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God will provide?

Our Worship Leader Alison challenged us to consider our concept of God's provision for those who "deserve" it, rather than those who need it.

READINGS FOR 17th Sunday after Pentecost

Take my words and speak through them, take our ears and hear through them, take our hearts & set them on fire with love for you

Before I say anything else, let me say that I am speaking to myself, as much to you, and that while today’s homily may seem rather political in tone, I am neither judging others nor commenting on anybody’s political leanings or actions. I am simply saying to you what I believe God, the God of justice and love and generosity, wants me to say.

In the readings from Exodus and from Matthew, I believe we are being taught a lesson on how God provides for his people, and how these same people react to that provision and generosity.

In Exodus, we see how – even though the Israelites have forgotten (already!) about God’s wonderful act of freeing them from their lives of slavery in Egypt and are complaining (already!) about what they see as a lack of protection and care from God – God does not punish them. Instead, he provides manna for them to eat. Not too much – they are not encouraged to be greedy – but rather enough for their daily needs. God provides. How often are we told that? God loves his people, and he will provide for them. This is a lovely thought, reiterated in the gospels many times: God cares for the sparrows, how much more does he care for you? Do not be anxious about where food will come from – God will provide.

But then, a little voice in my head asks: so why are there people living on the breadline? People starving? People forced to rely on foodbanks? If God will provide, why doesn’t he?

And maybe, somewhere in the reading from Matthew, we have the answer. If we see the owner of the vineyard as God, he employs people – gives them what they need - as they need it. Some are there, ready and able at the beginning of the day. Those left at the end of the day are maybe the old, the disabled, those who nobody else wants to employ…but they still need their food, their pay packet. And the owner provides for them – they do what they can, and they get paid for it.

And the able bodied, those who worked all day don’t like it. Because now they want to judge who deserves the day’s pay, and who doesn’t. They feel they should be the judges of where the provision (be it of money, or food, or labour) goes.

That is the answer to why God doesn’t appear to provide for those in desperate need…He does. But the privileged workers have decided to share out the pay according to their rules.

Enough food is produced to feed everyone in the world, but the UN estimate that 821 million people are considered “chronically undernourished”, while around one-third of all food produced globally is either lost or wasted, a staggeringly profligate situation that is estimated to cost the global economy some $1 trillion per year. Shockingly the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN have stated that If “Food Waste” were a country it would be the world’s 3rd largest emitter of CO2.

The problem lies with the people who, like the workers in the vineyard, want to decide who “deserves” the resources that we have. Instead of reflecting on the fact that we live in a relatively food safe, weather safe area of the world, and that is why we have access to abundant food, people ask why send aid to foreign countries? Why support those who “don’t deserve” government benefits?

The justice of the world is based on who is seen to merit the resources (although that seems often to simply be dependent on where you were lucky – or unlucky- enough to be born) . God’s justice, and therefore our justice as Christians, is different. It does not depend on merit. It does not depend on wealth. It does not depend on what you put into the system or where you happen to be born. It is not looking at whether people deserve to be helped. It is looking at whether people need to be helped.

A commentator on this passage from Matthew, writing from the Eco Chaplaincy of the Church of Scotland says: God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous”. [cf Mathew 5:45] . Our experience is that this really is truth.

Justice should not be restricted, in our understanding, to human cultures, or to such abstract transactions as are unaffected by climate, and by natural conditions. It’s a hot day, but there’s work to be done, and people to be paid. And the conclusion of the story leaves no one in need, though some angry and perhaps ‘envious’. Dented pride is an acceptable cost for the wellbeing of neighbours.

One of the most distinctive, if challenging aspects of Christian participation in environmental campaigns and actions is the priority of grace - of ‘undeserved’ ‘favour’. The evening-out and levelling-up that is a sign of God’s involvement. All life is sustained by God - and indeed, depends on mutual involvement. We shouldn’t be oblivious to the fact that this is a story of farming - of activity which nourishes and sustains beyond the lives of those directly involved.

