Throughout our lives we make a series of promises. Some of them to ourselves, quietly, and we are the only ones who know whether we have broken those promises or not, sometimes to other people, to individuals. We might promise to support them whatever happens, to love them as long as they live, to be with them forever, to be their best friend. Lots of different things. Often we don’t think of the consequences of these promises and it is only when a push comes to a shove (as they say) that we start to realise the implications of these promises. Very few promises include at the end of them an ‘if’. Can you imagine for instance trying to put together a wedding service or a baptismal service or a confirmation service that included an ‘if’ or two. Yes, I will marry you and keep these vows if you do such and such. Yes I will join the Church so long as everyone is nice to me always and so long as I get to do exactly as I want and so long as you don’t place any obligations on me, so long as you don’t disrupt my routine or make me feel guilty, so long as everything goes my way. Of course that wouldn’t work!
We make promises all the time to ourselves and other people and we break promises all the time, to ourselves and other people. It happens because things change, the world changes, people change. The set of situations that existed when we became members of the Church or the Guild have changed dramatically in the last few years. When the Guild for instance was founded in 1887, it was founded to give women a chance to serve, because there weren’t very many other ways that they could serve the Church! That has certainly changed. Many places now don’t have a Guild, partly because there is a chance now for women to serve in lots of other capacities. Women can become elders or ministers even. The Guild’s aim remains the same: To invite people to commit their lives to Christ, to enable them to express their faith in worship, prayer and action. Their motto is “Whose we are and whom we serve”?
Today in the second of our series of stewardship services, I’m going to invite you to ask yourselves that question. “Whom do you belong to? Whom do you serve?” We all have a contribution to make to the society we live in. What is yours? Is your contribution going to be a uniquely Christian one? If you have made promises in the light of your faith, whether they be to yourself or openly here in Church, whether you’re a member of the Guild, an elder or a member of this Church or of another one. Are you a ‘Johnny come lately’? Have you come to the vineyard at the eleventh hour, or have you been here for just ages!
What has changed over the years since you made your promises, whatever they might be? Do you remember penny chews, Five Boys chocolate, when a really good wage was over a thousand pounds a year? Do you remember black and white telly? Do you remember no telly at all? Do you remember, and this is for my husband, when a computer filled a whole room? Do you remember party lines on the phone or when your number was only three digits with a place name before it? I still remember my grandparents’ number, Maryhill 195. Do you remember the trams in Glasgow, the clippie who gave you your ticket and made sure everyone behaved? Do you remember going to the pictures and getting in with a jam jar or two? I regret to say I remember most of these things (not the jam jars, my dad told me about that, honest!) Do you remember when the Church was full of people, and the Sunday Schools were bulging with kids? When being a member was required in polite society and being an elder was a prize for getting older? When the Guild was for women only and the Guild china was sacrosanct!? I put that one in especially for me, because in one of the charges that I worked in, the Guild china was locked in a cupboard and when I asked for a key to get cups out for a meeting I was told to bring my own!
The Church has changed dramatically and so if you have been a member for many years you made your promises to a very different Church within a very different society. It is always good to revisit the past, to look at where you have been in order to see where you might want to go in the future. And don’t tell me that you’re too old, that there is no future, because that is the road to ruin. We should always be making plans. There is always something we can do. One of the Guild’s projects is the Golden Age Project. They’re going to look at ageing in general and how we care for each other as we get older, how we include each other in what we do and how we live.
Our readings today follow on the theme of ‘call’. In our reading from Isaiah we are reminded in the strange story of Isaiah and the burning coals that there is no excuse that God will not be able to deal with! If God has called you to his service, and I believe that there is a call for everyone, then not even being sinful will let you out of that calling. Isaiah complained and said “I am a sinner, and the people I live amongst are sinners”. God forgave Isaiah his sin and then sent him on his way to proclaim the word of the Lord to a sinful generation. You can run but you cannot hide! Our Gospel reading takes a different tack on the theme of call and reward in the story of the vineyard and the labourers and gives us something to think about as we contemplate the future of the Church in the generations to come. The Church does a lot of good things in the world, so why is it that so few people want to join us in this modern age?
In our contemplation of the past there is much to celebrate but there is also much to regret. Just as we have built up and changed so many things for the better, we have allowed other things to remain the same. There are still barriers to break down, still injustices to address. The story of the vineyard is a story of God’s upside-down kingdom. The rules of the world don’t work there. Everything is different. The owner of the vineyard stands for God. He is the boss, this landowner, and yet he doesn’t send his hired hands to look for workers; he goes himself. Contemplate this, the God of heaven and earth has come himself to look for YOU! He doesn’t give up, does he? He keeps coming back until there is no one left waiting for work. Even at the late hour of 5 o’clock in the afternoon he takes on more workers and gives them a job. Contemplate this: God will NEVER give up on you. When the end of the day comes and the workers are to be paid, each one whether he started at the crack of dawn or at the very last minute will get the same reward. Contemplate this: in the Kingdom of heaven ALL shall be treated exactly the same. This story is about daily workers, those who live from day to day wondering if they can feed their families. These guys are at the bottom of the stack and have hung about waiting for work till the very last minute. They had little or no hope by the time it reached 5 p.m. Imagine their surprise and their gratitude when they were not only paid the same as the others but they were paid first!
And here’s where human nature can’t cope. THAT IS NOT FAIR! Of course it’s not fair. God is not fair. God is God. As human beings we struggle with the concept of fairness. We struggle in the Church with the idea of power and supremacy. We want to make our rules into God’s rules and that will never help the Church to grow. There are NO important people in the Church of Jesus Christ, only people. There are NO Holy people in the Church of Jesus Christ, only people. There are NO leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ, only servants. Grumbling and jealousy is what has tripped up the Church of Jesus Christ in EVERY generation. The workers in the vineyard who had been there since early light grumbled because the owner was generous and kind and welcomed and treated all with equanimity. The Church of Jesus Christ welcomes all. It is God’s job to make people acceptable in his sight, not ours. Of course the Church of Scotland is not the Church of Jesus Christ yet. We are still a work in progress; we have a way to go.
And so today’s question for you, whether you are a member, an elder, a Guild member, an attender, will you keep going? Are you a work in progress? Will you renew your promises, to yourself and to God? Will you try to love your fellow workers even if you find them hard to like at times? Can you roll with the punches and deal with the changes? Are you ready to up and leave with the going gets tough? Or are you prepared to stick it out with God, listen for his call, help to turn his Church upside down, to make it a place where all are not just welcome but all can belong?
Whom do YOU belong to? Whom do YOU serve?