The right kind of anger?

Matthew 20:1-16  – The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

Christ Church Highbury, September 24th 2017

When were you last angry?

What was it that made you angry?

***

As far as I’m concerned, the last time I was angry is a pretty typical example of ridiculous anger. And actually, it was more being peeved than angry. I’d had to make two trips on consecutive days to Euston’s lost property office (both during rush-hour) in order to collect my Dad’s iPad, which he’d managed to leave in Watford the previous week. The first day, it hadn’t arrived (apparently it can take several days for an electronic item to travel from Watford to London). The second time, it turned out I needed a signed letter to collect it on my Dad’s behalf – a piece of info that I was not provided with the day before. All ended happily, but it was frustrating!

We all get angry for different reasons and in different ways. Some people will have a short fuse and lose their tempers quickly. Others may take a long time to get wound up, but once they’re angry, my goodness you’ll know about it! We all have pet peeves that drive us wild; and what sends someone into a frenzy might be like water off a duck’s back to someone else.

Today, I want to encourage us all to be angry. In the right way…

***

To avoid confusion, the workers in this passage are NOT angry in the right way! Verse 11 describes those who had worked all day as ‘grumbling’ about the fact that those who had only done a couple of hours’ work had been paid the same as them.

Grumbling seems something of an understatement. I expect that they were livid! I don’t know how many of you have experience of labouring hard under a hot sun for hours. It’s tough work. Every penny of their wages would have been sweated for. With the arrival of fresh labour every few hours, their toil would be more and more evident. The contrast between those who had worked since early morning and those who had only been hired at 5pm would have been stark. If the first ones there had known every labourer that turned up that day would be paid the same, would they have worked so hard?

Were they right to be angry?

As the landowner in the parable points out, they had been promised a denarius for their day’s work and this (as a footnote to our passage tells us) was the usual daily wage for such labourers. They had not been deceived or underpaid. As the landowner responds in verse 15: “are you envious because I am generous?”

This is the issue. Not that the workers who had toiled all day had been underpaid; but that they felt that the latecomers were overpaid.

The landowner’s generosity stands out in a culture where those he is providing work to, are very much at the bottom of the pile in terms of social and economic standing. Labourers gathered overnight in the hope of being picked for casual work. They owned no land to tend themselves; they often were without a permanent home; and they were poor. The tasks they were picked for were often brief but urgent, especially during the harvest season. To get a whole day’s work would be an achievement. To be paid a day’s wages for less than a day’s work would have been virtually unheard of!

The workers are angry, but it is not a righteous anger.

It is an anger that Jesus uses to illustrate the conflict between society’s desires and those of the Kingdom of God. In God’s Kingdom, generosity is central. Our God, like the landowner, is generous to each of his children. They have responded to his call and in turn he responds with generosity – it is not about the earthly values of earning recognition or reward.

***

Take the landowner’s final words in this passage: ‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

It goes against everything their society – and ours, especially with our love of queueing! – stands for. The greatest reward is not for those who have worked the longest. It is for those who came last, for they received a much greater reward than they felt they deserved.

On Wednesday, the passage from Mark’s gospel that contains this verse – chapter 10 – was the reading for morning prayer. In this instance, the words are spoken by Jesus at the conclusion of his interaction with the Rich Man who asks how he might enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus instructs him to sell all his belongings and give the money to the poor – and says to his disciples “how hard it is for those with wealth to enter the Kingdom of God”. As Jesus explains to his disciples who will receive eternal life in his Father’s kingdom, he concludes: “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”.

As the Wednesday morning prayer group discussed this passage, I shared with them a story from our recent parish weekend away, that involved this verse…

…in July, at our parish weekend away, we had what is now the traditional Christ Church weekend away quiz. I love quizzes and was very happy when a team partially made-up of the winners from last time invited me to join them. Their quiz talents were obvious and we managed to win by just half a point! However, our quiz master declared that too small a margin of victory; there was a tie-break with the 2nd place team; and we lost. Then, the quiz master pulled a blinder, declaring: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last!”. All of a sudden, the last placed team had won!

There were gasps as I told the story. In fact, over the summer I’ve told a few people this story and they’ve been similarly shocked. [It’s perhaps indicative of how well my competitiveness is known that my Mum’s first question was “I hope you didn’t get angry and cry!”] Of course, it was only a church quiz and the prize was chocolates and wine – it wasn’t the test for entering the Kingdom of God! But what it was, was an illustration of how difficult our society still finds this value. And, in fact, knowledge and pride in knowledge can be as much of a barrier to accepting God and His Kingdom as earthly wealth can be.

