Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: The Labourers in the Vineyard

9 February 2020
10.30 Eucharist

Revd Nicholas Mercer

After a very full Sunday last week, I went home and slumped in front of the television

My favourite programme on a Sunday is “SAS – Are you tough enough” but, last week, I was also drawn to the BAFTA awards

I had recently seen “The Two Popes” which had been nominated for Best British Film

It is a wonderful film about the succession between Pope Benedict XVI and Francis I and I wish it well tonight at the OSCARS

The Duke of Cambridge, who is chairman of BAFTA, paid tribute in the awards to the men and women from all backgrounds and ethnicities enriching our lives through film”

But went on to say

“Yet in 2020, and not for the first time…we find ourselves talking again about the need to do more to ensure diversity in the sector and in the awards process”

Joaquim Phoenix, who played the “The Joker” said in his acceptance speech for Best Actor that he felt “conflicted” on receiving the award

“so many of my fellow actors that are deserving don’t have that same privilege…we send a very clear message to people of colour that you are not welcome here.”

He added: “I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem”

It was refreshing to hear an industry speak out so publicly against injustice in its ranks

In my own world , I read, with some excitement, last week that the Church of England was “to be urged to apologise for Windrush” at General Synod in February

I thought that the Church of England were going to speak, prophetically, against the mistreatment of the Windrush generation

In fact the article took a different slant from the one I expected

It was about the conduct of some Churches towards the Windrush generation and also recognised the lamentable shortage of BAME priests among ordinands and the episcopate

Like the film industry, this too is deeply regrettable

Arguably, however, it pales into insignificance compared with the treatment of the Windrush generation generally

To my shame, I never really got to grips with the Windrush scandal

In my sheltered world, I was vaguely aware of the hostile environment and horrified by the mobile billboards telling migrants to “go home”

But in this age of dystopian news and obfuscation, it is often difficult to know what is true or not

It was only when I came across a book called “The Windrush Betrayal” at Christmas that I was better able to judge.

If you have not read it already, can I recommend this book

It is written by Boris Johnson’s sister-in-law, Amelia Gentleman

Many of you will be familiar with the story but it is worth reminding ourselves nevertheless

In June 1948, the “Empire Windrush” brought a group of 802 migrants from Jamaica to Tilbury Docks in London

At the time, the United Kingdom was faced with desperate labour shortages

And enticed by the prospect of job opportunities, Caribbean men and women crossed the Atlantic in response to adverts for work

The British Nationality Act 1948 gave them the right to settle and work in the United Kingdom

Everyone was a British subject by virtue of having been born in a British colony

They were granted an automatic right to remain permanently

They neither needed, nor were given, any documents upon entry 

This did not alter following changes in immigration laws in the early 1970s

And this right was expressly preserved in the 1999 Immigration Act,

However, this clause was not transferred to the 2014 Immigration Act, because it was not deemed necessary

How wrong they were

Once a gap had been created it was very soon and readily exploited by the Home Office

The stories of those who belonged to what became known, collectively, as the “Windrush Generation” are simply horrific

Paulette Wilson came to Britain in the 1960’s

She worked all her life as a cook including some time as a canteen worker in the House of Commons

However, 50 years later, she was advised by the Home Office that she was an illegal immigrant

She was arrested, sent to an immigration detention centre and only narrowly escaped deportation after an intervention by her MP Emma Reynolds

“The speed and ease with which her case was reconsidered as soon as officials knew the media had been tipped off was galling”

Renford McIntyre who, aged 64, lost his job as an NHS driver when he too was told he was an illegal immigrant

The consequences were almost unimaginable

Not being able to work, he was then denied benefits because he was deemed to be in the United Kingdom, illegally

He managed to find somewhere to sleep by finding shelter in an industrial unit

Although his case was resolved, to date has not received an apology or been recompensed for his loss – he is heavily in debt as a result

If matters couldn’t get any worse, Sylvester Marshall, at the age of 63, was found to be suffering from prostate cancer

As he was unable to produce a British passport the NHS demanded that he pay £54,000, up front –

A figure deliberately inflated by 150%- who inflates a figure by £150%?

Given the fact that he was now unable to work, this was even more impossible.

In essence, he was left to die

These cases are just the tip of the iceberg but it is estimated that there may have been tens of thousands who have been affected

It has been rightly described as “institutional cruelty” which begs some very uncomfortable questions

How did we get to this point?

What sort of a country have we become that we behave like this?

Why has there been such a deafening silence and why has no one been held to account?

Today’s reading is about working in the vineyard

The story is, of course, a parable and, as such, is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning

In this case, we are the labourers who work in God’s vineyard and the parable makes the obvious point about His Kingdom being for everyone

We are reminded that “the last will be first and the first last”

However long they have tarried, whether we arrive at the beginning or the end, everyone gets treated equitably

We can come into God’s vineyard, at any time, and the treatment and rewards will be the same

But the parable also speaks to the politics of our age

In the earthly realm we are, in a sense, the landowners – and there have been many who have been hired to work in our vineyard

But at no time does the parable give us an excuse to treat those we hire with “institutional cruelty”

It does not permit us to say, at the end of the day, that those we hired late can be tossed aside as if they were mere commodities

And as Christians, it does not permit us to stand on the side-lines and say nothing

Those who have been hired to labour in our vineyard are entitled to be treated with the same equity and fairness, as everyone else, just as they are in the parable

But the presupposition that it is our vineyard also begs the question as to title

We act as if we had an absolute right to the land – but we don’t

The Old Testament reading reminds us, God created the heavens and the earth – not us

We are simply life tenants and we too will be held to account at the end of our labour

We are given clear direction as to how we should behave and, at no time, does God give us permission to behave as we do

The supreme irony is that although we have been told by God in the morning,

We need the OSCARS to remind us in the evening