Thursday, 23 April 2015

Jelly bean Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

For those people who have asked for an outline of this!

I took an assembly today on the value of 'Fairness'. Being the vicar, in my assemblies I try to always relate a Bible story that sheds light on the school's theme of the week. For 'Fairness', the story that came to mind was the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.

This was a whole primary school assembly for key stages 1&2, and would also work as a all-age talk I think.

Equipment needed: a pot of jelly beans (at least 120), and 6 bags to put them in.

Adults, in my experience, tend to really dislike this story! I wondered how children would react, and thought it would be a good way into exploring what our ideas of fairness really mean.

I began by asking them what they thought fairness meant. Answers included 'being kind', 'sharing', and 'having even teams, like in tug of war it woukd be unfair to have ten on one side and twenty on the other'.

Jesus told a story about fairness, I said.

Imagine a farmer. S/he has lots of work to do on the farm - far more than s/he can manage on her own. So s/he goes to find some people to pay to do the work with her. Explain we cant actually do digging in the hall, so i'm going to ask my workers to do star jumps instead to represent work.

A brief explanation of the way people stood in the marketplace if they were looking for work - then I took the role of the farmer and imagined the children were the workers. What a lot of people waiting to be hired! I need some strong people to help me in my farm. (Pick 2)

Now, (i said to my workers) the deal is, you work for me by doing star jumps for the rest of the assembly, and I'll pay you 20 jelly beans. Is that a fair deal? They acceot eagerly, and off they go.

After a minute or so, I stop them. Hmmm, I say. We have got half way through the day, and it doesn't look to me as if we are going to get all this work done with just two workers. I'd better go back to the marketplace and get some more. (A forest of hands flies up! I pick two more).

Ok you two. How about you work for me for what's left of the day, and I'll pay you what's fair. OK? They agree and all four start doing star jumps. After another minute I stop them.

Hmmm. We are half way through the afternoon and it doesn't look to me as if we are going to get all this work done woth just 4 workers. I'd better go back to the marketplace.

I choose one more volunteer (you could choose two but I wanted to limit the amount of time I spent  counting out beans!). Again, I offer them the deal that they work for the couple of hours left, and I will pay them whats fair....

After maybe 30 swconds more of all 5 doing star jumps, I repeat the process, emphasising that there is only an hour left of the day. My final volunteer gets offered the deal again, and they all start doing star jumps again.

After maybe 10 seconds, I stoo them all and announce it is the end of the working day and they've all done a really good job. Now its paytime. Please could they line up in order of how long they have been working for me.

I take the pot of jelly beans, musing aloud that I had said I'd give the workers 20 beans for the whole day's work, and had said I would pay the others what was fair. I open the box, and start counting jelly beans into a bag.


I hand the bag of beans to the last volunteer. Here you are! Thank you for working for me for that hour, we got the job done!

Then I turn to the next person. You worked for me for 2 hours, didn't you? Hang on, I will just count out your pay....again, count 20 jelly beans into a bag and give it to them.

And so on all down the line.

When I get to the first two, I remind them of their contract and cheerfully count 20 beans out into bags for each of them. (For the last few counts, the whole school joined in counting in twos).

Then i asked the last two (the ones who had worked all day) if they felt they had been fairly paid.

I asked the whole school to think for a moment, then raise their hands if they thought that was fair - or  not. (In this case the vote was about 40/60 fair/unfair).

I then said that Jesus had told this story when some of his disciples had asked what they would get in heaven, since they had given up everything - homes, families, work - to follow him. And Jesus told that story in reply.

I often find people think that God might prefer people who go to church a lot. Because I am a vicar, sometimes people ask me to say a prayer for them because they think my prayers might be put higher up the queue by God! But the great news for those of us who feel other people are probably a lot better at religion than us, is that in this story Jesus tells us that God doesn't have any favourites in heaven. There aren't any special rewards for people who have been more religious, because God loves all of us equally, however much we do for him.

Prayer: thanking God for the difficult bits of the Bible, that make us think, and for giving us minds to think with.
Thanking God for Jesus showing us how much God loves us, and that he has no favourites.
Praying for all those who are not so fortunate as us around the world, and for all those who try to make the world a fairer place for everyone.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015


We recently established a Shared Ministry Development Team at Belmont church. A couple of months ago, the team came up with the idea of trialling a new evening gathering. After some discussion, the name Oasis emerged - along with the idea that this was to be an oasis of peace, a place of refreshment, and a refuelling point for life - an oasis on Sunday evening before a busy week starts again on Monday. A place to relax, reflect, be restored and refreshed.

