15 October 2017

A Disturbing Parable (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
Sunday October 15, 2017
Reading:  Matthew 22:1-14 (with brief reference to the readings from Exodus and Philippians)

Confession time.  I don’t like the parable that we just read.  I mean, I really don’t like it.  It’s a very violent story.  It’s a story with escalating violence.  And it’s a very judgemental story.  We have the innocent slaves who are delivering the king’s invitation abused and killed by those to whom they are delivering the invitation – a case of ignoring the old adage, don’t shoot the messenger.  And in retaliation for killing his slaves, the king then sends an army to kill the murderers and burn their city.

And then this same king has a member of the second group of invitees bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  And what was his crime?  Not wearing the right robe to the wedding.

So I really don’t like this parable.  When I looked at the readings for today, I was tempted to speak about one of the other readings.  There is the great story in Exodus about Aaron building the golden calf and God threatening to destroy the people for idolatry.  But then Moses intercedes for the people and God repents.  God’s mind was changed by Moses’ pleading, and God didn’t destroy the people.  What a great sermon that would have been – if even God is able to repent and change, then surely we can repent too.

And then there’s the reading from Philippians where Paul, writing from prison to the church in Philippi, encourages the people to rejoice and to know the peace that God gives.  If Paul in prison can know joy and peace and thanksgiving, then surely we can too.  There’s another easy sermon that I could have written.

But in the end, I realized that it wouldn’t be fair to read a violent and disturbing parable and then to leave it there without trying to unpack it a bit.  So I still don’t like this parable, but I am going to look at it with you.

First of all, what is there that is good in this parable?  Right off the top, Jesus compares God’s kingdom to a wedding banquet.  This makes me think of the weddings that I have attended.  Whether the wedding is celebrated in a church or outdoors in someone’s back yard, weddings are times of joy and love.  There is often an abundance of yummy food to eat.  Anyone who has ever worked with a bride will also know the care and attention to the details of decorations and setting.  Nothing is left to chance, and everything is carefully planned out to reflect the celebration.  There is usually music and dancing.  So I am good with this image – the kingdom of God can be compared to a wedding celebration.

Another good thing that I see in this parable is that the king keeps on extending an invitation.  Even when the people refuse his first invitation in verse 3, the king invites them again in verse 4.  When the second invitation is refused in verses 5 and 6, the king still doesn’t give up – he sends an invitation to a new group of people.  This is a persistent king – he wants people at this wedding banquet he is throwing.  From this, I can take comfort that the invitation to the kingdom of God isn’t a one-off invitation.  If you miss the first invitation, they will keep on coming.

Is anyone familiar with the Harry Potter books or movies?  In the first one, the school of Hogwarts is trying to get in touch with Harry to invite him to school, but his Aunt and Uncle don’t want Harry to receive the correspondence.  An owl is sent carrying the message, but when that owl is turned away, another owl comes, and then another, until there are thousands of owls perched on top of the house, all trying to deliver the invitation.  This is what I picture the invitation to the kingdom of heaven to be like.  No matter how persistent we are at refusing it; God is even more persistent in trying to deliver the invitation.

But then what can we do with the escalating violence of this parable?  I think that here, we have to look at the context – both the context of Jesus as he told this parable, and the context of the community to whom Matthew was writing his gospel.

In the storyline of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is telling this parable very close to the end of his life.  He has entered Jerusalem on a donkey in the parade that we normally celebrate on Palm Sunday.  The morning after he gets to Jerusalem, Jesus goes into the temple and starts debating with the leaders who were there.  Things escalate quickly.

Remember that Jesus of Nazareth lived and died as a Jewish man in first-century Palestine.  He didn’t set out to start a new religion.  Rather, he seems to have been trying to reform the Jewish religion, calling people back to live in the way that God wanted the people to live.  And here he is, debating with the leaders of the temple – he is right at the very heart of his religion.  Three days later, Jesus would be arrested, and four days later he would be nailed to a cross.

I like how David Lose describes this situation.  He writes that “we are catching a glimpse of the low point in an intense family feud.”[1]  And so it isn’t surprising that Jesus’ stories are now becoming more and more violent and disturbing.

