For my yearly Back-to-School post, I offer this sermon on one of my favorite teacher flicks, Mr. Pip. Good strength to all in your September return to learning. God bless your studies in this new school year!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ. Glory forever. Happy New Year! Yesterday was a special day in the liturgical calendar for it marked the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, the new year of grace in our Lord Jesus Christ. It also happens to coincide with the beginning of the school year. No doubt by now all the students gathered here have had their first day of school in an academic year that will last until sometime next year in the late spring or early summer. So it is a good time for us to gather our strength, take stock of our supplies, and above all be thankful for the opportunities afforded us with a fresh start.
This morning’s Gospel of the vineyard parable features an interesting array of characters to study. The vineyard owner is Christ who provides every supply necessary for a successful operation before he travels to a far off country. He even performs some of the tasks the workers should have done themselves: he plants a vineyard, sets a hedge around it, digs a winepress in it and builds a tower to protect it, but the vine-dressers rather than thank him for it squander both their time and resources. Not only do they not do what they’re supposed to do, but they actively plot to take over control from the owner and murder his son! In short, they wish to benefit from the fruit of the vineyard without the work of cultivating it. Yet the owner comes back and the Gospel asks, “What do you think he will do to those workers?”
There is a direct parallel between the vineyard and the school/University. How many of us students desire the fruits of learning without the difficult toil of study? The teachers and professors, like the vineyard owner in the parable, have done all to prepare their classrooms for learning, and the fruit of knowledge lies ready to be harvested. But too many students don’t even desire to learn but rest in the false hope that they know better than their teachers. They are like the character Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectations who receives a sudden windfall from an anonymous benefactor but never stops to count the cost of his rise in station and the sudden change in his educational opportunity. He above all forgets the many people who have come before him, the heritage which brought him to this very hour of deliverance, and he gets caught in the petty power struggle of who is in charge and how he can get what is coming to him.
A recent movie named Mr. Pip explores this theme of liberation through the liberal arts. It features a protagonist named Matilda who like Pip in the Dickens’ novel dreams of liberation from her oppressed Indonesian island home. She dreams of her own liberation through hearing the great author from the mouth of one of the more mysterious islanders, Mr. Watts, the only tall, white guy among a dark skinned indigenous people. Matilda, like the vineyard workers in the Gospel parable, at first longs for self-direction and spurns the authoritarian mothers on the island who, in the absence of fathers lost to work in the copper mines, barely struggle to keep their community from collapse. Matilda looks for unexpected deliverance from a boat promising to take willing persons away from the island, and she misinterprets her mother’s desire to protect her until it is almost too late. Listen to the words of the great Dickens as he describes the repentance of ungrateful students and workers everywhere when they suddenly realize what has brought them to their moment of freedom or their gainful employment:
Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before–more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.
(Great Expectations by Charles Dickens)
And when the owner of the vineyard returns, the protective mother warns, or the college professor admonishes, “What do you think he/she will do to those ungrateful vinedressers, those ungrateful children, those ungrateful students?”
If you are a student, a parent, a boss, or an employee this morning, consider the providential circumstances which brought you into your present station. St. Paul asks in one of his epistles, “What do you have that you did not receive, and if you received it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (I Corinthians 4:7) It is far too easy when fortune strikes to forget the chain of events that led to any particular moment of triumph. We can even be tempted to take most or all the credit and glory for that promotion, that raise, that test, or that college acceptance. But this morning’s Gospel reminds us that there is an owner of the vineyard who sees through our pretensions, our presumptions, and our pride. What will he do to those vinedressers who do not repent? Simple. He will replace them… with sinners who are unworthy, but thankful for their deliverance. As Dostoevsky rephrases the words of Our Lord at the Last Judgment:
“Draw nigh,” He will say to us, “Draw nigh, ye drunkards, ye cowards, ye dissolute men.” And we shall draw nigh without trembling. And then He will say unto us, “Ye are sots! Ye bear the mark of the beast on your foreheads, yet ye come unto me.” And the wise and intelligent will say, “Lord, wherefore dost thou receive these?” And He will answer, “I receive them, O ye wise and intelligent men, because not one of them thought himself worthy this favor.”
(Crime and Punishment by F. Dostoevsky)
Lord have mercy on us, the unworthy ones, and thank you for another year of your grace. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.