Words for 15th Sunday after Trinity – 20th September 2020 – A cyber sermon from the Vicarage
Text: Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:15)
God give you peace my sisters and brothers.
Anthony Russell, former bishop of Ely, in his seminal book ‘The Country Parish’ was the first to describe the tension found in Country Villages between those who were born there – Belongers – and those who have moved into a new estate on the edge of the village – Incomers. It is an unnatural symbiosis in which the Belongers resent the presence of the Incomers as they know little or nothing about local traditions and activities yet it is only the Incomers who have the energy (and often the financial resources) to maintain the very traditions and activities that the Belongers cherish!
I met this in my own life when visiting my home town of March in November 200 and I was reunited at church with a gentle loving woman (regarded by me as one of many ‘aunts’ who kept a loving eye on a bookish grandchild) who lived in the same road as my Grandad. In the midst of our reminiscences she made a confession, ‘Of course you now I’m not local, I’ve only been here since 1953.’ To which I responded, ‘but I was only born in 1956!’ To which she responded, ‘Ah, but you were born here, you’re proper local.’ An odd revelation to a ‘local’ boy who had just spent 25 years living in South Africa!
And so in today’s reading from Matthew we find that the same story has been there from the beginning. On the one hand we have the Belongers, who have been there throughout the heat of the day and are used to things. Then there are those who start work towards the end of the day, the Incomers, who are needed (and at the same time resented) by the Belongers to help get the job done.
Sadly, I have even heard of some who are young in the Faith being referred to by other members of the Church as ‘5pm Christians’. People who turn up at the last minute and put all their efforts into running a community that the Belongers are content to see muddle on in some sort of studied neglect. And that in preference to listening to someone who refuses to believe the mantra ‘We’ve always done it that way!’
Little wonder that the history of the Church, for whose unity our Beloved prayed for on the night before being crucified, is one of distrust, division, and (if we refuse to learn the lesson of today’s parable) disaster.
It is all too easy for us to become NIMBY Christians who want everything ‘just so’. Too often is seems we feel free to belittle other Johnny-Come-Lately groups and Fresh Expressions of the faith such as Café Church and Messy Church as not being ‘real’ faith.
Thankfully in our Parish, with groups such as Pushchair Pitstop and Messy Church, we are encouraged to see future growth rather than a threat to the past. Yes, I know they are awkward and disrupt the normal flow of events. After they have been around things are not where they should be. The chairs are not squared off, and favourite kneelers are in the wrong place – it’s called ‘Messy’ Church for a reason – yet over the years I have had the privilege of being the leader of the Ministry Team here, I sense a feeling of welcome to Incomers rather than any Nimbyism on the part of Belongers.
Why is this so in our Parish? I suspect it has something to do with our own roots. Carved out of the medieval parish of Felixstowe by 19th Century Tractarians, we ourselves were once a Fresh Expression of Church and are used to being Incomers rather than Belongers. Our forebears erected a Rood Screen, named the Lord’s Table as an altar, reintroduced Stained Glass by the glorious bucket load and, whisper it quietly, even allowed statues of the Saints to be scattered around the church. We may not, over 100 years later, feel like ‘5pm Christians’ but that is what our founders were accused of being and they fought, built, and gave generously to ensure that everyone was welcome in this place.
We have a heritage of helping Belongers and Incomers work side by side for the good of all in our parish and this is something of which we can be justly proud, and at the same time should hold on to fiercely. Little wonder that my predecessor coined the motto ‘Open to God, Open to All’ to be our rallying cry – look for those words, when they finally arrive, on the glass doors at the entrance to St John’s.
This is a heritage of the present not only of the past, which we must proclaim and defend. We dare not question the generosity of our Redeemer who offers the same salvation to those Incomers who only pitched up at the end of the day as to those Belongers who worked through the heat of the day. Unlike the Labourers in the vineyard we must refuse to be envious because God is generous. After all, if our God were not generous and forgiving God where would we find ourselves to be?
My words this week began with a book by a bishop, I want to end with thoughts from a more recent (2017) book by another. My fellow Franciscan David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, wrote a book titled, coincidentally, God’s Belongers that overthrows the dichotomy between Us and Them of a previous era and reminds us that God welcomes everyone into the sheepfold regardless of arbitrary figurers such as attendance at Sunday worship. After all, in these times of Covid, do any of our parishioners feel ‘less’ Christian because they have not yet felt able to attend Sunday worship? Of course they should not! So too for the so-called 5pm Christians (the Incomers) of our Gospel reading and modern day Fresh Expressions..
In thankfulness for mercy and grace received in the past, the founders of our parish built our churches and church halls and their legacy continues to sponsor the mission of God in this place to the tune of about £25 000 each year, how can we fail their faith in us? They were, as God is, generous to us in the hope that we would be generous in our giving, our provision, and most of all our welcome, to others so that we may proclaim God’s welcome and love to generations yet unborn.
Open to God, Open to All’ is not a slogan to be read and then ignored. It is a lifestyle choice to which I and many of our worshippers are committed heart, soul, and pocket book. Join us!
[This blog ‘NIMBY Christians’ is copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2020 and may be reproduced without charge on condition that the source is acknowledged]