Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22, Year A), 2017.
We have asked God in our Collect this week to give us His mercy and forgiveness. Because forgiveness in the Christian sense happens only through the presence of Jesus Christ, in effect we are asking God to increase the presence of Jesus in our hearts, in our lives, and in our Mission. It is only through the presence of Jesus that we can be Christian, at all. The men and woman of the New Testament we call apostles and disciples only received that mission and ministry because God came down from heaven and walked among them, sharing meals, teaching and answering questions, pushing and stretching them beyond their comfort level.
Indeed, we only have a Church because by His presence among the people, the people are formed by Him. The shape of what we do as Christians is Jesus Christ. God became man so that His Church would be realized and take the shape of Him in what He did Himself in His earthly life. Christian mission is the continuation of what Jesus instituted and initiated. Mission understood any other way may do some good in the world, but it will not endure because it is not of the shape of Christ, or more specifically, of the shape of the Eucharist.
There are right and wrong ways to do Christian Mission, and this is what our lessons from Isaiah and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew invite us to reflect upon. The primary reason to reflect upon the New Testament, but really the entire biblical revelation as a whole, is to learn about Jesus: who He is, what He did, how He taught, and what He demands. And for a church that takes Mission seriously, there can be no more important knowledge we gain. If we as a Church are to continue what He began, we are to be like Him. And if we are to be like Him, we must know quite a bit about Him.
Toward a vineyard that is not producing fruit, a vineyard that has been tended by God’s beloved, a vineyard therefore made by God, loved by God, given nice things by God, God in no uncertain terms will distance Himself from such a vineyard, withdrawing His immediate presence, and allow it to begin to be devoured. He will not destroy the vineyard, but He will remove His protection from the vineyard. Rather than being divinely managed, it will be managed by the natural course of events. Briers and thorns will outgrow the grape vines, and animals will creep in to eat the grapes. Weeds will dominate, and the grapevines will become weak and vulnerable. God is not gone entirely, but far away. The vines did not respond to the love given them. Whatever mission they were on was not the mission given them by the owner of the vineyard. There are right ways and wrong ways to do mission, and the test is whether fruit grows and is harvested.
Let it be affirmed that God sends servants to the vineyard to help in the harvesting of fruit. He has sent prophets, inspired by God’s presence to such a heat that their words several thousand years old have come down to us and still can teach us. God has sent poets and other writers with talents to induce us to fall again and again in love with God, being caught up in His redemptive stream of love and mercy, astonished at what He has done for us. He has sent to us the wonderful order of angels, whose ministry is to make available and accessible to us the wonders and mysteries of God and His will for us. He has sent to us Saints of myriad variety and gifts, so that in their lives we can see the Gospel of Jesus Christ embodied and lived out in real life. He has sent to us Mary, the Mother of God, to be for us the supreme model and image of the Church and discipleship.
And He has sent the Craftsman and Organizer of the universe—through Whom God created the heavens, the firmament, the earth with its land and seas, through Whom all things have been given order and pattern, limits and hierarchy. God has sent to us the Author of life, who has graciously accepted us as living members of His body, and who knows Mission will be arduous and challenging, and so desires to feed us with love each Sunday during Mass, feed us with Himself so that we can continue the work of being Him. The servants God has sent us, therefore, are legion.
Brothers and sisters, we must fight the temptation to minimize, discredit, marginalize or dismiss the servants God has sent to us so that our vineyard may bear fruit bountifully and abundantly. Rather we must with constant humility seek to accept what God gives us, God who is always more ready to hear than we are to pray, God who gives more than we either desire or deserve. There is an old teaching in the church that we are to receive all guests like Christ. That teaching exists so that we can fight temptation to treat our church community as a social club, and be reminded that those workers in the vineyard are us, and that we cannot do the work of Jesus on our own. We are doing mission correctly when we welcome the prophets that God does not cease to send us, when we are practicing the Gospel as given to us by Jesus, and when we remain faithful in all that we do.