For many years I was in charge of planning and participating in church sponsored mission trips. Usually our one mission trip was to Marlinton, West Virginia, although eventually we added other mission trips to our summer offerings--to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and one year to Nogales, Mexico. So, Marlinton, West Virginia. It was a super-depressed area. In Marlinton we worked with Habitat for Humanity. We never worked at building new homes in Marlinton, though. That was because the Habitat there didn’t have enough money for NEW homes—we worked at renovating old homes, many of them, old trailer homes. We worked in many a trailer park over the years, actually. Since many of the volunteers were high school and college age, we went on our trips when the youth were out of school, during the summer—and it was always, always hot.Read More
June, 1991. I was just finishing up another week, another year directing vacation bible school at my church. Sixty-seven kids participated that June, along with 15 volunteer teachers, crafts people, and snack planners, preparers. It had gone well. I was on a high, actually. Lots of good vibes on that last day of VBS.
Now at my church, Immanuel Presbyterian, in McLean Virginia, the sanctuary is removed from the classrooms and offices. Between the sanctuary and the classrooms and offices is a small courtyard. I was in that courtyard, walking from the sanctuary, where end-of-week VBS exercises had just taken place--toward the classrooms, to help with the-end-of-week clean up, when I felt it. That feeling was profound, overwhelming. I stopped walking and just stood there. You know the phrase, “time stood still?” Well, I suppose it did. I don’t remember hearing anything or seeing anything, although surely there were other people in that courtyard, talking, laughing. I was alone with my feelings, under a courtyard tree.Read More
Knowing that we would be having special guests with us today, to talk about Meals on Wheels; and realizing that this is a slow time in the church calendar—we are in that ho -hum liturgical stretch between Christmas and Lent, I have strayed from the lectionary today. But don’t tell Presbytery—no, I’m kidding. It’s really ok for me to do that.
TODAY, I thought I would have us read some scripture passages that have to do with food, and we did that, right? The scripture passage from the Psalms and the one from Acts? After that, I thought I would say something truly remarkable and insightful about food from a religious perspective, based on the passages I chose for today, and that would be a lead-in for Marilyn’s, Debbie’s and Leigh’s presentation.Read More
Like all of us, I guess, with this ping-pong weather we are experiencing, I have been worried that snow is just around the corner—that one of these days I may find myself snowed in, and/or having to call off church. I have a bag of rock salt and a snow shovel at the ready. Will that be enough? I don’t know! Snowstorms. Not wanting one but they do make for some good stories.
My great snowstorm story happened when I was 9 years old, in March, 1962. I was living in Richmond, Virginia with the rest of my family. My younger brother, who was seven, and I had taken the bus to our elementary school that day. That morning, waiting for the bus, there was already significant snow on the ground. I was still light-weight enough that I could walk on the snow’s ice crust and not leave boot prints. Remember those days?Read More
Our text for today reminds us that Jesus had a family. He had a mother and a father, or at least a step father, Joseph.. Jesus also belonged to another family—though—an extended family. That extended family was “the Jews.” For that reason, Mary and Joseph have Jesus circumcised eight days after his birth. Circumcision for the Jews is sort of kind of like baptism for Christians—a demonstration that Jesus’ parents claimed their son’s Jewish ancestry. Ditto when in compliance with Jewish law and family tradition, they bring him to the temple so that they might offer the required sacrifices.
That Jesus’ parents were Jewish and that Jesus himself was a Jew has stuck in the craw of good Christians for as long as there have been Christians. That is because if Jesus was a Jew, that fact complicates our own relationship with Jews. They are certainly NOT part of OUR family, in the same way that our fellow church members are—But they ARE related to we who are Christians, religiously speaking, in a way that Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus are not.Read More
There’s no star in our scripture reading for today, but today I want to talk about a star anyway. I have always imagined a star hanging brightly over the barn in which Jesus, the shepherds, the holy family and the cows and donkeys, too, all congregated—even if the star didn’t really appear until sometime after. To add to my case, there ARE stars on Christmas trees—in fact there are stars on OUR church Christmas tree!
