George Guiver - SLS 2006
Our gospel reading is the ordinary one set for today. It would be easy in the circumstances of a special event like this to try and twist the reading in a forced manner to the theme of the conference. There will be no such problem this reading, however, and the parable of the workers in vineyard touches on a number of liturgical themes. I will limit myself to 5.
1) The first-comers to the vineyard are bidden to make a team with the labourers who arrive later. But this is in the framework of a two-way relationship: with fellow-workers and with the owner of the vineyard. There is a horizontal and a vertical dimension, and they are not getting them right. They are dominated by the horizontal relationship with their fellows, and the overriding emotion is envy. The parable speaks of being in right relationship with our neighbour, and beneath that a fundamental right relationship with God.
It is not difficult to see how this root principle affects Christian worship in a number of ways. What interests me in my first point is that right relationships with God and with neighbour is not limited to passions such as jealousy. It also takes us into the mystery of love. Loving God well and loving our neighbour well. There is no reason why farm labourers should love the farmer, but that is part of the incongruous delight of the parables, which Jesus never tells without a wicked twinkle in his eye. Not only are the complainers failing to love the One who gives them the means to live, but they are also failing to see with the eyes of love those who although they have come late are as hungry as they are.
In the context of the liturgy, I would like to point to an interesting Yin-and-yang principle that we often get in a muddle about, basically this: liturgy and life are complementary: the double love is one way up in life, and the other way up in liturgy. That is:
The Christian surgeon has no business to be putting his/her main concentration on God during an operation.
The same surgeon has no business to be putting his/her main concentration and his neighbour during worship. .........................
That takes us beyond the immediate framework of the parable, but is directly to do with the theme of being in right relationship with God and neighbour.
2) The owner of the vineyard is a powerful presence in the story. There is about him un-negotiable otherness. He is saying this: “however self-evident your problems may look to you, I am not going to change - I am asking you to change”. God is always received not created or moulded to our notions of common sense.
The same is true of the liturgy in which he engages with us. We do not create the liturgy - God is the author of anything that is authentic in it. This points to another fundamental principal of Christian worship: Christian Liturgy is always received. You may say that all of it has been created by people, but in fact it is like pottery - it is never fired until it is handed on. First use is always undigested use. It is always those who come after who are going to benefit from any liturgical creativity - if it survives the transition.
I recently visit an ordination training institution in another country. The students worship together most days of the week, but only on one day in the week does it take the form of the daily office. On most other days they create the worship themselves. That seems to me to be a serious situation, because in that kind of worship its character and content are determined by ourselves within our own limited horizons. It does not adequately reflect the God who is Other, and is not going to change for us. Worship which is received is other, and we are faced with something that is not going to change for us, but is something that will put our presuppositions in their proper place. I am not talking about any old worship that is received, or any old worship that is other - there is an array of qualifications that there is not room to go into here, but the picture of the God of the vineyard who is sovereign and other, cutting across what we se to be self-evident necessarily sets the character of what worship will be.
3) The encounter with the owner of the vineyard takes place in the mundane setting of everyday life with all its passions and aspirations. The hoped-for outcome is a new relationship that is woven between al of that in the human beings involved and God. Just as the labourers find the owner’s pronouncements mind-boggling, so is true Christian worship - - it boggles the mind - it is like buying a plant at the garden centre to discover that it doubles its size every 10 minutes. This eschatological element in the parable needs to be flagged up in order to ensure we don’t see the passing-on of the liturgy as the passing-on of something prim or static. It always changes, as we all know. That is not the problem. But also the inner life of it is always vergin on the unmanageable. Because God is.
4) The time-dimension is important in this story. The late-comers look back on an anxious day of waiting. The early-comers have spent the day looking forawrd to going home with a bulging pay-packet. The main basis of the complaint is to do with time. The story goes backwards and forwards, and God shoes how the big picture is to be seen.
So it is too with God’s worship: It is like a steam engine, with the piston going fwd and back in a constant relating between what has been received and what is alive now. This is the whole point of good liturgical reform and renewal. There is a constant going-back (eg recovery of symbols). But at the same time there is never any going back. what is gone is gone and cannot be resuscitated. We go back in our research and our recovery of things lost, but with the energy and materials of today. And we only go back in order to go forward.
5) Finally, we are aware that in the parable of the labourers there is a presence which grabs our attention more than any toher characters in the story. The owner of the vineyard is powerfully present, and this has something to say about divine presence and the liturgy. The presence permeates the narrative. The owner’s presence is indeed articulated by the narrative. No-one would listen if you said “there was once a vine-grower” full stop, and that was all you said. We tend to conceive of the divine presence in lirugy as a kind of static cloud. Or when we pray to Jesus we tend to picture him as a kind of glorified Palestinian bachelor just standing there and doing nothing. Presence is inseparable from narrative, to pick up the theme of Juliet’s talk this morning. There is a whole area to be explored here of the relationship betwen people’s sense of the presence of God and the saving events. To put it another way, our conceiving of the presence of God, whether in our personal devotions, or more objectively in the sacraments, needs to be much more scriptural, soaked in the constantly revolving video-loop of the divine soap-opera.
I end by offering the thought that whatever characteristics of God we find in the parables will hold also for the liturgy. The liturgy is love at work, undoing us even as it re-forms us. We learn, wriggling and often unsure or uncomprehending, and wile it is wonderfully true that liturgy always changes, the really big business is that we need to change with it.