22nd September 2002
Year A Proper 20 Trinity 17
1st Sermon Kinneigh Union Parishes
Judith added bits to this but here is the basic outline.
The last will be first, and the first will be last.
This is one of the stories that Jesus tells which turns everything upside down and the wrong way out as we understand it – but such is God’s way.
Well this morning feels a bit upside down and the wrong way round for me – but I must add… it is all in a most delightful way. Here I am – your new Rector – a new ‘blow in’ from elsewhere, who doesn’t know many names yet or where you all live, or what you do or how you all are. You’ll know a lot more about me, hopefully you all know my name and where I live in Ballineen and those bits of information that get around – but you don’t really know me yet, how I am or how I work, what makes me laugh. Yet here I am standing up in front of you as you and I start off on a new relationship, which is all to do with this community, this church family, this vineyard of God.
Now there are here this morning (there are around this weekend) people/friends from Gloucester Cathedral and elsewhere. They are wishing me well for this new start, but not a complete goodbye for friendships do not end just because one has moved on. They are all part of the church family, mostly from that other vineyard that I have had the privilege to work in for the last five years and beyond. I would like to say it is all part of the same vineyard – for God has only one vineyard – and in that vineyard there are many different fields, of which Gloucester Cathedral is one, Stowe Deanery or Welland and Hanley Swan and all other points west ……. and this, the Kinneigh Union of Parishes…… is another. Maybe we do know quite a lot about each other because we all labourers in that same huge vineyard, doing the same Lord’s work.
Now then, some of you will be saying (I know) ‘Oh but what a huge change from an English Cathedral with all its busyness to the struggles of country living in Ireland. Yes I agree! The thing is – I lived in a deeply rural area in Herefordshire before going to the Cathedral – so in a way that was as much an aberration – the huge change of going to the cathedral, which I might say, I was very happy at. Before that I had worked with ordination and Reader students, most of whom lived in country parishes. My work with them involved getting to know many different places. I am used to both town and country, having moved around endlessly as a child by my family. My father was a priest as were other members of the family and so I was brought up understanding the inside of parish life. I do not wish to move again for a very long time!
But let’s get back to the Gospel story.
It never seems very fair does it, this story. We humans have our own idea of what is only fair.
This human sense of fairness is what gives the parable of the workers in the vineyard its shock value. The landowner hires some labourers at the beginning of the day, and agrees with them their pay, the normal daily wage. He goes again and hires more at midday, some in the middle of the afternoon, and more still at the end of the afternoon.
When pay time comes, those hired last are paid first and get the normal daily wage. The first to be hired see this, and expect more. It's only fair that they should be paid more, for more work. They are disgusted to be paid only the normal daily rate, even though that was what they had initially agreed.
I wonder whose side you are on when you hear this story? Do you think that those first workers have a point? They have slaved all day in the sun, but they have only earned as much as those who have only worked for an hour. Think of your workplace. Would it be fair for everyone to be paid the same, without regard for the effort they put in? The landowner's response to the objection is really thoroughly unsatisfactory; he can do what he likes with his own money. True, but it does not address the issue of fairness, which is the problem here.
How might Jesus' first listeners have reacted? Parables are usually designed to shock in some way, and this one is no exception. We can perhaps imagine the audience expressing agreement with the first workers. 'It's not fair,' someone in the crowd might mutter, 'they should have got more for all that extra work'.
But perhaps a more thoughtful person in the crowd might say, 'But the workers who were hired last, how were they to feed their families if they were paid only for an hour?' 'Ah,' someone else might reply, 'but that's their own look out if they hang around the market place all day instead of doing a good day's work.' 'But perhaps it wasn't their fault,' replies our first listener, 'perhaps they did their best to be hired, but there wasn't enough work to go round that day. Isn't it better that the landowner should be unfair than that children should starve?'
You see where our imaginary discussion has taken us. It has shifted the ground of the debate from issues of individual fairness, to broader issues of justice in society.
Six or seven years ago I was in Pakistan on a five-week visit. I was staying in Islamabad for a while – the modern capital of Pakistan. But even in this planned purpose-built place, the very poor lived alongside the very rich.
One day as we drove out on the modern duel carriageway which could have been anywhere in the world, we noticed thin, poorly dressed men standing spread out by the road side, just outside the city. They looked generally despondent, down at heel with hunched shoulders. ‘Who are they?’ I enquired. ‘These are men waiting to be hired – if they are lucky they will be picked up and perhaps do some labouring at a building site for the day. Others will just stand there all day and their families will go without.’ This pitiful site of grown men waiting to be hired, brought tears to my eyes. This biblical scene in today’s world was indeed a shocking one. In Pakistan there is no social security or government handouts to the unemployed. There are no spongers as we understand it only desperation. The story of the vineyard came home to me.
In the world there is indeed poverty, injustice, desperation and children whose parents cannot find work or provide enough food.
The Vineyard that Christ speaks of is on a wider dimension – is the pattern for this life but speaks more of God’s unconditional love for us all in the pattern of eternity.
So what of us?
At the end we none of us – your new priest, your Reader, your churchwardens, Sunday school teachers, treasurers, MU members, mowers of the church grass, ordinary church attendees – none of us have a greater or lesser claim on God’s love – for we are all equal in the sight of God. This doesn’t mean we slacken off and say ‘it doesn’t matter’ – because it does, because there are other rewards along the way – not least that there is indeed a worldwide vineyard in which to work; that there is companionship and community here; that we aim make the world a better place. This will mean that our sense of fairness needs to be seen as God sees it not as we see it.
This will mean sacrifice and a wider understanding, and work.