Friday, October 31, 2014

All Saints 2015

Revelation 7.9-17  and Matthew 5.1-12

So, why do we celebrate All Saints?  If we lived in Southampton, we might be forgiven for thinking that today is a day for celebrating a certain football club.  You see, 'the Saints' started life as the All Saints Church Soccer Team?

The Rev'd Richard Coles is a parish priest and public broadcaster whom you may have heard on my favourite Radio Station...good old Radio 4 (or what some people still call 'The Home Service!').  He has published a book called 'The Loves of the Improbable Saints', in which he has written up stories about some of the strange people who have been made Saints by the Catholic Church.

For example, have you ever heard of St Ronald of Buckingham?  Apparently, he was born into the world like any normal baby, and immediately preached an amazing sermon....before promptly dying.  Then there's St Theophilus the Myrrh-Gusher.  Its a great name isn't it?  It refers to the belief that the bodies of certain martyred saints have the ability to ooze a sweet smelling liquid from their wounds.

I've got a few other favourites...there is St Drogo, the patron saint of unattractive people - though there's no-one around here who would benefit from his prayers!.  There's St Isodore, who in the 1980s was designated the patron saint of the Internet, because he was well known as a scholar and compiler of information.  Can you imagine the scene in Heaven when God told Isodore that the Church has just designated him as the patron of the internet?  "I'm the Patron Saint of WHAT?!"

Personally, I'm particularly drawn to St Anthony of Padua...who is the patron saint of lost causes!  And then there's the number one weird saint of all time...the Patron Saint of finding a parking place.  Apparently, in New York, car drivers circling a block can be heard muttering this prayer:  "Mother Cabrini, Mother Cabrini - find me a space for my driving machiny."

Whilst all these Saints might be jolly good fun for us, there is a grain of truth in many of them.  Sometimes, saints become patron saints because of the terrible things they were made to suffer for their faith in Christ.  So, for example, St Apollonia is the patron saint of Dentists, because she had all her teeth extracted as a punishment for believing in Jesus.  I could tell you a lot more horror stories...but its a bit early in the morning for that!

No, the festival of All Saints is nothing about football, and very little about silly or funny patron saints.  Rather it is a reminder to us that we are members of a church which is both here on earth, and also in heaven.  The Bible refers to all Christian believers as Saints.  It's a term which we can all own, if we are followers of Christ.  Hmm...St Tom of Portsmouth....has a bit of ring to it?

The Church has always taught that we are members of not just a world-wide church, but a Universal one.  We, here on earth are known as the Church Militant, and those Saints who have died and now live with God are called the Church Triumphant.  In the same way that we pray for each other here on earth, the Church teaches that we should also pray for those who have died, and that they pray for us.  That is why many churches have of Saints in heaven, whom we can ask to pray for us, as we continue to pray for them.   Orthodox Christians believe that icons are windows into heaven - so much so that the light of heaven itself changes the features of the saints that we see in them.  That's why features in icons are usually slightly elongated.

Our two readings today remind us that, as the Bible says, God is the God of the living, and of the dead.  The dead are held by him, in his love, until the great end of days that we all hope for.  Our first reading, from the book of Revelation, paints vivid picture of what it is like to dwell with God in heaven.  In language that is rich with symbolism, we are given a picture of a great multitude of people from every race, tribe and tongue, gathered before the throne of God.  In a piece of symbolism that only the Bible can pull off, everyone is wearing a white robe, because it has been 'washed in the blood of the Lamb!'.  Its a wonderful vision, isn't it?  I'm personally drawn very deeply to the notion that all these people are gathered from every nation...its not a vision that the likes of UKIP supporters might be very happy with.  Together, all the nationalities of the world are as one...all dressed in white, all waving palm branches.  There is neither rich nor poor, because the text says 'they will hunger no more, and thirst no more'.  The human need to accumulate stuff will be irrelevant, as all peoples focus on loving God.