We met to plan. And we came up with too many ideas that we couldn't decide between! So we have decided that for this three month trial, we will try three different approaches. At the end, we will evaluate and ask for feedback - we might not continue, we might decide one approach worked best and stick with that in the future, or we might decide to continue with a mix of styles from month to month. Who knows?!

This slide presentation introduces the idea: more details below!
Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

Roughly speaking, we have decided that the 'shape' of each of the three trials will be similar, following a threefold pattern: relax, reflect, restore. That is, first a section facilitating the particpants to relax into God's presence; then a section of 'input' and reflection; then a section which facilitates returning to everyday life, refreshed by the experience and hopefully taking new insights, or going out having made some new connections between faith and life.

We are loosely inspired by the way in which Messy Church plays with and deconstructs liturgical structure and elements. We want to see if that can be done in a more contemplative, even 'mystical' (dare I say, to quote Mark Tanner, an 'introvert charismatic') way.

 I'll post more in the future about how each of the three sessions are going to be done, and how each went!

Anglo Nordic Baltic Theology Conference/House Party!

One of the things that I love is going to the Anglo Nordic Baltic theology conference!

It is a biennial conference that takes the form of a 'theological house party'. It was founded in the early decades of the 20th century to foster understanding and build relationships between members of the Anglican and Lutheran churches of Northern Europe. That clearly worked really well, as it led to the Porvoo agreement! You can read more about the history of the conference here.

The first time I went was to the 2009 conference in Sweden, and we had such a good time. It makes a refreshing change from other conferences as it is attended by a mix of academics and practitioners, lay and ordained. It also makes a refreshing change from other ecumenical gatherings and church summits, as it has no aim to produce anything official - so there is no pressure to agree a text or communique. The aim is simply to have a good time together gathering around discussion of a common theme.

If you haven't heard of it before, that may be because the conference used to be by invitation only!  However, since 2013 we have re-launched the conference on a new footing and it is now open to anyone who wishes to attend. It is currently convened by a small group of us: myself from England, Mika Pajunen from Finland, and Archbishop Michael Jackson from Ireland.

The language of the conference is English and papers are short (20 minutes) to act as discussion starters, rather than being the last word on a subject.

The theme for 2015 is Theology in the Public Square. Do take a look at the emerging programme, think about coming, and if you wish, get in touch with me about a paper if you'd like to offer one!

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter Sermon: 'Woman, Why are you Weeping?'

One of the infuriating things about Jesus was that he had an annoying habit of speaking in questions. He rarely gave a straight answer when anyone questioned him. Instead he asked a question back. Or remained silent. Or did something weird like draw in the sand with his finger, while someone’s life hung in the balance. Or said nothing at all, as when he was questioned before Herod and Pilate on Good Friday. Or he told odd stories, that raised more questions than they answered.

It’s no wonder the disciples so often didn’t get it. At our service here on Maundy Thursday, as we thought about the first Last Supper, we looked at what Jesus asked the disciples then – ‘do you understand what I have done for you?’ And no, they didn’t. Not then. It was just too much to take in, and until the resurrection, just too unbelievable.

Sometimes reading the gospels we might think ‘Oh come ON, Peter! Come ON disciples! How can you possibly not get it when you’ve got Jesus there in front of you? How on earth are we meant to manage?’

But on that first Easter morning, even the least charitable of us might reasonably expect Mary and the other disciples to need some sort of explanation of what’s going on. 

But no. Even the angels, Gods messengers, often the ones who spell God’s messages out, here in John’s gospel join Jesus in speaking in questions.

And not even sensible questions.

‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ ask the angels.

And ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Jesus asks.

Isn’t it obvious why Mary is weeping, and who she is looking for? Isn’t it weird that Jesus doesn’t just come right out and comfort her, tell her, explain what has happened? ‘Mary! No need to worry. Here I am! This is what I was trying to get at the other night. I had to go through death so that I could conquer its power for ever, for everyone else. But God has raised me, as I always knew and trusted that he would. So everyone can now live for ever with God in heaven – there is no more condemnation for sin, no more need for trying to appease God, and you can now know how much God loves you! Now, go, tell everyone the good news!’

But no. First the angels, then Jesus, start by asking a question – ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’
We don’t know, of course, what tone of voice Jesus asked this question in, how we should read it.
Was it perhaps sympathetic? ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ 

The nice thing about imagining that, is how it seems to symbolise Jesus coming alongside us in our sufferings and grief. We know he understands what human sadness and desolation are like – he has gone through them himself, not just in his own suffering, but in for example his grief at the death of his friend Lazarus. If he said it like that, maybe this simply means that God, in Jesus, comes alongside us and meets us in our own pain, empathising with it, sympathising with us, before attempting any theologising comfort. God, like a good friend, simply sitting down next to us and putting a metaphorical arm around us when we are sad. And even though he has the best news in the world – the news that does, in this case at least, totally remove the cause for the sadness – he doesn’t rush to share it, but takes the time to take her grief seriously.

