Moosup Valley Church UCC
Moosup Valley Church UCC
September 20, 2020
Today’s text is the story of the Laborers in the Vineyard, about how workers show up at all hours of the day – 6, 9, noon, 3 and 5 – and are promised what is owed to them, “whatever is right,” the landowner says. In the end, all the workers are paid the same wage. Those who had worked in the scorching heat all day were angry that those who came in the late afternoon earned the same wage.
Several years ago, I suggested this text for our Old Home Days service, and Pastor Bob wrote a wonderful skit placing the workers in the wilds of contemporary Foster. Our own Ron Burge was a hit as always. We all thought he missed his calling!
On the surface, the parable does not distinguish between those who worked the hardest and those who had it easy. It doesn’t seem fair to those of us raised in the Protestant work ethic, to those of us who take Ben Franklin’s famous adage to heart – “The early bird gets the worm.”
And these days, what is a fair wage – a living wage – is much in the news as well as debates about the merits of increasing workers’ buying power to $15/hour as a stimulus to the economy versus the impact on the payroll of small businesses and their ability to hire. And labor studies show that women make less than men for doing the same job. And some jobs pay so little – the teller at your local bank, for example – that many qualify for food stamps, which means that we, the taxpayers, are subsidizing their salaries.
So it would seem, to the likes of us, that the parable is about money and fairness as in “equal pay for equal work.” Or more accurately in this case, “equal work for equal pay.” We tend to be touchy when it comes to who deserves what.
There’s a story, no doubt made up, of the man who walked through a neighborhood on the first Monday of the month and stopped at the first house. He knocked at the door and explained to the homeowner, “I’ve come into some money, and I want to share my good fortune. I’d like to give you $100 if that’s okay?” The man handed over a crisp bill. “Okay?!! Yes, it is okay!” The flabbergasted homeowner thanked the man and the mysterious man walked away.
The next week, the same man appeared again and the homeowner once again received a new $100 bill. Each Monday that month the man with the money knocked at the door and the delighted and overjoyed homeowner received a crisp, brand-new Ben Franklin. On the first Monday of the next month, however, the mysterious philanthropist walked down the sidewalk and passed by the first home and went to the door of the second home on the street. “Hey!” yelled the homeowner of the first house, “Where’s my money?”
This summer I read Isabel Wilkerson’s book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” the epic story of America’s Great Migration of six million southern blacks to the urban areas of the North and West in hopes of finding a better life for their families. The arrival of so many immigrants in cities like Detroit and Chicago – immigrants who went to work as porters on the railroads and assembly line workers in Campbell Soup factories and the stock yards and maids in wealthy homes – caused a crisis in the labor market as immigrant groups who came before them – Irish and Italian and Poles – felt the squeeze and resented the competition. Riots broke out.
It was a new idea to me that the competition for jobs and wages is one of the contributing factors to racism in our cities. And I realized that the last group of immigrants to come always seems to slam the door on the next group. This may explain some of the resistance to welcoming immigrants to our country. This is too bad, because we need the energy and creativity of newcomers, especially as our population declines with dropping birth rates. Of course, we are all newcomers, are we not, unless we are Native Americans?
I imagine that the laborers in the vineyard didn’t mind the newcomers, but they thought they deserved more for the longer labor in the hot sun. And like the homeowner who received the $100 with no effort, they had grown accustomed to the undeserved gift of a stranger’s generosity. We somehow think that life should be fair and predictable, and, of course, it is not!
So why is Matthew telling this story in his gospel? Is it really about harvesting grapes? Or fair compensation? Or a rightful place in the order of things? Or is this story a metaphor for something else? When it was my turn a the mic at Old Home Days, in response to Bob’s skit, I suggested that this parable is not about money at all. I gave the context of the early church where a major issue was the relationship of Jews and Gentiles: Jews who were the first followers of Jesus, and Gentiles who came later. And God welcomes them all, blesses them all equally.
