Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at All Saints’ Cuddesdon on Sunday 8th October.
Reading: Matthew 21:33-46.
This week it was announced that the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics had gone to three physicists in the US for their work on gravitational waves. Over a century ago Albert Einstein had predicted in his theory of relativity that huge bodies in space, like black holes, have so much mass that they can actually bend space and send out ripples which could then be detected on Earth. Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne built the first machine sensitive enough to be able to directly measure gravitational waves. LIGO or the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory finally spotted a ripple last year believed to have been caused by two black holes colliding. It was the culmination of over 40 years research and around a thousand people working to develop the technology needed to read these ripples in space.
An important part of this collaboration was played by the University of Glasgow’s Institute for Gravitational Research. At the announcement of the Nobel Prize I heard Professor Shelia Rowan, Director of the Institute speaking on the radio about how significant the work of Weiss, Barish and Thorne had been in the area of gravitational waves. What struck me when she spoke was not so much what had been achieved as the areas of possibility that it had opened up for astrophysicists to come. She spoke of the amazing and exciting future that measuring gravitational waves had given to see the universe in a completely different way. Through it we would be able to look deeper in the universe and understand it in ways never thought possible before. It was an exciting time for all who gazed at the stars.
Later that same day I found myself sitting on the bench outside Garsington Church having walked Floss across the fields. It was a beautiful day, a wonderful light blue sky streaked with white clouds. And in the autumn light the sky seemed larger and more magnificent than it usually appears. As I gazed at it, my mind went back to Professor Rowan’s words and I suddenly became intensely aware that above my head there was nothing but a vast expanse of universe stretching our beyond my comprehension. It was quite overwhelming and not something that we are daily aware of.
Most of the time we go about our business oblivious to the vastness of space above our heads. Even in the night time when the light pollution from Oxford city blots out the stars, there feels as if there were a roof to the world. For our ancient Hebrew brother and sisters there was indeed a boundary to their heavens. The priestly account of creation tells of the earth being surrounded by water. The firmament held the upper waters back and was peppered with gates to let the rain and snow through. The sun, moon and stars moved in fixed tracks along the underside of this enormous pudding bowl. All was ordered and structured. So their world encased and enclosed, bounded and protected. For us the universe is not so. While we live under the reality of eternity invariably we dwell as if there is a roof over our heads. A sky ceiling which marks out the parameters of a perceived enclosure and boundary to our lives.
The little boxed houses we live in, which we even paint with stars, are so easily extended to the visceral world above our heads. Maybe this is our response because the overwhelming sense of our own littleness when the realisation that a blue sky is not a glass ceiling but we are merely clinging to a spinning ball in space is just too much to bear on a daily basis. We have to draw lines in our minds to create a safe space that is marked out and which we can inhabit and understand. But this enclosing and restricting by our minds can also have a negative effect as we can so easily lock ourselves into certain safe habits, cutting off others by the boxed-in set of truths we have set down as law.
This was the situation for those who Jesus speaks about in his parable this morning. The story with a hidden meaning was directed in its day to the Pharisees. Jesus does little to mask his meaning and they know well enough that the story of the wicked tenants is directed at them. In the landowner’s absence the tenants take charge of the vineyard calling it their own. They have created a universe for themselves where they are the landowners and are willing to resort to violence to defend their world view. The real landowner’s slaves are beaten and stoned when they come to rightfully collect the harvest and even the landowner’s son is thrown out of their enclosed eternity and killed. Jesus is directly addressing the restrictive religious authorities of his day but also his words are for us and all who seek to limit and restrict his divine authority and power within parameters we have dreed.
In an example of stunning blue-sky thinking which truly takes all of us out of the box, Jesus turns the notion of our kingdom on its head. The tenants have created their own kingdom and defined it by exclusion, power and violence. In contrast Jesus’ kingdom is one where the stone that was cast away and rejected becomes the cornerstone, the foundation on which the whole building is built. It is Jesus Christ who defines our universe, the one who in Revelation calls himself the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. No longer are we confined within our own multiple boxed in universes but be a defined by the cosmic Christ who calls us to look up and out, to wonder at his presence within the cosmos, to trust in his divine authority and power and recognise our humble place within it. Is it not amazing to our eyes that the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer is mindful of us, mere human beings who creep on this little earth.
So let us seek not to create our own universes of the mind but allow the gravitational pull of Christ to draw us to himself that we may bear the fruits of the kingdom in love, peace and awe. Amen.