Or maybe it was said with affectionate exasperation? ‘Woman! Why (on earth) are you weeping? Here I am standing in front of you!’ 

Sometimes I feel that is the tone of voice that God uses with me when I’m praying: ‘Oh for goodness sake, Miranda! I do love you, but per-lease, you can be slow to catch on sometimes!’

Or perhaps the emphasis is on the ‘why?’. It seems obvious to us, that Mary is weeping because she is distraught at the death of Jesus, and now feels totally lost and helpless because his body is gone and so she can’t even do the simple but important things for his body that she came for. As if you had gone to the cemetery to lay flowers, and simply couldn’t find the grave, and stood weeping with frustration and rage and grief and confusion.

But I wonder… do you remember the last time Jesus spoke to some women about weeping?
In Luke’s account of the crucifixion, he includes the detail that among the crowd following Jesus on the road to the place of crucifixion were many women:

‘women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. [And] Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.” 3Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us”; and to the hills, “Cover us.” 3For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’

So I just wonder, if perhaps Jesus wasn’t just asking a rhetorical question when he asked Mary ‘why’ she was weeping? Was he genuinely asking – why are you crying? Because I said the other day, don’t weep for me – weep for yourselves, for the future, because it is going to get pretty bleak. Which is this? 

As we look around the world and hear some of the horrific stories of persecution coming from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, people being crucified now, or beheaded, whole families and villages and church communities fleeing for their lives and now living -  if they managed to escape - in refugee camps for the foreseeable future – Jesus’ question seems pretty relevant. As relevant as it would have been to the early Christians for whom the gospels were first written down, in the midst of persecutions and uncertainty.

We can all too easily slip into reading the Easter story, and talking about it, as if the ending is so obvious it is banal. Jesus dies, God raises him from the dead, nobody has to worry about anything any more. Sin sorted, world put to rights, Kingdom ushered in, job done.

But that is to ignore the two millennia of women who have been weeping ever since, and who are still weeping now around the world. Weeping over children dying in infancy. Weeping because they are unable to feed their families. Weeping with sheer, mind-numbing exhaustion and hopelessness at the end of a 16 or 18 hour working day, at the end of which they are as poor, as enslaved, as indebted as they were at the beginning. Weeping over war, over injustice, over death, persecution, weeping with fear, weeping with shame, weeping with loneliness.

Jesus, and the angels, both ask – ‘woman, why are you weeping?’ And I thank God for them taking her – our – all humanity’s - grief seriously, respecting it, recognising it. Not rushing to answer it, or tell her why she is wrong to feel it. God doesn’t just know our sorrows, he notices them. God doesn’t just tell us its all OK, but comes alongside us in our grief and asks us to tell him about it.

Only then does Jesus say something that isn’t a question – but it isn’t an answer either. it’s not even an explanation. It is simply her name. ‘Mary’. And at that, she recognises him, and we imagine, from his next words – ‘don’t hold onto me!’ that she reaches out and hugs him in joy, in recognition, in relief.

And then he sends her out to proclaim the good news that she has seen him, alive, to the rest of their friends. 

(Reference to our new banner of Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles)

The pattern of Jesus’ meeting with Mary on that first Easter morning is the pattern that I recognise from my own experiences of encountering God, and I wonder if it is one you recognise too?

God meets us when and where we least expect it, in ways we often don’t recognise at first. He is more interested in asking us about ourselves than telling us about himself.  He takes our feelings, positive or negative, seriously. He doesn’t tend to explain. He asks more questions than he answers. And far sooner than we feel ready, he asks us to go and tell other people – tell them things we are hardly sure of ourselves, announce things we feel very unprepared for proclaiming, proclaim things that we really hope we aren’t asked questions about because we don’t feel we know any more than the little we have been told to share.

As the people of Mary Magdalene’s church, let’s hear for ourselves this morning the words that Jesus spoke to her. 

Why are you weeping? What are you sorrows? God hears, and listens, and takes your worries and your pain seriously.

Who are you looking for? Do you want to find Jesus here today? Do you want to meet him in prayer, in bread and wine, in your neighbour? It might seem obvious, but maybe Jesus wants us to articulate it, to name him to ourselves, to be explicit that we are here to find Jesus.

And then he speaks your name. And says:

Now go. Go to my friends, to my brothers and sisters, and tell them that you have seen the Lord.