The truth is that, if the missionaries had not taken the revolutionary message of Jesus out across the empire, the Jesus movement would have stayed a Jewish sect or died out. It needed the resources of the larger world to blossom and grow. And by the beginning of the 3rd century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Over the years, I have consulted with two churches who struggled with the old-timer- newcomer issue. One a Methodist church where, if your grandfather had not been a member there, you were a newcomer, even if you had been a member for 20 years. And an Episcopal church in the Newport area who had Navy families moving in, staying a short time, then being deployed to another post. They came with new ideas and energy and were often met with “We never did it that way before.” But the old-timers had history and context, so what to do? I helped them identify the strengths and gifts of both groups. Theirs was not a problem to be solved, but a polarity to be managed – building on the “upside” of both old and new, while minimizing the “downside” of them. Would that we could do as well with the country right now!
So perhaps the lesson we need to heed in this parable … is what? The landowner who demonstrates God’s generosity! But too often the world prefers grumbling to grateful, and prefers hating those who are different to valuing each person as worthy of love and acceptance, no matter who they are and where they are on life’s journey. Which is what we declare in our mission statement that we adopted three years ago.
Theologian Karl Barth is often quoted as saying that clergy should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. And I believe that all of us as church members should look at the world through the lens of Biblical values as well. When the church is really being the church – in an environment of divisiveness and vindictiveness, in a climate of fear and retaliation, in an age of polarization – we need to speak up – even if we might be targeted. After all, the early churches faced persecution in a fractured world much like ours.
This parable must have been difficult for Matthew’s readers to hear. They were used to the world’s economics where people got only what they deserved, if they were lucky. But Jesus presents a different story, one in which our job is not to climb the corporate ladder in a dog-eat-dog world, but to help each other up the ladder. In God’s economy, everyone is worthy, everyone is included, everyone is blessed. As laborers in God’s vineyard, our job is to be the church, to share God’s love with the world. This, then, is our piece of that mission that we have identified for ourselves:
Gathered in 1868, Moosup Valley Church is a community growing
in our knowledge of Jesus. Led by the Spirit, we reach out to love God
and our neighbors as ourselves. We are a country church welcoming EVERYONE,
respecting individual personal beliefs, and spreading peace in our world.
May it be so!
The Freedom of Forgiveness
September 13, 2020
For much of the summer, we have been reflecting on what it means to live in community – first in Paul’s letter to the Romans back in August and then last week in Matthew’s gospel, about “making it right.” Today’s gospel lesson is about forgiveness, addressing wrongs, and working toward reconciliation. Wherever there are people, there is likely to be conflict – in families, churches, communities, and nations. And Jesus tells us to forgive – a tall order for most of us!
So, I’ve been thinking about forgiveness and, today, and lest you think that I’m preaching to you, I’m going to begin with a story about myself. Many years ago when I was in divinity school, I was asked to conduct a memorial service for a childhood friend. And, as a thank you gift, her sister gave me a beautiful glass bowl with violets hand-painted on it. It was lovely, and I cherished it, not only for its beauty but also for the memories. I kept it safe in its Ross Simons box whenever I wasn’t using it for special occasions.
A couple of years ago, Kim and I were invited to a potluck dinner party, and we took our contribution in the glass bowl as befitting the occasion. Since there was dessert left in the bowl, our hostess suggested we leave it, and she would give it to Kim when they met for lunch in the near future. Well, every time Kim set as date for lunch or coffee, the hostess couldn’t make it, so last fall, Kim suggested I email her and set a time to come to her house to pick up the bowl. I did, and she responded that she didn’t have it any more; she had given it away – but she would buy me another if I needed a bowl. I said no, only that that one had had special meaning. I felt sad and disappointed and betrayed; to my mind, she had stolen my beautiful bowl. And every time I saw the empty box on the shelf in the parsonage, I got angry all over again and grumbled to Kim. And then I read what Jesus had to say about forgiveness, and I decided it was time to “let it go.” So I tear up this empty box in your presence.
Certainly, there has been a lot to forgive in our lifetimes, alone – BIG STUFF – not just a bowl! Some of you remember the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and we have had our share of home-grown terrorists, some of them mentally ill, others misguided, acting out their own personal hatreds: Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma City bombing, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, the Boston Marathon Bombers, and the latest round of skin-heads and neo-Nazis. Evil comes in many guises.