Today I want to talk about a star, because I, we all, think about stars at Christmas, and because it plays a significant role in the story I am about to tell you—which is a true Christmas story.Read More
I don’t much like Mary. There. I’ve said it. I know she is Jesus’ mother. I know she is meek and mild, an innocent child, Notre Dame, Queen of Heaven, Theokotos (a heavy sounding Greek word with theological meaning-- it means God bearer) and so on and on. But, I don’t like her. I don’t like her mainly because she betrays me, and all women, by holding herself up as the perfect woman. As a virgin and a mother, she is an impossible aspiration for us. Of course, it is not Mary’s fault, and I realize that, too. She never meant to betray us. She never imagined she would be that whom people have made her out to be. So maybe I should say that it’s not Mary, the flesh and blood person, I don’t like, but Mary’s image. I don’t appreciate the mythology Christians have created about Mary. She’s a siren, a female masthead; a mermaid, Super Woman— in other words, Mary is more than flesh and blood; she is a figment of peoples’ imaginations sometimes run amok, at least as far as I am concerned.Read More
If you were here last week, you heard me reel off a litany of awfulness perpetrated by human beings in the last year. Hard to believe, but it is true. There is a lot of sin going on—not petty sin, either. We’re talking wars, cruelty to people who are economically disadvantaged, or who have dark skin, or foreign accents, or are born in the “wrong” country. We’re talking sins perpetrated against animals and even children and infants. Then I followed that by sharing with you this truism —Just as you can’t change bad behavior until you acknowledge, it, you can’t acknowledge God’s redemption until you acknowledge what is fallen. Our culture, our society is fallen. Harder to admit, but equally true: each one of us is fallen. Especially in Advent we wait for God and God’s redemption of the world, and along with that, our own personal redemption.
It is coming—like molten, red hot volcanic rock, it is slowly creeping toward our cities and towns, yes, our houses, your school. The earth is quaking, we feel the lava’s heat—it’s just a matter of time till it is upon us in full force.Read More
On Friday morning in DC, where my newly married daughter and her husband Paul live-that is, after Thanksgiving Thursday, after Friday breakfast and after all the dishes had been unloaded from the dishwasher and returned to their cabinets-- my daughter and son-in-law and I took a morning stroll to the Dupont Underground. Where and what is the Dupont Underground? The Dupont Underground is as it suggests—it is at Dupont Circle, or the intersection of two busy streets—Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues. And it is underground, that is, under the heavily trod sidewalks of our nation’s capitol.Read More
ince today we are celebrating Thanksgiving with our church family, I thought my sermon should reflect that. Rather than start with scripture, I thought I would start us off by talking a little bit about our country’s very first Thanksgiving. Right away there is a problem, of course, As you are aware, it’s not clear where or when the first Thanksgiving actually happened. There are at least two different first Thanksgivings for us to consider: one is in Plymouth, New England and other is in Jamestown, Virginia. Actually there are THREE first Thanksgivings, if you count Berkeley 100—also in Virginia. But I’m getting ahead of myself.Read More
One of the Bible commentators I most appreciate is Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey. Dr. Bailey’s parents were Christian missionaries in Egypt and that is where Dr. Bailey was raised. As an adult Dr. Bailey spent many years working in the Middle East. Even in retirement he maintained an impressive title:: “Emeritus research professor of Middle Eastern New Testament studies for the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem.” Isn’t that amazing? If prestige is measured by number of words in a title, then Dr. Bailey is by far one of the most prestigious scholars I have ever come across. And, did I mention that he was fluent in Arabic? Sadly, he died last year. The world lost a deep thinker and a committed Christian theologian.Read More
Let me tell you what happened on Sundays at my house during my growing up years
Sundays were a drag. “Can’t we stay home today, just once? Why do we have to go to Sunday school?” My brother and I would whine. And yet, we went, every single Sunday. That is because my mother was a Sunday school teacher. She had to be there, and by golly if she had to be there, we had to be there too! It was up to my mother to get my brother and me fed and dressed, out the front door and into the car. She drove us to church. We were a sad and by the time we arrived at church, an exhausted family—not always, but at least some Sundays.
And where was our father on Sunday mornings? He slept in. When I was little I wondered why my father was allowed to stay home. I decided it was because he couldn’t sing. I knew he must be embarrassed. My mother could sing. She had a lovely voice. But my father? Why couldn’t he make his voice go up when it was supposed to go up, and down when it was supposed to go down? Standing next to him in church one Easter while we sang a hymn, it occurred to me that my perfect father, might actually have a flaw. I wouldn’t discover all his many OTHER flaws until I was a teenager. Then, the man I thought could do no wrong, became for a time, the man who could do no right. Ah the teen years!Read More
Last week, while preparing for last Sunday, I nearly went cross-eyed and mute, as I tried to make sense of a very difficult lectionary text. It was difficult, because it conflicts with other Biblical texts. I decided to pull you into my misery—why suffer alone? So, we explored together which of four texts, three of them scriptural, and one based on scripture, was the right text. In other words, we asked of our texts, “Will the real Jesus please stand up?”
