September 24, 2017

Preached by Hastings Nyekanyeka and Patti Polowick on Presbyterians Sharing Sunday, September 24, 2017.

Jonah 3:10 – 4:4
Psalm 145
Philippians 1: 1-11, 21-30
Matthew 20: 1-16

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God Tears the Fence Down

Jesus used parables to describe the indescribable. These well-worn stories are portraits of the character of God, and signposts that point to God’s coming reign of justice and peace. They not only describe the indescribable – they also describe the unimaginable for us, living as we do by our own wits.  Whatever dream God had for Creation, we have made a world where effort is rewarded; where the weak know that their only defense is to be stronger.  In this world, justice is not always just, and generosity is a rare gift, found occasionally among equals and less often across the boundaries of wealth, power and privilege.  So when Jesus offers a parable, he speaks against our habits; against our common knowledge.  He invites us to consider an alternative that is God’s desire for creation, and God’s promised hope for humanity.

Inequality in the workplace is an all too common complaint in our world.  It surfaces in arguments about minimum wage, and is expressed in a multitude of ways across the country and around the world.  Those who pretend to understand economics talk about supply and demand, and pepper presentations with charts and graphs in an attempt to explain why the world is divided into those who have much, and those who have little.  But explanations don’t feed a family, or give a labourer a sense of purpose or accomplishment.

In this parable, Jesus tells of a landowner who is looking for people to work in his vineyard.  At the beginning of the day, he finds some labourers, agrees what to pay them, and then sends them to work.  He does the same thing at nine, noon, three and five o’clock and each time he finds people who haven’t been hired yet.  He tells them “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”

This could be a trick – an appeal to those still without work at the end of the day to see how desperate they are.  But this is a parable, and we are surprised at the end when those who began work at the end of the day receive the same wage as those who began first thing in the morning.  Naturally, those who worked all day in the scorching sun begin to grumble – why should those who worked only an hour get paid the same?  But the landowner says he paid them what they agreed – why should it matter that he paid the last people the same?

Have you seen the cartoon that shows the difference between justice and equality? Three people are trying to watch a ball game through a fence. Each is a different height. In the first scene, each person stands on a step that is the same height. This is equality – each had the same size step, but only the tallest person was able to see over the fence.  In the next scene, each person stands on a step of a size that best suits them.  And each can see over the fence. This is justice.

But Jesus’ parable goes beyond justice: God tears the fence down, offering love and grace and justice for all.  Through this parable, Jesus pulls back the curtain to see what is possible, what is desirable and what is longed for by God.

The beauty of the gospel – the treasure that is Christ risen – is that God’s power eliminates the barriers we would use to organize the world. Work and rest are distinct from one another, guarded by rules and restrictions.  Life and death are separate and always in tension.  But when we see the work of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we see those human boundaries are ignored. In God’s world, hope is offered against expectation; the ‘least of these’ are considered equally; tears are turned into laughter; the blind given sight.  These things shouldn’t happen – except that God disdains our ordering of God’s creation. That all the workers receive the same wage for different hours worked seems to be a travesty of justice.  But it is, in fact, a re-definition of justice and a reminder that God’s justice is first and foremost the embodiment of God’s generous grace.

As those who have declared themselves followers of Jesus, we in the Presbyterian Church in Canada are on a path, not just to discover the new thing that God has done through Jesus Christ, but to embody God’s hope, God’s love and God’s abundant life in our lives.  That is the impulse behind our worship, and the mission projects that grace our communities and enhance the lives of neighbours and strangers among us.

As a denomination, one way we express our desire to follow Jesus is through our support of Presbyterians Sharing. It is our attempt as Presbyterian congregations to bring Jesus’ parable to life – to live out the grace that we have experienced in Jesus, and to share that grace as widely as possible. When Presbyterians from across Canada join together to share in mission and ministry through Presbyterians Sharing, we are collectively putting our faith into action – across Canada and around the world. And we are working to create a world according to God’s vision – where all have equal access to God’s love and grace. By pooling our resources, we support leaders, create resources and connect together to do things we couldn’t do on our own.

Together we are able to proclaim a message of God’s hope through our actions.

Let us share with you just a few of the ways this is being lived out.

Supporting congregations

Congregations across Canada share the gospel in word and action – vibrant expressions of God’s love. Congregations helping congregations is at the core of Presbyterians Sharing. Together, we are equipping congregations, ministries and presbyteries by providing materials and resources for faithful ministry, supporting theological education, encouraging visionary leaders, supporting mentorship and providing grants to start new congregations and renew established ones.

And it is working. Congregations are stepping out of their comfort zones to try new things and witness to the resurrection of Christ in new ways.

La Communauté chrétienne Siloé in Montreal, QC is a small but mighty and growing congregation offering Presbyterian worship in French. The Rev. Eloi Agbanou shares: “We thank the Lord Jesus Christ for the progress of our community.  Our progress is neither the result of my strength, nor of any human strength.  I just see the strong and powerful hands of God over Siloé’s growth.”

Members from St. Luke’s Church, Bathurst, New Brunswick, where we are supporting renewal through a regional ministry say, “Working together in service for others has strengthened our faith as we support each other and the wider community.  There is great power in prayer.  We thank God for all who have encouraged us in our journey of faith.”

