Septuagesima – Not labouring in vain

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?
So run, that you may obtain it!

Epiphany season has ended for us and we begin today with the shift in direction.  Epiphany was about revealing who God is in Jesus Christ.  And now we begin to shift our focus to the actions of God in Jesus Christ to save us, our salvation in Christ.  We are turning our minds towards Lent, and Jesus’ saving actions: His battle with evil, His passion and death on the Cross, his Resurrection and culminating in His Ascension into heaven and the pouring out of His Spirit at Pentecost.  [RD Crouse, Sermon for Septuagesima]

Lent is a preparation for Easter, and our three Sundays before Lent, starting today, help us to turn our minds towards that preparation.  Of course Lenten disciplines, are not something that are of the essence of the Church (of the “esse”), not something we must do, but it has been seen through the ages as something that can be helpful (of the “bene esse”) – and we can encourage one another if we do such disciplines together.  I’m not a jogger, but I imagine it can be easier to get out on a cold morning if you have a jogging partner and know the person will be waiting for you.  It is certainly an encouragement for me knowing there may be two or three gathered for prayer for the Daily Offices in our church during the week, rather than doing it by myself.  In the same way when a large part of the Church enters into a time of Lent together, we can encourage on another.  And the benefits of some discipline during Lent can be transferred to other times of the year when we find ourselves getting a bit out of control.
The Epistle today [1 Corinthians 9:24-27] reminds us of the call of every Christian to a certain discipline of the body and soul, to restrain our appetites and to feed ourselves in the right way, physically and spiritually, that we may enjoy the reward that imperishable.  Great runners take great care in getting the right amount of sleep and of how much and of what they eat and of a certain regimen of exercise of the body, if they would obtain a reward on earth – a medal (or in St Paul’s day, a crown of laurel).  We are to be even more attentive to these things since the reward we seek, eternal life, is of immeasurably greater value.

Our disciplines can include: attending to our bodily health, so that it is a better instrument of God’s loving purposes in the world; a certain amount fasting so that our appetites are kept in check and so that we better understand what our hunger is a sign of and other ways that hunger can be satisfied; we take care about our sleep, not too little, not too much so that we are healthy and more alert; we take care about what we fill minds with (what we read, what we watch, spiritual teaching) so that we may be renewed in the spirit of our minds, rather than be dragged into a pit with our thinking; it could include some new charitable work, out of love of neighbour, to “exercise” our hearts in a sense, to stretch them, and so that we see how that very activity feeds our hearts’ desires, satisfies our hunger, our inner longings.  (Jesus says, “My food is to do my Father’s will.”)

We are to enter into certain labours of body and soul, to practice self-control in all things as the worldly athlete does.  (This might call to mind certain extremes ascetic practices, but it needn’t make us respond in extreme ways – we’ll look at what sort of things are meant by this and I’ll make some suggestions before we get to Lent itself.)

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Our Gospel [St. Matthew 20:1-16] is about the kingdom of heaven – a master of the house, God, calls people to work in his vineyard.

Just to make clear, when we’re talking about labouring in the vineyard, we’re not saying everyone must have a job in Church, or that Church jobs are labouring in the kingdom and all other jobs are labouring in the world.  If we’re caring for children, if we’re a soldier or if we’re a computer programmer, if we are in business or government, it is not about what we do, but about seeing whatever work we do as part of the building up of God’s kingdom, of doing whatever we do, well, and out of love and in the love of God and our neighbour, to God’s glory.  It is about our inner intention.

Labourers in the vineyard, Eugene Burnand, 1908

The Gospel is set here to remind us that the degree of our labouring, does not change the reward that is received for those labours, the reward given by our Lord.  All who enter into the vineyard, who respond to Christ’s call to follow him, receive the same reward, whether we respond at the beginning of our life, in the middle, or at the end of our life – the reward is the same: eternal life in the Kingdom of heaven.  “I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or do you begrudge my generosity?”  The degree of our labours does not change the ultimate gift, eternal life, God’s generosity responds with the same gift to all who call upon him with faith.

That might seem to be a disincentive to engaging really seriously in the call to discipline of body and mind, or to the amount of effort we give to our work, our labours.  Maybe it is better to engage a little bit in the kingdom work, and spend a lot more effort towards building up my own kingdom.  I’ll just keep one log in the fire of the kingdom and the rest satisfying worldly ends.

But that would be to misunderstand the human soul or the purpose of our life and of our desire, of our inner longings.  We can see all around us that Christians are not necessarily more diligent in our labours than non-Christians.  In fact we can often look at those who are seeking worldly ends and see an incredible diligence in their labouring.  But what is the difference between their labouring and labouring for the kingdom of heaven, labouring in God’s vineyard?  Isn’t it this:  that some labours only lead to vexation of spirit or to vanity and nothingness – people wondering at the end of their lives, what was that all about? I wish I’d spent more time smelling the roses or attending to my loved ones?  Whereas those who labour in the vineyard, begin to see God’s glory shining around them, and they enjoy it even now, their labours bear real and lasting fruit, perhaps in hidden ways only seen in the light of heaven but also in ways that are manifested even now in our midst (nothing is hidden that will not be revealed [Luke 8:17], are we building with straw or with precious stones? [1 For 3:12-15])  Something that will endure satisfies the soul and gives God glory.  If we have a choice of doing something that is ephemeral and vanishing, or something that is enduring, isn’t the choice clear?  And why would we give 10% of our labours to the vineyard and 90% to that which has no ultimate meaning?

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Jesus would have us be fruitful and fulfilled in our lives.  He would satisfy the longings he’s placed in our hearts.  We have two and a half weeks before Lent and opportunity to think about how we might temper our lives in some way, exercising self-control, and to redirect our energies to working in God’s vineyard.

Might I suggest today something to add to your daily routine even now, a kind of pleasant labouring?  If you’re not following a pattern of daily Bible readings, consider following the first lessons of Morning and Evening Prayer, which start today with the Old Testament book of Genesis and will lead us through it in Pre-Lent and be followed in Lent through the book of Exodus.  These are the foundational stories of our very existence – they recall us to our origins in God, of our Creation, Fall and the redemption by God in stages, in figures and images, that are fulfilled finally in Christ’s offering of Himself on the Cross.  It will enrich our appreciation of the salvation Christ brings about in us as we ponder in our hearts his passion, death and resurrection.

Jesus calls each one of us this morning to enter into His labours.  Love should be our motivation, but if that does not move us perhaps our Collect gives us another motivation to enter into His labours.

Our Collect this morning is meant to gather up the idea of the readings – it has this strange bidding that “we who are justly punished for our offences, may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness.”  Perhaps we think it strange that God who loves us would punish us.  But we truly do experience a kind of “punishment” when we labour in vain or when our unrestrained appetites take us away from loving God and loving our neighbour.  It hurts us and can hurt our neighbour.  The “punishment” is experienced now, not in the future.  In God’s providential ordering of things, this “just punishment” is God’s love too, meant to curb our disordered loves and lead us back towards life.  And God’s nature or property is always to have mercy, that is, to forgive without requiring the just punishment and he gives us the grace so that we no longer need to experience punishment after punishment but to find true joy.

Now we have opportunity to remember and to experience once again the perfect forgiveness revealed to us in Jesus’ self-offering.  Let us prepare our hearts to enjoy a foretaste of the reward he promises each one of us who enter His labours, even eternal life.  Amen.