Wednesday, 1 November 2017
Over the years, I have been in on some interesting conversations about the whys and wherefores of wearing a poppy for the remembrance season. It’s clear that everyone on TV is now placed under huge pressure to wear a poppy. We see extra-large and sometimes bejewelled ones for X-factor judges and contestants, which has the effect of making them a fashion accessory. Poppies also seem to be appearing more and more in advance of the day itself, just like Easter eggs and Christmas decorations. I can't help thinking that this is a huge exercise in missing the point.
Please don't misunderstand me - I shall wear a (basic) poppy on Remembrance Sunday. I will do so, not because other people want me to, but because I will be remembering members of my family – one lost on the Somme in March 1918, also my grandfather who lived through nearly three years of horror in the trenches, and lived but rarely told the tale of the terrible things he witnessed.
I will remember the terrible cost of World War 2 – both military and civilian. I'll also be aware of all the casualties we have seen in recent wars, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Although much smaller in number than the “great” wars of the 20th century, we are made all the more aware by the intense media coverage of everyone whose life is lost.
On 14 Nov, I will also remember the anniversary of the bombing of Coventry in 1940. Having lived there, the experience still casts a shadow over the city, as it must in many other cities devastated by war. I still have a vivid memory of officiating at a burial in London Road cemetery, and was shocked when I saw there the memorial by the mass grave for the hundreds of casualties. The symbolism of the burned-out old cathedral next to the new one makes Coventry a very evocative place to visit. That experience has inspired people to reach out to other communities, and hence the city is twinned with Dresden in Germany.
Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day are there “lest we forget” - lest we forget the death, losses, destruction, pain and grief of war, and lest we forget the need to work for peace and reconciliation in the future to try and avoid such things ever happening again.
I believe that wearing a poppy is a matter of personal choice, and no-one should be abused for the choice they make. The important issue is what kind of a world are we working for. The external badges we wear are surely much less important than the principles we live out in our lives.
Monday, 23 October 2017
MATTHEW 22: 15 – 22 22 Oct 2017
Most days on the TV or Radio news you’ll hear a journalist asking a politician a question to which there is no acceptable answer. They’ve practised the art to perfection.
A couple of weeks ago, Teresa May was asked on an LBC phone in: “If we held another referendum, which way would you vote?” Poor woman; how could she answer that one? Usually if we ask a question we want an answer. Not in this case. The journalist is only interested in setting a clever trap for her.
The Pharisees in our gospel reading have found the perfect question to catch Jesus out – so they think. Whichever way he answers, they are sure he will alienate some of his followers.
The issue of paying tax to the Roman Emperor was one of the hottest topics in the Middle East in Jesus' day. Imagine how we'd like it, if people from the other end of the world, marched into our country and demanded that we pay them tax, as a reward for having stolen our land. We'd be pretty miffed. That's what the Romans had done to Palestine.
They required 10% of the grain they grew, 20% of their oil and wine harvest, 1% of any income they earned by any other means. And on top of all that the Romans imposed a poll tax, requiring a denarius, a day’s wage of every man, woman and child between the ages of 12 and 65.
Maggie Thatcher discovered how nasty things can get when you impose a Poll Tax back in 1990. In Jesus day there were riots too, but the Romans were a tad more brutal. They left crosses around the countryside with dead and dying revolutionaries on them, as a warning that paying tax was compulsory, not optional.
So you can see what all his hearers knew lay in store if Jesus advocated withholding the tax. Actually at his trial a short time later, it was this very accusation that the Pharisees threw at Jesus: “He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar” (Luke 23: 2). That’s what they had wanted him to say.
On the other hand, if he said it was OK to pay the poll tax he would offend the majority of his fellow countrymen who hated everything about the Roman occupation.
Their aim is to make Jesus discredit himself in his own words. Whichever way Jesus answers he's in trouble. “Got him” the Pharisees think!
They could acknowledge reluctantly v 16 that he was ‘sincere’; that his ‘teaching’ rang true; that he showed no ‘partiality’ to anyone; but it rankled that he showed no deference to their authority. However, if they think that starting with flattery will lull Jesus into a false sense of security they are mistaken.
