Saturday, October 4, 2014

Reading Matthew at Choral Matins

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (5.10.14)
Readings: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Phil.3:4b-14; Matthew 21: 33-46

This morning our Choral service is Choral Matins and we are possibly the only Cathedral in New Zealand that still offers Choral Matins, though only for a few occasional Sundays in the year and only on a provisional basis.  We revived Choral Matins partly to prevent a mass of fine Church music being forgotten and to deliberately change our routine so that, once in a while, we shift from being ‘consumers’ of the Word (in the sacrament) to being contemplatives of the Word through music and sermon.

There are words that I rather wish we could eliminate from our vocabulary: I mean ‘preach’ and ‘sermon’; nowadays they carry almost entirely negative connotations and preaching and sermonising are definitely out of favour. 

Instead I prefer to point toward the common ground between pew and pulpit.  We are all readers and my task is to share with you my experience of the text we are engaged with.  As readers we face various problems of course: not least the difficulty of responding with interest to a text we have read many times before; but that is the problem of every reader who yet once again reads a text he/she thinks he knows.

So, look at this reading from Matthew’s gospel. 

We read the familiar parable and at the end we find a sentence that wraps up the moment of it’s telling with that conclusion or commentary by the narrator: ‘When the Chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.’

Here begins a problem for every reader and certainly for any would-be critic.  In the light of the narrator’s words how do we engage with reading this parable?  Has he so interred the parable in the past that it is closed for us in the present?  If so, is our reading and our reflection doomed to be historical and explicatory – looking ever backward to explain how the parable impacted on those who heard it and to expound its part in the story that leads to the cross?  

The problems with that approach are various.  For instance, it leaves us as readers estranged from the story – it is for and about someone else, not us - and it effectively reduces our reading (to a historical study) and induces boredom.  It ignores the genre and with that the power of story as a way to map our human condition and to draw us into an encounter, an epiphany, an experience of fresh realisation and insight. 

I suggest that one of the things the attentive reader soon appreciates about almost any parable is that it resists our inclinations to limit its meaning or to close it off by locking it into the past with an audience long ago.  On the contrary the power of the parable is unlocked whenever an attentive reading upsets our comfortable indifference, shakes us from being casual spectators, and makes us stand alongside those first hearers, the Chief priests and Pharisees, and to realise with them that Jesus is speaking to us all.

You might notice that the parable opens without any location in time.  Instead Jesus begins the parable in the timelessness of story and myth; in effect he says ‘Once upon a time’!  Then as you follow the story with its reference to someone who plants a vineyard and whose tenants prove ungrateful and disobedient we start to recognise the story we are being told and to catch echoes of an earlier story of which this is a variation.  We remember the story of the first garden and of its first inhabitants.

“Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,…”
(Milton. Paradise Lost I:1-3)

Once we admit such vast dimensions as a presence in the background of the parable we become aware that the parable must inevitably speak to us.  So consider then that we are the ungrateful disobedient tenants of the ‘vineyard’ – and let the vineyard be the world that we have not created but of which we are at best poor and ungrateful stewards.  As we consider the crisis of global warming and its terrible consequences for the environment – this parable can speak to us.  What disasters do we bring upon ourselves for our dreadful stewardship of the creation?

If we reflect upon the behaviour of the tenants we notice the symptoms of dysfunction and disorder; the evidence of unprincipled greed, violence, lawlessness and destruction of the environment.  They display no concern for the common good and instead manifest a way of being which one can only associate with a seriously dysfunctional society.  If we reflect carefully about this we may recognise our own world and aspects of our time and our society.

Of course we have no ‘quick fix’ to the problems of our time.  While this parable sets our human relations in a cosmic frame and reminds us of our place in our world and our accountability, the story it tells is barely heard outside these walls. Even so, it is not entirely lost: echoes of it resonate or reappear in various forms, some in popular media – as in the recent film Noah (starring Russell Crowe).  How we may share this story with other readers is the question: it is not that there is no interest or curiosity in the questions the parable takes us into, but there is the problem of how this group of readers can meet with all those potential readers beyond these walls.  That is what this Cathedral is here for: your suggestions are invited. 

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