And then if we step outside of the story for a minute and look at the context in which Matthew was writing, you will find another violent context.  Matthew’s gospel was likely written around 40 years after Jesus had died.  There had been a revolt by the Jewish people against the Roman empire in Jerusalem that had lasted for four years, and which had ended with the almost total destruction of the temple in which Jesus is teaching in today’s story.  Much of the city of Jerusalem had also been destroyed.  The community that Matthew was a part of was intimately familiar with the sort of violence described in the parable – murdering those on the other side, and burning the city.

So we have violence in the world of Jesus, and the violence in the world in which Matthew was writing.  I’m glad that I live in a world without so much overt violence, but in ways this parable makes me think of certain events going on in the world today that are usually described in the news as “escalating tensions.”  One side does something, and the other side retaliates with something worse.  It doesn’t usually happen as quickly as in the parable where refusing an invitation is met with murder is met with full-scale war; but the truth is that we too are living in a violent world.

But then we get to the last couple of verses of the parable where a guest at the wedding isn’t wearing the right clothes, and is cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

OK – so if the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet, what are the right clothes to wear to the kingdom of heaven?  Here, I have to turn to the writings of Paul.  Paul writes both to the church in Rome and the church in Galatia that they are to clothe themselves in Christ; and he also writes to the church in Colossae that they are to clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

So maybe with this parable, Jesus is saying that it isn’t enough just to accept the invitation to the kingdom of heaven, but we also have to allow ourselves to be transformed in Christ-like-ness.  We have to put on Christ as Paul says.  We can’t transform ourselves into the image of Christ, but we can allow the Holy Spirit to transform us.  The invitation is only the first step in our journey of discipleship.

I still don’t really like this parable, but I guess that I can accept this interpretation of it.

So the kingdom of God is like a wedding, and we are all invited.  And if we refuse the invitation, another invitation will come our way, and another.  But once we accept the invitation, the story doesn’t stop – we are called to allow God to work, through the Holy Spirit, to transform us into the image of Christ.  This parable includes judgement, but the good news is that we aren’t called on to be the judges.  The judgement adds some urgency to our calling or invitation, but we can allow God to do the judging.

Let’s all of us join the wedding feast!

Let us pray:
Merciful God,
We thank you for our invitation to the wedding feast.
We thank you that you keep reaching out to us,
            even when we refuse.
We thank you for the Holy Spirit,
            who works in us,
                        transforming us into the image of Christ.
We know that we live in a world of violence,
            but we ask that you empower us
                        to be agents of your love and your peace.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/10/pentecost-18-a-preaching-an-ugly-parable/

8 October 2017

Thanksgiving Communion Liturgy

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
October 8, 2017 

One:    God be with you.
All:    And also with you.
One:    Lift up our hearts.
All:    We lift them to God.
One:    Let us give thanks to God.
All:    It is right to give our thanks and praise.

We sing thanksgiving to God,
            Creator and Source of all that we see,
                        and all that we cannot see.

We sing thanksgiving to God
            who created darkness and light,
                        day and night;
            who created the earth and seas and sky;
            who created plants and trees and seeds;
            who created sun and moon and stars;
            who created birds and fish and animals;
            who created human beings, women and men, in the image of God;
                        and who looked at all creation
                                    and declared that it was good.
We sing thanksgiving to God,
            who led the people to freedom through the wilderness,
                        feeding them with manna and quail,
                        and bringing water from the rock to drink,
                                    in a dry and dusty land;
            and who brought the people to a fruitful and prosperous land.

We sing thanksgiving to God
            who remembered promises to the people through all generations
                        always reminding us of these promises,
                                    and drawing us back to God.

We sing thanksgiving to God,
who, in the fullness of time,
                        took on flesh and came to dwell among us
                                    as the person of Jesus –
                        teaching, healing, and reconciling –
                                    always drawing us back to God.

We sing thanksgiving to God,
            who continues to come to us
                        as the Holy Spirit,
                                    leading us,
                                                comforting us,
                                                            guiding us,
                                                                        and transforming us
                                                                                    into what we are called to be –
                                                                                                children of God.