Some people take the underlying themes of Revelation quite literally - they believe that the visions of John are a prediction that will one day come literally true.  Personally, I'm not quite so sure...I tend to see the visions of Revelation as poetry which points us towards a spiritual reality that we can claim today.  God is already with us.  In Jesus, God has already made his home with mortals.  For those who truly trust in him, whether they be alive or dead, there need be no more mourning, or crying or pain.

That's what Jesus meant, I think, when he declared that the Kingdom of Heaven is among you...and then listed, in the Beatitudes, the kinds of ways in which life would change when the Kingdom and its spiritual values were put into practice on earth.  Jesus promises that a world that is suffused with the Kingdom will be unlike our present reality. In fact it will be upside down to what we've become used to.   Those who mourn will be comforted.  The meekest and the lowliest will be put in charge - they will inherit the earth.

And the the poor will inherit the Kingdom.  According to a report published by Oxfam last week, almost half the world's wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population. And here's another startling statistic from the same report...the richest 85 people in the world own the same amount of wealth as the bottom HALF of the world's population.

Let me ask you a question which might help to bring this home.  Since 2009, just before the last election when the great 'credit crunch' began, how much as your income grown since then?  2%?  3%?  My little NatWest savings account gives me a half of one percent interest on my savings.

During the same period, from 2009 to 2012, the wealthiest one per cent of Americans saw their incomes grow by 31.4%...which the other 99% experienced growth of just 0.4%!

I find it incredible that we Christians seem able to cheerfully ignore those kinds of statistics.  We seem to be content to let these kinds of injustice go on.  We stand by and watch the poor getting poorer and poorer, while the rich simply hoover-up the world's wealth.

Why, for example, is Ebola such a problem in West Africa?  It's because West Africa is POOR.  They don't have the infrastructure, the doctors, the nurses, the medical supplies, the hospitals, the isolation wards that the West has.  They don't have these things because the west refuses to share them.

Jesus points the way to a different reality though.  Jesus points to a world in which there is equality among all people.  Jesus dreams of a Kingdom in which those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled.  Jesus promises a way of life in which the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor...who find themselves blessed.

How are we to get there?  How is such a lofty vision to be fulfilled?  The answer saint at a time.  The Saints are those who are in love with God.  The Saints are those who have been so touched by the reality of God, that they will go to extra-ordinary lengths for God's sake, and for the sake of Jesus' vision.  Don't focus on Theophilus the Myrrh-Gusher...I'm sure he was a great guy.  But the Saints we really need to give thanks for are the ones whose lives transformed the lives of others around them.  Saints like our own St Mark, who had the courage to write down the stories about Jesus, as dangerous as that was in his day.  Saints like St Francis, who gave up all his inherited wealth so that he could be one with the poor, and serve them.  Saints like St Nicholas, who rescued children from slavery and abuse.

We continue to remember the Saints because they give us tangible, real examples, of what the Kingdom could be like.  Their lives of self-sacrifice offer us a different way of being, a way that we can embrace if we choose.  We give thanks for those present day saints who are living extraordinary lives right now...lives that our poured out in the service of others.

And we wonder...could God be calling us to that kind of life too?


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Harvest 2014

Here's one for the Teachers...

Did you hear the story about the Teacher who asked her class "Ok Children, what sounds did we hear on our trip to the Farm yesterday?".  Little Martha put up her hand and said "I heard Baaa".  Then Henry put up his hand and said "I heard Moo".  Little Joey put up his hand and said "I heard Cluck Cluck", and then young Thomas put up his hand and said "I heard 'Oi, you...get off that flipping tractor!'"

What is Harvest all about? Many things...of course. But here's my take on some of them:

First and foremost it is, of course, a time for giving thanks for many things:

We give thanks to God for our food – which, in the West, is more abundant and varied than at perhaps any other time in human history. We never have food shortages – the shelves of the supermarkets are always well stocked. But it wasn’t always like this, as those who were alive in the war and before can no doubt remember. And it still isn’t like this in all the world. For so much of the world, our greed drives their need.

