I have been away leading a retreat, and am writing this from my bolthole and forgot to bring a copy of the lectionary with me. The lectionary is the little booklet that sets out a pattern of readings throughout the year. I googled and the first verse that came up was from Exodus,
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.Exodus 16:2
I wondered where this might take us, or even if it was the correct passage. To put this verse into context, the Israelites have just been freed from Egypt, remember the 10 plagues, the parting of the red sea, the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to guide the Israelites to the promise land? If we didn’t know the full story we might think that the Israelites would be excited to be breaking away from Egypt and making their way into the free world. The reality was that it took time for them to get used to their freedom, their feet were sore, the food (even if it was quite literally heavenly) was monotonous and boring… oh for a little meat.
It struck me that perhaps we are just likethe Israelites: it isn’t Egypt that we have been set free from, but the lockdown. OK so there are still restrictions, but our children are at school, many of us are back at work, and as long as we observe the ‘rule of 6’ we can meet with friends and family. Our churches are open for worship again, even if there are still some restrictions. We should be joyful, but I still hear some grumblings…
Perhaps this passage isn’t the right one, perhaps I misgoogled? The gospel passage for today confirms it though. It is the story of the owner of the vineyard who hires labourers to work on the land. Some he hires at the beginning of the day, some the middle, and some at the very end. He promises to pay each a ‘fair day’s wage’. At the end of the day those hired last are paid first and they are payed as if they had been working since dawn. The other workers get excited to see this and expect that the market price has been raised and that they will get a bonus for working longer hours; however nobody was hired on an hourly rate each was offered a ‘fair day’s wage’ and each accepted the agreement. And each was paid the same.
Perhaps this wasn’t fair, those who had been working the longest certainly thought so; but perhaps God doesn’t do ‘fair’, perhaps God does more than fair.
Those who were waiting in the market place were those closest to destitution: they had no regular employment and if they weren’t selected for work on any particular day then they would have nothing with which to feed their family. At the beginning of the day anyone needing work would meet in the market place and hope to be picked, by noon they could be pretty sure that they had missed out for the day. The big question here is why were there any workers still present? It was unlikely that there would be any more work on offer, but these men had remained hopeful and willing until the very end of the day, never giving up; and they were rewarded, unbelievably, with a fair day’s wage.
During lockdown some rather exciting things happened for clergy and ministers. As we arose to the challenge of on-line worship we found that our congregations were actually growing! Imagine that, the church (building) closed for business, but the church (in action) grew!
It was exciting to see people who wouldn’t normally feel able or comfortable enough to come to church become committed to tuning in and meeting with God in very real ways. Alleluia!
However, some of those who felt highly comfortable with the ‘sacred space’ of a church building, the prayers and liturgy, those how know when to stand up and sit down and who usually sits where, started to grumble. Not everyone, but some just didn’t like the idea of ‘online’ worship, were offended that holy moments were happening through social media of all things! Some didn’t now how to use ‘facebook’ and had perhaps, secretly thought that it was an instrument of the devil. So some stayed away, and grumbled.
Sad to say, some resented the time that the vicar was spending on worship that they weren’t personally tuning into. Some mourned the loss of income and quite naturally wondered how the church bills would be paid, and resented the ‘fact’ that they were giving financially, but those connecting with God online didn’t give. It wasn’t fair. But then, remember, God doesn’t do ‘fair’, God does grace and love and generosity beyond our comprehension.
Currently we find ourselves right in the mix: traditional worship is now taking places within our churches, even if it is without singing, or shaking hands, or the shared cup of communion; we are also trying to keep the connection with those who have found themselves enveloped in the love of God through the most unusual ways imaginable: through their phones and laptops.
The ‘old school’, those who were employed at the start of the day feel it is only right that these people should now ‘come to church’, fit in with tradition, and put their pennies in the collection plate. Perhaps they are right? How else can we be a ‘fellowship’ if we aren’t connected physically? But perhaps they aren’t? Perhaps these who were chosen at the end of the day have been abundantly blessed with unimaginable generosity, and who are we to judge?
There is no resolution to the parable, and I have no glib answers here. Each of us who have been blessed, nurtured, loved, supported by God this year need to find ways of acknowledging that with joy, and not with grumbles.
Read the story of the workers in the vineyard here.