And so we join our song of thanksgiving
            to the song of all creation
                        as we proclaim God’s glory, saying:

Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

As we gather here at this table,
we remember that Jesus,
            on the night before he died,
Gathered with his friends around a table.
We remember that Jesus took a loaf of bread
            and he gave thanks,
            and he broke it,
            and he shared it with everyone who was gathered, saying:
                        “Take and eat.  This is my body, given for you.
                        Each time you do this, remember me.”

We remember that after the meal,
Jesus took a cup of wine,
            and he gave thanks,
            and he shared it with everyone who was gathered, saying:
“Take and drink.  This is the cup of promise in my blood.
                        Each time you do this, remember me.”

We remember Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection,
            and we wait for his coming again
                        and the fulfillment of all creation.
We rejoice in the grace
            that brings us to the table,
                        and allows us to offer ourselves
                                    as the body of Christ for the world.
We celebrate your universal church
            of all times and all places,
                        and the communion of saints, living and dead,
                                    who surround us as a great cloud of witnesses.
And so with the universal church, we proclaim the mystery of our faith,
         Christ has died.
         Christ is risen.
         Christ will come again.

Send, O God, your Holy Spirit
            upon these gifts,
            and upon all of us gathered here,
transforming them and us
            into the image and likeness of Christ.
As we eat and drink together,
            make us one in Christ,
                        and make us one with Christ,
so that we might be the light of Christ’s love
                        in the world.

Through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ,
            in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
            all glory is yours, God most holy,
            now and forever,

And now we join our voices together in the prayer that Jesus taught, saying:
Our father, who art in heaven,
hallowed by thy name…

(while breaking the bread)
The body of Christ, broken for us.
Thanks be to God for the bread of life.

(while pouring the wine)
The blood of Christ, poured out for us.
Thanks be to God for the cup of blessing.


Prayer after Communion:
Holy God,
            as we leave this table,
                        we continue our song of thanksgiving.
We thank you for this meal that we have shared,
            we thank you for your never-failing love,
            we thank you for Jesus Christ, our eternal source of hope,
            we thank you for the Holy Spirit who always draws us to you.
As we leave this table,
            we continue to offer ourselves to you
                        and to your work in the world.
Keep the taste of the bread and the wine
            on our lips and in our hearts
                        so that we will ever sing thanksgiving.

(May be reprinted with the following attribution: © 2017 Kate Jones http://katesnextgreatadventure.blogspot.ca/)

"Giving Thanks" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
October 8, 2017 - Thanksgiving Sunday
Reading:  Deuteronomy 8:7-18

I’m about to say something that you have probably not heard said very often.  I love the book of Deuteronomy.  Yes, I know that it has its problems.  There are teachings in this book that promote violence – killing and stoning and war.  There are teachings in this book that uphold the patriarchy where women were lesser humans than men.  There are teachings in this book about slavery.  I took a course a couple of years ago on the book of Deuteronomy, and at the start of the course, our professor Dr. Susan Slater told us that if, at the end of the course, we had come around to the idea that stoning wasn’t as bad as we thought that it was, then she would not consider the course to have been a success!

But at the same time as all of these troubling aspects, there are also some fabulous aspects to this book.  It includes laws about how to have fair business dealings.  It includes laws about being generous to those who are on the margins of society – widows, orphans, and refugees.  It includes laws about how to live well together in community.  There are also a couple of nuggets in the text, like the Shema, the enduring prayer of the Jewish people that begins:  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

But what I love most about the book of Deuteronomy is the story arc.  To put it into context, Deuteronomy is the fifth and final book of the Torah – the “law” or the “teaching.”  The Torah begins with the book of Genesis, which includes many of the stories we know from Sunday School – the creation stories, the tower of Babel, Noah and the arc, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, and Joseph.

Then after Genesis comes the book of Exodus.  Our Old Testament readings over the past month or so have been coming from Exodus.  We read about how the Israelite people were slaves in Egypt, and how God called to Moses out of the burning bush.  God told Moses that he was to go to the Egyptian Pharaoh and demand that he let the Israelite people go.  When the Pharaoh finally did let the people go and they were leaving Egypt, God worked through Moses to part the waters of the Red Sea so that the people could pass through to the other side.

But then trouble came.  The people were there, on the far side of the Red Sea, wandering in the wilderness.  Now keep in mind, this isn’t the wilderness like we have in this part of the world.  There were no trees and lakes and deer.  The wilderness that the people were in was a desert wilderness – dry and rocky with blazing hot sun during the day and bitterly cold nights.

