Reflection and Prayers
Rev Ray Vincent
Prayers at beginning of the service:
Our loving God, as we meet in your presence to worship, open our eyes
Let us see your glory in earth and sea and sky
Let us see your love in every living creature you have made,
Let us see your exuberant joy in all the variety of creation
And let these eyes shed tears of joy and gratitude
God, open our eyes
Open our ears
Let us hear your word of challenge and hope in the words of Scripture and the voice of the preacher
Let us hear your voice in the sounds of creation: wind and water and the song of the birds
Let us hear you speaking to us in the words of friends and of those who criticise us
Let us hear your cry for justice in the angry shouts of oppressed people
and the muted cry for help in what quiet people say and in what they do not say
God, open our ears
Open our lips
Let us sing your praise and tell others of your goodness
Let us tell our own story with honesty and courage
Help us to speak up for those who cannot speak or whose voice is not heard
Give us courage to speak the truth when lies are all around us
Give us the words to comfort those who mourn and strengthen those who are afraid
God, open our lips
God, as we gather for worship, open our eyes, our ears, our lips, our minds and our hearts
that we may acknowledge you as God here and in every part of our life
Isaiah 5:1-7 read by Jan Harris
Matthew 21:33-end (Good as New) read by Liz Henson
Our Bible readings presented us with two scenes, both in the same place – Jerusalem – but far apart in time – about 700 years.
The first is of a street singer. He is not busking for money, he is singing a song to convey a message. He is no doubt playing a stringed instrument, maybe a harp or a lyre. Today it would be a guitar.
It sounds like a love song:
‘Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard. My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill . .
In that ancient Jewish culture, the word ‘vineyard’ was often associated with romantic love. The Song of Solomon, the most romantic and erotic book in the Bible, has a lot about vineyards, vines, grapes and other fruit. Today, if you hear someone singing words like ‘moon’ or ‘dove’ or ‘sweet’ you can be pretty sure it’s a love song. In ancient Israel ‘vineyard’ conjured up the same idea.
The singer goes on to tell how this beloved person showed great care with the vineyard. He (or she) prepared the ground, planted choice vines, dug a vat to store the grapes, and built a watch-tower to protect it. But the produce was disappointing. The grapes were useless for making wine – no better than wild grapes.
As with many songs, the logical progression is not always very clear. The vineyard owner now speaks for himself – or herself? His or her reaction is not entirely rational. A normal vintner would surely ask himself what went wrong. Was the soil not good? Was the position unsuitable? Did he choose the wrong variety of plants, or was there something wrong with the way he planted them? But this vintner is actually offended and angry with his vineyard. He threatens to take away its hedge and leave it defenceless, to be overgrown with briers and thorns. When he goes on to say, ‘I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it’, it’s obvious that this is not literally a story about a bad grape harvest. It is the passionate outburst of a spurned lover.
But then it moves into yet another dimension. The tone becomes more challenging, and the listeners suddenly realise that it is not just a love song. It goes on:
‘For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting.’
The word ‘vine’ or ‘vineyard’ was also sometimes used as an image of God’s people – in the New Testament we find Jesus saying ‘I am the true vine, and you are the branches’. The ‘beloved’ is God. God has taken great loving care with his vineyard Israel, and is disappointed with the fruit. And what is the fruit? The song says, ‘he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry’.
In the original Hebrew there is a dramatic play on words: ‘justice is mishpat, ‘bloodshed’ is mishpach; ‘righteousness’ is tsedakah and ‘a cry’ is tse’aqah, a harsh guttural word. And on that ugly word the song ends. So in fact it’s not just the story of a vineyard, and it’s not even a romantic love song – it’s a protest song. And people think protest songs only started to catch on in the 1960s!
Isaiah was not just a poor street singer. He was quite a privileged person in Jerusalem. He was even an adviser to the king. But as he looked around at society, he felt the anger of God at its injustice. Many people were poor and exploited, while others were rich and uncaring. The poor were getting poorer while the rich were adding to their wealth and their land – so much like our world today! The ‘people of God’ were turning away from God. They weren’t turning away from religion – they were flocking to the Temple in as great numbers as ever. But they were forgetting that they were meant to be God’s children, a united and caring family. And Isaiah could see that this could only have disastrous consequences. The nation was threatened by powerful enemies, and Isaiah could see that it was not fit to survive.
Now we fast forward 700 years, and here is another prophet speaking to the leaders of the Jewish people in Jerusalem.
Jesus is facing the opposition of the religious authorities, and he is reflecting on how they have always persecuted the prophets. He expects to suffer the same fate himself, and perhaps he is thinking of Isaiah’s song. So he tells a story. This story too is about a vineyard owner with a problem This time it was not about the fruit, it was about the tenants not paying their share of the fruit. When harvest time has come, the owner sends servants to collect his share of the crop, but the tenants abuse the servants and kill some of them. After several more tries, he sends his son, and they kill him, thinking they will then be able to own the vineyard themselves. Effectively, they have stolen the vineyard.
Then Jesus asks a question – he often ended a parable with a question. The religious leaders are in the audience listening to him. Some of them were probably landowners themselves, so they knew something about the problems of dealing with difficult tenants. Their response naturally was ‘he should drive those thugs out and let the vineyard to some decent tenants’.
Then Jesus points to his meaning. As with Isaiah’s song, the vineyard is Israel. Israel’s leaders are the tenants. The implication is that they have refused to give God his due. They have abused and killed the prophets God sent to call for his due, and in effect they have stolen the vineyard and are acting as if they are God.
