A sermon by the Very Reverend June Osborne DL
Isaiah 5 v 1-7; Mark 12 v 1-12
There have been two big stories filling our news bulletins this last week.
The crash of the Germanwings plane into the French Alps was in many ways a very personal story. Whilst the headlines have concentrated on why it happened much of our empathy has focused on the school group from just outside Dusseldorf who all perished, partly because a school outing of young people is something with which we’re all familiar. Indeed there was one story at the heart of that group which certainly caught my imagination precisely because it is so recognisable to those of us who’ve had teenage children. One of the boys had left behind his passport meaning that he might well have missed going on the trip and thus missed being numbered in those who had died, had it not been for his father rushing to the airport with the necessary passport and thus ensuring that his son too would be included in the death toll.
How will that father tell himself the story of those events as he tries to make sense of his son’s death? Will it be a story of guilt and an intolerable burden of responsibility? Will he manage to live peaceably with the dark abyss of ‘If only…’? Amidst his grieving pain will he draw consolation from the kindness he receives, the sense that no-one blames him and the knowledge that his son wanted to be on that trip which meant being on that plane?
The stories we tell ourselves about our lives are particularly important in a time of desolation. For those families, sharing the same facts and the same tragic outcome, all of them searching for some meaning in their pain, they will tell themselves different stories with different mixes of courage and despair.
The other story in our headlines this week was the interment of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral. This isn’t a personal story. There’s no-one grieving here. Yet the vast crowds which turned out to see the coffin make its journey through Leicester reflect the sense that this is our shared story. Monarchs are our nation’s story and we have a sense that in this last Plantagenet king there’s something which connects us with who we’ve been and who we are now.
And here we are, on Palm Sunday, at the beginning of the week in the year when we’re all invited to remember an even more powerful story. The invitation is to a story which explains not just personal biography, or a community’s history but the very nature of the human condition.
The Christian Church started this morning with the re-enactment of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey – not as triumphant warrior general as their Roman overlords would have done but as a lowly agent of God’s defenceless love. Through this week we invite you to stay with the narrative of Jesus’ last week as it unfolds through unjust and collusive systems to torture and death.
If you engage with the Passion of Christ imaginatively you’ll see the triumph of almighty God; of power not expressed in domination but in brokenness. Year after year people who follow this story testify to how it helps make sense of their questions and brings life-changing consolation. That’s because it’s not just the memory of Christian communities being offered but it’s our human story being understood and interpreted. Our story of human aggression, our inability to embrace what is threatening or different, our human bondage to behaviour which cripples relationships or divides communities, that takes us to the fields of battle or to tragic consequences: within it all we find new hope.
As a commentary on this human condition Isaiah told us a parable which was not just descriptive but which begins to promise the sorting out of human failure. As we heard in our two readings Jesus then takes that story of the vineyard and reworks it with his own interpretation.
Isaiah tells us that God tenderly and purposefully creates a vineyard, for which we’re to read the Houses of Judah and Israel, the people he loves. But these people bear no fruit, no grapes, no wine, no fruits of harmony and peaceableness. God hoped for justice but saw bloodshed, instead of righteousness he heard the cry of human misery.
Jesus retells this moral and spiritual tale but in asking why the human vineyard grows the sour grapes of wrath he points his finger at those who’re the guardians of the vineyard, the tenant farmers, those who lead human society including its religious leaders. Not only did these tenants reject the ownership of God but they treated viciously those who represented his interests, and last of all they murdered his Son. It’s a story of judgment on all that is self-destructive and life-denying in human behaviour in our lives as much as in the day of Isaiah and Jesus.
But it’s important to note that it’s told to us as a love story.
“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill…”
And so this prologue to Holy Week, to the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, alerts us to see all the drama which follows as a love story.
Whatever your story and however you choose to tell it you’re a beloved child of God. He who knew you before your mother’s womb; he who created the vineyard of this world also cherishes you, shapes you, and ultimately redeems your life. This week we’re invited into the depths of that love and the mystery of how he does this.
Prepare to see laid before us the worst of our human condition and the eternal hope offered to us by God. But as we start – know that it is a love story. For God calls you his beloved and all that now follows, all that leads us to Easter Day, is for you.