Harvest is a time for giving thanks for, and to, our farmers and fishers. But the farming way of life is under threat as perhaps never before. So our thoughts and prayers must continue to be with all those livelihood is precarious, and those who see no alternative but to give up.

Harvest time is also a time for remembering to use the earth’s resources wisely and sustainably:

We need to make sure that the long-term consequences of today’s actions will not jeopardise the lives of generations to come. Did you know that the idea of sustainability goes back centuries? It feels like a really modern thing doesn’t it...for those of us who have grown up in a world 'addicted to oil' (to borrow one of the more positive Bush-isms) and to not worrying about our environment. But sustainability is something that Christians and Jews have been advocating for thousands of years.

For example, in Old Testament times, the ancient Israelites tried to ensure that their agriculture was sustainable; that too much was not taken from the earth without giving it chance to recover. This meant giving the land a rest every seven years, and also every fiftieth, or jubilee year.

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, talks about this very principle of using the earth’s resources wisely. In that great mythological story, we see God giving the Garden of Eden to Adam - under a sort of tenancy agreement. In that agreement, God tells Adam that he must rule over the earth, and take care of it. The sad fact is that ever since those days, we have learned how to rule over the land...but only now are we beginning to understand the importance of taking care of it.

Harvest time is also a time for remembering to share the fruits of the earth:

I mentioned just now that principle of the Old Testament law of letting land lie fallow every seven years. In turn, that was linked with another important Old Testament law...that of the year of cancelling debts. Here are some words from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 15. In verse 4, God is reported to say “There should be no poor among you…” He is setting down a condition of the tenancy agreement which simply says...”You must share what I have given you. You may not keep more than you need...and there shall be no poor among you”. Later in verse 7, God says “Do not be hard hearted or tight fisted towards your poorer brother. open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs - and when the seventh year comes...the year for cancelling debts...freely forgive your brother your debt to him.

The seventh year had great importance for the Jewish nation. As I said just now, it was the time for letting the land rest, and also for forgiving debts. It was a time of fresh starts - but also for a time of letting go of the possessions that have cluttered up our lives.

Jesus often talked about the perils of having too much and keeping for oneself what should be shared with others. You will remember, I’m sure, that parable of the rich man whose crops were so abundant that he planned to build more barns in order to store them. He did not sell or share his harvest. Then, on the night that he had finished building and stocking his barns, God said to him, “You Fool! This very night you will die!” So he died, and was not able to enjoy the results of his wealth. Jesus said that we should not store up treasure for ourselves on earth, where it will rot. Instead, we should build up spiritual treasure that will last.

So maybe harvest time is an opportunity for trying afresh to get the balance right between providing for ourselves and our families, and building a world which is based on mutual support and help for those in genuine need - rather than on materialism and greed.

There is a new phrase doing the rounds in Christian circles, which I like...and which is a constant challenge to me. It’s the phrase “living light” - and implies that we need to live in such a way that we are not shackled to anything material. That doesn’t mean that we give up all material things - God has given us physical bodies with physical needs - and its right that we should relish in his creation. But we should never let any of them become our masters.

Linked to that idea, Harvest is a time for remembering that God sows spiritual seeds in our hearts, and wants them to bear an abundant harvest. In that story of the man who built huge barns, Jesus reminds us that earthly food is transient, and we should seek the food that lasts for ever - the spiritual food which he offers to those who believe in him, and follow his ways.

You see - God gives us a choice - pure and simple. Either we can live for ourselves, and reap the consequences (for example of an unsustainable world economy). Or we can look for spiritual wealth, through Jesus - and join with all of God’s people in building a better world.