This week, relief. The story we have in Matthew is told in Mark, and Luke, too. And the stories are almost word-for-word the same. In fact, some people have suggested that the gospel writers may have copied from each other—or most probably that Luke and Matthew, independently, each copied from Mark. However it was, we can be as certain as it is ever possible to be certain with a gospel text, that what I just read from Matthew a few minutes ago was true to Jesus’ own thoughts and words on the matter.Read More
There is a message for us in our text for today—which is Matthew 22:1-10—the parable of the great banquet. I promise, there’s a message. In order to get at that, though, you really have to understand something about the context in which the scripture passage was written. Sometimes, no joke, I will have four or five books open on my desk as I work with a scripture passage. That’s what I did this week as I worked with this passage. Today, since we are as hen’s teeth few, I thought I would invite YOU to sit with me at my study table, so to speak, as I work to interpret the scripture passage. We are going to engage in a Bible study together. I hope that by the end, we will all be a little bit wiser, and you will have a new appreciation of the work that goes into interpreting scripture.
So again, this is a Bible study. Since I don’t have enough copies of the books I used this week, I thought I would provide some helpful texts for you on our handouts.Read More
It’s enough to make your skin go all goose bumpy, and the hair stand up on the back of your neck—the fact that the same night we were in this place singing songs and praying prayers for an end to gun violence-- in another part of the country, a deranged killer was gathering together his weapons and loading his guns and in other ways making ready to shoot up a concert in Las Vegas. An outsider not familiar with our planning for the October 1 concert might have wondered, “Did the musicians and pastors and everyone else involved in the concert, have some foreknowledge about the shooting? Were those involved prophets in the tradition of Isaiah or Jeremiah? Yes, some people might think that it is just too much of a coincidence.
But of course, we weren’t prophets, Yet it was more than mere coincidence that the two events happened back to back. Sadly, it has been my experience that every time that the group with which I am affiliated, the Charlottesville Coalition for Gun Violence Prevention, has staged a vigil, held a symposium, or made a visit to congress, the country has either just suffered a mass shooting, or is about to. The fact is, mass shootings are just so very common. No sooner have news reporters put down their microphones having finished reporting on one mass shooting, then they are picking them up again, to report on another one. So far this year, there have been 273 mass gun shootings in the US—that’s almost one a day—although the vast majority do not make it past the local evening news. And just so you know a mass shooting is one in which at least 4 people are shot. That number, 273? Again, you getting goosebumps.Read More
When my three girls were young we lived in a suburban community of 300 homes outside of Washington, DC. That community was also near Tyson’s Corner which is a big, no humongous, shopping Mall an office center. Even though we lived on the outskirts of a city, though, and not far from Tyson’s, near our home was a farm, Evans Farm. It was the last holdout in a region that was, not so many years previously, all farmland. One particularly long and hot summer day, I packed a picnic lunch for the four of us, my three daughters and me. Then I put into little baggies the pieces of stale bread I had been saving. We headed for Evans Farm to feed the ducks that lived near the pond there. My plan was that we would pet and feed the little duckies, then spread our blanket under a kind shade tree and enjoy a meal and the summer weather. It would be one of those quality times with the kids.
Imagine three little girls in shorts and tennis shoes, jumping from the family van, clutching their little sandwich bags. Now further imagine ducks the size of small deer— encircling my girls as soon as those little tennis shoes hit the ground. These were not little duckies, oh no! These were large, killer ducks. They met my daughter’s frightened stares eyeball to eyeball. The ducks honked loudly, viciously. A few of the really aggressive ones, grabbed the baggies from my daughters’ hands. The girls broke through the horde of ducks and ran screaming to the nearest picnic table, which they climbed in short order. From the relative safety of the table top they shrieked: “Let’s go home now, Mommy.”Read More
Three weeks ago, it was Hurricane Harvey. That hurricane devastated Houston. Then on Thursday last week an earthquake in Mexico, 8.1 on the Richter scale--decimated parts of Southwestern Mexico; on Saturday of last week, that earthquake was followed by hurricane Katia. That hurricane touched down on the east coast of Mexico destroying buildings and rattling inhabitants. Then on Sunday, while we were in worship, Hurricane Irma hit Florida, and with such force that it demolished homes, and disrupted lives pretty much everywhere in the state. All the while, wild fires raged, and continue to rage in our nation’s northwestern states, decimating large swathes of land in Washington State, Oregon, Montana, California, and Colorado.