The Rev. Deb Rapport participated in a mentoring program to support her leadership in Toronto’s ARISE Ministry which provides outreach and pastoral care to human trafficking victims and people involved in the sex trade. She shares, “I have grown and strengthened my leadership capabilities through this process. I have been blessed and encouraged by the coaching, guidance and wisdom of my mentor.”

Offering hope 

Another way we help live out God’s vision of abundant life through Presbyterians Sharing is by supporting ministries in Canada that reach out to some of Canada’s most vulnerable people: refugees, Indigenous communities and inner-city communities. These include ministries like Tyndale St.-Georges and Action Réfugiés in Montréal, ARISE Ministry in Toronto and seven ministries serving primarily Indigenous people, including Kenora Fellowship Centre, Winnipeg Inner City Missions, Hummingbird Ministry in BC., and our own local Saskatoon Native Circle Ministry.

And lives are transformed. Lives of people like Jane, who participated in Tyndale St.-George’s employment program in the Little Burgundy neighbourhood in southwest Montreal.

The statistics for Little Burgundy are grim: 2/3 of children and youth live below the poverty line and 32% of students drop out before finishing high school. But Tyndale St.-Georges is helping provide community members– children, teens and adults — with the tools they need to realize their own dreams, at every life stage.  Tyndale’s employment programs not only teach job search techniques, but also build self-esteem and life skills. Jane shares, “I came to Tyndale during the lowest time in my life, and I decided to give it a shot. I was looking for something to bring back my self-confidence that would enable me to go back to the workforce.  And Tyndale delivered exactly what I was looking for.  And now I’m strong – I’m back again – and I’m ready to go back to work!”

You don’t have to look very far to see and hear stories of the tragic legacy of the Indian residential schools. Presbyterians Sharing is helping congregations and individuals walk alongside Indigenous people on a journey toward reconciliation. In June, 33 Presbyterians from across Canada travelled together to visit three of the PCC’s seven Indigenous ministries, worship at Mistawasis church – the only PCC church on a reserve, and visit the sites where two residential schools were run by the Presbyterian Church in Canada.  The group listened to stories of anger and pain and offered apologies.  They also witnessed some of the ways in which PCC ministries are transforming lives.

At Birdtail Sioux First Nation, site of the Birtle residential school, Doug Hanska thanked the visitors with an honour song. He explains, “The stop they did in Birdtail, I know it may not mean much to a lot of people, but to some of us it means a lot,” he said. “We can forgive and move on, like our teachings tell us.”

Lynn Vissers, a member of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in King City, Ontario, and participant on the tour shared, “The journey has only just begun for me.  This will be a long journey of building relationships.  I hope that I can help light a passion in others for the work that needs to be done in restoring relationships of dignity, kindness, and love for our Indigenous sisters and brothers.”

***Supporting international mission partners

But our efforts at tearing down walls don’t stop in Canada.  In a broken world desperate for God’s vision of grace and justice, our gifts to Presbyterians Sharing support international mission partners by sending mission staff and short term volunteers and providing grants.

The Rev. Dr. Paul McLean has been working with the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan for more than 30 years, helping them translate the bible into Indigenous languages so that people can begin to really know the gospel in the language of their hearts. Jackie Bannerman, a young adult intern, recently spent eight months in Hungary supporting the refugee ministries of our partner, the Reformed Church of Hungary.  And Dr. Nick Bauman is serving with the United Mission to Nepal for two years, training doctors and performing surgeries as a General Surgeon at the hospital in Tansen.

In the Middle East – probably one of the hardest places to be a Christian –Presbyterians Sharing supports the Near East School of Theology as they equip Christian leaders to serve congregations there and maintain a Christian witness of peace in the turbulent countries of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

This September, the Rev. Blair and Vivian Bertrand began a three year term with the Church of Central Africa, Presbyterian in Malawi.  Blair will support leadership development through the Blantyre Synod’s youth department, Zomba Theological College and the Theological Education by Extension program. And Vivian hopes to support the Synod’s work combating poverty. Blair feels called to this mission, and shares that “to be sent is to participate in the mission of God.”  Vivian adds, “As Christians, we are called into relationship. My understanding of mission centers around the idea that we are all impoverished in our own way, and as humans living in this world, through the grace of God, we have something to offer our brothers and sisters.”

These are just glimpses into some of the ways gifts to Presbyterians Sharing are making a difference in the lives of thousands of people – across Canada and around the world.

We have not perfectly learned the lessons of Jesus.  Our efforts at grace are still marked by our human impulse to manage, and to control.  We are still ruled by historical definitions of justice and equality – rooted in what we call fairness – and we forget that God in Christ has eliminated human boundaries, knocked down the fences and opened us to infinite possibilities in God’s generous grace.  We might be tempted, as those in the parable were tempted, to resent such generosity.  But led by the Spirit, perhaps we can be inspired by it.

By our witness, through our participation in the many projects supported by Presbyterians Sharing, may we be tempted to a broader experience of God’s generosity. And may we see God’s reign of justice and peace brought closer to all. Amen.

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