And the people complained to Moses.  They asked him, “Why have you brought us out here in the desert to die?  Surely it would have been better if we had stayed in slavery back in Egypt!  At least when we were there, we had food to eat and water to drink and shelter at night.”  And Moses did what most leaders do – he passed their complaints on to his superior.  Moses told God that the people were complaining, and God responded.

God responded to the people by giving them food to eat – each morning, manna, or bread fell from heaven, fell on the ground like dew and the people were able to gather it up; and each evening flocks of quails came to where the people were camped.  There was always enough for everyone – the only rule was that you could only collect what you needed for today and not hoard it in fear of the future.

God also responded to the people by giving them water to drink.  There, in the middle of the dry and rocky desert, God told Moses to take his staff and hit a large rock with it; and when Moses did that, fresh water started flowing out of it.

God also responded to the people by keeping them safe and leading them through the desert.  During the day, God would appear as a pillar of cloud, showing them the direction that they were to travel, and when the sun went down, God appeared as a pillar of fire, and continued to accompany them on their journey.

There in the desert, Moses climbed a mountain and received the law for the people – what we call today the ten commandments, as well as the details of how to follow them.  You can find these details if you look in the next two books of the Torah – Leviticus and Numbers.

And then we get to the book of Deuteronomy.  At this point, the people have been wandering in the wilderness for forty years, being fed by God, being given water by God, and being led by God.  Forty years of constant movement, traveling from one place to the next, depending on God for everything.  But now, at the start of the book of Deuteronomy, the people have reached the banks of the Jordan River.  They are about to cross the river into the land that God had promised to them and to their ancestors; a land of plentiful fresh water and abundant food to eat.  Listen to the description from today’s reading:

“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.  You shall eat your fill, and bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.”

What a place.  Other than the fig trees and pomegranates and olive trees, it sounds a bit like Canada…

But before the people are allowed to cross over the river and enter this land of abundance, they stop and camp on the far shore one more time.  And Moses begins to recite the law to them again – a repetition of sorts of the two books that come before.  In fact, the name of the book in English, Deuteronomy, comes from the Greek meaning, “Second Law.”  But it isn’t quite a second or new law – it is more a second telling of the law.  I actually like the Swahili title of this book of the bible – it translates to English as “Remembrance of the Law.”

But why do we have to sit through a second telling or remembrance of the law that God gave to the people?  Surely once was enough?

It is because of where the people were at in their journey.  For the past forty years, they have been completely and immediately dependent on God for everything – for their food to eat, their water to drink, for guidance and protection there in the wilderness.  But they are about to enter a new place – a place where there is abundant food and water.  God is still the one who will provide the rain and make the seeds grow, but it is a less immediate, a less obvious dependence on God.  But God wants the people to remember that they depend on God for everything.

It’s easy to remember to call on God in difficult times.  It’s harder for us – and I include myself in this “us” – it’s harder for us to remember to call on God and thank God when things are good in our lives.  It is hard for us to remember during the good times that everything that we have comes from God; that we are dependent on God for our food, for our water, and for the air that we breathe.

If I may quote Dr. Slater, my Old Testament professor again, she says that the forty years spent wandering in the wilderness were the “desert school” for the Israelite people.  God was schooling the people in how to be thankful for everything that God gives.  It was a situation where, without God, they would have died with no food or water or GPS.

But now the people are on the verge of something new.  Life is about to get a whole lot easier for the Israelite people.  But God doesn’t want the people to forget the lessons that they have learned in the desert school.  And so in today’s reading from Deuteronomy, God tells the people, don’t forget.  Remember.

Remember that it was God who brought us out of slavery.
Remember that it was God who kept us safe in the desert amid the poisonous snakes and scorpions.
Remember that it was God who fed us with manna and quail.
Remember that it was God who made water flow out of the rock for us to drink.

God tells the people that even when life becomes easy, we aren’t to forget that it is only easy because of God.  It’s not about us or what we do or earn.

And so here we are, Thanksgiving weekend in Canada.  The connections to the text are easy to make.  Many of us are in situations where we have much to be thankful for.  We have food on our table and family and friends to share it with.  This reading calls us to remember that all of this is only because of God.

