You can join this week’s worship service by clicking here.
Thank you to Carolyn Dunlop, Judy Kennedy and Brenda Barnes for sharing the gift of music with us. Below, you’ll find Steve’s reflection and Andy’s prayers for this week. In these exceptional times, please do stay in touch, with us and with each other. The peace of Christ be with you all.
Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Scripture: Matthew 20: 1-16
Music: I Saw the Rich Ones, All Creation
Folks, based on the articles and opinion pieces I have read about the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, I can assure you in terms of popularity of the stories Jesus told, this one ranks at or near the bottom. Even the well known leadership and personal development guru, Brene Brown, confesses she doesn’t like this story, I won’t use the phrase she uses but basically she says it doesn’t seem fair. That is what almost everyone else says. It doesn’t seem fair – at least based on how I want the world to work and I suspect most of you feel that same way too.
The other issue she raises is we don’t like to see people get stuff we don’t think they deserve. That doesn’t seem fair either. After all, we’ve been taught that if you show up early and work hard, you can expect to be treated fairly and rewarded accordingly. We say to young people, “Study hard, play hard, work hard and you will be rewarded.” “Keep your nose to the grindstone and it will work out.” Those are the things we say, that is how things are supposed to work; unless they don’t.
So, I want to tell you a story about myself. This week, I found a T-4 slip from a summer job at the end of my first year of university in 1976. I remember the day I started. It began before 6 am, before sunrise, I climbed on an old school bus in downtown Grand Falls and drove for what seemed like 4 hours to the middle of the forest somewhere around Saint Quentin. We then received an intensive 6 minute training seminar on how to plant trees by a wonderful 4thyear forestry student…. As he finished, it began to snow. I started to plant trees.
Soon after, the wonderful 4thyear forestry student came along and pulled out some of the trees I had just planted. He graciously told me I was doing a lousy job. He kindly advised me that I needed to do better. I kept planting trees. Later in the morning, the snow turned to drizzle. Luckily by the afternoon, the sun came out; the temperature soared into the mid-20’s and I began to sweat.
This in turn brought out the mosquito population who hadn’t eaten in months and who had probably never feasted on a human. At one point, probably because I tasted so good, I was enveloped by a black cloud that tried to carry me away – it bordered on apocalyptic. But through it all, I kept planting trees. At the end of the day, the wonderful 4thyear forestry student told us we had each planted about 320 trees and we needed to do better.
During what seemed like a 6 hour drive home, I remember doing some calculations based on my first year accounting course and then applying both micro and macroeconomic principles to the data. The analysis revealed, that including transportation time, I was making under a buck an hour in comparison to the $2.30 minimum wage. As I left the bus, I graciously tendered my resignation. (The T-4 is for $9.61 with no deductions. I believe my employer generously gave me an extra penny.) I’m glad tree planting is a different gig these days.
I learned things aren’t always fair. And people aren’t always treated justly. And sometimes some employers take advantage of their workers. The most common interpretation of the parable is not about God’s economic vision of generosity, it is about God’s love for us. Even if we enter into a relationship with God at the last minute, with our dying breath, we will be welcomed and rewarded. I get that understanding. I’m not going to disagree with it. Not only do I get it but if that is what you need to take from this message, I am okay with that.
In almost 30 years in ministry, I have come to realize that whenever the Gospel pushes us toward economics or social justice, we get uncomfortable. I also know those who live in poverty or under the threat of violence or those who live on the margins sometimes see the scriptures, especially the Gospel, in a very different way than we do.
The older I get, the more I realize how important it is to try to understand parables from different perspectives – like that of the labourers who were still standing there at the end of the day, waiting and hoping for some kind of miracle that would allow them to put food on the table for their families that night.
I don’t know why didn’t they get hired? Were some of them disabled or not skilled? Maybe some of them showed up 5 minutes late for the bus because they were looking after one of their kids or maybe their car broke down? Maybe some of them were too short or too tall, or their skin wasn’t the right colour, or they weren’t in a proper relationship, or they came from a family with difficulties, or they had an unsavoury history. There could be all kinds of reasons couldn’t there? And some of those excuses were the same then as they are now.
I know how Jesus handled this story in his day but I wonder how he would relate to some things today. This summer, did you hear the criticism of the unemployed who didn’t take jobs on farms or fish plants for minimum wage with no benefits? I wonder how Jesus would have reacted?
This past week, I heard from two people who didn’t attract much media attention. Both of them were on social assistance. One was receiving less than $600 a month and living in a tent in the woods. The other was a woman whose rent was about 85% of her social assistance cheque. I know I wasn’t as compassionate or helpful with them as Jesus would have been.
As I listened to their stories, I couldn’t help but also think about the business people who were complaining about those who were living in tents at St. George’s Anglican Church. I wonder who Jesus would have sided with in that dispute? I’ve heard people say there is no need for any inquiry into systemic racism because the justice system is fair. I hear that mainly from people who look like me. I wonder what kind of story Jesus would tell in response to this situation.
At the start of the pandemic, I heard a lot of people pointing to problems in our society especially those faced by those on the margins. As the spring turned into summer and now fall; I’m hearing people say they want to get back to normal. Normal meaning, when the system worked for me.
I heard a voice on the margins talk about this, Sonja Rene Taylor, she is a poet, a woman of colour and a social activist and I suspect that her voice would be like one of the vineyard workers standing there before just before the farmer arrived near the end of the day.
“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”
As we think about the workers in the vineyard and God’s generosity may we begin to imagine what that new garment, the one that fits all of humanity and nature looks like.
Holy One, Source of Life and Love, we give you thanks: for this new day, and for the start of a new season; for the gift of friends, family and this community of faith; for leaders and volunteers, work and homes; and for the relative health and safety we know in this region; we give you thanks.
We ask that you draw near, now, Living God, to hear the prayers we offer, aloud and in silence, for the renewal of life.
God of Joy, we know that it is a privilege to have work, to earn a living and to provide for ourselves and others. Today, we pray for those who have trouble finding work or who find their work unfulfilling, that they would find patience and strength. For those who are exploited for their labour, here and abroad, we pray for fairness. For those working from home we pray for spaciousness and balance. And we pray, always, for courage to work toward your vineyard vision where all are fulfilled and treated with respect.
God of Mercy, for all your people who suffer from injustice and the absence of peace; for your people in places broken by violence and the threat of violence; for people who have been made the object of suspicion and blame, especially by hurtful and inflammatory rhetoric, we pray that you would soften your peoples’ hearts and reveal your way of love. Open us to your image and love in every person; guide us in the work of anti-racism and reconciliation, of commitment to your promised realm of peace through justice.
We pray for the people of this community, especially those who are ill in body and in spirit. We pray for those who care for aging parents… for parents of children with medical needs and, indeed, for all parents. God of Love, we pray for those who grieve.
God of healing and wholeness, bless them with the gentle presence of your Spirit.
God of Unending Love, hear us, hold us, and help us to remember that we are your children, precious in your sight, vessels of your light and life. Strengthen us and bless us in the days ahead, we pray in the name of the One who goes before us in your name – Jesus Christ – who taught us when we pray to say, Our Father…