Curate's Sermon - 5th October, 2014
May I speak in the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Now I think that I have said this before, and I am sure that I will say it again: I am a big fan of murder mystery novels, TV shows and film adaptations. And so Sherlock Holmes, that Medieval sleuth Brother Cadfael and Police Inspectors Morse, Rebus and Wallander amongst many, many others all find a home on the bookshelves in my living room – and their antics are also those that I am happy to seek out on both big and small screens.
But for me, the premier amongst the fictional detectives is actually the work of the Queen of crime herself, Agatha Christie. Because for me the best TV sleuth is none other than the little man from Belgium with the egg-shaped head and waxed moustaches – namely Monsieur Hercule Poirot.
So what is it that I like about the stories of Hercule Poirot? Well the settings certainly appeal – the high society of the 1920’s and 30’s with its lavish hotels decked in the Art Deco style – with its paddle steamers bobbing slowly along the sultry River Nile in Egypt – and with the Orient Express chugging its way through the snow covered peaks of central Europe amongst other things – all of which are really rather dazzling.
And yet - possibly because I have a tidy mind that hates loose ends especially in stories and films - what I actually really like most about these mysteries is how they end, the final revealing scene.
How in each and every case Poirot gathers together all those who have been involved with the crime into one room - all those who could have done the deed and also those who seemingly could not possibly have been responsible – and then takes them step by step through the facts of the case, highlighting the conclusions he has drawn, showing where each clue led him and then finally and with calm and confidence presenting the truth to one and all, revealing the guilt not least to the guilty party themselves – a person or persons who very often are counted amongst those who seemed to have been completely unable to have carried out the terrible act at all from what we the audience knew.
Now apart from the likelihood that He also sported facial hair, I am sure that we would see little connection between the fictional crime stopper Hercule Poirot and the Son of God Jesus Christ. And yet in our Gospel passage today if you ask me Jesus is doing exactly what Poirot does in each and every story – describing a crime to a gathered crowd, presenting the facts of this to those present and making it clear to one group amongst them that they are the guilty parties.
Admittedly there are differences. Poirot states facts of a “real” crime, however here we are presented with an illustration – a parable that Jesus told, the parable of the Wicked Tenants as my Bible calls it. And yet that this story points to real events is not only accepted by Biblical scholars now and through the ages, but more importantly was clearly accepted by those actually gathered then, by those who were listening.
Anyone in the crowd hearing Christ speak will have known that here the vineyard is Israel, that the vineyard owner is God the One who presented this great gift to His people, that the slaves who are beaten, killed and stoned are the prophets sent over the years to spread God’s word, that the son seized and killed outside the vineyard, is the Son of God Jesus Christ, killed outside the walls of Jerusalem – and how then the criminals, the wicked tenants are the ruling classes of Israel – Kings and religious leaders down the ages – leaders now represented by the chief priests and the Pharisees. And that they especially knew that this was indeed all true is stated baldly in our passage “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realised that he was speaking about them”.
They realised that He was speaking about them – but did others I wonder? After all just as in Poirot due to some trick of time or alibi certain people seem unable to have been the murderer, but then are revealed to be so later on – it would be for many I would say something of a shock to think that these priests and Pharisees are guilty of neglecting and failing God in such a terrible way.
It is rather apt that our Old Testament passage today describes the basis of the Law of Israel, the Ten Commandments because the priests and Pharisees were of course the defenders of these laws and rules that led the people of Israel to a good and correct relationship with each other and with God. They were the defenders and regulators of these pillars upon which a life dedicated to God was built.
And if we want proof of this we can just check the Gospels and see how we constantly find these men defending these Laws within their pages. Take for example the need to keep the Sabbath sacred, references to this are numerous. Why for example they wonder should Jesus allow His disciples to collect grain on the Sabbath? Why again did Jesus heal a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath? Why indeed when as these men who know God the best can point along with the rest of us to words that we heard today. “For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…” Pretty clear cut then.
But here of course is part of the crime of these criminals outed by Jesus. As Christ says “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?” A rhetorical question as He says these words directly before going on to heal the man with the withered hand. And yes of course as this shows - it is, it must be - unless you have taken the law and twisted it and hardened it. Unless you have taken things set and sent for good and twisted them into bonds with which to bind people, or made them so rigid that they become sticks with which to beat people. Unless you have taken the things of God and claimed them as yours, not used them as a way for you to humbly and carefully make your way closer to God, but instead as a way to be superior, to judge, to place expectations upon others.
It is easy perhaps, especially when it comes to our faith, our church life, our worship of God that we hold so dear to be like the Pharisees here and expect others to dance to the tune that we care for and that we feel brings us closer to God. After all these things are special and for us life giving. But the danger is that this can go too far.
Alas at theological college my own commitment to God was questioned by others because I did not agree with them on certain points of faith, about the nature of God, about how to worship, or other issues. My commitment was questioned by people who in my opinion could not see beyond their own beliefs and truths as they saw them within the Gospel to me a person loved by God.