And here at Chetwynd Shared Ministry, we also have the opportunity to participate in God’s mission of providing manna to those who are in the desert.  There are those in our community who don’t have food on their table at holiday times; and so the Care Group here, among others in the community, are collecting donations for the Christmas Bureau to make sure that everyone in Chetwyd has food on their table at Christmas… manna in the desert.  If you would like to participate in this part of God’s mission, there is a donation box right beside the door, and the Care Group will make sure that the donations get to the Christmas Bureau.  They need regular non-perishable food donations – anything that you would normally donate to a food bank – to make the hampers happen this year.

So we have today’s reading from Deuteronomy speaking to us as we are reminded to offer our Thanksgiving for all that God gives us when life is good.  We also have today’s reading from Deuteronomy speaking to us as we are challenged participate in God’s mission of providing manna to those in the desert.

But given everything that has happened in the world this week, I don’t think that I would be doing my job if I don’t ask the question, how does this reading speak to the pain and the heartbreak of the world?  In the past week, there has been an act of terrorism close to home in Edmonton.  In the past week, there has been an act of terrorism in Las Vegas.  In the past week, there has been no sign of peace coming to the Korean peninsula.  In the past week, another hurricane has hit the Caribbean and southern US.  In the past week, people have lost loved ones, people have been in accidents, people have lost their jobs.  In the midst of our Thanksgiving celebrations, we don’t have to look very far to find grief and fear.

But I do think that this reading speaks to the pain in our world.  The Israelite people in the desert were also dealing with grief and fear.  They had left behind their homes and their lives in Egypt.  They were facing an unknown future.  They faced danger on a daily basis in the desert.  In the forty years that they were traveling, an entire generation passed so that most of the people who had left Egypt did not live to enter the land that had been promised to them.

And so in times of danger and fear and grief, I think that this reading speaks a message of hope.  Hope that better times are coming.  Hope that a different way of being is possible.  The desert is going to give way to the promised land.  Scarcity is going to give way to abundance.  A time and place of death are going to give way to a time and place of life.  A different world is not only possible, but a different world is coming soon.

And, when you think about it, isn’t that the very core of the Christian story?  One of the central stories that we gather around is the Easter story.  On the Friday, Jesus was killed and it seemed like the story was over; but Sunday brings the resurrection and life rather than death has the final word.  Death gives way to life.  The ending gives way to a new beginning.  Grief and heartache give way to hope and joy.

And so this reading from Deuteronomy speaks to us on so many different levels.  When times are good and we celebrate the abundance that surrounds us, this reading calls on us to remember that all good things come from God, and it calls us to remember to give thanks.

On another level, the reading also calls on us living in the midst of abundance to remember those who are in the scarcity of the desert times and it calls us to participate in God’s work of providing manna to those in the desert.

And finally, on a third level, this reading speaks to us when we are living through desert times, whether that desert is one of scarcity or one of grief or one of fear.  This reading reminds us that the desert time doesn’t last forever but we can live with the hope, with the confidence that we are about to enter the promised land of abundance and security.

Have I mentioned that I love the book of Deuteronomy?!

In a few minutes, we are going to gather at the table and share in the bread and the wine.  Last month, we made the connection between the word “Communion” and the word “community.”  At the table, we don’t break bread alone, but we break the bread together in community.  Another word that is used for this shared meal is “Eucharist” and the root of the word “Eucharist” means “Thanksgiving.”  Each time we gather at the table, we are giving thanks to God.  We thank God for calling us to the table.  We thank God for all that God has done and provided for us.  We thank God for being present with us at the table.  And we thank God for the future that we know God has promised.

This is Thanksgiving weekend.  Let us give thanks to God!

Let us pray:
Generous God,
            we give thanks for all that you have given to us –
                        for food to eat and safe water to drink,
                        for shelter over our heads to keep us safe and warm,
                        for friends and family, both near and far,
                        for your promise that a different better world
is not only possible
                                                but is coming,
                        and most of all, we give thanks
 for your loving presence with us.
Thank you for being you,
            for being more than we could ever imagine –
                        more loving,
                        more generous,
                        more holy,
                        more welcoming,
                        more more.
With humble awe,
            knowing our words can never say enough,
            we simply say “thank you.”