A comfortable way of applying this story would be the way Christians have often interpreted it down through the centuries – the Jews crucified the Son of God, so the kingdom of God was taken from them and given to the Christian Church. What is missed here is that the message of Jesus is for us now in our time. It’s meant to challenge us with the question: are we, the Church, caring for the vineyard and giving God his due? Or is it being taken from us and given to others?
Who are the people challenging our Christianity today? Who are the people calling out our hypocrisy, our exclusiveness, our inward-looking concerns about church buildings, traditions and dogmas while we neglect the call to declare the good news of the kingdom of God? Are they ‘prophets’ – unrecognised messengers telling us the uncomfortable truth?
But it is not just about the Church. The call of God is to the whole world. The Bible gives us the image of Adam being placed in a garden to care for it. Last week, at our Harvest Thanksgiving, we rejoiced in the beauty of that garden and all its fruits. But we also reflected on the way we human beings are abusing it, forgetting we are its stewards and thinking we are its owners, taking the place of God himself.
And who are the prophets God is sending to remind us of this and warn us about the consequences? Prophets today, like the biblical ones, come in all age groups. Think of David Attenborough in his nineties, and Greta Thunberg in her teens. Think of the Greenpeace demonstrators, and Black Lives Matter, and Extinction Rebellion.
Of course, we don’t all approve of the methods of some of them. The biblical prophets, too, often did strange things, like Elijah stirring up the people to kill all the false prophets, Isaiah walking around Jerusalem naked, Amos calling the rich women of Samaria ‘fat cows’. And when Jesus allowed a prostitute to wash and anoint his feet while he criticised the poor welcome his host had given him, that must have seemed quite offensive too. It’s so easy to use the behaviour of some of these messengers as an excuse to ignore the message. Sometimes God has to shout in order to be heard.
But God’s messages are not only given by living people. Remember the impact of an image we saw some time ago of a little refugee child’s drowned body on a Mediterranean beach. God was saying something to us through that child.
And what of some of the catastrophes that are happening – the wildfires in California, the floods, storms and hurricanes in many other places, the vast numbers of desperate refugees moving around the world? Are these signs that God intends to take the world out of the hands of those who think they own it, and give it to others?
And who is the kingdom going to be given to? Just before telling this parable, Jesus had told the religious people, ‘the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you’. What a shocking thing to say to respectable God-fearing people!
He also said: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’, and ‘Let the children come to me … because the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’
Children often see things very simply. I remember Vaughan Rees telling me a story about when he was a minister in Keynsham. One Christian Aid Week the church organised a demonstration in the main street of the town. His children were very young at that time, and he explained to them that there were lots of children in the world who don’t get enough to eat, so we try to raise money to feed them. A week later his younger daughter was eagerly looking forward to going down to the town again. He said, ‘No, we are not doing it today – that was last week’, to which she replied, ‘Oh, the hungry children have been fed now, have they?’
‘Out of the mouths of babes…’ May God give us grace to hear his messages and take heed of them, wherever they come from.
Prayers of Intercession
Read by Pam Mahoney
(This week our prayers have been adapted from The Church of Scotland’s ‘Weekly Worship’)
Loving and amazing God,
As we read the scriptures of old, we hear the echoes of our current fears and frustrations.
The walls are coming down around us. The rains came and flooded.
The mountains blocked out the sun and nothing could grow.
Often, we hold You to account God, for the things that do not go to plan. We blame You.
We are angry. We think You are stopping justice from being served. For we know life should be better, easier.
And so who else to rage at but You?
It is in this moment of honesty that we find ourselves and our part in the story – the things we stayed quiet about,
the things we accepted as being okay, when deep down we know they are not, the times we served ourselves first
so that there wasn’t enough to go round.
When it is our walls coming down and we see our family under attack,
when we see the hope of harvest crumbling before us; May Your presence be revealed.
When it is the walls of others that are crumbling; when the family under attack are our neighbour’s,
when we have enough, but they do not; May Your justice be stirred within us.
When we are tearing down the walls; when we are attacking our neighbours;
when we are taking what is not ours; May Your mercy be upon us.
When we have a choice to restore the walls; when we have room for others;
when harvest will feed everyone; May Christ’s light shine through our lives as we share what we have.
And so, in a time of quiet honesty, we bring to you the prayers of our hearts – thinking of our personal needs, those of others and of all creation –
[Time of silent prayer]
Loving God, as we ask again for Your restoration, we say together the prayer that Jesus taught us, saying in whichever language we choose,
Ein Tad/Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be Your name.
Your Kingdom come,
Your will be done, on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power and the glory are Yours, now and for ever.
God in such love for us lent us this planet,
Gave it a purpose in time and in space;
Small as a spark from the fire of creation,
Cradle of life and the home of our race.
Thanks be to God for its bounty and beauty,
Life that sustains us in body and mind:
Plenty for all, if we learn how to share it,
Riches undreamed of to fathom and find.
Long have our human wars ruined its harvest;
Long has earth bowed to the terror of force;
Long have we wasted what others have need of,
Poisoned the fountain of life at its source.
Earth is the Lord’s; it is ours to enjoy it
Ours, as his stewards, to farm and defend.
From its pollution, misuse, and destruction,
Good Lord deliver us, world without end!
Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) © 1973 Hope Publishing Company, 380 S Main Pl, Stream, IL 60188 CCLI 67004