We all remember where we were on September 11, 2001, 19 years ago this week. The attacks left us shocked, enraged, grieving – and afraid. Our age of innocence died with the planes that struck us in New York City, Washington, DC, and that crashed in the field in Shanksville, PA. Nothing like that tragedy had happened to us on our soil, except perhaps for the Civil War.
Were we shocked because the terrorists were successful in penetrating our centers of commerce (Twin Towers) and government (Pentagon)? Was it because people like us were caught off guard as we boarded a plane, as we went to work, as we went about our ordinary lives? Americans were not used to random events that ended thousands of lives.
But we came together as a nation. And thinking about it now, almost two decades later, as I read the gospel lesson, I don’t remember any of the forgiveness that Jesus talks about. Instead, our leaders vowed revenge. We went to war, thinking it would be quick and easy, without realizing how long we would suffer in Afghanistan and Iraq, all those deaths, without realizing how we would upset the balance of power in the Middle East.
We went to war without doing any soul-searching as a nation about why the attacks had happened in the first place. What is it that terrorist groups (home-grown or foreign) hated then – and still hate – about us? Was it a clash of cultures? Or greed that infects us all? For certain, it’s not for religion; none of the world’s religions promote violence, only the twisted fringe who use it as an excuse.
I don’t remember any talk about forgiveness. One of the reasons is that we think we have to forgive and forget. That idea apparently originated with a man named Miguel de Cervantes in the late 1500s who said “Let us forget and forgive injuries.” But that’s not what Jesus asks of us. We need to remember so that we learn from our mistakes, do we not? Should we forget the Crusades? Slavery? The Holocaust? How can we?
Spanish philosopher George Santayana argued, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And President John Kennedy said, “Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.” So let’s not talk about “forgetting,” as if the event, the hurt, the tragedy never happened.
Jesus only asks us to forgive, not forget. How many times? Depending on the translation: 77 times or 70 times 7 which means 490 times. In other words, over and over, as long as it takes. As long as what takes? In the Biblical Greek, “forgive” literally means “to let go.”
If you look up the definition of “forgive” in a dictionary, you find a number of meanings, including pardon, excuse, exonerate, absolve, make allowance for, which may be what we think is expected of us when we hear the word “forgive.” These definitions have more to do with the other person than with the one being asked to forgive.
However, there also are other definitions that are closer to the Greek “to let go,” closer to what Jesus was talking about, such as to stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense that they have committed, or harbor no grudge, definitions which are about the emotional impact on the one doing the forgiving rather than on the one being forgiven.
Several years ago, Dylann Roof, a young man who hoped to ignite a race war, walked into Bible Study at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine people, including the pastor. And within hours, family members of some of those killed said that they forgave him. I thought, wait a minute! You are still in shock. The country is still in shock! Are you forgiving Dylann Roof because you have been told to forgive? Because you think Christians are supposed to forgive? You haven’t even planned the funeral yet!
A mother named Scarlett Lewis lost her 6-year-old son, Jesse, in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, one of 20 children killed. Their parents were devastated, of course, and at first Scarlett’s anger at the shooter, sapped all of her energy and strength. Then she made the choice to forgive. And she said, “Forgiveness felt like I was given a big pair of scissors,” which helped her cut her tie to the shooter and regain her personal power. “It started with a choice,” she said, “and then became a process.” At her son’s funeral, she urged mourners to change their angry thoughts into loving ones. She saw this shift as a way to change the world. Anger and resentment keep us trapped, sap all of our love, suck up all of our creative energy. Forgiveness is good for us. That’s why Jesus recommends it!
Timothy Merrill, author of Learning to Fall: A Guide for the Spiritually Clumsy, writes “Too often we think forgiveness is important, even critical, because of how it affects the persons being forgiven. Maybe, but only if they are contrite, willing to make amends.
“Forgiveness is important because it primarily benefits the one offering the forgiveness. Forgiveness is about you, freeing you. Forgiveness is not saying ‘Forget it.’ Forgiveness is not saying ‘I forget.’ Forgiveness is not saying ‘It’s okay,’ what you did.
Rather, forgiveness is saying ‘I’m okay.’ And I am willing to let God deal with whether you are okay. And I’m willing to let the legal system deal with the legal issues, and I am also willing to let go of my need to be the tool of correction and rebuke in your life.
