September 20, 2020

His banner over me is love – 15th Sunday after Trinity – Revd Sally Bedborough

There is a sketch called The Four Yorkshire Men that originated from the show, ‘That Was the Week That Was’.

The sketch is a study in an inverse type of one-upmanship. The first Yorkshireman talks about how he used to have to get up at six o'clock in the morning & go to work down at t’mill for fourteen hours a day; week in-week out.

The second Yorkshireman responds with: We used to have to get up at three o'clock in the morning, and go to work at t’mill every day for tuppence a month.

The third tops that: Well we had it tough. We used to have to get up at twelve o'clock at night, & work twenty-four hours a day at t’mill for fourpence every six years.

And finally, to top it all, the 4th Yorkshireman said he had to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night, half an hour before he went to bed and he had to work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work.

Complete nonsense of course, but it underlines our tendency to look sideways at others and to measure our value and our worth by comparing ourselves with others. And in our culture – even in the church – we can have an attitude that measures a person’s worth by the amount of work that person does. We often value a person for what they do above who and what they are, to our shame.

This gospel passage puts it well within a story about the Vineyard owner. The Owner welcomes all who want to be part of his workforce; he agrees a wage with the first labourers, then agrees with additional members of the workforce to pay each ‘whatever is right’ when the work day is over. But when the day is over he gives the exact same wage to each worker, regardless of the hours they’d put in; and that amount was the full amount agreed with those early arrivers.

Well, if that is a God of justice and fairness, it doesn’t seem all that fair to us from our human perspective, does it?

Can you hear the anger of the workers who’d done the full days toil? They don’t see it as being fair at all. Now, in the past weeks we have tackled some tricky themes in the scriptures: endings, forgiveness, unforgiveness, for example. Today, we come to this theme of seeming unfairness with the consequent emotions of anger and resentment.

We find Jonah in that resentful and angry place as well. Jonah’s story is a memorable Sunday School story. He is tasked with preaching to the people of Nineveh that they must turn from their wickedness and repent because God is about to disown them. Jonah is reluctant to accept God’s commission because he knows what will happen; he knows God well enough to be sure that if the people of Nineveh turned from their wickedness, then God would forgive them and Jonah would be left looking stupid. So he runs away, but eventually, he signs up for the job; he preaches to the Ninevites. But lo and behold, it turns out exactly as expected & Jonah is left with his human reputation in tatters and he’s angry.

We find him at this point in the story having a conversation with God and then being shaded by a plant that springs up beside him, giving him shelter and shade.

This makes me think of the verse from Song of Solomon,: ‘he brought me into his banqueting house and his banner over me is love’, because I think of the plant as having a big old shady leaf, a bit like a banner.

And this banner of God’s love is the reward or payment that God delights to give each one of us: Jonah, the Ninevites, the vineyard workers, and us. But so often we allow that banner, the leaf, to be spoiled by the worm of anger and resentment. We might direct our anger towards others who we consider to be more blessed: more gifted, healthier, more loved, more popular. Or we might direct our anger and resentment to others who are less capable, talented, or hardworking than we imagine ourselves to be. Actually, the anger and resentment is, or should be, all towards God for his grand design or unwillingness to engineer our lives in ways that we see fit.

And God allows this anger to be expressed. We have the psalms for our example, as well as instances in the book of Job, and here in the book of Jonah. In our own lives we might want to express our resentment and anger as well.

For instance, listen to this poem written by a patient of St Christopher’s Hospice, who had cancer:

‘God, you need to ask my forgiveness.

Your world is full of mistakes.

Some cells, like weeds in the garden,

are growing in the wrong place.

And we, your children,

have polluted our environment.

Why did you let it happen, God?

We prayed with faith, hope, love,

we perceived no change in our bodies or environment,

we are made sick by your world.

God, you need to ask my forgiveness.

Was this why you sent your Son?’

It’s powerful, isn’t it? And I think captures that underlying resentment and anger that the workers of the vineyard feel as they consider their wages and the wages given to others who didn’t have the heat of the sun beating on their backs at the height of the day…..

We are free to express our anger and resentment at the unfairness, as we see it, of God’s world. How come bad things happen to good people? It’s enough to make us angry and to dare to say to God, along with that cancer sufferer, God, you need to ask our forgiveness. Do we dare to do that? That is the stuff of honest prayer; this is indeed why God sent his son to us and for us.

However, having made such a shocking demand of God, we must tend the banner or the shade he offers us, and ensure that we don’t allow the worm of anger to infest that shade, to riddle it with holes and to damage it beyond repair. We need a form of pest control. We get that from this assurance: God delights to shade each of us with his unconditional love, and his unmerited favour. It’s not about our reputation, it’s about God’s.

Today, you might be looking sideways at others and comparing your life with those who are better off or worse off that you are. Perhaps you feel you’ve worked harder than others, or you that you haven’t come anywhere near what others have put in. If so, notice the preoccupation with reputation and reflect on Jonah’s anxieties about how he’d look before others. You might even feel resentment and anger rising up, as did Jonah, as did those vineyard workers. If you do, God does not berate you for that, he allows you to feel what you consider to be unfair treatment. But remind yourself of these stories today. Recognise that God’s fairness shelters you and others in his love, his forgiveness and his care. Acknowledge your feelings and then set to with the pest control so that the blessing each one of us has from God is not marred or spoiled by the worm of resentment and anger, nor a preoccupation with our concerns over reputation.

His banner over us is love. Amen