Within seconds they are the ones scrabbling for an answer, with their carefully worked out strategy destroyed. What’s more, Jesus manages to throw a spanner between two arch enemies.
The ultra orthodox Pharisees and the party of Herod, puppet of the Romans, King of Galilee, were strange bed-fellows indeed. Their differences were only forgotten in their hatred of Jesus and their desire to eliminate him.
So what's the big deal about the coin?
The reason was all down to the image on the coin. Jesus asked them: “Show me the coin used for paying the tax”.
I have a new pound coin. Whose image is on it? The Queen's of course. And what does it say around the edge? DG Reg FD (Dei Gratia Regina = By the grace of God; “fidei defensor” = 'Defender of the Faith').
In the case of the Jews in Palestine, this denarius coin had the image of Tiberius Caesar on it. According to Jewish law they weren't allowed to put images of human faces on their coins. Around the edge of the coin proclaiming to all the world who he was, Caesar had the words that would send a shudder through any devout Jew: “Son of the Divine, High Priest”.
The Ten Commandments began with: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image.” They took that seriously. How could any Jew handle money like that? But they did. And someone brought one out of their pocket! The fact that someone possessed the coin was shameful. You can imagine the enigmatic expression on Jesus’ face!
We watch the scene unfold as they hand Jesus the coin like a dead rat: “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” He hasn't said anything that will get him into trouble. He's turned the question round and throws it back like a hot potato! Pardon the mixed metaphors!
“It’s Caesar’s” they reply, stating the obvious, ashamed that they carry it themselves. “Well then”, says Jesus, “give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperors” It sounds as though he was saying ‘be responsible citizens’ and that is how it has been taken by most Christians ever since. But the question hangs in the air, what does it mean if that conflicts with our allegiance to God?
Then the punch line: “give to God the things that are God’s”. His critics hadn’t mentioned God at all! Here, standing before them is the real Son of the Divine, asking “and what do you think your duty to God might be?” He has been telling parables (which we were looking at a few weeks ago), all about people who refuse to give God place in their lives and who will not recognise the Son.
Now he’s asking them why they don’t use all their supposed knowledge of God to recognise the Son, and what’s more why they prevent other people from recognising him too. “Give to God the things that are God’s.”
They had been playing games, keeping Caesar happy while only nodding at God. They were so devoted to keeping the commandments, keeping the Temple show on the road that God had been lost in it all. Just like we can be so caught up with keeping the church show on the road that we wonder where God is in it all.
The challenge of Jesus then and now is that he wants the thing that is God’s – us. He wants what belongs to him – our lives. “Give to God the things that are God’s.” Our money, our time, our attention; our futures, our pasts; our worship, our love.
Jesus would very shortly share the fate of the tax rebels but Caesar’s kingdom is long forgotten now. The Kingdom of God continues, shown in the lives of all of us who, by God’s grace have “Given to God everything that belongs to God”.
- Sue Kiernan
Monday, 25 September 2017
Jesus famously said to his disciples that the poor will always be with them (Mark 14:7). A woman came to the house of Simon the leper and anointed Jesus with expensive perfume from an alabaster jar. Some complained at the extravagance of this act of devotion and worship, protesting that it could have been sold and the money shared. Jesus defends her actions, saying that the poor will always be there, and those watching can express their kindness to them at anytime.
People have struggled with this episode, seeing it as Jesus being resigned to the economic injustices of his day, simply offering the hope of a bit of charity. Others have suggested he was colluding with those very inequalities. However, I believe it’s a very frank description of how human nature works – that there will be winners and losers economically in this life, and human selfishness and greed will make those divisions more acute and extreme.
Poverty has many causes, of course, and in Jesus’ time, wealth was seen as a sign of God’s blessing. The wealthy self-righteous often saw the poor as responsible for their own fate. However, in Jesus’ world (as in ours), poverty was much more a consequence of where in the world you were born. Now as then, the weather, wars, natural disaster, lack of opportunities, or even unjust trading practises leave so many in circumstances where they depend on others for help.