“Forgiveness is not saying ‘I no longer feel the pain.’ Rather, forgiveness is saying ‘I no longer feel the need to hold on to your involvement in my pain.’” Forgiving one who has caused us pain is our road to freedom. It can be, of course, a tall order, and forgiving one who has wronged us, who has caused us disappointment, who has made our lives difficult or caused us sorrow, may take time.
But not doing so, studies find, leaves us with a chemical reaction in the body known as “the stress response,” when adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine enter the body, limiting creativity and problem-solving, leading us to feel helpless and like a victim. Forgiving may not happen overnight; it may take time; it may even take professional help. But forgive we must for our own health.
And so I have three questions this morning. And I’ll give us a minute or so to think quietly after I’ve asked the questions. They are difficult, and this morning only starts the process.
The first: Whom do you need to forgive? What offense to you or those you love, do you need to forgive? What do you need to let go of to be free?
Question two: From whom do you need to seek forgiveness? To whom do you need to go and ask his or her forgiveness of your offense? What do you need to acknowledge that you have said or done in order for you to be free?
And the third: For what do you need to forgive yourself in order to be free?
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we say when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. How often? Until we are free, Jesus tells us.
May it be so!
 As reported in Homiletics magazine, September/October 2017.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Making It Right
September 6, 2020
For the last two weeks, I have been preaching on Paul’s letter to the little house church in Rome, how he’s trying to help them live together in harmony in the midst of their diversity – Jews and Greeks, slaves and free persons, men and women, all trying to get along – by creating the notion that the church is like a human body, everyone is important, and everyone is needed. They were diverse because traveling missionaries had brought the revolutionary message of Jesus to Rome and had upset the social order – about how business was decided, who was welcome to participate, who could speak in church, and so on.
Like all the little house churches across the empire, The Romans were experiencing conflict. And so Paul writes to them with advice. He presses them to be transformed in their thinking and urges them to extend hospitality to strangers, to live in harmony with each other, and to overcome evil with good. This morning, I go back to the Gospel of Matthew who is writing late in the first century, decades after Paul wrote to the church in Rome, but it appears that the conflict in the churches still exists.
And so Matthew takes a stab at it, with more than just a call to respect each other. He proposes a step-by-step process, a teaching of Jesus that he pulls out of all his material that he has collected about Jesus, in order to “make it right” in the community. We are reflecting on Jesus’ instructions to his disciples, but if we read the whole chapter, we know that these six verses in Matthew follow immediately on the heels of the story about the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go and search for the one who is lost – a clue that the story is not about punishment but about restoration.
For Paul, in the passage we looked at last week, the church is a place of mutual interdependence, where the suffering of one is the suffering of all, and where conflict among persons in the church affects the whole church.
In the Methodist church in Providence where I grew up, there was often conflict. One woman in particular was always stirring things up, and she grew more troublesome when African Methodists, escaping the Civil War in Liberia moved to Providence and began to come to church. She would make fun of Frances who sang in the choir, and one day she was overheard telling the pastor of an African church which used the fellowship hall on Sunday afternoons, “You people don’t know how to worship!”
The conflict was getting out of hand, Frances was in tears, the African church was offended, afraid to bring their drums on Sundays, and the sexton whose church it was began looking for other space to rent on Sundays. How to make it right? So the pastor tried to talk to the woman, using Jesus’ instructions about restoring community. He poured out his heart, explaining how she was hurting people in the congregation, trying to bring her back into the fold. She didn’t care.
Then my brother, Bill, and other leaders sat down with her and listened and talked, and listened and talked, trying to restore healing in the church. She didn’t think she had done anything wrong. She had a right to speak her mind! Finally, they took the disagreement to the whole church, and it was agreed that, while she was always welcome to come to worship, she could no longer hold any leadership positions in the church. The pain radiated through the congregation.
Not unlike the pain radiating through our country right now. Don’t have to wear a mask or social distance if I don’t want to! You can’t tell me not to go to the beach or the store! This is America, I can do what I want! And so the COVID-19 virus continues to spread and kill. As does the pandemic of racism, fueled by fear and hate.