Blow the Trumpet in Zion, sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near!Read More
When I was living in Northern Virginia and attending Wesley seminary in Washington DC, I was enrolled in a class that started at the God-awful hour of 8 a.m. That meant I was up at daybreak, and on the road by 7:15. No time to eat breakfast or even fix myself a cup of coffee. Sometimes in my drive in to DC, I stopped in at a 7-11 to buy a donut and coffee. In 7-11’s parking lot, near the parking lot’s entrance and fronting a busy street, a group of Spanish speaking men huddled—always. They wore jeans, T-shirts and work boots. They were to me then, just part of the landscape I assumed that they were on their way to work. Where? How? I didn’t know.
I began to wonder about them, though, when after seminary, I had a preaching assignment—one of my first. The scripture I was assigned to preach from was the text before us. Jesus’ parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.
Was it, as I suspected, that the men at that 7-11 were like the men in today’s parable? Was it perhaps known in Northern Virginia as probably it was known at town and village squares in Judah back 2000 years ago—that there were gathering places to go to, if you wanted to hire someone or several someones to plant trees or put up a fence?
It occurred to me then, that if there WAS a clear parallel between those men at the 7-11 and the men in Jesus’ parable, I might be able to make the parable relevant to today. I could pull it into the present, so to speak. But, I needed to find out more in order to do that.
A member in the congregation I was serving, knew someone who worked at Legal Aid for Social Justice. And just so you know Legal Aid is a non-profit organization that provides legal services for low income communities—including immigrant communities. I got the phone number for lawyer Tim, who speaks fluent Spanish and works mostly with the immigrant community in the DC area. I made the call.
I am always wary of talking religion to someone I don’t know. It’s not really politically correct, you know? But I plunged in. Told him I am a pastor. Glory be! Tim had just put the finishing touches to a big project. He was ready to take a breather. Not only that! Tim identified himself as a fellow Christian AND he was familiar with Jesus’ parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard! So, in what follows, I am filling you in on what Tim told me then—that is, 20 years ago. I’m getting this from notes I took at that time.
Tim said, “Those Spanish speaking day laborers are mostly undocumented. They arrive in the parking lot between 7 and 7:30 in the morning. They do not own cars. They use public transportation or they bum a ride to get there. A manager type from a landscaping company, say, pulls up in his truck, and offers to pay the men $8 an hour—something like that. The men who accept the wage, jump into the back of the truck and off they go. Their work day is long—10, 12 hours maybe.”
So, at $8 an hour—that was back in 2007, 10 hours a day—that’s $80, or $450 dollars a week, if the worker works every day. Not bad. Tim said, though, “The greater part of a day-laborers’ wages goes toward housing and in the DC area, housing is expensive.” Tim actually knew a day laborer who rented a reclining chair—He had chair privileges at a DC apartment from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. That’s how tight cheap housing was, and probably still is in the DC area. Tim stressed though, that besides paying for housing, many of these men are sending money “home” to Mexico, Guatemala, and other countries South of the border.
I asked Tim what happens to those men who do NOT get a job first thing in the morning. He said, “Well, some of them wait around. They might go to a different parking lot. Sometimes employers make another round before lunch, and then there is another wind after school lets out—that’s around 3 p.m.” That sounded so like our parable that I said, “Wow! Are you surprised that what happens at 7-11’s in this country has been going on since Jesus’ day?” Tim laughed and said, “Well, not at all! It’s been happening for a long time and it happens all over the world. Arnold Schwartznegger was a day laborer and so was Pope John Paul the Second.”
I had one more question for Tim. “What would happen if this parable actually played out? I mean, what would happen if some lucky Miguel or José spent nine hours sitting around the 7-11 parking lot and then was picked up at the end of the day? What if he worked one hour and was paid an entire day’s wages? Would his fellow day laborers, those who had worked a full day, be envious? Would they grumble and swear and would the braver, angrier ones demand justice from the boss man—a justice based on equal pay for equal work?”
Surprising for me, and maybe for you, too, to Tim’s mind, this is where the parallel breaks down—the parallel between Jesus’ parable and the real life stories of the day laborers at 7-11.
Tim said, “I really don’t see that happening. The immigrant day laborers I know are really close knit. For instance, I’ve seen what happens when one of them dies. They pool their money together so that their buddy’s body can be sent home to receive a family burial. I think these men would rejoice in the one’s good fortune.”
They would rejoice and not grumble? Could that possibly be? Doesn’t that seem like a stretch? It did to me.
