When I was at primary school I decided that it would be a good idea for me to learn a musical instrument. There was no pressure for me to do it, it was just an idea that got into my head which I couldn’t get rid of. So my mother, rather hesitantly signed me up with a tutor who came to the school every week to teach brass instruments.
She hired me a tenor horn (a beautiful instrument), made all of the necessary arrangements and paid for my tuition. Well my excitement about playing that tenor horn lasted for about a week, and then it faded rapidly, because my other main aspiration at that stage of my life was to spend as much time as possible building Lego. I had an electric Lego train, and Lego road, and Lego houses – I had even built a Lego church. And what I quickly found, was that in order to be able to make any kind of meaningful sound from that tenor horn, I had to spend time practicing, and that meant that I had less time to play with my Lego. So my teacher would say to me, make sure you practice for at least 20 minutes every day this week when you are at home, and I would say in response to her, “of course I will.” But when I got home the tenor horn would stay in its case, and my time would be fully occupied playing with my toys. My Lego models grew – and I was never invited to join the orchestra!
Its like when Luisa, my wife, says to me as I leave the house, “don’t forget to bring some milk back with you,” and I say, “of course I will, I’ll buy some on the way home.” But on the way back I’m thinking about everything other than buying milk, and I return home without it. Just occasionally the reverse might happen, every now and again (not often) I am asked to do something which I know from the beginning I will be unable to do. And I say “no, sorry – not this time.” Then my circumstances change: either I realise that the request was more important than I had thought, or I find that I have a little unexpected spare time. And I am able to do the thing which I said I wouldn’t be able to manage. I’m guessing that I am not alone in having these experiences. Sometimes there are things which I agree to do, and which I do not do; and other times there are things which I say that I can’t do, which in the end I find I do have the time to do afterall.
In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus tells the story of a man who has two sons, and who goes in turn to each of them to ask if they will help him in his vineyard. The first is too busy, and he says that he wouldn’t go, but in the end he changes his mind, and he does go and do the work which his father has asked of him. The second son responds positively immediately, “of course I’ll go dad,” he says, but when it comes to it, there are too many other distractions in his way, and he never actually fulfills his promise. And after Jesus has told this story, he turns to the religious leaders, with whom he is having a discussion in the precincts of the temple, and he asks them, “which of the two did the will of his father?” And the religious leaders rightly say that it was the first of the two sons.
Of course its clear to us all, isn’t it, that it is better to do what we are asked to do, even if we have initially said no; it is much better to do that, than to say yes, and make a commitment to do something which in the end we will not do. After the religious leaders have responded Jesus makes the point of his story clear to those to whom he is speaking. He says, “truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes (- or in other words those who you least expect -) are going into the kingdom of heaven before you.”
“You think that you are doing the will of God, but you religious people are like the son who says that he will work in the vineyard, but is then distracted and never ends up participating in the work at all.”
I was at a Parish Council meeting a few weeks ago, not here at Greenwood but in another parish in the diocese and I was thinking about these very things as I sat and observed what was going on around me. It was one of those Parish Councils which has not reduced its size as we and some of the other churches have done. So twelve people sat around a table for three hours (that’s 36 hours of potential Christian ministry – equivalent to a week of work of Christian ministry) discussing all kinds of things almost solely related to the maintenance of the church buildings. They did not discuss one item on their agenda which was actually focused on anything outside of the limited radius of the institution of the church. And I closed my eyes during that meeting, and tried (by listening to what was being said) to work out whether there was any difference at all between what those people on the Parish Council were talking about, and what the Local management committee of the bowling club talk about at their meetings.
I often have to remind myself that the primary task of the church is not maintenance, it’s not even worship – the primary focus of the church of Jesus Christ is mission. I have to remind myself of that every day because I often forget it. I often think, like those religious leaders who Jesus was talking to, that the primary task of the church is protecting the institution, and so I need to be reminded that that is not the case.
Yesterday I received an e-mail from a friend of mine who will be right in the middle of hurricane Rita in America this morning – he has purposefully gone to that area in order to care for his parents who cannot be moved. And at the bottom of his e-mail he ended with these words, “Our work is to transform lives; to offer peace to those we meet; hope to those who find themselves in difficult situations; and reconciliation to a world that is scary and fractured; but above all our work is to love – to love those we find it difficult to love and to love those who find it difficult to love us.”