In Jesus’ time the best the poor could hope for was support from family, or the charity of strangers. Jesus clearly expected his followers to be generous. In the early church, widows and orphans were supported. The people held possessions in common (Acts 2:44-45), and eventually organised a kind of welfare system so some could concentrate on spreading the message, and others on caring for the poor (Acts 6:1-6).
Today churches again find themselves on the front line of helping people in need. In Morecambe, the Foodbank and other centres for help, such as our friends at West End Impact have been set up by Christians. Many who volunteer and donate come from the churches. Here at MPC, we are supporting Morecambe Bay Community Primary School in providing meals for children who need them during the school holidays. It would be great to think that one day these resources won’t be needed. But in the meantime, Jesus’ words that the poor will always be with us should prompt those of us who can to campaign, give, volunteer or help to do what we can to meet needs close at hand, as well as those far away.
Sunday, 24 September 2017
Sermon for Trinity 15: Matthew 20:1-16
The parable of the workers in the vineyard
Parables are truths conveyed in story. They use scenes and settings that would be familiar to the people hearing them, but they illustrate and convey meaning in the form a story.
As I was saying last week, parables usually have a twist at the end, and this parable is no exception. If you were left thinking “hang on a minute, what about…” then I suspect that is precisely what was supposed to happen.
I’ve read this parable many times, but I’m grateful to Biblical writer Kenneth Bailey and his book Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes in helping me see a lot of things in this passage I hadn’t noticed before, which I’d like to share this morning.
The scene at the opening of this parable is one that would have been familiar to those listening. Workers wait in a well-known location – probably on a main road, and perhaps near a market – for any casual labour they can be offered. Bailey tells us this was still happening when he lived in the Middle East. He saw Palestinians waiting on the main road near the Damascus gate in East Jerusalem, and Israelis would come along in vans to offer work.
So back to our parable. An agreement is made that the workers will receive a standard day’s wages for their work, and they are hired. Later on in the morning, the owner of the vineyard returns. We’re not told why he didn’t have enough men from his first visit; we are just told he comes back. The men are standing – ready for action and eager to be at the front of the queue. More unemployed hands are hired and are told they will receive what is just or right. The owner does the same again at noon and 3pm.
It begs the question why a competent vineyard owner would keep coming back, if he knew how much work there was to do, and how many people it would take. What’s going on? Apparently in the modern-day situation, men would go and wait around for work in the morning, and would either be hired or would go home. But the men here continue to stand around in the heat and humiliation in a slight hope that work may yet materialise. And so the man hires them. Each time, the owner says that he will be just with them. Perhaps by this point in the story we should be asking what is really going on.
Finally the ones who have been around nearly the entire working day are found. Note it’s at the eleventh hour (20:6 ESV. Many translations say five o'clock) – a phrase that has entered our language to mean a late intervention. These are the ones who had only the prospect of going home empty-handed to their families, having been humiliated by the rejection and disappointment of not being hired. Their answer to the owner tells it all – we are here “because no-one has hired us.”
There’s a compassionate tone to this part of the story, but notice the owner doesn’t just give them something. He doesn’t want to humiliate them further with a rather public handout; instead he offers them what they have been looking for – work.
So by the time we get to the end of verse 7, we have three different categories of workers. One have a contract – work all day for a day’s pay. Three groups have a promise of justice, and the last group have a job, but with no specific promise of remuneration of any form.
We’re now confronted with a number of surprises that Jesus’ listeners might not have expected. First in verse 8, a manager (some English versions have words like foreman, or steward) appears. We’ve had no mention of him so far, and it begs the question as to why he wasn’t doing the hiring, rather than the owner.
The next one is hidden from our eyes in the version of the Bible we have here. The original language now calls him “lord” of the vineyard. The Greek work is kyrios. When we see the phrase “Jesus is Lord” in the Bible, that’s the word it uses. When on page 3 in our communion service books we say or sing Lord, have mercy, it’s the Kyrie Eleison. And the next surprising thing the owner (lord) of the vineyard says to his manager is pay them “the wage”. Everyone is going to receive the same!! “The wage” is a denarius – a standard day’s pay.
The final shock is that they will be paid in reverse order. If the first to be hired are paid and sent home, and so on, then everyone would be happy with their lot. Paying them this way means everyone can compare.
