Wednesday is the feast of ’the Saints and Martyrs of Asia’. It is a tragic irony that on the very day it is celebrated, more East Timorese martyrs will probably be added to their number!
A Protestant Christian leader has been killed. The Communion of Churches in Indonesia has confirmed that the Rev Francisco de Vasconcelos, General Secretary of the Christian Church of East Timor was shot after his vehicle was stopped on the road between Dili and Baucau.
Sister Elizabeth Landon was until recently there as a Dominican nun with Caritas. "For five days we had had nothing but continual gun firing and burning of houses," she said of the situation just prior to her departure. "The people outside the diocesan centre had threatened to burn anywhere that had refugees. I was staying with some of the sisters who had over 500 refugees."
"Today I heard that six sisters with whom one of our other Caritas members was living have been killed. Father Barreto, the priest in charge of Caritas in Dili was also killed. A more gentle compassionate man you couldn’t find. .... I was in Bougainville at the time of some of the trouble, but it was nothing compared to this. This is just straight out slaughter. It really is. It is just terrorising and killing people. We just have to ask God now to work some kind of a miracle whereby no more people are slaughtered."
What could these senseless deaths possibly achieve? Why doesn’t God stop these things?
Hans Roland wrote about his growing up in Nazi Germany, and being drafted at age 12 into Hitler’s youth army, where he was posted to the Russian front! He also tells about an earlier experience at age 9, when he was staying on a farm as part of his Hitler Youth training.
He tells of a teenage boy from the neighboring farm - Herr Bach - who had been drafted into the army as a teenager, and who returned briefly to his parents. After a few days the boy disappeared, shortly after which military police arrived, looking for him. He was a deserter. They found him a few days later, having hanged himself from a tree in the forest.
The young Hans Roland was the first to find him and read his farewell note. In it the young Herr Bach explained that he had been posted to work in Auschwitz, and that, as a Christian, he could no longer carry out the orders he was given. He went to his local priest and asked for advice, but was told not to fantasize. He couldn’t see any other way out.
A martyr of sorts? What could his suicide possibly achieve? Why does God allow it?
One of our girls got pregnant, and was initially planning on keeping the child. But her mother told her she would throw her out of the house unless she either married the father or had an abortion! Knowing the father, this was not much of a choice.
The girl came to speak to us at Trinitys before going for the abortion. Dan didn’t know exactly what to say. I arrived straight from a funeral. A black car pulled up outside Trinitys. I got out still dressed in my cassock and descended upon her. I might as well have been lowered on a rope straight from heaven. I told her that the choice her mother was giving her was not fair, that we would provide accommodation for her if necessary, and that if she had any doubt about what to do, she should at least delay the scheduled abortion.
The result - she had the abortion that day anyway. Why did God bother to set this up for us?
And Jesus tells a story about a vineyard:
"There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him."
What do these stories have in common? They are all stories of violence. Indeed, if we understand the story of the vineyard as a sort of allegory concerning the whole of the history of God’s dealing with his people, then the story of the vineyard is suggesting that the whole history of God’s dealing with his people has been marked by violence!
Jesus finishes the story with a question which he himself does not answer: "when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" The crowd provide an immediate answer: "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time." Jesus accepts this answer. There will be a final settling of accounts. The real question though is ’why hasn’t that judgment happened already?’
Follow the story. The landowner built that vineyard himself. Why then didn’t he choose tenants more carefully? You might be a renter and feel and immediate sympathy for the tenants. I have had the ’privilege’ of being pseudo-landlord for the church. We recently had a woman screaming and throwing a tantrum out the front of the rectory, demanding the spare key to the property. We weren’t entitled to give her the key, especially as we didn’t really know if she lived there! These tenants though make the worst of our tenants look like angels.
When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.
It sounds like East Timor. It sounds like Nazi Germany. It sounds a little like Dulwich Hill - a place of repeated senseless acts of violence. It doesn’t make any sense. If they’d wanted to keep the master away, they would have given him some token amount to satisfy him. If they’d wanted to fool the master into thinking that his messengers never arrived, they would have killed them all quietly. Perhaps they’ve forgotten that there is a master to the vineyard. They certainly don’t fear him.
The only thing more incomprehensible than the tenants response is the master’s response. Instead of calling the police, bringing them to account, and turfing them out, the master thinks ’maybe if I send another group of guys they will respect them.’ So he sends the second group - greater in number than the first. These guys also get beaten up, abused, killed, stoned.
After this the master says ’I was a fool for thinking that these tenants might have a change of heart. I should have nuked these guys the first time.’ And so he sends in his troops, arrests these guys and sentences them all to slow and torturous deaths. Right? Surely even if only for the sake of the families of those who have already been killed, surely he will take justice on these guys. No, he thinks ’maybe if I send my son?’ And so the son is sent and he is killed.
Jesus asks ’what’s the owner of the vineyard going to do now?’ The disciples are quick to reply ’He’ll nuke them’. But will he? Maybe he has another son at home, or other servants he might put at risk? Jesus accepts the answer of the disciples. There will be a judgment. The tenants will have to come to terms with their actions. Justice will be done .... but when?
As the story closes nothing is resolved. The master now has no rent, no honor, no servants, no son and no vineyard, and perhaps it’s his own fault. Why didn’t he stand up and act like a master sooner? Why did he just send one servant after another to get beaten up and rejected, and then his own son! What sort of master is this? What sort of story is this? It’s a tragedy, with the servants rejected, the son dead, the vineyard’s ownership in doubt, the master’s response in question, and a bunch of tenants running wild in their violence and stupidity. And so the story continues
And as we wind our way down to the 20th century, we find that the story is still unresolved. The vineyard is still doing business. The master is still on the scene, but the evil tenants are alive and well too, and the killings and the violence and the senseless bloodshed continues.
A couple of years ago, they held a service to remember the fallen Jesuit priests who had died in El Salvador. At the service they began reading from a list of the names of other Christians who had died there in the struggle - missionaries, church workers, priests, and ordinary Christian lay folk. They had to stop, for there were 60,000 names on the list.
One fears that East Timor could go the same way. The list of names there is probably already way too long to include in our weekly prayers.
And so the story goes on. The business of the vineyard continues, and the killings continue. Servants are still being sent out to contest the inheritance with the violent and the unjust. And we still don’t know when it will all come to an end.
Yet some things we do know. We do know:
That violence, pain and seemingly fruitless struggle has always characterised and will always characterize the ’battle for the vineyard’.
That one day justice will come.
That while it has already cost the master a terribly high price to stay involved with the vineyard, He is willing to pay that price.
This leads us to the final story which we must tell today - the story which we retell here every week. It is the story we will not only continue to speak of in this service, but the story we will reenact together when we share the Eucharist together again. At the heart of our relationship with God, there is blood and there is pain.
Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, October 3rd, 1999