Luckily by that stage I was and still am fairly robust in my faith, but others may not be and so as Jesus showed to those religious leaders we need to hold these things gently – even perhaps those things that are most important to our own faith - especially perhaps when it comes to our attitude toward those who are seeking and searching to find a way to come to God themselves.
To these surely we need to hold out our hands in welcome and avoid holding instead a whip or a truncheon to beat people with. We need to see whatever laws we may believe exist in Church as Jesus did – to see them as certainly given by God in the case of such as the Ten Commandments, but equally to see these things as those that must be moulded and held in tandem with our knowledge of God shown to us in Jesus, to act and think first and foremost and always in the light of His love.
Take the Sabbath commandment so often mentioned in the Gospels, so often held against Jesus and how He acted. As Christ suggests “the Sabbath is made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath”. Taken this way we can see that the Sabbath is for our benefit. That it is given then as a way for us to come closer to God – for us to become more like God through such as worship, prayer and rest. A way ultimately for us to become more likely and able to do God’s work, to do the good Christ mentioned, to do the things that Christ Himself did. It is surely not about gnawing anxiety over whether we should really be doing something because of the time or day, but instead knowing what we should be doing for God and being ready and able to do it at all times.
And if doing and being and acting in the light of Christ’s love in all things is not the way to produce the fruit of the kingdom that Christ mentions today, then I don’t know what is.
But if we return to the words of the parable today I think that we see another major difference between this murder story and those penned by Agatha Christie for her Belgian sleuth to apply his little grey cells too. For here unlike those stories of detection written in the last century we find Jesus describing a murder that will be carried out and not a crime already committed. Because the Son killed outside the vineyard is the one who is telling this tale. But of course as sure as slow acting poison working its way through the system will cause death – so too is Christ sure that this crime will be committed. Christ knew that the slow acting poison of those He was accusing would ultimately lead to His death outside the walls of Jerusalem.
Perhaps then they had no choice, perhaps then they needed to arrest Jesus in order for the death on the cross and the resurrection to take place – and here I am once again thrown into the pondering and confusion I often face when thinking of Judas Iscariot and whether he could ever really have avoided betraying Christ if it was all part of God’s plan – but surely we can see and learn something from how the Pharisees and chief priests respond to being told of their guilt.
Not for them what often happens in Poirot stories the criminal saying “it’s a fair cop” and then handily in the oft absence of any actual proof making a full confession of all their misdeeds - but here instead this truth, this guilt does not lead to anything other than a fierce desire to cover their tracks.
So often in Poirot stories it is in committing a further crime to cover up the first that the murderers leave the clue that captures them. And here the bald facts of the failure down the years of the rulers of Israel to take heed of God’s faithful messengers and then now to recognise His own Son as such is followed by the worse crime of actually taking and killing this man; the crime for which they will be condemned – the crime of rejecting the stone that will become the cornerstone, the one that will come crashing down upon them.
Yet even knowing as they state that “a miserable death” awaits, they still persist along the path they have chosen. The path of self-reliance and rejection of Christ and His ways – here in particular perhaps the path of placing self interests, power and status ahead of God’s clear call to follow and His clear example presented in bodily form of how to act and come close to Him. Suffice it to say that this is of course wrong.
But here we must be sympathetic to the much criticised Pharisees and chief priests I feel, because it is so often the easy thing to do to act as they do. So often in life it is easier to make bad decision after bad decision, to throw good money after bad in terms of our life choices whatever they may be. To lose our temper when we know we should forgive perhaps. To react with jealousy and resentment when we really should be happy for others possibly. And more so, as in our passage to deny that anything is wrong at all – to be like Bart Simpson maybe and brazenly say “I didn’t do it”, even though we know, even if nobody else does that we actually did. It is in many ways our human nature.
A human nature that perhaps God exploited in the case of Judas, the religious leaders, Pilate and the Romans – who like Christ then represent us all in God’s story. But in their case all our possible bad, our fear and confusion, our tendency to foul up, our ability to fail to notice the good thing when we see it, as opposed to Christ, who takes our place because of these things but for our salvation.
But for those who seek to be the recipients of the kingdom taken from the criminals of our passage we need to fight that human tendency. We need to face those things that we maybe do, to face the rejection and crime of those people who killed Jesus all those years ago and accept both our guilt, but also the help that faith in Jesus Christ offers.
Because unsurprisingly He is the answer – He is as He states today the cornerstone, the keystone – that stone that holds everything together and prevents it from coming crashing to the ground. He Jesus Christ, found through prayer, found through Scripture, found through love.
Because as anyone with half the grey cells of Hercule Poirot can deduce, what anyone alongside Sherlock Holmes can see as elementary is that it is the One who died outside the vineyard, outside Jerusalem who done it and does it still if we let Him. The One who forgives, frees and saves us so that we can produce fruit and take our place in His Kingdom through Him and His love. Amen.