 (Thanksgiving Display at Chetwynd Shared Ministry)

24 September 2017

"God Isn't Fair" (Sermon)

Sermon - September 24, 2017
Chetwynd Shared Ministry

Reading:  Matthew 20:1-16 (with brief reference to Exodus 16:2-15)

How many of you have siblings, brothers and/or sisters?  If you do, what I’m about to tell you will make a lot more sense!  I have two sisters and we are all very close in age.  When we were growing up, the most common thing heard around our house was, “That’s not fair!” to which our father would reply, “Well, life’s not fair.”  I remember especially the times when there was a treat to be shared between us – say, for example, a cinnamon bun.  One of us would be given the task of dividing the cinnamon bun into thirds, but the deal was, whoever divided up the cinnamon bun got last pick of which third she wanted.  Let me tell you, the division was so mathematically precise that there were often rulers involved!  Whoever was doing the cutting was so concerned that she herself would get her fair share of the treat.

If my sisters and I had read the parable that Jesus tells his followers in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, we probably would have had a similar reaction to the workers who worked all day long – “That’s not fair!”  I mean, how fair is it that people who only worked one hour are paid the same as the people who were out working in the field in the heat and the blazing sun for 12 hours.  We would have had a whole lot of sympathy for the workers who complained to the landowner.  Why should the lazy workers who were goofing off for most of the day get as much as the industrious workers?

Some bible commentators suggest that Jesus was telling this parable to point out the injustices of the labour practices of his day.  A denarius, the “usual daily wage” was not very much money.  The day labourers who were paid a denarius for a day’s work were people living on the margins of society.  They had usually fallen on hard times – maybe through debt or a failed crop that meant that they lost their land.  We don’t know today exactly how much a denarius was worth, but it probably was barely enough money to buy enough food to feed a family.  It has been suggested that the day labourers were even worse off than slaves because they weren’t guaranteed consistent work, shelter, or food.  Instead, the day labourers had to hang around the market place in the morning, and hope that someone hired them on for the day.  If a day labourer wasn’t hired for the day, his family wouldn’t get to eat.

And so with this interpretation of the parable, the landowner who pays each labourer, no matter what time they started working at, a denarius, is continuing to perpetuate a system that keeps people in poverty.  It isn’t fair, and it isn’t fair to everyone because no one gets enough money to survive on.  And Jesus, with this parable, is pointing out that this system is wrong.

Even though I agree that it was an unjust system – maybe like the systems in the world today that keep some people in a cycle of poverty – I have a couple of problems with interpreting the parable this way.  First of all, the opening line of the parable is, “For the kingdom of heaven is like…”  A parable denouncing an unjust earthly system doesn’t quite fit an opening that suggests that God’s kingdom is going to be described.

My other problem with interpreting the parable as a denunciation of an unfair labour system is that it doesn’t take into account the verses that bookend the parable.  The very last verse that we read today is, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last”; and if we were to go back to the verse that comes right before our reading, it reads, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  It doesn’t happen very often in the bible that you get the same words so close together, but when it does, you can know that it is important for understanding what comes in between them.  And if you take Jesus’ parable as a simple denunciation of the unfair economic practices of his day, you don’t get any reversal with the last being first and the first being last.

So where can we find that reversal in the parable?  The most obvious place is that when the workers are being paid, the ones who were hired last were paid first, and the ones who were hired first were paid last.  The workers who had not been hired in the marketplace in the early hours of the day – the ones who were not seen, looked over, the most marginalized among a marginalized group – were the first people to receive a daily wage at the end of the day.

And the onlookers grumbled that it wasn’t fair.  It wasn’t fair that people who only worked an hour had received as much as the people who had worked 12 hours.  The thing is, though, the people who were complaining hadn’t received less than what they had agreed to.  They weren’t being cheated out of part of their earnings in order that others could be paid more than they had earned.  They were paid exactly what they had been promised.