So for me at least, that is what Harvest-time is all about. Yes, remembering to give thanks. But also reminding ourselves to use the earth’s resources wisely; remembering to share the fruits of the earth, and finally remembering that God sows spiritual seeds in our hearts. It is of course entirely up to us whether we listen to these messages, or let those seeds germinate and grow.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Everybody Loves a Wedding

Matthew 22:1-14

Everybody loves a wedding.  And one of my biggest regrets about my recent convalescence is that I missed the wedding of the year, here at St Mark's!  I really enjoyed seeing the photos that Yvonne showed me last week...especially the Bridesmaid's dresses.  I didn't know there was such a colour as Cadbury's Purple...but I want a waistcoat made of it now!

Weddings are a big theme in the Bible.  According to John's gospel, it was at a wedding in Cana that Jesus first demonstrated his power, publicly, by turning water into wine.  Weddings are often used as metaphors for the relationship between God and his people.  In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, Jesus is described as a bridegroom who longs to be married to his bride, the Church.  Jesus used the same wedding metaphor on a few occasions, including the famous story of the 10 virgins who await the coming of the bridegroom, with various degrees of readiness.

But in today's parable, there is real sting in the tail.  Jesus tells a striking and somewhat troubling story in which all the invited guests to a wedding banquet refuse to come, at the last minute.  So the King (who is the host) rounds up a rag-tag gang of street people, who suddenly find themselves at a party they had never dreamed of attending.  Then, when King enters the wedding hall, he finds a man who has not put on a wedding robe, who finds himself thrown into the outer darkness 'where there is weeping and knashing of teeth'.

Many of Jesus' parables are aimed at the rich and the powerful...but this one is aimed full-square at us.  There are dire warnings at play here...warnings which we need to hear.  Before they end up refusing his invitation, the original guests receive invites from two sets of the King's servants.  Jesus' hearers would have understood that he was referring to the prophets, and then the Christian missionaries that God had sent out with the good news of the invitation.  

In Jesus metaphor, some invited guests go to work on their farm, others to their business.  Each of us should let Jesus' metaphors speak to our own imaginations.  But for me, these are the people who put their need to accumulate wealth over and above their duty to the community that they are called to belong to.  Instead of taking part in the wedding feast, they are too busy making money and feathering their nest.

Most of you will know by now that I bought myself a second-hand caravan during my convalescence.  My plan is that from time to time I'm going to slip away from the parish and spend a few days in peace and quietness, and get some serious walking done!  A couple of weeks ago, Clare and I sited our caravan in the Chichester harbour area.  I have to tell's been a long time since I've been in a place that has so much wealth on display.  Much of my ministry of the last few years has been either in North End or Ghana, where I mainly see people who are just managing to get from day to day, with very little wealth or luxury.  But in the Chichester Harbour area, we could not believe the wealth that we saw - only half an hour from North End.  House after house that we passed had high walls, manicured lawns and enormous numbers of rooms.  The harbour itself is packed with yachts and expensive motor-boats...almost too many for other boats to be able to make their way up and down the water-ways!  It's a beautiful area - and I don't blame anyone for wanting to live in such a place.  But I have to wonder at the priorities of the people who live in these vast mansions, and who own such luxury.

Who are these people?  Well, of course some of them will be those who have inherited the houses they live in from previous generations, and who no doubt struggle to keep them going.  But others - and I suspect this means the majority - will be those who have managed to accumulate sufficient wealth in their life-time to be able to afford such luxury.  But here's what troubles me... one only accumulates that kind of wealth by deliberately and persistently keeping as much earned income as possible to oneself.  Such wealth is made by lawyers, bankers, investment managers, and high flying business-people.  Sometimes it’s made by media-stars or football players.  Sometimes it is simply inherited.  Most of it, for most rich people, is made by luck - the luck of being born into wealth, or having been in the right place at the right time when a lot of money was being made, or when the right jobs in the right businesses were being handed out.

What distinguishes these people from the rest of humanity is what they choose to do with their wealth.  There are some people who make millions, only to give it all away - or at least enough of it to make a huge difference, while still affording a reasonable and comfortable living for themselves.  And there are others who hold onto it, knowing full well the voices of the prophets.  They know that billions are starving.  They know that, according to recent figures, more than 2.7 billion people live on less than two dollars a day.  And yet, they do nothing.  Oh, perhaps they write the odd little cheque to charity...especially if it can be written off against their tax bill...

