Trinity 17 (OS27)
Isa 5.1-7, Ps 80.8-19, Phil. 4.4-9 and Matt. 21.33-45
Rev'd Daniel Irvine
There is a lot about vineyards in our readings this morning.
My first ever job was in a vineyard out at Langhorne Creek and Belvedere. I started at 18, the week after my last year 12 exam was finished, my Dad was already working out there and there is lots of dressing and maintenance needed over Summer so I went out and asked the foreman and was put to work.
Nearly 20 years later and it feels as if I have been flat out working ever since.
Over that time I have met, as I am sure many of you have met as well, a lot of bosses, a lot of manager or supervisor types, put in charge of people for one reason or another, but really only able to follow instructions in service of themselves, the company and the bosses higher up that put them there.
I think it is true to say that over those years, in four different industries now; I have encountered true leaders only seldomly.
In both our vineyard tales today those in positions of authority, responsibility and power are being called out for their lack of true leadership.
The prophet Isaiah, the original prophet Isaiah that is, not the Isaiah that is to be mixed up or confused with second and third Isaiah, who are so concerned to give hope to a fallen people, is cut from a similar cloth as the prophets Amos and Hosea.
The first section of the book of Isaiah does not contain a lot of hope. Rather it is a prophetic voice that decries the leadership of Judah and tells them that only doom awaits because of their terrible actions.
The situation is beautifully metaphored in the poetic song of the vineyard that forms our reading from the first testament today.
God has lovingly cared for and tended the vineyard. God has dug it and cleared it of stones, God has built a wall and watchtower to protect it and a vat to enjoy its fruits but in the end it only produced wild, sour grapes, not fit to eat or to make wine from.
Now the prophet goes on to explain the way in which the people, and in particular the leaders have failed, and funnily enough it does not have anything to do with forms of worship, the sacrifices offered or not offered, or anything else so superficial.
No, we get a glimpse in verse seven and if you were to continue through chapter five we would see very clearly that the faults of Judah and its leaders lie in the failure to act with justice, delivering bloodshed instead, and injustice, allowing the rich to acquire more and more and gradually force the poor off the land and into destitution and God is not pleased at all.
For this was the true meaning of the covenant, to establish the principles of social justice and equity among all people as children of God; to equate our love of neighbour and our actions within our communities with our love of God and our worship and praise.
It was this that Jesus, in his parable about the wicked tenants of the vineyard, was trying to reiterate and highlight to the leadership of his time.
The language Jesus uses is meant to draw similarities to the passage from Isaiah, to get the people thinking “what happened last time a prophet warned us of this?”
But Jesus in particular focuses more sharply on the leadership, who abuse and mistreat the master’s servants, even killing his son to try and secure gain and power and position for themselves.
And, according to Matthew, the leadership of Israel did not miss Jesus’ point, as the evangelist notes in verse 45.
Leadership, in any area, is an important responsibility to take up and often leads to individuals having to commit to soul searching and to learning who they truly are.
When I gradually worked my up the chain (climbed the slippery pole as one colleague put it) to a position of responsibility, normally by accident than any design, I too had to make my own decisions about the type of leader I would be.
What I learnt, especially in education but also in other areas, was if you are trying to please the bosses and managers even higher up to earn brownie points and hopefully sneak a few more inches up the slippery pole then you are going to be a very poor leader because chances are you will have stopped caring about the men and women who you are entrusted to care for.
You can follow all the policies and procedures in the world, you can dot every “i” and cross every “t”, you can increase efficiency and meet growth targets but none of that will make you a good leader, simply an efficient manager, and possibly a poor human being.
In order to be a leader you needed to place the needs of your staff, your workers, the students, or the customers, above the black and white of policies and procedures, you had to learn that doing the right thing sometimes meant breaking the rules and incurring the wrath of the “boss”, because in the end you are dealing with people, with human beings, not programmable machines.
Greatest compliment I think I ever received was from a colleague at school, who claimed to be an atheist (although I think he was more of an enquirer but didn’t want to admit it).
He told me one day that in my leadership of the faculty he could visibly see the principles of sacrificial leadership and care for those you are entrusted to lead that were demonstrated through the life of Jesus, and that if there were more like me the world (or at least that school) would be a better place.
Now I was understandably speechless, I had not sought or fished for any such complement but I humbly thanked him for his words and bore the nickname of “white-Jesus” with the love that it was intended.
The leaders in both our readings this morning were not thinking about their people, they were not seeking to make life better for those they served, but only how to extract gain from them, even gain that wasn’t their due.
Jesus warned them that if they persisted then the vineyard would be taken from them and given to those who could be trusted.
It might as well be the story of the Church since Jesus, as it has time and time again fallen into corruption and self-service, as it has cared more about rites and rituals then the people it had been entrusted to care for.
Indeed it might well even be the story of the Church in this diocese – where for too long many of those entrusted with its care and the care of its people have been preoccupied with power, position and the prestige they think comes from being a priest.
They have too long focused on insignificant details like how many candles to put on the altar, what fancy dresses and garments they ought to wear and what the gender of those “allowed” to wear them might be.
For too long they have forgotten fundamental basis of the covenant that Isaiah prophesied about and Jesus proclaimed throughout his life.
If we read the Gospels, truly and deeply we will see that Jesus did not come to replace one set of rules and costumes with another, but rather to uncover the true meaning of the covenantal relationship with God and with our fellow human beings.
Sadly even our own diocesan leadership has been heard speak dismissively of the kingdom work that this parish under Thomas’s care and true leadership have laboured so hard to achieve.
Saying that if it is not resulting in numerical growth then we must not get too carried away with what is called by some the “social gospel”.
Well I would contend that if the Gospel is to be good news for all then there is no other kind of Gospel.
I would suggest that if the disciples of Jesus are not following in his footsteps in feeding the hungry and restoring fullness of life to the marginalised and the dispossessed then they are not disciples at all, but merely sycophantic fans, fawning in adoration over trinkets and vestments while the gospel values that Jesus lived and died for are laying covered in dust in a long forgotten cupboard.
In the weeks and months, indeed in the years that lay ahead, each of us is going to be confronted with many choices about whether we acquiesce to an administration that only seems interested in preserving the boys club and as much of the status quo as they can get away with, gaining for themselves small empires over which they exercise domain.
Or, whether we are going to make a stand for the gospel values we see in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who excluded no one who sought to come to him, but expected those who did to ultimately be changed, to begin to reflect in their lives the light and the love of God that Jesus revealed to us all.
I hope and pray that when the time comes for that decision to be made that we make a decision that is inspired by the Holy Spirit, to live out the good news of Jesus Christ, for the glory of God the Father and Mother of us all. Amen