Septuagesima – Why labour?

You go into the vineyard too,
and whatever is right I will give you.

On Thursday night this week there was a secret meeting held here at the Parsonage Hall – I’m sorry that I was not able to invite you all.  It was organized by Open Doors – an international charity, which was founded in the Netherlands, to support and encourage especially the persecuted Church throughout the world.

Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Bagdad, was here to speak with clergy – Anglican and otherwise – to share with us something of the experience of the persecuted Iraqi Christians and his ministry to them and among them.  It was a powerful witness to us.  He is going around privately, to raise funds for those who have fled to the North of Iraq or to Jordan.

He does so, while struggling with MS – so his speech is a little laboured, and he has trouble with his balance.  But he shared with us his joy in these labours for the flock in his care.

When he went to Bagdad, the church was empty – the only noise was the rats scurrying in the empty hall.  The first service had a hundred people come, and the following week 200, then 300 then 800 and within the first year there were over 6000 Christians worshipping at that church.

This small device that Canon White gave me is a spoken bible – recharged by the sun – made in Israel – it is being given out in large numbers to Christians in the camps (in the Iraqi tongue that they speak).

He spoke of the evangelization that is going on in Iraq amongst Muslims – it is not they who are speaking about Christ to others – that would almost certainly bring about their quick deaths – but it is a story being seen again and again – a man in white appears in a dream or in a vision at the foot of the bed and calls on the person to “Follow me” – and they are seeking out the Church to tell them about Jesus.  Canon White spoke about how this happened recently with a former ISIS commander.  On Thursday night, a man spoke of his own conversion in Bagdad, of seeking out the church and seeing the worshipping Christians – seeing their joy in the midst of such great terror and suffering.  He said he wanted that joy and gave himself to Christ and he now knows it.

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This morning, because Easter is so early this year, we have changed seasons from Epiphany to Pre-Lent.  Septuagesima means about 70 days before Easter.

Creation of the Light and the Angels, artist unknown, mosaic, Italy, Sicily, Monreale Cathedral, 12-13th century
Creation of the Light and the Angels, artist unknown, mosaic, Italy, Sicily, Monreale Cathedral, 12-13th century

The Old Testament lesson [Genesis 1:1-5] is from the opening verses of the Bible – it describes the moments of Creation – the Spirit of God hovering over the formlessness and void of the dark waters.  And causing the bringing forth of light, of a clarity out of chaos.

The great commentators in the Early Church saw this as the moment of the creation of the angels (because of other Old Testament passages such as The Song of the Three Children and Psalm 148 that order the creation of the angels first) and because the light we see was only created on the fourth day.  But also as a figure of the beginning of the conversion of the soul out of a state of confusion and formlessness, to the recovery of the image and likeness of God in it, through Jesus Christ.  God’s plan of our recreation in Christ begins by the conversion of our souls bringing about a new clarity – but not as an end in itself.  To what end is God converting our souls?

In the suggested daily readings, in this season we begin to read once again through the foundational books of Genesis and Exodus – and I encourage you to participate in this most ancient tradition.  The pattern is to parallel our reading of Creation and Fall, of the choosing of Israel, its enslavement and deliverance out of Egypt, along side with our own experience of recreation, and deliverance out of sin through Christ’s sacrifice of himself on the Cross.   And we can ask ourselves, again, to what end is God converting our souls?

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In our Epistle this morning [1 Corinthians 9:24-27], St Paul calls on us to live a temperate life – a life of self control over the body.

Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.  They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.  So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.  But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to other I myself should be disqualified. 

He speaks about not wanting to be disqualified.  We don’t earn our salvation, it is a free gift of God, but it seems from repeated warnings in the New Testament, that we could just walk away from the household, from the kingdom, and that is a scary prospect.  Who wants to be disqualified, or a cast away!  We’re to be on the alert, to temper the desires of the body, or we could be carried away from Love by them.

We can begin to think about what sort of disciplines of the body we might like to engage in this Lent so we’re not disqualified.  He gives us a reason to strive for holiness in the spiritual life, an imperishable crown.  But St Paul has told us that our salvation comes by grace, through faith.  So what is the eternal wreath that we could possibly attain through our running in a particular way?  Some have said that the imperishable wreath that Paul is speaking of is God’s image and likeness restored in us as we seek to follow the life of virtue – surely a crown to be desired.  But still, to what end is God restoring his image and likeness, to what end is he converting our souls?

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In this morning’s Gospel [St Matthew 20:1-16], Jesus tells us…

THE kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. 

Septuagesima-SirJohnEverettMillais1864
Labourers in the Vineyard, Sir John Everett Millais, 1864

God is the householder, and we are the labourers being called to work in the vineyard, the Church that God is planting in the world – his people and our individual souls.

And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 

Then God calls people at the third hour, the sixth, the ninth, and even at the eleventh hour – this is a description of what happens in the life of the Church – God’s Kingdom – where some are called from their youth, some at later ages in their life – some even soon before their death.

But in the parable, every worker receives the same reward – a penny.  So we can understand why some might be annoyed.  But what is the penny supposed to represent?

The reward, at the end of our lives here is eternal life.  It is  not something earned by our efforts but a free gift.  And whether we become a Christian as an infant or in old age, it is the same gift – eternal life is eternal life, you can’t double it or triple it!

So given that the reward is the same, why should we strive, why should work in the vineyard?  Why not just sit back in our chairs until the last hour and trust that the penny will drop!

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There is another motivator, an even more powerful motivator to engage in the work of the vineyard as soon as possible, and to bear the burden and heat of the day – it is out love, out of a desire to be fruitful in our lives even now, out of a desire to bring God glory now!

Listening to Canon Andrew White’s testimony on Thursday was a real inspiration – the persecuted Church is alive and is fleeing but it is also growing.  Those who have fled to the North of Iraq or to Jordan, are picking up their lives having brought nothing – and yet thousands of children are now receiving an education – schools have been set up, supported not by the Jordanian or Iraqi governments but by Christians around the world, supporting the persecuted church.  Canon White’s call reminded me very much of the sharing that happened in the early Church when St Paul brought significant financial support to the churches in Jerusalem that were suffering from famine. [e.g. Rom 15:25-27; 1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8—9]

Sept - Van Gogh - The Red Vineyard
The Red Vineyard, Vincent van Gogh

They are bearing “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” and yet they are not resentful at all.  Entering more fully into the work of the vineyard has its own rewards – they know a closeness to the Lord, they are alive to what is most important.  They are on fire with love.

It made me wonder about my faithfulness, and about the controversies we can become so easily engrossed in the West, or our petty personal trials that we can focus on and that can take us away from greater work in the Lord’s vineyard.

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All of us would like to bear fruit in the spiritual life.  Who wants to wait until the next life to see God, to grow and flourish in wisdom, in understanding, in courage and hope, to be more loving to our neighbours, to be at peace, knowing deep and abiding joy?  Why would we wait until the end of our lives to begin to know and bear this fruit?

You go into the vineyard too,
and whatever is right I will give you.

May the Spirit of God grant to each one of us both the desire and the grace to enter into those labours.

Amen.