But these are the people who are able to justify to themselves the ownership of multiple houses, enormous yachts and other expensive toys, while eighty per cent of the world lives in squalor.  These are the people who have been invited to the great sharing of the wedding banquet...but who choose to go back to their farm, or to tend to their business.  They are not evil people as such...most of them are lovely folks who one could spend a very pleasant time with over a gin and tonic on the deck of their yacht.  They are the 'Great Mis-guided'...the ones who have missed the point of life.  They are the ones who mistakenly, but genuinely believe that the only real purpose in life is to be the one who dies owning the most toys.  As I drove around Chichester Harbour, I found that I felt profound pity for these people.

There's another group of invitees who are even worse, though.  There are those who, according to Jesus' parable, who seized the King's servants, and then 'mistreated and killed them'.  These are the people who deliberately seek to destroy the work of the King.  These are the ones, like the mad mullahs of ISIS, who are systematically killing Christians at the moment in Iraq, Syria and Kurdistan.  These are the arms manufacturers who deliberately foment war, all around the world, in order to make as much profit as possible out of death.  These are the makers and distributors of illegal drugs on the streets of our cities, who trade deliberately on the addiction and misery of others.  They are the owners of banking institutions, like Wonga, who charge stratospheric interest rates to the poorest and most desperate people in our community.  There is, frankly, no hope for such people - unless they repent of their ways and turn to the King.  Their fate, in Jesus words, is to be ultimately destroyed.  They will not survive the coming of the Kingdom.  They are doomed.

So if these are the people who have ignored the wedding invitation (or who even have killed the Kings servants) who are the guests who actually end up at the wedding?  It is the rest of humanity - both bad and good, according to Jesus, who find themselves there.  God's love for humanity is total.  He invites all - the bad and the good - to the wedding feast.  He wants all his children to be present - and to each one who will accept it, he offers a new set of clothes...what Jesus calls a 'wedding robe'.

Even today, we still understand the value of new clothes for significant moments in life, don't we,  For Yvonne and Neil, it was Cadbury-Purple bridesmaids' dresses, and a beautiful new dress for Yvonne.  For Neil it was a very smart penguin suit!  At baptisms, more often than not, parents will often buy brand new christening gowns for the children.  This harks back to the days of the early church, when those being baptised would cast aside their old clothes at the moment of baptism, and would then be clothed in a brand new white robe as they emerged from the water.  It was a visible sign of the new life that the convert had taken on...the new community to which they now belonged.

But when the King arrives, according to Jesus, there is one guest who is not wearing the new robe.  "Friend," says the King, "how did you get in here without a wedding robe?".  And when the man cannot give an explanation, the King's punishment is harsh.  "Bind him, hand and foot", says the King, "and throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth".

Finally, then, this is where we need to be the most cautious.  For this section of the story is aimed as a loving but sincere warning, straight at us.  This man, without a robe, represents those people who think that the only thing they need to do to be considered guest at the wedding, is to turn up.  This is the kind of person who regularly comes to church.  They sing the hymns, and take part in the rotas.  They might even sit on a church committee.  They might  even wear a clerical collar and be called ''Reverend'!  But all this is just for show.  Deep down, within their hearts, they have not put on the wedding garment.  Deep down, nothing has changed.

This is the person who recites the Lord's Prayer, but who says in their heart 'I will make sure I get myself my daily bread'.  This is the person who says 'we forgive others their trespasses' but who still nurtures hatred and resentment towards another person.  This is the person who publicly offers to be a living sacrifice, at the end of every Communion service, but who makes no effort during the rest of the week to pour out their life in sacrifice to others.

This parable then speaks to the whole of humanity.  It is a warning to the 'Great Mis-Guided', who would rather tend to their business than come to the feast.  It is a warning to most evil people of humanity, who deliberately kill or subjugate others for their own profit.  But it is also a warning to us, that we need to be on our guard against having all the outwards appearance of faith, but none of the substance of it within our hearts.

