Sunday, September 21, 2014

The workers in the vineyard

A homily on today's readings from a great and inspired servant of the Lord. The late Bishop Joe Grech preached this back in 2005. (It is from the website of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bendigo (Australia). Go HERE for some info about Bishop Joe.

The parable in today’s gospel is a wonderful story, but it is also very challenging, so much so that some of the people involved got very hurt and very angry at how the master of the vineyard dealt with them. It is quite correct to have pity and be generous with the latecomers, yet it is also hurtful to be treated in the same manner after you had gone through a hard day’s work.

Let us put the parable in context. The first thing to remember is those who were employed at the very last moment were not lazy, good for nothing people. They were sincerely trying to get some work. It was a case that no one had hired them before the very last hour.

In those days, men gathered from early in the morning in the market place hoping to get a day’s work from any employer who might turn up. It is conceivable to imagine that all sorts of workers turned up. There were those who were really craftsmen and who had the necessary skills and tools for their particular work. There were also others with no specific skill, and who hoped to get any type of work. If an employer turned up, naturally he would just pick those with the necessary skills, those who proved to be the cream of the crop; or those who looked most promising. If this was the process, then who would be left waiting at the eleventh hour? Those who had been rejected all through the morning, those with no skills, the lowest class of workers.  Now here is the lesson. It would have been totally foreign to anyone listening to this parable to understand why the master of the vineyard treated those who were chosen for work at the last moment, in an equal manner as those who had worked all day.

This is irrational. It is not right. Yet the first reading of today taken from the prophet Isaiah has God saying, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways.” (Is 55:8) God thinks differently and His way of doing things is different from ours. I am sure that the people knew who Jesus was referring to in the parable. The people of the eleventh hour were the sinners and those who were not members of the chosen race. Those who had been working all day were the Jews, those who belonged to the chosen people of God. Therefore what Jesus was publicly proclaiming was that he had come to demonstrate that God is for everybody, and he desired to treat those who were forgotten in the same manner as those who considered themselves to be the cream of society. Jesus wanted to make clear that He is interested in everybody, especially in those who were confined to the margins of our society. He wants us to understand that his generosity and care extends both to the old people in the aged care facility as well as to those who considered to be self-fulfilled and in the prime of their life. He is also challenging us to act in the same manner, to remember that each person is created in His image and therefore deserves our respect and friendship and companionship.

It is not the first time that I have met people who have been away from God for quite a long time. I always try to share with them that as far as God is concerned the past is gone. What matters is to ask for forgiveness and build on the present with God.  God does not hold any grudges. We do. Very often I have heard this reply, “I would be a hypocrite if I turn to God now when I am in need.” We may act in this manner with one another. But God is different. God does not care whether you want to establish a personal relationship with Him at the very last moment. What matters is that we do when the opportunity arises. Like at this very moment. My brother, my sister, if you are in such a situation at this present moment, pray with me.

“Jesus I stand here before you. You know my past. You are well aware of where I am at this moment. I do not know how to pray but I am confident of one thing. You care for me because you died for me. Bless me at this moment. Put your hands around my heart. Heal me.  Make me feel your presence. Make me feel your love. I trust you. Thank you for thinking about me. Thank you that you are very generous with me.” Amen.

Friday, September 19, 2014

St Theodore of Tarsus: The Syrian Archbishop of Canterbury

In the Church calendar, today we remember Theodore of Tarsus, a monk nominated by Pope Vitalian as the sixth Archbishop of Canterbury. Theodore’s native language was Greek and he was born in Syria. Theodore had been educated in Athens and took monastic vows before travelling to Italy. Very quickly he became a scholar of repute in Rome. 

He was ordained priest and bishop in order to be sent to Canterbury, arriving in 669. Within three years, following visitations to most parts of the country, he called the first synod of the Anglo-Saxon Church at Hertford (672) with the purpose of healing the rift that had occurred between bishops identifying chiefly with Rome and bishops based in monasteries after the Celtic pattern. He was the last foreign missionary to occupy the metropolitan See. 

According to Bede, he was the first Archbishop able to earn the respect, loyalty and obedience of all English Christians, and it is sometimes said that this was the greatest influence in the creation of a uniquely English Church. He brought about the system of parochial organisation which to this day is the hallmark of English Christianity. He established a school at Canterbury where many great leaders and saints of the English church were educated. 

Theodore died at the age of 87 and was laid to rest at the side of St. Augustine in Canterbury. This aged prelate from distant shores had won the affection and esteem of the people of the whole land. St. Bede says of him that he was the first Archbishop of Canterbury willingly obeyed by all of Anglo-Saxon England. 

On April 5, 2013, Fr. James Early presented a paper at the International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Thought at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, USA. The topic of Fr. James’ paper was “Theodore of Tarsus: The Syrian Archbishop of Canterbury.” Go HERE to listen to Fr Early’s lecture.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Marcus Loane on spiritual warfare

Don’t we hate it when (in the words of the hymn) “the strife is fierce, the warfare long” and we “feebly struggle”, not always hearing “the distant triumph song”?