***

I believe that what this parable teaches us is not only the order and love that determines those who join God’s Kingdom, but also how we might try to embody its values on earth. To show God’s Kingdom to the rest of our society – aware that it is profoundly counter-cultural.

As I mentioned earlier, the anger of the workers who arrived first was not a righteous anger – it was selfishness and greed. But I do believe that part of our calling is to be righteously angry when we see things in our society that need to change, that are not compatible with Christ’s teaching and God’s Kingdom. Where our generosity of heart, mind and material goods seeks to reflect the generosity of the Kingdom.

There may well be situations that have immediately crossed your mind. And, unfortunately, there are many aspects of our world where righteous anger has needed to be the response to society’s injustices.

A handful of examples include:

  • The setting up of foodbanks to support those who have no way of buying food. Perhaps because the system has let them down, or their circumstances have changed.
  • Providing support to refugees who cannot get support elsewhere and who are vilified by many in our society.
  • Protesting political decisions that we don’t believe are in the best interests of society.

I could go on, but I want to tell you about one particular initiative that has emerged out of righteous anger, and that is particularly relevant to this reading.

The labourers employed by the landowner were at the bottom of the heap as far as Palestinian society was concerned. When we think of our own society, who are the equivalents? Perhaps it’s those caught up in zero hours contracts, or who try to make a living in our newly evolved ‘gig economy’ – they don’t have to wait in a marketplace for a job, but wait by their phone, hoping for a call. It also includes cleaners, who are often unseen by those who own the places in which they clean and, who in London especially, often have to work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet.

A few years ago, an initiative emerged out of a church in the City of London out the anger felt as a result of the injustices that the cleaners of London face. How could the lives of cleaners be improved? A seed of an idea emerged that involved paying a living wage and providing benefits. It took a few years to develop, but this year Clean for Good officially took on its first cleaners and first clients – and I’m delighted to say that Christ Church is one of them!

Clean for Good pays its cleaners the London Living Wage, and provides them with sick pay, holiday pay, national insurance and pension contributions. In doing all of this, they are putting some of the last in our society first. Bestowing generosity upon them, showing that they matter, and demonstrating Kingdom values in a society that does not often reflect them.

I’m sure Clean for Good has and will face opposition – there will be people who think it’s not worth the expense; or that investing in people they generally don’t think about is a waste of time, energy and money. But such attitudes match those of the labourers who worked all day

***

I want to leave you with three challenges from this morning’s passage…

Firstly, to ask God to make you angry about injustice in our world, to show you specific situations where your anger can be channelled into productive actions.

Secondly, to ask God to inspire you to be generous. Generous out of anger and generous in your way of life. That could be as simple as letting someone get on the train ahead of you; or paying for a suspended coffee in a coffee shop that will go to someone who needs it; or using your God-given skills and talents to help those who may need them.

Thirdly, to show our society that there is another way that comes from another place. That in God’s Kingdom the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and that our earthly society should seek to be more like the kingdom of heaven.

Dreams of a Life

Last week I took advantage of something rare and wonderful – a ‘cheap’, nearly empty, quiet, viewing of a quality film in London’s West End.

I’ve recently discovered that if you go to a screening at one of the Curzon chain of cinemas before 2pm, then it’s much cheaper than is usual in London-town. [i.e. £7 at the Soho Curzon, which is a veritable bargain.] I resent paying through the nose to watch films, especially when the quality of the experience is so dependent upon total strangers. Going to screenings at 11.30am means that the audience is sparse and basically consists of students (who must be responsible as they’re actually awake), freelancers and others who exist in a world where a morning film is a viable activity. The other good thing about Curzon is that they show films at the more art house end of the spectrum – like semi-obscure documentaries…

Dreams of a Life had first come to my attention thanks to an article in the Observer last October, but it wasn’t the first time I’d come across its subject – Joyce Carol Vincent died in 2003, but her body wasn’t discovered until 2006. Carole Morley’s film was the result of her determination to find out who Joyce was and how it could be possible that her death went undiscovered for so long.

The story rang a bell. Joyce died in a bedsit in Wood Green. For most of the nearly three years that her body lay there, I lived just up the road in Muswell Hill. Wood Green was where I went shopping or to the cinema. I would have walked through the Shopping City complex (where her home was) countless times, passing just metres from her front door. When her body was discovered (by the housing association representatives sent to repossess the flat), news of the grim discovery rocked the community.

