Sermon delivered on the 8th October 2017, the 17th Sunday after Trinity by Bishop Nicholas J G Sykes at the Holy Eucharist at St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Isaiah 5: 1-7     Phil 3: 4b-14     S. Matthew 21: 33-46

Isaiah 5:3f Judge, I pray you, between Me and My vineyard. What more was there to do for My vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

Back in 1999, as those who were here at the time can no doubt remember, the prisoners at Northward rioted, and as a result of the damage, the prison was no longer able to accommodate the existing prison population, and some were given early release. That had its ironic aspect, because the news of the riot broke on the same day that representation was being made by members of the public to the Governor for a law to provide for mandatory draconian prison sentences for certain very serious offences. On the one hand there was the call then, and also rather similar calls at various time later on, for measures that would lead to more people being incarcerated, but on the other, there was the riot that was partly due to overcrowding in the prison. In our own day with break-ins and robberies and personal assaults of various sorts again becoming far too frequent any higher penalty regime that is agreed to will lead to a higher level of incarceration, but sadly we would be in a similar danger of repeating the situation of eighteen years ago, when the number of people being sentenced had outgrown the political will for the expansion or replacement of the prison facilities. One result of this at that time was that negotiations with prisoners who took people hostage in the riot were thought to be necessary, being evidence to my mind of a very serious pressure on and breach of the rule of law. Although a prison riot is not, thankfully, in view just now (as least, so far as I know), the community is at this time too, experiencing significant pressures on the rule of law. For human nature, family breakdown and the availability of guns and narcotics are still very much part of what is happening, all feeding upon a background of an overall advance of the secularist agenda, driven very much through the media.

I can also remember that later there was a proposed rally organised by the Chamber of Commerce against crime, to which I was invited. On that occasion after studying the passage used in today’s Old Testament Lesson I had decided to read some of it before the prayer for the rally, because it seemed to express the dismay that was being widely felt at some of the trends here at that time, in the choice vineyard of Cayman that has often been referred to as Paradise. “For the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are His pleasant planting; and He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!” As it happened, that proposed rally in 2005 was rained off.

My point in all this is that although it is necessary to revise laws from time to time, we should not think that we can fix all or even most of the problems that befall a society by legislative revision. And we who are of the Church ought to be especially aware of this, because as Christians we accept that there is a different dimension involved in forming a true human society than the merely legal dimension. We should not immediately or exclusively look to law solutions for dealing with anti-social elements. We should not forget that the people that Jesus criticised most, the scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the chief priests, were people that for the most part looked exclusively to laws and the interpretation of laws for the fixing of problems. These in Jesus’ day were those he described in his parable as the “tenants” that God had placed in charge of His “vineyard”. Under cover of the law they had in fact been self-interested, greedy, and without regard to their responsibilities to God, having no care for the prophets or even the Son of man that God had sent to them. As Christians we are charged to accept the reality of a different kind of universe from the universe of those who are only bound by the rule of human laws, and I am fully confident that any Christian lawyers that are here will agree. The principle here is that it’s the grace of God that has the power to restore and sustain a society in the rule of law. Law, however, cannot by itself restore a society to the grace of God. A society that truly functions needs something more than the ability to play by the rules. It needs qualities such as unselfishness and care for the vulnerable, moral and ethical qualities that go beyond merely keeping out of trouble with the law. We can receive such traits and gifts out of the bounty of God’s grace, and we see the fullness of that bounty in the Cross-bearing of Jesus. It cannot be enforced by law, but it can be imparted by God’s grace.

People for instance can have some regard for the letter of the law where driving a vehicle is concerned (especially when a police vehicle is near) but still totally ignore speed limits and exhibit a generally selfish unconcern for the comfort of other road users, and one could probably instance such examples of this every day. And certainly these thoughts may be related to the current saga about gas stations selling alcoholic beverages. The media have cast the issue in terms of a labyrinthine discussion about what particular sort of licence may currently be legal. Somehow the media seem to have entirely missed the simple point that the real and principled purpose of gas stations opening on Sundays is to avoid the inconvenience of people getting stranded without petrol, not that they can be enabled to gulp down a quick rum for the road.

What can often be a common trait in criminals, drivers, and legislators alike is the desire for a speedy solution. A criminal like a burglar must get rich more quickly than someone working in an honest job, a driver cannot wait his turn in the lane; and the legislators may feel under pressure to introduce legislation of questionable quality in a hasty manner. As Christians we can afford to recognise the place of patience and endurance and sustained prayer and effort in our approach to things. In his words to the Philippians forming our second lesson today, St. Paul said that for the sake of Christ he no longer saw his standing as an outstandingly upright, Hebrew-speaking Pharisaic law-fixer as advantageous. For the sake of Christ he wrote off the advantage that all that had seemed to give him. Neither did he think of his Christian discipleship as a quick fix. Christ has made him his own, but He is working on him still. “Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

St. Paul's words challenge us to imitate his way of discipleship, challenge us to set the same incomparable value (as he puts it) on "the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord", so that any other and contrary gain we may have had is counted as loss for the sake of Christ. It is necessary for us to grow together in this sense of the greatness of the knowledge of Christ for us to be able to influence our community effectively in the way of Christ. St. Paul offers us here the sense of his own growing in grace, his own becoming like Christ in His death, his own pressing forward to attain the Resurrection from the dead. This is the way we need to be as well, not being satisfied with what we may think we have attained spiritually now, even by the grace of God, but pressing forward together to that which is much greater. As we do so, there is the possibility, indeed the only possibility there is, of our being able to pull the society significantly along with us to contribute to a new Humanity, a new Nation, such is the power and attractiveness of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, through the witness of His children.

God grant us His grace to conform to what He offers us, to receive the disciplines that it requires, and to be powerful living witnesses to the truth, before the children of our time blinded and deafened by false gods of many sorts. It is not the tenants of the vineyard, after all, who became the headstone. It was the Stone which the builders rejected, but by whose Name we live, that became the head of the corner.