The Village church with St Margaret’s & St Lukes
Matthew 20:1-16 Springtime: witness to God’s abundance & generosity
Reflection by Mart the Rev
Spring. My word isn’t spring glorious! From daffodil to dogwood – all the colour and fragrance laid on for us – an absolute riot of energy and life…what a gift! On Friday I drove down to Dunedin to attend the installation of the new Anglican Bishop, Steven Benford (he’s a friend from years back), and then drove back yesterday. The wonder of spring was evident wherever I looked. Lush green grass, blossom, leaves appearing on the trees, the glistening of light, lambs and calves everywhere… the abundance was almost overwhelming.
A prompt, if we should need such a thing, that I AM, the one who created heaven and earth, the one who feeds us, and sustains us, plays out generosity all over the place with startling reminders that resurrection and life is all around us. Nature, the fifth gospel, is a witness to the life of God with us, there for all to see whether we have eyes and ears attuned, or not.
We are so fortunate to live far enough away from the equator that the four seasons are clearly marked. The four seasons as our teachers leading us through a cycle: birthing, blossoming, warming, growing, fruiting, harvesting, dying, and rising. We do not worship creation – let’s be clear… but oh my, in spring time, with the life, energy, colour and scent, don’t we want to fall at the feet of the Creator in wonderment? Don’t we want to ponder God’s marvellous deeds by immersing ourselves in the beauty of where we get to live these precious lives of ours, and hope, and sing, and dance, and shout, and rejoice, and revel? Don’t we want to treasure, and receive, and also, when it is the time, when the autumn of life comes, to look back with gratitude in our hearts for all that has been given; and then, when winter comes, mourn, and lament, and grieve, but also hold out for the reality of hope that spring displays with such passion.
In springtime I can’t wait to get out into the country and breathe the spring air feel the warming of the earth, and it is so appropriate today, for our edification, to have a parable from the land as our gospel text. But before we get to the gospel I want to talk for a moment about prose and scarcity.
I’ve been listening to the poet David Whyte, where he describes the difference between prose and poetry. He could as easily have been describing the difference between a functional life and a spiritual life. The word prose, has its origins in the Latin language – it literally means a straight line.
Straight line language is immensely useful – it is great if you have got a new phone or computer and you are one of those people who has spent the last decade carefully avoiding any detailed contact with these contraptions, but are now you have given into family pressure and you are trying to make one work. You look up the instructions, either there are none, or they have been written by people who are so deeply imbedded in the life of these machines that you can’t understand them hopeless! You succumb and get a child to show you how it works – the child seems to know intuitively how to do it, but bases the instruction to you on too many assumptions, leaping from one thing to another, and you are soon utterly lost and bamboozled. All you want is a straight line. You are desperate for it. How do I get from here to there? I don’t need to go fast, but I need to get there. Stop filling my head with all your side-line distractions and interesting viewpoints – I need to simplify things and get there. Help me!
In the end you lose the plot. I do not need my telephone to be a time-piece, alarm clock, computer, type-writer, GPS, road map, game-machine, temperature gauge, weather station, microwave, dishwasher, tumble drier, or whatever the hang else they make it do next! I want to know how to turn it on, receive or make a call, and only, if I really have to try and work this darned thing with its tiny images and miniscule keys, I want to occasionally respond to a text. That’s all I want. Come on, explain to me in simple prose how to complete these tasks before I take it back to the shop where that silly man made me spend hundreds more dollars than I should have on this beast of beasts!
Prose: the straight line.
Prose: Moses, we are in the wilderness, we seem to be going around in circles, we are hungry and thirsty, we don’t want to hear any more clichés about life being a journey, where the journey is more important that the destination, we do not want to go back to school – we just want to get to the promised land alive and in one piece, and if you can’t blimmin’ well get us there in a straight line, then take us back!
Prose: it has little time for wonder. It wants to simplify life to the tangible. It tends to reduce the mysterious. It rarely inspires. It is not soulful. There are no instruction manuals of any kind in the bestsellers lists in the bookshops. Inspiring is not what they do. And we have to be careful, life can be reduced to a functional ‘get us straight there’ expectation of all things. I would argue that straight lines do not help us cultivate the spiritual life. They may get us on the road but they will not help us go deeper with God. God help us if we end up reducing the Bible into an instruction manual! The Bible should draw us into the wonder of God, and not lead us to thinking it all comes down to a few spiritual laws and a yardstick to beat people with. Jesus talked in parables for a reason – to ignite the imagination, and reconfigure our prose-oriented worldviews, so that our spirits can be lifted by love. Jesus talked in parables in order to cultivate in us things like awe and delight, and nuance, and all that can come out of that way of living and seeing – kindness and compassion and generosity and love. Love for the unlovable and sight to those who cannot see for looking.
The way of Jesus is not a straight line! It might be a narrow way but not because of straightness. A prosaic way of living only serves to diminish the sheer joy and wonder of what God has created and is creating.
With the seasons – we can be tempted to be prosaic. A long slow summer day is measureable, we know how many daylight hours we will have to get our work done in, and, if we shift the night forward an hour, we will be able to crib some more time to do all our stuff in.