And so it should. Joyce was discovered with the TV still on and wrapped Christmas presents by her side. How come the recipients of the gifts didn’t look for her? Her family refused to participate in the film, but it was evident that they’d been estranged for some time. Didn’t she have friends or colleagues who would notice her absence? What the film revealed was that she’d always been secretive, and seemed to have spent much of the previous three or four years cutting herself off from what friends she’d had and moving into a job where she was pretty much anonymous.

But this was a woman who had had friends. In the 80s she dated someone who was Isaac Hayes’ agent; she recorded songs; she’d even met Nelson Mandela! Time and again the friends interviewed in the film despaired as to how she could have become so cut off from the world that her death went unnoticed.

It’s not a cheery film to watch, and it made me ponder two things:
1. How long would it take people to notice that I was missing?
2. Who in my circle of friends might disappear without someone noticing?

In answer to the first question – not very long. I have colleagues and flatmates who would ask questions. True, it takes a gap of more than a week between phone calls to attract parental concern, but if this was combined with no tweeting or blogging, then I think concern would arise sooner. Basically, I’m very lucky to have lots of people around me and great relationships.

The second question is an interesting one. In an age of virtual relationships, how soon do you notice if someone stops tweeting or updating their Facebook status? Does it get lost in a mire of pointless information? When do you remember to look at their profile, or phone them up? After a week, or a month, or a year? Or, do you think of them sporadically, intend to get in touch, and then never quite manage it – until it’s too late?

There are friends of mine whose way of dealing with stress or uncertainty is to take themselves out of life for a while – whether it’s travelling around the globe, or disappearing into a retreat centre. It wouldn’t be easy to tell with them if they were simply off-grid, or whether something was seriously wrong. What about people whose way of dealing with pain and anxiety is to cut themselves off from others? This is what Joyce seemed to do after a series of abusive relationships resulted in her living in a refuge. Was she too ashamed of what had happened to face her one-time friends? Can we ever stop people from having that reflex?

The bottom line is that little could have stopped Joyce from dying, but that as a whole, society failed her. After she had cut herself off from her support network, she was left with no one. (On a recent visit to hospital, she’d listed her next of kin as her bank manager.) But surely someone should have realised something was wrong? The neighbour who noticed an odd smell? The council tax that was never paid? The staff member that never turned up? It’s a damning reflection on our world…

A weighty issue

I realise that the original point of blogs was to express an individual’s opinion & prompt discussion, but I’ve always shied away from that aspect – preferring to dwell amongst the random and inane. I’ve also avoided deeply personal things, as I have a closed blog for airing my dirty laundry to a readership of one (moi). I also try to keep things brief(ish) – this post is not.

Tuesday night, there was a glut of weight-related programmes on TV. The Hospital on Channel 4 [excellent 3-part series on the NHS, catch it on 4OD] focused upon 3 women under 25 who were morbidly obese & exploring surgery. A short time later, BBC1 aired ‘Georgia: 33 stone at 15’, a documentary about a teenager who left Wales to spend a year at an American weight-loss boarding school.

The Guardian’s response to these shows was: “…I’m still not convinced by weight loss as TV. I know I’m the only person in the world who isn’t: you just need to glance at the schedules. We’re a nation obsessed with food and eating and weight and, most of all, with fat people.”

Yes, we’re a nation obsessed with food, eating, weight, weight-loss, fat people. There’s been ‘Celebrity Fit Club’; ‘You are what you eat’; ‘Inch-loss island’; ‘Freaky Eaters’…I could go on.

But, do you know what? As I watched these two shows on Tuesday, I realised that actually, they were amongst the most sensible programmes on the subject, because within both of them they showed the only method of weight-loss that works:
– Diet, monitoring energy intake (i.e. calories) & fat content.
– Exercise
– An understanding of the psychological reasons behind an individual’s eating pattern.

Those in The Hospital were followed as they met with a nutritionist and attempted to lose weight via conventional means before resorting to surgery. Only one went under the knife, the others (though one took longer to get into it than the other) used a combination of diet and exercise and radically changed their lifestyles. This was also the approach followed by the school Georgia was sent to, where, by the end of 6 months she had lost a staggering 12 stone.

We all know crash diets are rubbish (cabbage soup anyone?), and understand the theory that calories in need to be balanced by calories expended, but who’s there to guide people through it? Why did it have to wait until these women were morbidly obese before real time and money was spent on trying to change things?