We hear calls for Law & Order, but it’s not Law & Order when 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse grabs an assault rifle and drives across state lines and shoots three people Wisconsin. It’s not Law & Order when vigilantes chase Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and gun him down. It’s not Law & Order when Breonna Taylor was shot in her Kentucky apartment eight times in the middle of the night. It’s not Law & Order when a white couple sets up a sting at a U-Haul parking lot in Florida, thinking they will catch people trying to siphon gas and shoot at a black man and his 10-year old son when they return the truck they had rented in Florida. It’s not Law & Order when Jacob Blake is shot in the back seven times in front of his children.
It’s only Law & Order if they are applied equally and fairly to everyone, not just to those you hate! In the countless tragedies this summer, order was disrupted. Public trust was disrupted. Humanity was disrupted. And how many more deaths since then? Tragedy after tragedy.
How do we make things right? How do we restore ourselves to the community of each other as Jesus urges?
I was on a Council of Churches Zoom meeting with Rev. Howard Jenkins, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Providence this week, and we were talking about the shootings. This is not new to us, he said; we have been dealing with violence for 400 years. And I am reminded of the Klan and the lynchings, for as minor a sin as a black woman not stepping off the sidewalk to allow a white man to pass, or a black boy holding the door open for a white woman, causing her to be afraid. The fear which drove so many Black families to the north in spite of their love for the soil of the South.
As a country, we are finally waking up. Black athletes want more than huge salaries; they want to make a difference in how their communities are treated, Sports teams are beginning to take a stand. According to a recent study reported by the Providence Journal, there is significant racial bias in RI traffic stops, a problem that police department in several communities are attempting to address, “trying to make it right,” in an attempt to end mistreatment of people of color, people who are simply going about their lawful business.
I can’t say it doesn’t affect us here in Foster. Too many of my friends and colleagues are shattered by what is going on in this country. And I realize that it’s not enough to have black and brown friends from different races – I also need to work to end racism that is built into the system. I need to ask “How can I make it right?
Rev. Chontell Washington, who was here at my Installation two years ago, is afraid every time her beautiful teenage son, C.J, goes out, he will be shot simply because he is black. Rev. Linda Watkins, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Pawtucket, who was here for my Installation, is appalled that police shot a black father in the back seven times in front of his children. “What can’t people see about this wrong?” she asked. “What doesn’t White society get?”
Marilyn Kendrix, one of our Conference Ministers who presided at my Installation, and preached a year ago at Rice City, wrote in August in the Conference bulletin:
“As horrific as the video-taped murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis was,
it was the orders shouted to Mr. Floyd that pierced my heart as I foolishly watched
that video again and again. “Get up, man. Get up and get in the car” is what someone
orders Mr. Floyd to do while three police officers kneel on his neck and back.
Get up, while we hold you down.
“Those words could be used as a summary of life in America for black people over the centuries,” she writes, “and is still true for hundreds of thousands of black and brown people today. Get up, while I hold you down. The insistence over the last 40 years that black people in the inner city need to take personal responsibility for their lives while obstacles and barriers are erected to prevent just that is what systemic racism looks like.”
Rev. Kendrix continues to give current examples and ends with:
“It is not hard to see where a lack of justice exists in America. It has always been hiding in plain sight. And we disciples of Jesus are called to seek justice in the land. It is the work of us Christians to insist that our nation no longer keep its knee on the neck of our siblings in Christ. It is our work to do to find ways to reclaim all those who have been systemically shut off from the blessings of living in this land. We can no longer be complacent or apathetic when our nation says to the least of these, “get up, while we hold you down!”
Jesus says to his disciples, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. … For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We wonder what this means. But we pray it every Sunday in the Lord’s Prayer, do we not? “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” We ask that God’s realm – heaven – a place we imagine as loving and peaceful and just, will come to us here on earth.
But it won’t come by itself. We have to enlist the broken-heartedness of the whole body, and we have to pour out our hearts and souls to each other, not to punish, but to restore each other to the community – those who are afraid, and those who are held down, those who are angry, and those who are distrustful, those who think they can do whatever they want because this is America, and “Don’t tread on me!” As a nation, we have to learn to live together through conflict, reconciling people different from each other. And when we do, Jesus will be in our midst, as he promised. And we will be the Church.
May it be so! Amen.