With autumn – we get to harvest the good work of our hands – the fruit of our labours. In the autumn of life we can look back and see the threads and pathways and count our achievements. With autumn we can risk deluding ourselves that we made what we can harvest all by ourselves, and, that we can begin to believe that we can save ourselves by our hard work, our calculated moral application, and our extremely good works. In winter we can tuck it all away and eat what we have stored. In winter we can rejoice in the shelter we have made, the resources we have in the bank, and the security of having something up our sleeves to help us get by and see us through.
But there is no straight line about spring. Spring is chaotic. A riot of colour. A reliable but uneven reawakening. Winter’s chill can still turn up at any point and threaten things. The strong spring winds can scatter, bend, and break. And here’s where the poetry is in this: spring reminds us that what lies at the heart of life is gift. We have done nothing to bring spring on. It is sheer gift. When what we cannot see is ready the bulb breaks out in flower. When what we have no control of is ready, the tree breaks out in blossom. In its own good time the bee awakens from hibernation and gets about the business that will ensure there is fruit and grain for the future harvest. In spring the earth reminds us that whatever we think we might be about, and whatever we do with what we have, and however we might attempt to tame and reduce everything so that it serves us, at the heart of everything is generosity. Everything is gift. Everything is gift and there is a giver, and we are called to live in rhythm with what God is up to and about.
So a parable is poetry not prose. The opposite of prosaic functional living is a commitment to live the subversive, counter-cultural rhythm of how God lives with us. To enter into this imaginatively, with our eyes wide open, with an expectation of wonder, and an expectation that we will be constantly surprised by the kind of generosity that is at the heart of how God is with us.
Let me just say, as much as spring is the most beautiful season full of promise and perfume, colour and sparkle, it is also, like a parable, rather reckless. I am not sure how else God could do it, but there is something profoundly unfair about the whole spring thing. What is unfair is this: the rain falls and sun shines, and the bulb sprouts for the just and unjust alike. There is no regard of whether people have been faithful or unfaithful, kind or uncaring, generous or mean. Even if humans are plundering the earth, or fighting one another, or hell-bent on treading on others in order to get their advantage, spring comes… a gift into each and every situation, person, and street. Even in the places where we try to shut out colour and life – like within the grey concrete walls of a prison, where confinement and punishment are meant to deprive people of things – even there, out the window, someone can glimpse a tree in blossom that can warm the soul and remind whoever is looking that everything is full of promise and possibility.
Generosity is at the heart of the rhythms of the earth and creation. What do we do with all that has been given?
Spring is unfairly and carelessly reckless. It is not the season you want if you like your religion tidy and if you believe that God only rewards you if you are faithful. Spring comes as a poem or parable and the ways we might reduce life into prosaic forms are completely irrelevant. Whether you expect a reward for your faithfulness and your effort, or whether you are lazy or inattentive, along it comes anyway. ‘Everything has been given to you,’ writes Paul to the Corinthians in chapter 3 of his first letter [see 1 Cor. 3:1-11]. Spring is the reminder of that truth!
Before we get to today’s parable, a quick word about scarcity. There is a scarcity myth that undergirds our culture and shapes our view of things. It is so deeply imbedded in our behaviour that may not even see it for what it is. But it can be identified. How many of you go to bed at night and lament that you have not had enough time in the day to get everything done? How many of you find yourself wishing you had more hours in the day? How many of you find your life speeding by and you wonder where all the time has gone? How many of you wish you had more time, more money, more experiences, more energy, better health, better circumstances, more rest? And then, how many of you wake up in the morning and wish you had had more sleep?
More. I want more. If you want more you are declaring that you believe you have had less, you are deprived in some way, and that what you really want is in short supply, it is scarce. But is it? We frame our day by lamenting that we have not done enough and we wake up saying we have not slept enough, thus our days are bookended by this framework of scarcity. Now for some, it could well be that they are describing something profoundly real – that they do not have enough to feed and shelter their family, they have to work two jobs in order to get by, and they genuinely can’t get enough sleep. But that is not us. Ours may well be the generations in human civilisation that have the most abundance. Through the lenses of this scarcity-imbedded worldview, we calculate for ourselves what is fair and unfair. So to the parable: the workers who have worked all day for the pay-rate they agreed to, believe they have been deprived because the landowner has chosen to be generous to the workers who have only worker a few hours. Believing they have been short-changed, believing that the world owes them, and operating from a belief that somehow they are missing out, they complain, loudly!
“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” the landowner asks. “Are you envious because I am generous?” The wild generosity of the landowner is not going to be contained by our senses of order and justice and fairness, or by our wanting to make the gift into a contract.
Are you trying to turn my poetry into prose? Are you trying to turn my wild careless, generous, wide-sweeping love into straight lines? Are you saying that you don’t have enough even though you have received abundantly?
Don’t you get that what is at the heart of everything has room for everyone, there is room for those who you deem as less than you, and there is room for those you deem as more than you, but especially, just be clear, there is also room for you! Come on, let loose a bit, get some light in you, lighten up, enjoy this! Truly I tell you what you think is last is actually first. There is no other truth than this – everything has been given to you! It is springtime, enjoy!