So at this point, you can imagine that a protest is coming, and sure enough it surfaces in verses 11 & 12. “Not fair. We should receive more.”
It’s worth pausing here for a moment. The first group haven’t actually been underpaid – they have been paid a day’s wage for a day’s work. It is the correct amount, agreed at the commencement of their working day. The problem is that the others have (in their view) been overpaid. It’s the complaint of the other brother in the parable of the prodigal son. The generosity and grace of the vineyard owner to the unemployed he kept finding in the market place is uncomfortable and provocative.
Here’s how Bailey imagined the owner might respond to the complaints:
You have no complaint! Justice is served! I have given you what I agreed to pay you. You are free to do what you like with what is yours! And I am free to do what I like with what is mine! I chose to pay these men a living wage. You will be able to go home to your wives and children and proudly announce that you found work and have a fuII day's pay. I want these other men to be able to walk in the doors of their houses with the same joy in their hearts and the same money in their pockets. I want their children and wives to be as proud of them as yours are of you.
So you worked through the heat of the day, did you? That's fine. And what do you think I was doing during the heat of the day? Enjoying a traditional siesta? I was on the road to and from the market-trying to demonstrate compassion to others who, like you, are in need of employment. I could have sent my manager to do this. I didn't! I went myself to demonstrate solidarity with the men and help alleviate their suffering. Why are you jealous of them and angry at me? You must understand that I am not only just – I am also merciful and compassionate, because mercy and compassion are a part of justice! Have you never read the servant songs of the prophet Isaiah?
On what basis should the grace I show others irritate you? It appears that you do not care whether or not they can preserve their self-worth or feed their families. You want to take more for yourselves. I have chosen to give more of myself You want to be richer the end of the day. I have chosen to be poorer at the end of the day. Don't try to control me! Take your just wage and get out! 1
Of course, this parable was never intended to be a template for industrial relations. Business owners would want to keep their labour costs down, not give out extra to people. Workers would want the same hourly rate for everyone working in the same role.
And it’s not just in business or trade that this thinking applies. Just think about how long it can take for communities or workplaces to regard someone as fully part of things, rather than a newcomer. There are some villages and towns where you can live there 20 years or more and still be an outsider. There are some churches where you have to have been there for 20 years or more before you can go on the church council without being seen as a pushy upstart.
But this is about grace. The undeserved and unearned generosity of God, which can’t be parcelled up into units, portions or hourly rates. Jesus uses a story rooted in the world of employment, trade and what we would call economics, to show how differently God works with his people. And it challenges us to approach people in the same way.
The owner in this parable sees justice very differently – it’s about giving people dignity and self-respect. The legally minded would be calculating, but the owner – and by implication God – isn’t. That tells us that God’s grace is about lifting people up, regardless of their capacity to do so themselves. It is not earned or merited; it is given.
It’s also worth just noting where this parable comes in Matthew’s gospel. It comes after the story of the rich young man, who cannot relinquish his riches to follow Jesus. A man trapped in calculation, who cannot accept the infinite and priceless gift of the forgiveness and grace of God. And it’s immediately followed by Jesus predicting his own execution on the cross and resurrection from the dead – the giving of his very self and life through suffering in order to bring the gift of eternal life to us all.
And it’s also a warning to those who seek to control or restrain grace. The owner won’t be swayed by the ones who had worked longest in the vineyard to withhold or reduce the payment. In verse 15, he lays a question before his critics – “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me, or are you envious because I am generous?”
Finally the parable simply ends. It leaves unresolved whether the workers were placated by the answer, infuriated or rioted. That’s deliberate, because the parable is a story – a piece of fiction infused with meaning. The ending of this parable, as with all of them, is the effect they have on us, the response we make, and the way in which we are transformed. It leaves us with questions:
Do we know, understand and appreciate the grace God has given us?
Are there ways in which we try to limit, stifle or constrain God’s grace for others?
Are we jealous of what others have received, or thrilled and content with what we have been given?
May God give us grateful, generous and grace-filled hearts. Amen.
1 Bailey, Kenneth. (2008) Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. SPCK