My prayer is that we might all find the strength, the courage, and the grace to accept the invitation of the King.  I pray that each one of us will accept the wedding garment that we are offered...the new life, and new way of living that is ours for the taking.  It's the way of sacrifice, and the way of love.  It's the way of giving life to others, and receiving life from them in return.  It's the way of living in community and not just turning up to it occasionally.  It's the Way of the Cross, the Way of Jesus.  It's the Way to the only real Truth, and the only real Life.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Empires

Trinity 16:  Isaiah 5:1-7, Ps 80: 7-14, Phil 3: 4b-14, Matt 21:33-46

One small advantage of my recent period of convalescence has been having some time to listen to the radio.  One of my favourite programmes is 'Gardener's Question Time', which I listen to with a mixture of emotions.  On the one hand, I marvel at how anyone can remember all those funny latin names for everyday plants.  Did you know, for example, that the humble carrot is know by fancy gardeners as Daucus Carota Sativus?  

Another reason I listen to 'GQT' is frankly to make myself feel better.  I enjoy gardening...its great stress-relief, and the obsessive-compulsive in me is never happier than when the lawn has been freshly cut, and there are nice neat lines running up and down!  But the trouble is that although I can handle a lawn mower...I'm useless at pretty much anything else.  Any other plant that I try to nurture - other than grass seed, just dies on me.  I either over-water it, or under water it.  I over-feed it, or under-feed it.  So when I hear members of the public being roundly told off for similar errors on 'GQT' - I feel better.  I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one whose green fingers have turned to autumn colours and dropped off!

As a constantly failing gardener, I find myself with a lot of sympathy for Isaiah, this morning.  He sings a song of the planting of a vineyard, during which the owner goes to enormous lengths to get everything right to grow his grapes.  He chooses a fertile hill, builds a wall around it, clears the ground of stones and even builds a watch-tower to keep off predators.  (Watch-towers were the fore-runner of scarecrows).  But all he gets for his trouble...just like me, so wild grapes - or rather, weeds!

Isaiah's tale would have got sympathy from his listeners too...until they realised what his song really meant.  The sting in the tail was that they, his listeners, God people were the vineyard that had not produced the fruit that was to be expected of them after all God's care.  After building them up as a nation, rescuing them out of Eqypt, establishing them in a new land, giving them laws to live by and prosperity as a nation...the people constantly turned away from God.  They worshipped other gods, they clutched at possessions with greed. They were inhospitable towards strangers, they ignored God's just laws.  God was furious with them, and deeply disappointed.

What was he going to do about it?  Essentially, he was going to punish it.  He would break down the walls of the Vineyard, and trample down the land.  He would make it a waste-land.  Or at least - that's what Isaiah predicted.  What Isaiah's listeners couldn't know (but we do) is that soon after this warning, the land of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian nation - and effectively wiped off the map of the day.  For the Israelites, there were consequences for ignoring God's way of living.  Not for the first time in the history of Israel and its ancestors, they would be thrown out of a garden.  That's exactly what happened to Adam and Eve.

Jump forward a few centuries, into the time of Jesus, and we find the same story being expanded upon.  Jesus focuses his version of the tale onto the Landlord (who of course is God).  This time, the Landlord prepares his beautiful vineyard, but then leases it to others - called tenants - to look after.

This is a fascinating picture because it suggests to us the idea of free-will.  The Landlord has prepared the ground, and given his tenants every chance to succeed... but then he leaves them to work out for themselves how they are going to live.  The Landlord does not force his tenants to love him...but he does send them reminders, every now and again, of how much he loves them.  The Landlord sends his servants - which we might think of as the Prophets.  Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and all the rest.  Time and time again God sends his prophets to remind the people - the tenants - of just whose Vineyard this is.  But time and time again the tenants beat up and kill the prophets.

