Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on Palm Sunday, 24th March 2013
Isaiah 5:1-7; Luke 20:9-19. The vineyard of the Lord of hosts: the wicked husbandmen. The Bishop of Rome. The Archbishop of Canterbury.

Although today is Palm Sunday, I’m not going to talk about donkeys or triumphal processions. I want to pick up on the stories about vineyards which we had in tonight’s Bible readings.

If I look at the various things that have happened in this last, very busy, week, thinking about vineyards, there is a temptation to work in a reference to the Budget, and to the fact that the duty on wine will be going up, whereas the duty on beer will not. Well, I’m not going to try to comment on the wisdom or otherwise of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The point about the vineyards in our lessons from the Bible today is that they illustrate Jesus’ teaching about following God’s commands.

In the Old Testament lesson in Isaiah, God is using Isaiah as a mouthpiece to chastise his chosen people. They haven’t taken care of his vineyard. In the New Testament, Jesus is talking about the same thing. The tenants, who are absolutely awful – they seem to be more like thieves than tenants, and then eventually they turn out to be murderers – have in effect repudiated their contract with the owner of the vineyard.

They have in effect thrown up the lease. When the owner sends somebody to make contact with them, and give them a chance to come back within the scope of the contract, they have behaved in the most extraordinarily criminal way, violently ejecting the representatives that he has sent to them, and eventually killing his own son.

Of course the story in the New Testament about the ‘wicked husbandmen’, as they used to be called, is not a parable but an allegory. Jesus meant his disciples to understand that in the story the wicked husbandmen stood for the leaders of the Jews, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Jesus asks a question, ‘What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?’ – do to those wicked husbandmen, to those wicked tenants?

The answer is, of course, that the landlord will dispossess them. He will re-enter on the land and turf them out. So the allegory means that the Jews will no longer be God’s chosen people, but instead, the other people, to whom the gospel message is going, will be brought in instead.

I think like all figures of speech, you can stretch its parallels in real life too far. Jesus wasn’t saying that all Jews were always no good; he wasn’t saying that all Gentiles were perfect.
He was simply making the point that, where the favoured people appeared to have rejected the God who had originally favoured them, then they shouldn’t be too surprised if they lost their privileged status in the eyes of the Lord.

But the other thing about these two stories about vineyards is that, at their heart, is a question about looking after and protecting the vineyard and its crops. That reminded me very much of the two sermons which I have heard this week, one from Pope Francis, the other from Archbishop Justin.

The two largest Christian denominations in the world, the Roman Catholics and the Anglicans, both had a new leader installed this week. I suppose technically you could say that Archbishop Justin was legally installed in February, but this was his formal enthronement.
Both the Archbishop and the Pope spoke in their sermons about looking after God’s creation. Pope Francis was preaching about Joseph, the husband of Mary, who was in effect Jesus’ stepfather. In the Latin of the old Catholic Church, Joseph was described as the ‘custos’ , the custodian, the guardian, the protector: the protector of Mary, of Jesus, and of the Church.

Pope Francis said this. ‘The vocation of being a “protector” …. means respecting each of God’s creatures, respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need … It means caring for one another in our families; husbands and wives first protect each other and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness.’

You can see the husbandmen, the tenants of the vineyard, as being protectors, being custodians of that vineyard. If the new Pope was preaching about God’s call to us to be protectors, to be good husbandmen, Archbishop Justin preached about the qualities that we need in order to do that.

The choir had sung Psalm 8,

Out of the mouth of very babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength, because of thine enemies: that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.
For I will consider thy heavens, even the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained.
What is man, that thou art mindful of him: and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
Thou makest him to have dominion of the works of thy hands: and thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet.’

Thou makest him to have dominion of the works of thy hands: and thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet. You make us, the sons of men, the husbandmen of your vineyard.

And the readings, at Archbishop Justin’s service, started with the beautiful story of Ruth and Naomi and Boaz. Ruth, the stranger, the Moabite, the refugee, went into the fields to pick up bits of grain which had been left by the harvesters. Boaz the landowner, (plainly not of the UKIP persuasion), told his workers to leave some purposely for her, and indeed to deliberately cut some grain stalks and leave them on the ground for Ruth to pick up as gleanings. He protected Ruth, the stranger in their midst: he was a generous man: and of course the story has a very happy ending. The Book of Ruth is one of the sweetest books in the Bible. It’s only a few pages long. You might want to read it again before you go to bed tonight.

Archbishop Justin’s gospel reading was the story of Jesus walking on the water, calling Peter to come out of the boat and walk on the water towards him. When Peter got frightened and began to sink, Jesus reached out and saved him. The lesson that Archbishop Justin drew from that was that, in order to be good protectors, good custodians, of God’s world, in order to look after His vineyard properly, we needed courage, and courage would be liberated by putting our trust, our faith, in Jesus.

For as long as Peter had faith, he was brave enough to get out of the boat and walk on the water. When he noticed the wind and became afraid, he started to sink. Archbishop Justin related that need for faith and courage to the history of this country.

He said, ‘For more than 1,000 years this country has, to one degree or another, sought to recognise that Jesus is the Son of God. Sometimes we have done better, sometimes worse. When we do better’ – he means, when we have faith – ‘we make space for our own courage to be liberated, for God to act among us and for human beings to flourish. Slaves were freed, Factory Acts passed, and the NHS and social care established through Christ-liberated courage.’

And he went on to say, ‘The present challenges of environment and economy, of human development and global poverty, can only be faced with extraordinary courage.’

Who am I to improve on the wise words of the Bishop of Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury? God calls us to look after his vineyard: we need to protect it. In order to protect it, we need courage. That courage comes from faith, faith in Jesus Christ.