Bishop Ordinary: Rt Rev Brian R Marsh

Sermon

Septuagesima, 2014
Good Shepherd, Charlestown; Trinity Church, Lebanon

Let us Pray:
O God, whose blessed Son was manifested that he might destroy the works of the devil, and make us the sons of God, and heirs of eternal life; Grant us, we beseech thee, that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves, even as he is pure; that, when he shall appear again with power and great glory, we may be made like unto him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where with thee, O Father, and thee, O Holy Ghost, he liveth and reigneth ever, one God, world without end.
Amen.

This Summer, my wife and I will head off to Greece for our Summer vacation. Last year, we spent two weeks in France. During our time there, it rained constantly. The cathedral at Chartres was certainly consolation for the very inclement weather, but I was also reminded (France was my idea, after all) that (and I quote) "it never rains in Greece this time of year." So, off to Greece we will go. Perhaps I may be forgiven for hoping for just a brief rainshower or two so that I may say, however gently, "I see it rains here, too."

 

But I do look forward to the trip. Among the things I look forward to seeing are the wonderful orthodox churches and cathedrals. They are filled with beautiful icons. Greek orthodox churches are filled with icons. They often cover every wall in orthodox churches, as if those churches were filled with pictures of the saints in heaven. Icons are also available for sale at nearly every store of any size. I fully expect to bring back a variety of icons for gifts and for contemplation. They do make excellent sources of meditation and are something of a novelty for those of us in the Western church.

 

Although Anglicans are much more fond of icons than our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, we often fail to get the point. What are these icons all about? And why so many? We often regard them as pretty pictures, fancy paintings of saints surrounded in gold leaf. But icons are not pictures in the normal sense of the word. They are also not "painted." At least not in the way we think about pictures being painted. This seems a little strange to us. After all, icons are created using colored paint. The paint is applied to wooden surfaces. Why, then, aren't they paintings? It all comes down to the way in which they are to be "seen." A painting may be studied for its surface reality, it's composition, subject matter and the technical skill of the artist. An icon is regarded as a window onto another world. When we look at an icon, we must look at it differently from how we look at paintings. The surface of the icon, in many ways, represents the surface of our temporal world. When we look at an icon, we are invited to see into the icon or, perhaps, through it into the world of the spirit, into God's world in its glorious fullness. We are asked to look into the eternal life of God.

 

The gospels offer us the same kind of window onto eternal life, which is the full richness of God's kingdom. Today's message is drawn from St. Matthew's gospel. This gospel passage, like every gospel passage, is designed to bring us closer to God. But the gospel is not an end in itself. Like the surface of the icon, it is a window onto another part of God's world and inseparable from it. What we see on the page and what we hear with our outward ears is but the surface of an icon.

 

In today's gospel message, we meet once again the householder who sends laborers into his vineyard. Some begin work very early in the morning. They toil through the heat of the day. But other workers are added during the course of that day until, at the last hour, the final workers are brought into the vineyard. At the close of the day, the workers all receive their reward. It is recorded in the King James Bible that "...received every man a penny." The wages were equal. And the work of the day was done.

 

When we look at the surface of this icon, we see represented there the figures who have taken part in this little story, a story that begins: "the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder..." We see this story written clearly on the wooden block of the icon, just as we see it printed in our Bibles and prayer books. It is easily understood. We recognize the characters. We can touch that icon or that page of the Bible with our fingers. We can read the icon or that text with our eyes. But they will always remain flat and lifeless unless they are brought to life in our hearts and minds. Unless we allow ourselves to be open to God's saving message.

 

Before we go about condemning this householder for engaging in unfair labor practices, we should look at who those laborer's are. Let's look beyond the surface of the icon; let's try to find the heart of God. Some commentators have looked at those first laborers and found the faces of Abraham and Moses and David. At the eleventh hour, the Gentiles are called. And in the last few minutes, we may well see that we ourselves are called to bring in the harvest. St. John Chrysostom regarded the vineyard as the commandments of God. At different times, people were called forth and lived justly according to the commandments of God. St. Cyril of Alexandria points out that the last of the workers receive their wages first. And an honored place in God's kingdom. Though all the workers receive equal pay, these last have received the gift of baptism and union with the Spirit. These last, who we are numbered among, are indeed sharers in God's nature and are called the sons of God.

 

We live in a very surface world. Yes, our world is round or, as some scientists suggest, really shaped like an avocado. We know that the Flat Earth Society is just a silly anachronism. We get that. And so do the members of that odd organization. We get the dimensions of our physical world. We've got the apps and we can see it all on our GPS devices and our Garmins. Those things can even talk to us in various accents and languages. They can help us find our way through this temporal world.

 

But the kingdom of heaven is like unto a householder who has sent us into the temporal world to do his work: to follow his commandments, to practice the virtues of gentleness and patience and countless other good qualities, to build up the living spirit of his love and to see, finally, that the love of God far richer when we can see beyond the surface things of this world to the eternal life that is God's infinitely generous promise to us.

 

Let us pray:
Assist us mercifully with thy help, O Lord God of our salvation; that we may enter with joy upon the meditation of those mighty acts, whereby thou hast given unto us life and immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.