Our conversation came to an end soon after. I wrote my sermon. It was based in part on my conversation with Tim. I remember having conflicted feelings then, even though though I didn’t share my con conflicted feelings with the congregation. I was conflicted because I was not so certain that Eye would rejoice at another’s good fortune—particularly if I had put in nine hours of backbreaking labor, walking away from the work site dirty and tired, while my fellow worker walked away after an hour of work—clean and fresh and with a spring in his step. Was that so wrong?
Now, twenty years later, and I’m still wrestling with the Day Laborers in the Vineyard. Such is the nature of Jesus’ parables.
Some things, though, have changed. Today the US does not take so kindly to undocumented workers. This week as I sat at my desk, I wondered if day laborers from places South of the border even dare to congregate in the open. Like I did 20 years ago, I thought about people I might contact to find out more. Lana Heath de Martinez! She and I work together on a Presbytery Committee. She is married to a Mexican immigrant. They live in Richmond. She preached here a couple of years back. Lana is now employed by the Virginia Interfaith Center. She and her husband are active in Virginia’s sanctuary movement.
So, on Tuesday of this week, I phoned Lana. Like Tim, she was generous with her time. My first question for Lana: “Do Spanish speaking day labors still gather in parking lots hoping to snag jobs? Or is that too risky in today’s political climate?”
Lana said, “It may be risky, but they still gather. I know some of them. One of their favorite gathering places in Richmond is the parking lot at Lowes Hardware Store.” Lana said that undocumented workers are willing to take risks because of the dire poverty in their home countries. “In Venezuela for example?” Lana said, “Inflation is making it impossible to buy even necessities. Toilet paper sells for $40 a roll. And in Mexico? Hard work gets you no where—there is so much corruption that even if you have a job, and you make money, you end up giving it away to cartels.”
And then I asked her the question I had asked Tim, thinking this time, I might get a different, or at least a more nuanced answer. “What if the parable of the Day laborers in the Vineyard was actually played out among the men you know in Richmond? What if a day laborer who worked one hour got the same pay as a day laborer who worked ten hours?”
Surely LANA would affirm that Jesus’ parable rings true. I wrote down Lana’s answer so that I could be sure to share it with you word for word. She said this: “Honestly, Gay Lee, the men I know would celebrate that one of their own got paid a full day’s wage for only working one hour.”
Surely this could not be right. I argued with her, some. I said, “Don’t you think MOST people would be angry? Don’t you think most people abide by the idea of equal pay for equal work?” And then I admitted, finally, out loud, that I feared in similar circumstances, I myself would be angry.
Lana, was sympathetic, but she explained. “You’ve got to understand. These men depend on each other. They lean on each other. Undocumented workers, they can’t get a loan from a bank. If a crisis happens, and they need money? They borrow money from a fellow immigrant in their immigrant community. Good fortune for one is good fortune for all.”
And that is where we left it. With me still trying to wrap my mind around how poor immigrant workers could be more generous than, well, more generous than I am.
They are more generous than I am. Isn’t that a marvel. I have a good job, or rather jobs, money in the bank, a car and health insurance. Yet, they are more generous than I am. Could it be? Jesus ends his parable with this insight: The last will be first and the first will be last. If that really is true
This week I am pulling us back to the lectionary. By the end of today’s service, we still won’t be in sync with the lectionary cycle, but we will be closer to being in sync. It may make no difference to you at all, that we have been out-of-sync, actually, but it makes MY life complicated and I could use less complication in my life.
So, today we are studying last week’s lectionary passage with a backward glance at the week’s lectionary passage before that, and then maybe next week, although no promises here--the state of our world being what it is—with hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis—then, maybe, we will finally, finally, be back where we are supposed to be! Got all that? Or are you right now thinking, Lectionary Smectionary? Let us at least be thankful that we are not Episcopalians. If we were Episcopalians, the Bishop would have shut us down by now!Read More
This week, I needed Houston, maybe this week we all needed Houston. But I definitely needed Houston.
For several weeks, since August 12th, I have been in a funk, as all of Charlottesville, as probably most of the nation, as no doubt YOU have been in a funk. We didn’t know until August 12th that there was this element, this hateful, gun-toting, angry element—or maybe even a movement, let’s hope not, but at least an element, among us. Yes, this “element” --we have been rubbing shoulders with, maybe standing in line at the grocery store with, maybe sitting next to in the movie theater with —yes, this element, we didn’t know about--until August 12th. This angry, despicable element has its collective teeth clenched in rage, and its collective finger on the trigger.Read More