And is the landowner God? Not easy to be definite either way.

It shouldn’t be necessary, though maybe it is, to question the difference - as well as the common ground in perceptions of ‘fairness’ and of ‘justice’. God’s justice is the acknowledgment of need, rather than the wanton disregard of handicap or the reinforcement of privilege, entitlement. The pay promised is “whatever is right”.

Yes, it’s a story Jesus told, so characters say what the storyteller wants them to say, but perhaps the most telling phrase is “you have made them equal to us”.

And therein lies the problem. In God’s eyes, all are equal. In the secular world, this is not the view. And we don’t like being told that the beggar on the street, the refugee risking their life in a small boat, the worker in a sweatshop in India – or in a backstreet in France – is equal to us. Because then that opens our eyes to the fact that they are equally deserving of what we have – and that they don’t have it. And we should be doing something about that fact, whatever the cost might be to ourselves.

So what can we do? I’m not going to tell you that you should be doing this…or that… Each one of us – me included – needs to take time to think through our own situation, our own priorities, what we feel God is calling us to do, but here are some possibilities…

Of course, the first is donate, be that giving of money, of time, of food to a food bank…As a church we help support Restos du Coeur from time to time, with food collections, but do each of us do anything more? Perhaps we should revive our food bank box here at church, where we can put offerings of food. Is that something God is asking you to be involved in?

We can get involved in action groups, such as Greenpeace, or Just Stop Oil – either supporting them with money or joining campaigns that speak to us. Lobbying of MPs, of law makers, of governments, through letter writing, or tweeting can also be effective.

You may want to have a closer look at your own food consumption and food waste situation. I was brought up short when I saw statistics as to the amount of emissions, land use and water use that are attributed to producing a litre of dairy milk, when compared to producing a litre of oat milk. What we are consuming, and how we are consuming it, actually has a huge impact on climate change.

But there is also the ethical side to our consumption – both on the side of animal husbandry, but also the question of how the developed world’s hunger for, say, cheap soya products means that farmers are forced to produce a cash crop without being able to afford to grow food for their families? Are producers given a fair price for their products? Can we lessen that impact by always buying fair trade products, or “Label Rouge” meat even if they are a little more expensive?

With the cost of living crisis we all want to be able to buy things as cheaply as we can – but we must also think about whether cheap for us is expensive for others, and for the planet? Do we buy clothing that is lower priced while closing our eyes to the slave labour that made it cheap? Do we purchase another pair of jeans, that we don’t really need, ignoring the cost in water consumption (3,781litres of water per pair of jeans), the chemicals used in the growing and dyeing process that leach into the ground, and the sweatshops that produced them? Do we buy the cheapest eggs without thinking about the inhumane conditions that the hens are kept in?

However your conversation with God turns out, whatever you believe God is asking you to do (and believe me, he’ll be asking you to do something!) we must all be prepared to work to bring equality and justice to this world. The more hunger and oppression and inequality that there is, the more climate change and conflict will ramp up.

In God’s eyes, we are all equal; no one is more entitled to anything than anyone else.

He has given us enough to live on, if only our greed and sense of privilege and entitlement does not get in the way.

Let me finish with the words of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: The environmental crisis overshadows every other issue :The story here is of an insanely unbalanced account of human entitlement and human capacity that has consistently, in the last three centuries, ignored any sense of the interdependence of human life and the life of the organic order as a whole: the life that matters has been, explicitly or implicitly, defined as human life – and human life lived in a specific mode, that of expanding consumption,”

God of compassion and concern – we pray today that where we have let attachment

to our own understandings of justice deter us from taking the discomforting paths

needed for the well being of our planet and the flourishing of all its inhabitants

you would forgive us and free us to move forward & to grow in the courage, love and generosity which are the hallmarks of your kingdom. Speak to us, stir us, disturb us so that we might understand how you call us to work for justice and equality for all your children.

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