Monday, 25 September 2017

Trinity 15 Striving side by side A sermon by Kevin Bright

Matthew 20.1-16, Philippians 1.21-30
As an employer, someone who regularly hires people for their knowledge, skill and ability to apply it effectively through sheer hard work the parable of the vineyard and the landowner really resonates with personal experience.

Unfortunately it’s the bit about a few people never being happy about their remuneration, package, compensation, wages, pay, however we wish to phrase it, not current employees of course, but some that have crossed my path in earlier years. Calculating fair wages is always going to be an imperfect art but one thing is for sure, envy and whingeing isn’t going to make it right.

If that seems a bit harsh there’s no doubt that Jesus also knew that comparing how generous the land owner has been would raise peoples blood pressure and if it doesn’t get us a bit cross initially then we probably weren’t really paying attention. After all why did the landowner have to ‘rub it in’ for the early workers by paying the last first so that they would see exactly what was going on? Was he deliberately trying to provoke them?

In first century Palestine the fee of one denarius (as referred to in the NIV version) was considered fair daily pay for a family to meet their basic needs, the original Living Wage.

Clearly people should be paid a fair wage for their work without discrimination of any kind but if we feel we are treated fairly should we be bitter if the employer shows generosity to some people? I’m sure that all of us here have bills to pay, financial commitments to meet. So what if the landowner Jesus talks of was thinking all these labourers have families to feed regardless of the hours they have put in and I’m in a position to meet their needs, so I will.
Of course if a trade union had existed it’s likely this practice would have had to stop as it’s not fair to the members. Everyone out, then the landowner would have no labour. That would teach him to be generous.
As usual Jesus leaves us plenty to speculate about in the parable, who knows, maybe the people hired last were often left unemployed because they were weaker than others, had children or sick family to care for or were discriminated against in some way and the landowner wanted to show them that their contribution would also be valued.

Is it a ridiculous thing for me to ask but were they not grateful for the work, were they not proud of their contribution and achievements or did they only care about what they got out of the deal and how it compared with others? After all the bargain struck with the first people employed was honoured exactly as agreed so why did they care about the later workers?
There’s no question that poverty can make life hard, but it’s also true that happiness doesn’t increase on a curve commensurate with increased wealth. An unhealthy relationship with money makes for miserable people but for all fortunate enough to be able to choose what they do with money that doesn’t get spent on subsistence they have the choice whether to be generous or not.

Too much money in wrong hands can also have disastrous results. There’s the famous quote from the wonderfully talented footballer George Best when asked where all his money had gone he replied “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”

Beyond a commercially acceptable return many of the richest people will tell us it’s not about the money. The billionaire investor Warren Buffet said that for him it was just a counter to measure progress and his lifestyle combined with the fact that he has given more away than any other billionaire tends to back this up.

Last week I was at the funeral of a friend and client of mine, it was a long funeral, about 2 hours, mostly because of the range of people who wanted to pay tribute to him. I don’t know whether it’s the same for you when you attend the funeral of someone you think you’ve known someone pretty well over many years there’s often family or friends who have known them differently and you find out new things. It’s quite frustrating as I really want to say to them ‘I never knew that about you’ and explore it further but of course it’s too late.
No one giving a tribute pretended that he lived the life of an angel but a man who worked with him cleaning toilets when they started out told of how they would buy one meal and share it to keep down costs, but how even then he was generous in the way he shared this. As he built up his property empire others told again and again how he surprised them with his generosity and kindness. There was no great gain to him through his generosity but like the landowner he was in a position to do so and simply chose to make people happy or give them a pleasant surprise.

Whilst we and those hearing Jesus talk might immediately relate to what seems fair around wages his Jewish listeners would have been particularly challenged to consider how this principle applied to other aspects of their lives and their relationship with God. If they considered themselves God’s chosen people might they feel they were of greater worth then the gentiles, the latecomers? But if they think like this they fall into the class of the embittered whingers who think they have the right to tell God not to be too generous. Does this mean they didn’t believe in a God of love, compassion and great generosity or maybe it means some came to know him anew?
Maybe the disciples heard the parable as a warning that just because they were close to Jesus they shouldn’t think that they would be given priority over others when it comes to God’s love.

Surely us as mature Christians couldn’t fall into this trap? Could we think that God loves people of other faiths or none less than us? Could we think that people who come to this country willing to work hard shouldn’t be given the same opportunities as those who have lived here for generations?

Then we heard of St Paul writing to the church in Philippi whilst imprisoned in Rome. In some ways it links with the parable we heard in that it also has a lot to do with work. Paul’s not sure how things will pan out for him, he knew that there was a reasonable chance the authorities could decide to have him executed at any time and he is trying to reassure the Philippians that if this happens it doesn’t mean they should feel defeated, the important thing is that Christ is revered and held high.

Yet he knows that there is a lot of work he still can do and believes that God wants him to be released to do it and that both he and the Philippians should remain positive and bold in sharing the love of Christ. Paul is often drawing upon his own experience when he encourages others and isn’t asking them to face possible consequences that he hasn’t faced himself.

Some who have suffered real dark times are able to remain strong in their faith and outwardly composed yet the suffering is real. This was the case for Paul and if we read his second letter to the Corinthians he tells of ‘…pressure far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.’ Forced to put all in the hands of God he emerged with his belief strengthened.

We hear that the Philippians are urged to remain focussed on Christ and that there is sense of people working together as they ‘strive side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.’ Wonderful words and imagery that feel so different from those who worry about what others are getting but focus on the clear goal of spreading Christ’s love by combining resources, overcoming obstacles and refusing to be intimidated.
It helps me make a little sense of our readings today if we remind ourselves that it is the forgiveness, the grace of God is the real currency we are considering. It’s not something that we can earn and it doesn’t correlate with hours or outputs we can offer, it’s just given freely and generously to all willing to accept it. If we stop to consider how much we have been and want to be forgiven by God how could it ever make sense to ask that this is restricted for others regardless of how late they came to ask for it?

‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ Jesus said of those who crucified him.
‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’ he said to the criminal crucified next to him.

This is what Jesus spoke of when he started the parable with the words ‘For the Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner’, thankfully a landowner who is not focused on who deserves what, his only focus is on providing love and hope for all.

Kevin Bright 24th September 2017

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