One of the great things about the Prayer Book baptismal rite is that it leaves us in no doubt that in becoming Christians we enlist in an army in which we fight “against sin, the world and the devil.” Of course, as with Jesus, our weapon is love. But the battle is fierce, because the enemy is out to destroy what God is doing (just remember 1 Peter 5:8-9 from the old service of Compline!). I fear that underlying some of the changes people want the Church to embrace in our age is a sense of outrage that life should involve any kind of struggle at all . . . especially in the area of our deep seated desires. Well, we signed up for the struggle in our baptism. Sometimes the struggle is within; sometimes we are called on to stand for the gospel values of truth and justice in the public square; sometimes we are called to endure persecution, in a very real way “sharing the fellowship of [Jesus’] sufferings (Philippians 3:10). But we cannot airbrush out of ordinary Christian living the struggle of faith. 

It does help when we understand just who our adversary is.

Today we continue with the handful of quotes I have from Marcus Loane’s books. In Grace and the Gentiles (page 110) Sir Marcus deals with the spiritual warfare that everyone who follows Jesus experiences in one way or another:  

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.(Eph. 6:10-13 A.V.) 

“There is a marked pause at the end of the long and salutary passage on home relationships; then Paul called on his scribe once more and the Letter was brought to a close with a call to arms. He knew that, just like the ancient Spartans, we were born for battle: therefore we must learn to ‘endure hardness’ as good soldiers of Christ (2 Tim. 2:3 A.V.). We have to live on ground where we will be under attack; it is like a camp in hostile country which must be held until the Captain returns in triumph. Attacks are launched against it by unseen adversaries, for the devil is in command of a vast host. He is always a most aggressive enemy, and that host is skilfully organised for war without quarter. No true soldier of Christ will be immune from its assaults, nor can he be neutral in that conflict. The battle field is overhung with clouds, and he will be forced to engage in hand-to-hand combat. But each member of that beleaguered garrison can stand fast and prevail, because there are sources of strength available in Christ which can make them invincible.”

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Marcus Loane: When all human strength turns into weakness

I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of feedback from yesterday’s post on Archbishop Marcus Loane. So, I will share with you over the next few days the handful of quotations I have from his writings. They are rich fare. Today’s is from his 1968 book, The hope of glory: an exposition of the eighth chapter in the ‘Epistle to the Romans.’

We know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it. Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.  (Romans 8:22-27)

Archbishop Loane writes:

“St Paul strove to pile one reason for confidence on another: as hope sustains the sons of God, so the Spirit helps them in their weakness. He does not remove the cause of groaning, but He does support them in their travail. He is ready to help like an unseen friend who stands by their side and takes their hand into his own firm clasp . . . The deep inward longing of a man’s heart may be hard to define in words, and he may be keenly aware of the lack of coherent utterance. If the world of nature groans in travail, can the children of God escape from its manifold suffering? No, they cannot; but the Spirit Himself will draw near to impart strength to their soul even when they falter so much that they do not know how to pray. It is in such an hour of felt weakness that the Holy Spirit draws near to act for us in grace: but the Spirit himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered (R.V). There are crises in life when all human strength turns into weakness; it is then that, left to ourselves, we find that we do not even know how to pray. But the Holy Spirit is the divine source and spring of intercession in our inmost being and He moves in the soul in such a way that His mysterious groaning mingles with ours.” 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Marcus Loane on compassionate preaching

The bishop at whose hands I was confirmed was Marcus Loane (1911-2009). He was to become Archbishop of Sydney. (Fifty years later, I still vividly remember his sermon from my Confirmation day.) Sir Marcus was in every way a “Reformation man”, who nonetheless as Primate of the Australian Church showed great respect for those Anglo-Catholics he felt were Christ-centred and who preached the Gospel. He was a particular friend of the Anglo-Catholic Archbishop Philip Strong - a friendship that went back to World War II, when Loane served as an army chaplain in Papua New Guinea. During his 97 years Archbishop Loane wrote many books and articles, including biographies of evangelical leaders. In They Were Pilgrims, Loane tells the story of Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843) a minister in the Church of Scotland who, though he died at the age of 30, had made a big impact on the lives of many. This quote from the book reveals as much about Sir Marcus as it does about McCheyne:

“The secret of his success . . . was his faithfulness to the Word of God with tenderness for the souls of men. He went about his work with an air of reverence which made men feel that the majesty of God was in his heart. There were few who could exhort the guilty in more searching or tremendous terms; there were few who could address the troubled in more gentle or persuasive terms. Andrew Bonar once told him how he had chosen for a text the words with regard to the doom of those who forget God and are sent to hell (Psa. 9:17). M’Cheyne at once asked him:’Were you able to preach it with tenderness?’ He knew that there is an enormous difference between a voice that scolds and a heart that yearns . . . It is not by threats and thunder, but by love and pathos that hearts are made to melt; it is not by words that scorch and condemn, but by a heart that bleeds to bless that souls are won. M’Cheyne himself preached on eternal destiny as one whose heart was wrung with a sense of anguish. He did not spare his hearers a word of truth; still less did he spare his own feelings a stab of pain . . . J. H. Jowett once said that his seventies were terrific because they were so tender . . . Both the motive and the power in all such preaching may be discerned in his sermon as a broken heart and contrite spirit. ‘It is not’, he said, ‘a look into your own heart, or the heart of hell, but into the heart of Christ, that breaks the heart. Oh, pray for this broken heart!’”

