Today we hear again the parable known as the labourers in the vineyard. I am sure that you have all heard it many times. As a result it has lost its cutting edge. This is another of the stories which Jesus tells which should force the hearers to stop and re-think their view of how the kingdom of God functions. This story seems to imply that God calls everyone to be a worker in his vineyard.
But I have heard two completely different analogies to interpret this story. When I was a Roman Catholic people said that the church was like a cruise ship. There was a professional crew and the laity just had to come aboard and be safely transported into God’s Kingdom.
When I was in the house church the story went this way: The church was like a battleship, everyone was part of the crew and everyone had their place and had a role to play nobody was on board just to sit around. I leave it to you to decide which of these two pictures is a better picture of the church.
Jesus did not give interpretations to his parables, except very occasionally to the twelve. What he does tell us is that to those who search for an answer God will reward. He says in Matthew 12. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it. So I am not giving you an interpretation of the detail of the parable or my two analogies. You need to search for the answers when you next pray. What I want to do is to make you stop and think about how the Kingdom of God functions or to be more precise how we work as a benefice here in Bellerby and Leyburn.
Over the past few months St Matthew’s housegroup has been looking at the spiritual history of the church and in what ways over time our practices have changed and adapted. So the first thing for us to ponder is that we do know that over the years the church has changed.
We know that the church which is the Kingdom of God here on earth, looked and functioned differently in the first 300 years, the times of the church fathers to that of the dark ages, when Augustine, Aidan, Cuthbert and Bede brought Christianity back to these islands. It was different again in the high middle ages when Fountains and Jervaulx Abbeys were at their heights and wool brought riches to this area. The reformation brought huge changes as did the brothers Wesley and the evangelical movement. More changes followed in the wake of the Oxford movement with Keble Pugin and Newman re-introducing many catholic practices. Since the last war the parish communion movement, the ecumenical movement and the charismatic renewal have all brought their own changes.
George Carey the previous Archbishop of Canterbury said the Church of England is one generation away from dying out. We run this risk of dying out if we do not pray and be ready to be nudged into receptive insights about what it means to be church, especially for millennials and the so-called generation X.
Because of Covid 19 the church of England and so the PCC has been looking at re-imaging what the church might be. We are trying to respond to the call in this parable to no longer stand idly around in the marketplace but to respond to the call to go into God’s vineyard and work. I love the vision of your PCC in Bellerby for being a living part of the village community and providing pastoral care.
Paul was a Jew and had very strong views of what it meant to be a follower of God. As we read though the book of Acts, we see him changing his understanding of this call. We know from his letters that he had to completely rethink his view of the kingdom and the church and how God’s people needed to behave. In our new testament lesson in his letter to the Philippians we see that he is very uncertain about the future and just places his trust in God. He does not know what will happen to him. That is what it feels like today. We are all uncertain. We are all frightened of what the future might bring. We all need to learn from Paul and his confident view of the future. However bleak his personal position might be, he was confident that God is in control and quoting Mother Julian of Norwich that “All will be well”
As an aside I need to state how frightening the news of this Covid19 pandemic is. So much of what the government, the BBC and newspapers tell us is frightening. Thousands catching the disease and dying. Huge numbers. The fear of death from Covid19 is being highlighted and sometime ago I preached on needing to make a realistic assessment of the real risk to each of us, so that we are not overwhelmed by the threat from Covid19.
As I said the fear of catching and dying from Covid19 can be deep and numbing, leading to apprehension about other people and then fear of leaving the security of our homes. I am not a psychotherapist or a pastoral counsellor, but I can offer a spiritual prescription for uncertain times. Read Psalm 23. I now do this once per day but when I was finding dealing with life changing events and an extremely uncertain future really bad. I set my alarm every four hours and read it five times a day. I do not know whether Paul read Psalm 23 every day but clearly from reading a few verses earlier in his letter, he expected to die at any moment. The threat of sudden premature death was real to him. So my second bit of advice is from verse 27 Paul tells his congregation in Philippi to stand firm in the spirit together side by side. If you feal frightened of going out or the stress of the present set of rule of six gets on top of you, then ring Stephen of me or anyone in the congregation. We will pray for you. I can tell you this works. Never try and stand alone in fear. Ask for help.
I must get back to my topic or we will be here all day. I was talking about the change and uncertainty Covid19 is forcing on us and the church.
In our OT reading we hear about the Jews and their great change. Moses on instruction from God had led them from slavery in Egypt. They had passed through the Red Sea where God was clearly looking after them. But here we hear about them complaining. They wanted to go back to the good old days in Egypt. When faced by the uncertainty of freedom all they could see were the difficulties and trials of the wilderness. They looked back and not forwards. They grumbled and wanted luxuries from Egypt. They wanted the certainty of slavery over the uncertainty of the land of milk and honey.
We cannot go back to the past. Our memory reminds many of us of the good things and we forget the bad. This leads to grumbling. I must remind you of psalm 95 which we read every Friday morning at morning prayer. “Harden not your hearts as at Meribah on that day at Masah in the wilderness when your forefathers put me to the test. So, I swore in my wrath they shall not enter my rest”. As we look to the future, when times are uncertain and hard then we must learn to trust in God’s love and care for us and not turn to grumbling.
When faced by change we tend to divide into those people who thrive on change and those who love tradition. There is nothing wrong with this and we need to work together to help us through the problems when change is imposed on us.
Last week I talked about the need for forgiveness in these circumstances. One of the issues when we divide into groups is we end up just shouting our side of the story and are unwilling to listen to the other side. In this time of change and difficulty, we must listen to those we disagree with and forgive them for having different views. So those who want to retain all the traditions of the church need to listen to those who can see the benefits of change and those who think that change will solve all of the problems which Covid19 impose of the church need to stop and ensure that our traditions are respected. Above all we must build the church around what the other camp want rather than what we want. Forgiveness requires us to listen to and understand those who disagree with us.
So to try and summarise.
God calls us all to work in his vineyard to build the Kingdom of God.
We all need to search the scriptures and pray for an understanding of what that calling might mean for us here in Leyburn and Bellerby
We will all be frightened of the future and we must support one another in our faith in the living God who calls us out of slavery and into the a land of milk and honey
The way ahead will be tough and we must work together.
We must learn to listen and forgive those who see the future differently. Those who thrive on change must learn to be traditional and those who love tradition must see that the church is always changing.
Our role is to say yes to God and not to grumble that we prefer melons and slavery in Egypt to manna and quails in the wilderness.