The Reverend Elizabeth Bowyer

The 17th Sunday after Pentecost, October 5, 2014 World Communion Sunday


Based on the readings from: Exodus 20: selected verses 1-4; 7-9; 12-20

  “The Ten Commandments”

And  Matthew, Chapter 21, verse 33-46

    “The unscrupulous tenants of the vineyard”

Introductory Comments:  Today we celebrate World Communionn Sunday.  Its one day in the church calendar year where we acknowledge that we are part of something much larger than the sum of the parts here at Knox United Church.  As members of the United Church of Canada, we are part of a denomination that celebrates with other denominations such as the Anglican Communion, the Catholic Church, and the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches our longing and our hope that in the smallest and in the largest of ways, we are working together towards a vision of God’s Shalom.  We are working towards the unfolding of God’s Kingdom, a place, a time, and an experience where the fruits of our labours will be made known.  The fruits of our labours will become “real” or tangible signs of communities living out of an ethos of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self control.  Are we there yet?  Almost. Maybe.  Never.  Yes. No.  Someday.  Let us pray:

Holy, gracious and amazing God, may the words on my lips and the thoughts and feelings we carry as we discern the meaning of your Word for us this day, may all of it be acceptable in your sight.  Amen.

Our readings for this morning, first, from the Book of Exodus, and then from the our gospel according to the author of Matthew, provide us with two quite different stories.  At a first glance, the stories might seem quite disconnected one from the other.  That said, let’s take a closer look at what meaning God’s word for the ancient Israelites gathered together at the foot of Mt. Sinai might have held for them and also for us this day.

As the twentieth chapter of the book of Exodus begins, we are reminded of how God has liberated God’s people from the oppression of slavery in Egypt as Moses brings this message from God to God’s people. 

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me”.

And, indeed, if we are to think back on our readings from the Hebrew texts over the last few months, we have travelled with these folks in a way.  We, like them, have learned that God responds to their challenges and their complaints by giving them, not necessarily what they want, but what they need.   Further to that, we have learned that through it all, God remains responsive and steadfast.

This morning, we hear tell of how the wandering Israelites’ identity will be further shaped as God clarifies God’s expectations in their life with God in the giving of the Ten Commandments.

This morning, our reader, Mary Bliss, read only select verses of the ten rather than the whole list.  Something, I imagine, many of you already know by heart, or then again, perhaps not.  Regardless, God presents God’s people with a list of rules or instructions for their on-going life in community.   Nowadays, we might call them ground rules or norms or rules of engagement. 

The Ten Commandments presented by God via Moses are not intended to be punitive in nature but rather, to provide the people clear boundaries, to keep the community such as it was in that time, safe.  To paraphrase Walter Bruggemann, well known biblical scholar, the purpose of the Ten Commandments is to help folks “get it right about their relationship with God so that they might get it right with each other”

This giving of the “law” to the people at Mt. Sinai is intended, not so much, to restrict them as to free them up to live fruitful and meaningful lives before God and within community, with one another.

When I think of the Ten Commandments, I think of our United Church Manual, a document that helps me, as your spiritual and administrative leader, to get a sense of what’s possible for the well-being of this particular church community here at Knox.  My goal in so doing, is to provide the “space” or the “opportunity” for you to flourish, to live out your mission as a fruitful, productive, and meaningful church community in right relationship with God and with each other in this time and in this place.  Are we there yet?  Almost. Maybe.  Sometimes. Never. Yes. No.

I like how Jesus was declared to have summed up the Ten Commandments, the giving of God’s Law in the 22nd chapter of Matthew’s gospel: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, and mind.  And you shall love your neighbour as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”. 

But, before we go to this reading in a few weeks’ time, let’s consider this morning’s story from the gospel taken picking up from where we left off last week.  Here today in the 22nd chapter of Matthew, verses 33-46, we have the story of “The Unscrupulous Tenants of the Vineyard”. 

In its telling, we are provided with what John Dominic Crossan, a very popular and well regarded liberal theologian and scholar would call a “challenge parable”.

As such, this parable speaks to the life of the community, not only in a fairly user-friendly descriptive way, but it also speaks to the dire consequences of not living in right relationship with God or with one another.

The context of the story is one of intense and deepening conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities of the day, the scribes and the Pharisees, as Jesus anticipates his passion.  Among other things, we hear Jesus make reference to himself as the chief cornerstone as and such, one who will be rejected.

In terms of the actual setting of the story, this parable is the middle of three echoing a similar theme offered to that from last Sunday’s readings about what was fair in the vineyard.  Next week we will hear and reflect together on the third parable of the three, the story of the Wedding Banquet.  Three parables that shimmer and sparkle and cause feelings of uh-oh or discomfort or sometimes even distress all at the same time as we reflect on the hidden truth behind Jesus’ words and the call to change he offers in his vision of God’s Shalom, God’s Kingdom, God’s Peaceable Reign coming to pass.  And, as is the case for today, most of the parables begin with that turn of phrase beginning: “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, or a woman baking bread or a….”

In this morning’s reading, we are invited to consider God’s faithfulness even in the midst of the people’s wanton disregard for right relations as the author of Matthew holds up the mirror for the community. 

Here in the parable of the unscrupulous tenants in the vineyard, all eyes, ears, and hearts would know that Jesus was taking aim at the religious authorities and their inability to live fruitful, productive, and meaningful lives before God and with one another.

It’s a difficult story intended to cause its listeners discomfort and to remind them that “bad behaviour” has the capacity sooner or later to yield difficult consequences. 

The good news for today?  In endings, there are also beginnings.  In the shattering of false illusions, there is also the promise of new life.  In the breaking open of that which is false, is the hope of God’s redeeming and pervasive grace. 

May it be so, amen.