Finally, in exasperation, the Landlord sends his own son.  Surely the tenants will listen to him?!  But no, they seize him, kill him and thrown him out of the vineyard.  They will not even listen to the Landlord's son!

And what are the consequences?  Jesus spells it out starkly..."The Kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom".  What Jesus' listeners couldn't know, but we do, is that only 30 or so years later, the city of Jerusalem would be completely destroyed by the Romans.  The temple would be torn down...never to be rebuilt.  The once mighty nation of Israel would be scattered to the four corners of the globe, for a period of nearly two thousand years - and even today its great Temple is only a pile of archaeological rubble.

And the task of bringing the Kingdom of God alive would be passed on to a new generation, a new nation. But this time, it wouldn't be nation with land to rule least not for hundreds of years.  This time, the new tenants of the Kingdom would be the Christ-ians...the followers of Jesus Christ.  They would be a people who were bound together not by blood, nor by ownership of land - but bound together by an idea....the idea that by living out the commands of their Lord, the Kingdom of Heaven could truly be established on earth.

But this nation too would rise, and then fall.  History teaches us that there was a time, a sort of Golden Age, when the Christian Church became, effectively, the greatest Empire that the world has ever seen.  Based on the glories of Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, led by the Catholic Church expanded to hold sway over vast stretches of land...all over Europe, much of Africa, and even taking in the newly discovered lands of the Americas for a while, after their 'discovery'.

But even that great Empire fell.  The walls of the vineyard were torn down, once the tenants stopped producing the right kind of fruit.  Instead of justice, the church presided over huge injustice.  The rich princes of the church and the state lived in their castles, while the poor lived in their hovels.  Wars between nations demonstrated once again the fear of the stranger, and the dismantling of the ancient Kingdom notion of hospitality.  Greed, consumerism, pleasure-seeking drunkeness, a falling away from worshipping God to worshipping other false idols...these were the same sort of characteristics that Isaiah and Jesus, and many other prophets, had warned Israel about.

Over and over again...the Empires of Man rise, and then fall.  Epyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, the Church, the Mongol Empire, the Chinese Empire, the British Empire, the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, the USA, the European name but a few.  The list is almost endless.  Time and time again these Empires, these Vineyards - are established with the most noble of motives.  Their initial leaders are often inspiring and charismatic people, with great hearts for their people - just think of the fine-sounding words of the Constitution of the United States.  But time and time again they are brought down by the baseness of human nature.  Over and over again we see the same characteristics emerge just before an Empire collapses.

Historians will argue over what those characteristics are - but I believe that there are common themes.  Most Empires collapse when they become too large to manage, or when leaders become too overconfident in their status, or when resentment builds up towards the over-weaning power of the super-elite.  It is greed that drives expansion...greed for more land, more resources, more money.  Leaders seek more and more resources, and justice towards the original owners of such resources becomes the casualty.  The people themselves seek more and more comfort and luxury, and justice towards neighbour becomes the casualty.  People seek instinctively to protect what they already have, and so hospitality towards the stranger becomes a casualty.  This is the way of the world.  This is the pattern again and again.  From Isaiah to Jesus to Us...this is the way the Vineyard of the Kingdom is built, and then destroyed...over and over and over again.

But WE do not need to be victims of this process.  WE, like the tenants of Jesus' Vineyard story, are given free-will by the Landlord to decide how WE are going to live up to the challenge of the Kingdom.  Are WE going to be those who ignore the prophets?  Are WE going to be those who participate in the murder of the Landlord's Son?  Are WE going to be those who let the base human instincts of greed and fear of the other dictate the kind of people that we are going to be?

Or are we going to be those whose witness to the World is of a God who overflows with love and generosity?  Are we going to be those who, like Jesus, sit alongside the powerless and the weak - the prostitutes and junkies, the homeless and the starving, the refugee and the economic migrant?  Or are we going to hold on to what we've got and protect it from anyone who might take it from us.

That's the choice we face.  That's the free-will which the Landlord of the Vineyard has offered us.

I wonder which we will choose.