But isn’t it human nature though, to complain.  We see other people getting something that we don’t think that they deserve, and we complain about it, even though it doesn’t impact our own lives.  This has been a trend throughout history.  Whenever there has been a movement to bring equality to a group of people that has been oppressed, others have complained about it.  With the rise of feminism, women were given opportunities that had previously been denied to them; and some men complained that they were losing opportunities because of it.  But the thing is, it isn’t a zero-sum game.  When women were given the vote in Canada in 1918, votes weren’t taken away from men in order to give them to women.  Instead, there were more votes in the system to be distributed.  But, in the saying of the well-known theologian, Anonymous that Alison quoted to me the other day, “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”  When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

You can see a similar thing happening in the United States and Canada today, with the Black Lives Matter movement.  There are those who say that even the name of this movement is giving extra privileges to one group of people.  But to say this ignores all of the oppression that Black Americans and Canadians have faced over the centuries.  From slavery to Jim Crow laws to internalized and unconscious discrimination to institutionalized poverty and racism – the inequality that began when Europeans first began to travel beyond Europe continues today.  So yes, all lives are important, but it is important to say that Black Lives Matter because these are the lives that have always been considered not to matter.  “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”  “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”

Jesus’ parable is a parable about God’s kingdom.  It begins, “For the kingdom of God is like a landowner, who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard.”  And I think that if we read this parable, we can see that God isn’t fair.  The workers weren’t rewarded according to what they deserved.  But we can also see that God isn’t unfair, or less than fair either.  The workers who had worked all day weren’t given less than what they had agreed to.  Instead, I would argue that God is more than fair, greater than fair, more generous than fair.  Everyone was given a daily wage.  In God’s kingdom, everyone is given the same welcome, everyone is given the same reward.

If you remember last week’s parable, it tied into the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  This week’s parable also ties into the Lord’s Prayer, but this time it is whenever we pray, “Give us this day, our daily bread.”  When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we aren’t praying for a feast of excess – we are praying for our daily bread.  For what we need today, to keep us going until tomorrow.  A bit like in the Old Testament reading that we read today, where the Israelite people wandering in the desert were given manna and quails – enough food for today, but they were not to keep leftovers for tomorrow.  To quote another well-known theologian, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want; but if you try some time, you just might find you get what you need.”  In the kingdom of God, according to this parable, we aren’t given what we want – instead, we are given what we need.

You may also note that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we don’t pray, “give me this day, my daily bread.”  We are praying for everyone – that everyone in the whole world might have what is needed for this day.  I’m drawing on all sorts of unlikely theologians today – this time it is US comedian Louis CK who said, “the only time you look in your neighbours bowl is to make sure that they have enough – not to make sure that you have as much as they do.”  If the owner of the vineyard in today’s parable had given the workers hired at the end of the day only 1/12th of a daily wage for the one hour that they had worked, maybe the grumblers would have been happy, but someone looking into their bowl would have seen that they didn’t have enough money to buy their daily bread, and that should have been cause for even greater moral outrage.

The good news of the gospel is that God doesn’t work from an attitude of scarcity, but instead from an attitude of abundance.  There is more than enough to go around.  So often in the world, we think that if someone else gets more, then I or we will get less.  But with the kingdom of God, everyone receives the same generous loving grace.  We don’t get what we deserve, or what we earn – thank goodness!  All of us get much, much, much more than that from God.

Let me finish with one more unlikely theologian – Lewis Carroll this time.  One of the books I love is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  It is so delightfully nonsensical and imaginative and fantastical.  At the beginning of the book, Alice falls down a rabbit hole and ends up in Wonderland – a place where anything can happen.  Right away, she ends up growing to more than 9 feet tall, and then shrinking down to a few inches high a couple of times, and then ends up tiny but swimming in a sea of tears that she cried when she was tall, along with a bunch of other small animals and birds.

When they all make it to shore, and are quite wet, they try to figure out how to get dry, and after a few false starts, the Dodo suggests a Caucus Race.  And now, in the words of Lewis Carroll, this is what happened next:

“First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (‘the exact shape doesn’t matter,’ it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there.  There was no “one, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over.  However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out “The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’

“This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence.  At last the Dodo said, ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’”

And so I would summarize the parable of Jesus in the words of the Dodo and say, “The kingdom of heaven is like a Caucus Race – everybody wins, and all will have prizes.”

Alice and the Dodo by John Tenniel
Public Domain