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Fr Hunwicke on post-enlightenment Biblical Criticism

Father John Hunwicke, now a priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, is always worth reading and listening to. His blog is HERE.

This video, a lecture he recently gave, will confirm your worst suspicions of the sceptical Biblical Studies industry, the prejudices of which are fundamental supports to the theological direction a lot of insiders want to push Christianity in the contemporary world.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

When the storm comes

Jesus and the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (Rembrandt)

A little talk from a retreat of a few years ago . . . 

On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” And they were filled with awe, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)

The Sea of Galilee is a large inland lake, about thirteen miles long and seven miles wide. The Jordan River flows through it from north to south, and the fishing and farming businesses it supported were famous in ancient times. Important trade routes passed along the lake’s western shore giving rise to a bustling multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, society. Just the right sort of area for Jesus to reach out to the crowds. The region could even be called “Galille of the Gentiles.” The towns of Capernaum, Bethsaida and Tiberias, where Jesus spent a lot of his time, were there. 

The lake itself is 700 feet below sea level, surrounded by plateaus. Sometimes the air pressure changes dramatically without warning. When this happens huge gale-force winds sweep down, and the kind of unexpected storm described in our reading is the result.

Jesus was exhausted.

He had poured himself out in ministry to the crowds. As the day was ending he answered even more questions and helped even more people understand the ways of God. Eventually he called out to his disciples, “Let’s go over to the other side.” That meant sailing thirteen miles to the region of Gadara. It would be long enough for him to have a decent sleep in the back of the boat.

Now, these disciples were professional fishermen, highly skilled with boats. Every day they were on this lake casting their nets. Nobody knew more about boats or about the Galilee lake than they did. They could handle storms. 

But this was no ordinary storm. They’d never seen anything like it. The waves kept crashing over the boat, pounding it, shaking it with enormous force. 

These tough experienced fishermen were gripped by fear. They lost their nerve. They imagined the worst.

They looked around to see where Jesus was.

After all, it was his fault. It was Jesus who had sent them out across the lake. It was he who had kept them standing there while he insisted on talking with people until the sun went down. They had warned him about the night-time squalls on the lake. Where was Jesus now?

To put it mildly, they were not happy to see that he was at the back of the boat, sleeping on a cushion. (I wonder if he was snoring!)

Sleeping! On a cushion! The boat looked as if it would sink, and Jesus was sleeping on a cushion! Could he really be so tired as to sleep through the storm and their fear?

So they woke him up. “Don’t you care if we drown?” They were so upset that he wasn’t panicking. 

After all he had done for them, they actually accused him of not caring about them. Full of fear in the midst of the raging storm, they vented their anger at him.

Haven’t you done that? I must confess that I have. When there is a real crisis, our anger boils over and we have to find someone to blame for our problems – even the Lord. (Especially the Lord!)  Those disciples were like you and me. When they came to Jesus they didn’t ask him what to do, or even to help. They just accused him of not caring about them.

Maybe they thought that because they were with Jesus, everything should be just fine all the time. Who hasn’t thought like that at some stage or another! Then things go wrong, maybe at work, in the family, at church, among our friends, with our finances, or perhaps our health breaks down. We get disillusioned. (What actually happens is that God lets us see how spiritually immature we really are.)

We forget that in the story of the two house builders (you know – the wise man who built his house on the rock, and the foolish man who built his house on the sand) Jesus didn’t say to those who followed him “IF” the storms come. He said “WHEN” the storms come.

Look at the passage again. Jesus dealt with the storm. How did he do it? He just spoke the words, “Peace, be still.” Then there was calm. It says that the disciples were now “in awe” of him. Why was that? I’ll tell you why. It was because in the amazing picture language of their Jewish Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) it is God alone who has the power to subdue the raging seas (Psalm 89:9, 93:4, 107:28-29). 

And, of course, he also stilled the storm in their hearts. 

We are all in the same boat. Sooner or later we are battered by storms of one kind or another. Every storm tests our faith in God; every crisis reveals whether or not we have learned to trust him.

Jesus has promised to stay with us, even - especially - in the midst of the storms that threaten to wipe us out. He loves us with an everlasting love. We can trust his love. We might be shaken to the depth of our beings. Sometimes there are beautiful friends who help get us through. But every now and then we are alone, even in a crowd. So alone . . . except for Jesus. Let’s turn to him, and call out to him in our distress. Let’s trust in his love. Let’s remember the frightened disciples on the evening of Easter Day when Jesus appeared in their midst, stretched his nail-pierced hands and gave them his peace. 

“Peace, be still!” He still speaks. He still sends out his Word. His Word still subdues the storm and heals us on the inside.

We know who he is. If we trust him and hang on, no matter how bad things are, his peace – that wonderful supernatural gift of his – the “peace that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) – will protect us and keep us sane, for it is still a “peace that the world cannot give” (John 14:27).

Thank you, Lord. Amen.