When I was at primary school I decided that it would be a good idea for me to learn a musical instrument. There was no pressure for me to do it, it was just an idea that got into my head which I couldn’t get rid of.
So my mother, rather hesitantly signed me up with a tutor who came to the school every week to teach brass instruments. She hired me a tenor horn (a beautiful instrument), made all of the necessary arrangements and paid for my tuition.
My excitement about playing that tenor horn lasted for about a week, and then it faded rapidly, because my other main aspiration at that stage of my life was to spend as much time as possible building Lego. I had an electric Lego train, and Lego road, and Lego houses – I had even built a Lego Church. What I quickly found, was that in order to be able to make any kind of meaningful sound from that tenor horn, I had to spend time practicing, and that meant that I had less time to play with my Lego. So my teacher would say to me, make sure you practice for at least 20 minutes every day this week when you are at home, and I would say in response to her, “of course I will.” But when I got home the tenor horn would stay in its case, and my time would be fully occupied playing with my toys. My Lego models grew – and I was never invited to join the orchestra!
It is like when Luisa, my wife, says to me as I leave the house, “don’t forget to bring some milk back with you,” and I say, “of course I will, I’ll buy some on the way home.” But on the way back I’m thinking about everything other than buying milk, and I return home without it.
Just occasionally the reverse might happen, every now and again (not often) I am asked to do something which I know from the beginning I will be unable to do. I say “no, sorry – not this time.” But then my circumstances change. Either I realise that the request was more important than I had thought, or I find that I have a little unexpected spare time. And I am able to do the thing which I said I would not be able to manage. I am guessing that I am not alone in having these experiences.
Sometimes there are things which I agree to do, and which I then (through distraction) do not do; and other times there are things which I say that I cannot do, which in the end (having realised how important they are) I end up doing after all.
In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus tells the story of a man who has two sons, and who goes in turn to each of them to ask if they will help him in his vineyard. The first is too busy, and he says that he would not go, but in the end he changes his mind, and he does go and do the work which his father has asked of him. The second son responds positively immediately, “of course I’ll go dad,” he says, but when it comes to it, there are too many other distractions in his way, and he never actually fulfils his promise.
After Jesus has told this story, he turns to the religious leaders, with whom he is having a discussion in the precincts of the temple, and he asks them, “which of the two did the will of his father?” The religious leaders rightly say that it was the first of the two sons (the one who said no originally, but then ended up doing the work after all). Of course it s clear to us all that it is better to do what we are asked to do, even if we have initially said no; it is much better to do that, than to say yes, and make a commitment to do something which in the end we will not do.
But after the religious leaders have responded Jesus makes the point of his story clear to those to whom he is speaking. He says, “truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, those who you least expect, are going into the kingdom of heaven before you.” Or, on other words: “You think that you are doing the will of God, but you religious people are like the son who says that he will work in the vineyard, but is then distracted and never ends up participating in the work at all.”
I often have to remind myself that the primary task of the Church is not maintenance, it is not even worship – the primary focus of the Church of Jesus Christ is to share in God’s mission. I have to remind myself of that every day because I often forget it. I often think, like those religious leaders who Jesus was talking to, that the primary task of the Church is protecting the institution, (preserving what we have, maybe even ensuring that it is kept just for us) and so I need to be reminded that that is not the way of Jesus.
When God invites us to be co-workers in the vineyard, as he does to each and every one of us who are baptised into the Life and death and resurrection of Christ, we are not being invited to go grape picking in the Hunter Valley. Just as the father in the story which Jesus tells represents God, so the vineyard is the world, and in our Anglican understanding, the vineyard is the bit of the world which the church has given to us as our mission field – it is not in remote Africa, it is here in the geographical parish which has been entrusted to us. I have an overwhelming sense as I look at my own life, that I am far more like that second son, than I am like the first.
God has called me, like God has called you, to be a co-worker in the vineyard: and I have said, “yes,” in my response to God, and then again and again I have become distracted. In the story which Jesus tells in our Gospel this morning, Jesus gives an awakening call to the religious leaders of his day who think that they are doing the will of God. He says to them, you have already made a commitment to God, you have said yes to being the workers in the vineyard. But you have said yes, and then become distracted by all kinds of other things. You are doing all kinds of faithful things, but you are not doing what God has asked you to do.
Jesus says to them, compare yourselves to those who you despise, to the tax collectors and the prostitutes, and you will find that some of them, are doing more of my work than you are. Those people had originally rejected God by the way that they lived their lives, but now they are working in the vineyard, whereas you who think that you made a commitment to strive for justice and peace are in fact more interested in maintaining your institution, than you are in doing the work of God. That is what Jesus says to the religious leaders of his time in the parable this morning. It is a challenging teaching for us all.
Now I do not want you to misunderstand me. I want to say to those of you who do maintain our buildings and look after fundraising, and all of those other maintenance things which happen here, that we are all grateful for what you do, and the sacrifices which you make. But Jesus’ message to us in this is clear. Whatever else we do, the primary task of the Church – and of those of us who are members of it – is mission and not maintenance. And so if we find as a Church that we spend more energy looking after our buildings, than we are in danger of being like that second son, who says yes to God’s call for us to be in mission, but who in fact gets distracted from the primary task of the Great Commission.
There is an old Japanese legend – that tells of a man who died and went to heaven. Heaven was beautiful, it was full of lush gardens and glittering mansions, it was a place of peace and relaxation. But as the man wandered around heaven he found a strange room set apart from the mansions and the resting places, which was lined with shelves from floor to ceiling. According to the legend as the man approached the shelves he found that they were not empty as he had first thought, but there lying on them were human ears. Every shelf was lined with pairs of human ears. The man was naturally perplexed and so he went to one of the spiritual guides to find out what this room was there for. “Ah,” said the guide, “you’ve found the room of the ears. Those ears belonged to all of the people on earth who listened each week to the Word of God, but never acted on God’s teachings. Their worship never resulted in action. And so when those people died, only their ears ended up here in heaven.”
The question which Jesus asks of us as a Church today, through the image of this parable, is which of the sons is this Church like? Are we like the son who has said “yes” to God, “yes, I will share with you in the work of making this a better world, in the work of caring for those around us, and of sharing the good news of Jesus with them.” Are we like the son who has said yes, but who then gets distracted by other things? Or are we like the other son, who might have said “no” originally, but who now goes out to the vineyard, to engage with the world, and to get on with the work of the Kingdom of God?
I am looking forward to the opportunity, this morning, to share with the Parish Council in their work of strategic planning for the future mission and ministry of this Parish. I am conscious that we here made a commitment to the Diocesan Vision of Becoming a Ministering Community in Mission. The timing of that decision, which ended up being beyond anyone’s control, was very bad timing indeed. We voted with enthusiasm and then found out that our priest had been called to another ministry, and so we were unable to proceed as we had planned until after Fr Glen’s arrival.
As I reflect on Jesus’ parable of those two sons, it seems to me that the story speaks right into the heart of the faith community here in Scone. We have made a commitment to growth, a commitment to everyone of us being involved in the ministry of the Church, a commitment to being here not as a private club or membership society – but to be here for all those who are not yet here amongst us.
That is the commitment that we made, when we voted to become a Ministering Community in Mission, like all of our neighbours in the parishes of the Upper Hunter. The question for us in the coming weeks, is will we be like the brother who made a commitment but did nothing about it – or will we set priorities for the future which put this commitment at the heart of our plans for this Parish of Scone. That is the question for Parish Council, and that is the question for all of us this morning.