbish! Now, I’ve ummed and aahed about sharing this in a cathedral setting but I think you can cope and need to know that to get an idea of the shock factor here - the word Paul uses here is not translated as rubbish. It has been polite-isised! The word is something that I can politely translate as manure! You can put the Medway translation of that in your head!
Not only, says Paul, are these credentials now unimportant, they are foul, they hold me back, they literally stink and I need to get rid of them.
I married into a great family. (I can see you are wondering where the link is here ... bear with me). One of my brother-in-laws, Chris, is a climber. He’s a regular all round action man. He’s climbed a few mountains, one or two in the Himalayas so he’s pretty serious. A few years ago he was climbing in the Alps with Juliette, who is now his wife, and a friend Guy. On this particular day all 3 are roped together for safety waking along a glacier. Chris decided to undue the rope (you could say he had become complacent) as it was dragging on the ice to adjust it; just as he did he down a crevasse. He tells how it happened so quickly that there was no opportunity to call out. He fell and got stuck with his rucksack preventing a movement up or down. The surface party tell of walking a little while before realising Chris had vanished and turning back to see that he was no longer there.
Guy and Ju retraced their steps in obvious panic and found the top of the crevasse. They called down but heard nothing back. Chris could hear them but was unable to shout loud enough to be heard. Ju and Guy feared the worse! A crevasse, no sound, a friends death not to hard to imagine. Chris could hear the conversation above him.Guy lowered himself on a rope to see if Chris was there, or if their worse fears were true in that he had fallen to the bottom. After what seemed an age Guy made contact with Chris but was unable to free him as the rucksack was wedging him in place.
The rucksack contained all the stuff that Chris thought he needed to survive: drinks, food, claw hammer, map, compass, and all the stuff he needed for identity and insurance: passport, permission to climb licence, insurance details. The stuff that Chris relied upon for his safety, his credentials if you like, were the very things that were now preventing his rescue.
Coincidence - or is that God incidence - there was a helicopter with mountain rescue in the area in sight of the scene who came over and dropped some mountain rescue people and took Ju off to safety. They sent people down who were able to rescue Chris by removing his rucksack and pulling him back up the crevasse.
Removing the rucksack which contained all that stuff to preserve his life enabled him to live. Clinging on to it would have resulted in his death.
Paul views his outlined privilege in a similar way. After meeting Jesus he saw all that other stuff to be nothing more than a liability, thoughts of privilege in which he used to put his trust now got in the way of what was really important - his relationship with Jesus Christ.
What has changed his mind? He has experienced a personal encounter with Jesus on that Damascus road outlined in Acts 9. The knowing Jesus that he speaks of here is not some head knowledge thing; but a heart thing! It’s something to be experienced, not just something to learn about. It’s intimate, it’s personal, it’s life changing.
So what does this say to us in a 21st century world?
Paul is not saying all should copy him, but the principle shown here is important. Today’s readings suggest that if our rituals, standings, or reputations make us proud and cause us to forget our need of God then we need to get rid.
I believe it could be a warning for us today. Like Paul we are privileged in this place. Like Paul we are in danger of thinking we have it all. Like Paul we need to discard anything that gets in the way of, or holds us back from, that relationship with Jesus.
Then, as now, it is that relationship with Jesus that matters.
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