Membership of a well-known fat-club (as my friend affectionately calls hers) can cost upwards of £6 a week, before factoring in the cost of good quality, low-fat foods and exercise – whether that’s gym membership, leisure centre costs , home equipment or a simple DVD. Not everyone can afford that – yet again, the poorest within our society are trapped in a cycle of poor food, poor understanding of nutrition & little access to exercise facilities.

Of the three women considering surgery, I’ve assumed that two could be termed ‘working class’ whilst another was ‘middle class’. There are sociological assumptions, but the most successful patient also happened to have the money to hire a personal trainer.

The biggest barrier to weight loss is mind-set. One patient was meant to follow a 750cal diet for the few weeks prior to her op, yet was filmed munching on her 2nd hobnob, having been unaware (until prompted by the film crew to check) that each biscuit contained 67cals. Unsurprisingly, her liver was fatty (unhelpful for surgery) when operated on, which the surgeon said did not bode well for her future lifestyle, even with the gastric band. She hadn’t changed her mind-set to one that was focused on making radical changes.

In contrast, the girl with the personal trainer lost stones (& didn’t need an op) thanks to exercising, dieting, creating space for herself and having a supportive family. How were the others meant to cope if their family (who were equally obese) were eating junk food whilst they were on a restricted diet? Hardly supportive, and why wasn’t the NHS targeting them too?

As a country, we seem to be waiting until it’s too late to do something. What about PE in schools? I know for a fact that if it had been less humiliating doing cross-country, maybe I’d have enjoyed it more. As it is, I had to wait until my 20s to discover sports that I enjoy. What about introducing counselling as soon as a GP recognises a weight problem? Education regarding food can only go so far – one patient was filmed munching a KFC bucket claiming “everything in moderation”…

And why do I care? I’ve been there, I am there.

Six years ago I changed my lifestyle, eating a calorie controlled diet and taking up regular exercise for the first time in my life. I lost 5 stone in a year, thanks partly to Rosemary Conley and the fact that her clubs offered an exercise class with the weigh-in (still the biggest gripe I have with the Weight Watchers empire is that they don’t). I looked completely different and almost didn’t know who I was anymore. The psychological basis for why I’d got into that position hadn’t been dealt with. I knew the maths, I had willpower and it worked.

It didn’t last, for various reasons. For the last couple of years I’ve been on an emotional & spiritual journey exploring who I am and what that means. Only in the last couple of months have I felt in the place to start again. I’m happy with who I am (who God created me to be, in fact) and I know the maths, so I know what to do to reverse some of the damage I’ve done.

Victimising fat people will do no good. Neither will victimising food. Until there’s an holistic approach to Britain’s ‘obesity epidemic’ no change will be permanent.

Temperance

I work for a particular denomination of the church that’s synonymous (amongst certain parts of society) with tee-totalism. This generates moments of pain (dry office buildings & conference centres), pleasure (escapist drinking at non-dry conferences), and down right confusion.

Tonight I went out for dinner with two very senior members of the church and a group of ‘young adults’ (we were trying to come up with a solution to the church’s decline!). There was a comedy moment early on in the evening when the waiter came to take our drinks order.

I could tell that more than one person was trying to work out if it would be acceptable to order alchohol. There was that tense silence after the known non-drinker (and most senior person present) ordered his coke, and someone else asked for a similarly non-alcoholic beverage. Fortunately, the second most senior person at the table then took up the wine list and ordered a bottle of merlot – cue sigh of relief from the three of us left to order drinks!

The church moved towards temperance in the 19th century when the prevelance of gin (and its comparitive safety compared to the local water supply) was to blame for many of society’s ills. Saying no to all forms of alcohol was a way of saving society from its destruction and there was no middle ground – moderate drinking just did not exist as a concept.

Almost two centuries later we’re left with this doctrine running straight through many aspects of the denomination. From its communion wine to restrictions to what can be drunk on the premises it owns. But is it really necessary?

Would it set a better example for today’s society to teach moderation in drinking? I think we need to step away from an ‘all or nothing’ culture, where one either abstains or binges. Alcohol is not evil, but it can cause huge destruction when not handled properly.

Some people reading this may think I’m being slightly hypocritical. Truth be told, I’ve learnt (or am still learning) from my mistakes, and that’s the way life should be. I’m glad that my parents allowed me and my sister to drink at home in their company and in a responsible way. I think it’s probably a result of their example that neither or us have had truly catastrophic drunken nights like some of our friends have. As an adult, I’ve learnt that mornings are better when not hungover and that mojitos and port do not mix.

And ultimately, I’ve learnt that nothing says Friday evening like a bottle of red…