Angel of Compassion 

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                   Sept 20, 2020

Matthew 20:1-16

 

As you found your way to your seat, you will have been welcomed by a little angel. Our Council Chair Pat Stephenson, with the help of her husband Tim, made enough for everyone attending in person today. If there weren’t enough on your pew, there are some extra on the table in the narthex which you can pick up on your way out. Why did Pat make these angel gifts for us?

This fall, we will be following the angels through to Thanksgiving. Each service will have an angel theme. The inspiration for this came from a story Pat told me and she has given me permission to pass on to you. When Pat was diagnosed with lung cancer many years ago, friends gave her Willow Tree angels, each one with a different name: healing, hope, strength, faith, light. Pat told me that when she was having a hard day, she would pick up one of the angels and its name was exactly what she needed to keep her going on that day. And so, she wanted to give each of you a gift of an angel today. There are no names on these angels—you are invited to name your angel with the gift that you most need for today. It could be strength, guidance, comfort, vision, connection. This angel will be your visible reminder of the invisible fortitude that the infilling Spirit is giving you.

Angels are messengers of God in our scripture. What message do you need to hear today? It might be one that you least expect. The message that Jesus told his followers in his story of the labourers in the vineyard had a very different ending than his listeners expected. In fact, they were disturbed, even outraged by his message. Those who read this passage during our Lenten Challenge reflections on the Gospel of Matthew struggled with this story. I’ve struggled with this story. How fair was it for a labourer who had only worked one hour to be paid the same amount as a worker who had put in a full day’s work—and in Jesus’ day that meant 12 hours from dawn till dusk?

Let’s look again at this story from the landowner’s perspective. The landowner went out at daybreak to hire workers. At that time, people who were looking for work gathered each day in the central town square. Some were young and strong. Others were a bit older. Some walked with a bit of a limp. Some were a bit haggard. Some jumped up with eager eyes while others simply sat with pleading eyes. If you were a landowner with bountiful fruit urgently needed to be harvested, who would be your first choice of worker?

It reminds me of those dreaded times in gym class when we were all lined up against a wall, team captains chosen and then the captains would take turns choosing people for their teams. Of course, they would choose the strongest, fastest, more agile people first. Then, the rest of us would eventually have to be chosen.

When the landowner saw that the work required more labourers, he went back to the town square at 9:00 am and again at noon. He went back at 3:00 pm and as he saw the storm clouds coming in, he realized that even one hour of more workers would be worth the cost of harvesting the grapes. And so, he went back out at 5:00 to hire workers until dusk fell an hour later. By then only the weakest, oldest, physically limited workers were left to choose. “Why are you still standing around idly?” he asked each time he went back to the town square. And they replied with downcast eyes, shamed once again, “Because no one has hired us.” Yes, they were idle, but they, too stood in the heat of the day, refusing to return home defeated, in spite of the pitiful looks of passersby. They still hung onto a thread of hope that someone would hire them, for even an hour’s work would give them some crumbs of a meal for them and their families. The landowner realized that even while standing all day in the market square idly, they too were putting in a full day’s work.

At the end of the day, the landowner called all of the workers together. He could have paid those who worked the full day first. They would have left and not seen what he paid the others. But he intentionally paid the last first so that everyone would see that he paid each person a full day’s wage. “But that’s not fair—we worked the whole day in the blaze of the sun. We worked hard. Why should they be given the same amount as us?”

The landowner replied, “What is your quarrel? I did you no wrong. I paid you exactly what we agreed upon. What is it to you if I choose to give others the same?”

This parable nails a spike through the very heart of our Protestant work ethic. We all need to pull up our bootstraps and work for a fair wage. But, as one minister writes, what if our bootstraps are different lengths, different qualities of durability? What if someone has no bootstraps?[1] Those of us with privilege grumble, but those who struggle with mental or physical illness, poverty, addictions will probably hear this story with a sigh of relief—finally someone understands that we don’t all start at the same place. Paying each person a full day’s wage regardless of the numbers of hours worked doesn’t treat everyone equally for the amount of work they put in, but it pays everyone equitably.

This is the basic premise supporting a Guaranteed Basic Income—otherwise called a Guaranteed Liveable Income. Westworth supported this through a petition a few months ago, inspired by the leadership of the Anglican and Lutheran Churches and a proposal written by 50 senators. This Tuesday, the United Church is organizing prayer vigils across the country at 12:30 pm local time. I’m helping to organize what is becoming an interfaith prayer vigil at Dan Vandal’s office. Please let me know if you would like to come. The United Church is also encouraging everyone to light a candle in their window and take a picture of it. You can then send it through hashtag or email to the United Church—let me know and I can send you hashtag and email addresses.

If everyone receives a liveable wage, they will be able to access more nutritious food, better physical and mental health care, and continuing education. The Dauphin experiment showed that the long-term costs to society are actually less if everyone receives a liveable wage.

The message from this parable is calling out to my angel and naming her Compassion. I need to be less quick to judge, changing my judgement into curiosity. This is particularly the case when we are living in fear. If someone refuses to wear a mask, my automatic response is to assume the worst motive. They must be selfish and bull-headed. A sign in a store read, “To accommodate Anti-Maskers, we have provided a space 40 feet west where you can stare at your reflection in the window since apparently you’re the only person you care about.” Ouch. But if I don’t wear a mask, I have all sorts of reasons that can justify it—I’ll only be a second, I feel fine, I just forgot this one time. My self-righteousness will say, “It’s certainly not because I’m selfish or bull-headed.”

In this time of fear, may we know that our sensitivities are on high alert and that we will be quicker to judge than we would normally be. Fear has this effect on us. I was furious with the doctor in New Brunswick who crossed the border into Quebec in May and didn’t self-isolate upon return. He and his daughter then tested positive for COVID. Within hours he was accused of spreading the virus. He lost his job and began to receive death threats. The Fifth Estate investigated and found that his story was much more complicated and there is now doubt about whether or not he did spread COVID. But the harm is done and he was forced to move quickly, fleeing for his life. I encourage you to search for this report that was on the CBC news on Sept. 2. It gives you the rest of the story.

Fear caused me to overreact before I knew the whole story. That’s why I need Compassion to help me take a breath when I find myself reacting. I should know by know that when I feel the blood start to rush, I need to take a step back so that I can respond instead react. Compassion will help remind me not to be too hasty to judge. Compassion will also tell me not to push myself too hard. Compassion teaches me that we all live in God’s grace. We will all make mistakes. Our spiritual challenge is for us to move to grace, not judgement, when someone does something that triggers our fear. We need every bit of God’s strength to be able to do this.

And, we need to retain our sense of humour. You may have noticed the sign in the narthex that greeted you with the words: Welcome Back! Today’s forecast is 100% chance of participation with periods of laughter. Our newly formed “Fun Committee” is responsible for this. On Niverville United Church’s sign you will find these words: Live Love Laughter Lysol.

I invite you now to pick up your angel seated beside and look at her. For those of you online, imagine a little angel sitting on your shoulder. What is her name? What message is she giving you? God’s angels of grace are hard at work in our midst. We have only to listen to them.

 

[1] Rev. Kentina Washington-Leapheart, The Christian Century “Sunday’s Coming” Sept 20, 2020.