For the Baptism of Emma Woodthorpe
Reading Matthew 20.1-16
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
The baptism service involves quite a lot of talking over the head of the person whose head matters most, so I have been thinking what we might say to Emma herself.
Dear Emma, it’s very good of you to bring all these people here today as you are baptised. Now, I know what you’re thinking – that reading we’ve just heard, it’s not fair! Paying the same to people who have only done an hour’s work as those who’ve worked all day. Why does Jesus tell a story like that? Good question. In fact, just the sort of question to ask your mum and dad and godparents. Don’t worry, that’s their job. But as it’s quite a tough job, we are going to pray for them, as well as for you.
This story is what’s called a parable. Jesus often tells them. They are teasing stories that surprise you and sometimes make you cross, but they are worth sticking with. One writer has called them the ’jewelled portals of another world’. If you can – just for a moment – see what the story is saying (or, better, feel what it is doing) then in that moment you’ll meet God.
The background to this story shows a world not so different from the one you’ve been born into. It’s full of debt. Many poor people in Galilee have borrowed money to pay their taxes to King Herod and the Romans, and then have had to sell their land to rich people to pay off their debts. Then all they have to offer is their labour, so they hang about, hoping to be hired to work on some rich guy’s estate. You’ll see scenes like that on TV now, in the Middle East and even in your own country, when gangs of migrant workers are hired for the harvest.
In the world of the story, the lucky ones, hired in the morning, get a full day’s wage, the latecomers perhaps just an hour or two’s. Or so it is usually, but today the farmer doing the hiring is a maniac who pays a full day’s money to everyone, whatever their hours of work. Imagine what that feels like if you’ve sweated all day. Your world is hard, often cruel, seldom generous. You can’t bank on people being kind, so things have to be fair: everyone must get what they deserve. This one-wage-fits-all deal is just not right; life isn’t like that and it’s wrong to pretend that it is – this farmer is living in a different world. Well, yes, he is: not the hard world of wages but a generous world of gifts. Feel the shock of that clash between those two worlds, and in that moment you meet the offensive generosity of God. That is Jesus’ worl
d, the world he talks about and is beginning to bring to birth, what he calls ‘the kingdom of heaven’. And it so offends the people of power that they kill him.
Where do you see yourself in the story? Where do the rest of us? Most of us here enjoy a rather better life than an ancient Palestinian labourer (or a modern one). And yet, quite a few people here may feel that life is not very secure these days; that life at work can be hard, often cruel, seldom generous. So I guess we’d all say that fairness matters; it’s important that we each get what we deserve. Well, Emma, you and I and all of us need to learn that with God it’s different.
We can be tempted to see all this as business, a kind of deal with God: put in five minutes a day to pray, or an hour in church, and in return God will give you good things. Stop praying, stop coming, and God’s service may be withdrawn, like when your mobile runs out of credit. But God isn’t interested in doing business with us. God gives us our world, our lives, our selves, as free gifts. God’s own life, what we call the Trinity, is a communion of giving and receiving between Father, Son and Spirit – you’ll hear those words when you are baptised – and we can’t add value to that. God is not in the market for anything you have to sell. And you don’t need to bribe God into loving you. that too is a gift. In any case, we know that real love, like the love all these people have for you, Emma, can only ever be a gift.
That’s why we need to be in church week by week, not as part of a deal, but to be reminded that, when so much of life shouts at us, Achieve! Deserve! Succeed! with God (the one who matters most) it’s different. Some of us have come here with decades of Christian faith under our belts, some may have very little or none at all. Some of us have all sorts of achievements to point to, some have a track record that is a mess. And we get? Not wages, not what we deserve. No, we each get the same. God loves each of us, accepts each of us, says Yes to each of us, just as we are. Archbishop Rowan Williams calls it 'the anarchic mercy of God'.
And the best sign of that this morning, Emma, is – you. Because, before you’ve done anything to deserve it, God is going to pour on you the water that brings life and refreshment, and give you a light to guide you all the days of your life.
‘The jewelled portals of another world’ – Walter Wink, Transforming Bible Study (SCM 1981) page 159.
'The anarchic mercy of God' – Rowan Williams The Wound of Knowledge (DLT 1979) page 6.