This sermon was given by Rev Caroline on Sunday 15 October 2017, and is based on Matthew 21:33-46.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a traffic jam and turned on the radio. I found myself listening to a programme about faith on Radio 4. The person who was being interviewed was a Rabbi whom I understood to be well known but was not personally familiar with. I didn’t catch his name but his conversation with the interviewer has kept drifting though my mind over the weeks that followed.
As the conversation about faith and traditions continued, the interviewer suddenly asked a very random question that took me by surprise. She said: “If you were only able have one of the 10 Commandments to live your life by, which one would be the one you would absolutely have to keep?”
The Rabbi’s response was instantaneous and without seeming to need any form of reflection. “Keep the Sabbath“, he said. Both the interviewer and I were very surprised. “You don’t feel that loving the lord your God is a greater priority?” she asked.
His response was along the lines of: “Loving the Lord my God is a given, If I keep the Sabbath all of the other commandments fall into place. I have space to think, space to pray to God, space to worship Him and space with my family where we can enjoy time together without distraction, get our thoughts into perspective and re-focus our energy for the week ahead. By taking the space I can lay down any anger and I am reminded of my love for the family and I cherish what I have and not what my neighbour has”.
After a momentary pause the interviewer changed the direction of the conversation after that response!
Having lived for the last few months in a largely Jewish area, it has been interesting to witness the observing of the Sabbath. What I noticed quite early on is how relaxed people seem to be, with families walking around together smiling and enjoying each other’s company. I am the generation for whom Sunday trading started whilst I was still a child so I don’t have strong memories of life when Sunday was much more of a day of rest for those who were fortunate enough to not be working shift patterns. What I do observe, as I see others observing the Sabbath, is that we have lost something very important in society by making every day the same as the last and where all tasks and activities can be undertaken with similar priority on any day. Sabbath is a time to let go of the week before and embrace the week to come. For many, having that quality time as a family can be a genuine challenge however much they yearn for it. We all need Sabbath time whenever we observe it – downtime, rest and recuperation, refocusing and re-energising are basic human needs. The stresses of modern life, though, sometimes militate against this for many.
Whilst the Sabbath is an important God-given day that he gave to us knowing the importance of all those things that our interviewee discussed, our gospel reading today shows us that there is so much more to the story. The interviewer was not asking a fair question. God issued the 10 Commandments with good reason and Jesus condensed these into loving God with all of our hearts and loving others as ourselves. Our great commandments from which all other behaviours flow. I am sure that our interviewee would have given a much more comprehensive answer if he had been allowed to do so.
God, in his wisdom, knows that many of us need to be reminded to come back on track from time to time and that Jesus, the Cornerstone, invites us to accept his help to wipe any wrong paths clean and be restored to the relationship of love that God invites us to. Without loving God, as Jesus taught us to, our unhelpful paths may be pursued for longer than we ideally would. Just as the tenants did in our gospel reading today.
The parable of the tenants would have started as a familiar scenario in the first century when, culturally, leasing land to tenants was common practice. Everyone would know that not completing the terms of the lease could mean eviction. Jesus’ story shows an incredible patience by the landlord which, on the surface looks a bit naïve.
This parable is a twist upon Isaiah’s vineyard. Drawing upon Psalm 18, Jesus draws his listeners away from what is on the surface, an account of landlords and tenants to making a correlation between the son that was sent to the tenants being the Father’s son, the stone that the builders rejected. The Son that was sent to the vineyard became God’s own Son and the tenant farmers could be seen as the as the temple leaders.
There are many commandments that were being broken in this parable. The tenants failed to love the Master and seek to serve him. They coveted his land, they stole and committed murder. If they had used the Sabbath to spend precious time with God they would, most likely, have walked more closely with Him and not used their time to create dastardly plots against the Father as they sought to steal his land. They would have been convicted of and repented of their treatment of the landlord’s messengers long before he sent his son. If loving the Lord, our God with all our heart does not underpin our lives as the key commandment and thoughts then we reject Christ, the cornerstone and, as Jesus says “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Loving God and observing the Sabbath are therefore intertwined rather than an either or choice.
God entrusts each one of us with our part of his vineyard. We are simply tenants leasing out the talents that God has gifted us with to be used for the greater good of the kingdom. We are partners with Jesus in the work as we understand that “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”.
As we remain in touch with that very knowledge and make the space to absorb it, our awe inspired hearts are stirred to serve God that his kingdom may yield the fruits that he has entrusted us to grow. It is from this response to Christ as Cornerstone that Jesus’ new commandment to love one another as he has loved us automatically flows and that becomes our reality whatever the pace of our lives. Our challenge is how to build a Sabbath into our lives in a way that works in a society that has largely rejected it and, in so doing, lay ourselves open to God’s blessing and restoration flowing through our lives.