When God invites us to be co-workers in the vineyard, as he does to each and every one of us who are baptised into the life and death and resurrection of Christ, we are not being invited to go grape picking in the Swan Valley. Just as the father in the story which Jesus tells represents God, so the vineyard is not a tidy safe place, but the world, as my friend wrote, “a world which is scary and fractured.”
I have an overwhelming sense as I look at my own life, that I am far more like that second son, than I am like the first. God has called me, like God has called you, to be a co-worker in the vineyard: and I have said, “yes,” in my response to God, and have then turned that commitment into something rather safer. In the story which Jesus tells in our Gospel this morning, Jesus gives an awakening call to the religious leaders of his day who think that they are doing the will of God. He says to them, you have already made a commitment to God, you have said yes to being the workers in the vineyard. But you have said yes, and then become distracted by all kinds of other things. You’re not doing what God has asked you to do. And Jesus says to them, compare yourselves to those who you despise, to the tax collectors and the prostitutes, and you will find that some of them, are doing more of my work than you are.
Those people had originally rejected God by the way that they lived their lives, but now they are working in the vineyard, whereas you who think that you who made a commitment to strive for justice and peace are in fact more interested in maintaining your institution, than you are in doing the work of God. That’s what Jesus says to the religious leader of his time in the parable this morning.
Now I don’t want you to misunderstand me. I want to say to those of you who do maintain our buildings and look after fundraising, and all of those other maintenance things which happen here, that we are all grateful for what you do, and the sacrifices which you make. But Jesus’ message to us in this is clear. Whatever else we do, the primary task of the church – and of those of us who are members of it – is mission and not maintenance. And so if we find as a church that we spend more energy preparing for our worship, and looking after our buildings, than we are in danger of being like that second son, who says yes to God’s call for us to be in mission, but who in fact doesn’t ever do anything about it.
There is an old Japanese legend – that tells of a man who died and went to heaven. Heaven was beautiful, it was full of lush gardens and glittering mansions, it was a place of peace and relaxation. But as the man wandered around heaven he found a strange room set apart from the mansions and the resting places, which was lined with shelves from floor to ceiling. And according to the legend as the man approached the shelves he found that they weren’t empty as he had first thought, but there lying on them were human ears. Every shelf was lined with pairs of human ears. The man was naturally perplexed and so he went to one of the spiritual guides to find out what this room was there for. “Ah,” said the guide, “you’ve found the room of the ears. Those ears belonged to all of the people on earth who listened each week to the Word of God, but never acted on God’s teachings. Their worship never resulted in action. And so when those people died, only their ears ended up here in heaven.”
We are always excited to welcome here children for baptism, as I have said before, every new baby in this congregation reminds us that we are setting the foundations for our future. That’s why it is such a thrill for us to welcome Sharlise with her parents and family and friends here this morning. Sharlise is not being baptised into a club or a society, but into the church of God which is a missionary church. As she grows we pray with her parents that she will one day find her own God given gifts to carry on the mission of Jesus when we are no longer around. All those of us who are baptised have said “yes” to God’s call on our lives. Sometimes we have done that ourselves, other times our parents and god parents have said it on our behalf.
The question which Jesus asks of us today, through the image of this parable, is which of the sons are we like. Are we like the son who has said “yes” to God, “yes, I will share with you in the work of making this a better world, in the work of caring for those around us, and of sharing the good news of Jesus with them.” Are we like the son who has said yes, but who then gets distracted by other things? Or are we like the other son, who might have said “no” originally, but who now goes out to the vineyard, to engage with the world, and to get on with the work of the Kingdom of God?
Remember the words that my friend sent in that e-mail: “Our work is to transform lives; to offer peace to those we meet; hope to those who find themselves in difficult situations; and reconciliation to a world that is scary and fractured; but above all our work is to love.” The first step to living a life which is truly ruled by love, is the decision that love is the most important action of all. That is the work of the Kingdom, the work of the ones who labour in the vineyard. Every one of us is invited by God to share in this work, so which of the two sons will we be like – how will we respond?