Sermon: Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
Sunday 24 September 2017
The Revd Canon Alison Adams, Canon Pastor and Sub-Dean
The labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20.1–16)
A song which haunted my teenage years (and which I can still sing word for word now – I haven’t really grown up!) was one by Woody Guthrie which I knew as ‘Deportees’. Prompted by a fatal plane crash involving significant numbers of unnamed Mexican workers heading for work on Californian fruit farms, it raised sharp questions about exploitation, economics and the expendability and vulnerability of people who are at the bottom of the pile.
(You can listen to the song below.)
Today’s Gospel story, while not strictly about slavery could, nonetheless be easily set in that vulnerable border region which so exercises Donald Trump’s mind. And, while people don’t literally stand in Leicester Market waiting to be hired for the day, the picture is a familiar one in some countries. Moreover we do have slave labour here and sharp practice with zero hours contracts remains a depressingly familiar tale. People day after day repeating the same dehumanising experiences. Of little worth, exploitable, disposable and yet deep at the heart of the economic machine.
Our Gospel reading is a parable – ‘The Kingdom of heaven is like…’ – Jesus putting into words something unimaginable. He did this repeatedly, with different images. We’re quite good at deconstruction for clues into the mind of God, and the shape of a gathered heavenly Kingdom. But, as with all Jesus’ parables, today’s makes for multi-layered, ambiguous and uncomfortable reading under the surface. There’s more than meets the eye, Jesus drawing our attention, as ever, to the flaws in society. So, while not denigrating or disregarding the dominant theme of God’s generosity and grace , what if we explore the story also as a dream of life in this world. A dream in the sense of a vision, to be realised in concrete terms. After all, Jesus talked about this Kingdom being near – just round the corner even – in the here and now.
You may be tempted to ask what an exploration into economics has to do with our faith. Unemployment, debt, wage levels, tax and benefits – are these not secular issues shaped by Government policies? Which we may like or dislike but there they are. Well I’d urge you to read your Bible again – because, from Jacob haggling with Laban, to Naomi and Ruth struggling to survive, the history of the Hebrew people and their God is shot through with the same concerns. Try Bible searching yourself – debt, for example, crops up all the time – and God’s perspective on it. Some passages make for very uncomfortable reading in today’s economic, cultural and political climate. Jesus talks quite a bit about money and power. So I make no apology for today’s musings.
A local vicar at this week’s Diocesan conference told a poignant story of a young man coming to him in desperation – a drug problem, debts, no job and not much likelihood of easily getting one. For my colleague the disturbing core question of how to respond was not primarily practicalities – he did what he could – but hung upon his role as embodying Christ. We could ask the same: we know what facilities (or not) are available for people in need in this city and we can and do signpost. And get frustrated in the process. But how is God calling us to be alongside others – and not just those in most need – and what does our presence and God’s Spirit then require of us?
Back to the Gospel story. To some it describes a landowner not only finding work for the unemployed, but also paying them the same wage as those who had worked all day. The indignity of unemployment is removed, and the shame of not providing for their family. However others see a landowner demonstrating power over the workers, stirring up envy by paying them in the order he does, while making himself out to be generous. In reality, they are in his grasp: he can, on a whim hire or not hire and pay what he chooses, with their dignity eroded. The ambiguity doesn’t matter: it’s a story demonstrating at its core the complexities of an economic society, and mirrored today. What matters is that we wrestle with the questions that are raised. Why? Because God does.
I often get asked by friends outside the Church why do a full-time job for nothing. Implicit in the question, as in our Gospel, is the assumption that things, including time and energy, must be valued in money, with more for more. This assumption permeates all layers of society: peoples’ importance is measured by their job, and the importance of the job is expected to be reflected in the wages. Certainly at the top levels. But, as we all know, what some people – whom we can’t do without – take home in wages in no way compares or reflects their value to us.
We cannot here solve all the problems of our society. But it is really important, as Christians, to face them wide-eyed and squarely. It’s very easy to feel you don’t want to hear any more depressing and frightening news. But good and bad, and everything in-between is God’s business. While we may, with God’s help, have to prioritise, we cannot randomly choose what to engage with and what to ignore. Compassion fatigue is no option if we are to step into Christ’s shoes. If the grit is not in the oyster – if we shut our eyes and are not profoundly disturbed not just by human suffering but also by the injustices which cause this, then we have not aligned ourselves with Christ. We are called to pray his anger and frustration with him, and see where the Spirit leads. Called to a righteous restlessness, even tears, yet with un-quenching hope and trust in an eternal God who does and will gather all things to himself and who is alongside us constantly. Our New Testament reading talks of a job to be done on earth, and of following life in a manner worthy of Christ. That’s just it – no more, no less.
This is political stuff, but not in a party political sense, although I would observe the short-termism and self-interest of so many political agendas. God requires us to see through his eyes, and reject those all too human values, instead to drive his long-term Kingdom agenda forward. And there is much we can do if we engage. Of course, like my teenage self, we can sing our protest songs (and, boy, I did!). Raise awareness by telling the stories, talking the issues up, challenging indifference and ignorance. Examine our lifestyles – how far, for example, from the car wash to clothing and food, are we fuelling human exploitation and what are we doing about it? We can research and modify our habits accordingly. And we can be vocal, challenging those in power, lending our support where leverage is a possibility and refusing to accept that which we know to be unworthy of Christ’s vision for his world. If economic growth today enables a tiny rich minority to become richer and the poor ever poorer, that cannot be right by God’s standards. And therefore by ours too, if our faith is more than Sunday observance.
In his song Guthrie wrote of the fruit farming industry, ‘Is this the best way?’ Christ is asking the same question of our global, national and personal economics. And our response…?