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
We’ve known each other long enough now—2 ½ years. In that time, you have probably picked up on the fact that I have three grown daughters. During my time here, I have not bored you with tales of my daughters’ beauty, and well, their brilliance. I have not listed for you their astounding number of accomplishments. Yes, I have tried not to brag, which is difficult to do, as you know if you are a parent or a grandparent.
Well, today I am going to tell you a story that puts my oldest daughter in a good light—which I hope you won’t regard as bragging, but probably is.
Emily is in her mid-thirties now. She lives in Nashville with her husband, Adam. When Emily was in her first few weeks of high school, so a LONG time ago, she told me that she was going with her friend, Felippa, to her high school’s cross-country-track tryouts. Now, Emily herself was not a sports enthusiast. As a young person she had participated in Girl Scouts and Jr. High orchestra, but not sports. Feilppa, though, was into sports and she wanted to try out for track. So Emily went, with her. Her purpose: to cheer Felippa on from the sidelines.Read More
We, all of us, I suspect, know about the witness of Heather Heyer, her death, on Saturday and her subsequent memorial service on Wednesday. You really couldn’t get away from it, even if you tried.
Heather’s story has reminded me of that of another young woman. I thought I would start today’s sermon by telling you about this second young woman.
Her name was Amy Biehl. Amy was born in April, 1967. She was raised in a white, affluent, Roman Catholic family in Newport Beach, California. As a young woman she was attractive---thin, but not skinny, with long blond hair and an almost ear-to-ear broad smile—you know like she is eating a banana sidewise—at least that is what I gathered from the pictures of her on the internet. Amy was bright, too. She graduated from Stanford University. In 1992, she received a Fulbright Scholarship to continue her studies at the University of the Western Cape, in Cape Town, South Africa.Read More
OK. Here is what we need to learn from today’s text: Jesus often calls us to go into uncharted waters, but when we go in faithfulness, he will not abandon us. Take heart, then. You got that? Keep your eyes on Jesus and do not be afraid.
Now I have done my pastoral duty. I have told you what I am supposed to tell you according to the commentaries I read this week.
But that’s not the whole story—or at least I don’t think it is the whole story. Let me tell you what I know to be true. Dealing with fear is complicated. Overcoming fear is not as easy as having faith, and being fearful in certain situations—say an upcoming surgery, or the president’s threat of using force against North Korea, or almost drowning as was the case with Peter--those kinds of fears are totally natural and not a sign of faithlessness. Got it? You are not deficient in your faith if you are fearful in situations like that, no matter what the commentators say.
I want to share with you here, an example of what I am talking about.Read More
Last week if you were at Chestnut Grove, you know that I preached on the Stonewall Jackson and the Robert E. Lee statues controversy, taking place right now in Charlottesville. In preparation for that service, I did my share of re-reading some of the works of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today I want to start off by sharing with you something about my relationship with that man. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, as you probably know by now. I was a child during most of the Civil Rights movement. It was for me, like a distant, rumbling thunder cloud—that movement. a backdrop to a privileged, joyful childhood. During my growing up years, I was mostly blind to the ugliness of segregation.
Even though segregation did not really impact my early years, though, I do have random memories surrounding the political turmoil of that time. Amazing the impressions and conversations we remember from long ago—they are like friendly post-it notes stuck to our brains, written by a younger me, accessed by a now older me.Read More
This is such an opportunity for all of us. Don’t you feel a sense of righteousness, just by walking through church doors when we worship together—Black and White people, united in Christ? We are doing what Jesus calls us to do—to grow in wisdom and to learn to love each other better. We do that, by praying and singing together, and catching up on each others lives.
Sharing our personal stories is the main way we come to love each other better. We can’t love each other, if we don’t know each other and we can’t know each other unless we know something about each others’ lives—what has made us who we are.Read More
Last Saturday, sitting at my dining room table, eating breakfast, I skimmed the Daily Progress. I do that every morning, so nothing new here. One of the articles I skimmed though, was by the Christian writer Tom Allen. It was titled, “Why do we know right from wrong?” It’s a good question. “Why do we know right from wrong?”
Mr. Allen tells of an e-mail he received from someone in another country. The e-mailer says she is living in a refugee camp. Her father, who evidently did not live in the camp, has died. Her father left her money, but because she cannot leave the camp, she needs help retrieving it. He, Tom Allen, is just the person to provide her with financial help! If he will loan her money this one time, she will repay his kindness many times over with the inheritance money she receives. Right.Read More
Several years ago, a friend and member of the church I used to serve in McLean, telephoned me. She had good news! Her daughter was getting married. Yes, Blair was engaged to a fine man named Chad. The wedding was going to be at Veritas Vineyard—just outside of Charlottesville. Could I officiate? Of course I could—I would be delighted! During the course of our conversation, my friend said, “You know it’s so funny. Several times now I have referred to them as Chair and Blad.” As in, Chair and Blad have finally set the date! We laughed. Chair and Blad.
I made a mental note right then and I returned to that mental note, as I crafted the wedding service—“DO NOT say Chair and Blad; Do not say Chair and Blad.” And of course, the day of the wedding. What did it say? “We come here to celebrate the marriage of Chair and Blad.” AGH!Read More
You need to give me an A+ for being your preacher. That is because I have taken on the ominous task of studying some of Reinhold Niebuhr’s works— so that I can share some of his thoughts with you. Believe me, that deserves an A+ or maybe a special plaque on a wall here in the church?
Now, I know I should have studied Reinhold Niebuhr back in seminary. He is regarded as THE greatest Christian ethicist of the 20th century. Among the many religious and political thinkers who have been shaped by his writings are Martin Luther King, Jr and my favorite theologian, Walter Wink; also people who live and move and have their being in the political realm: Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, James Comey, Madeleine Albright, John McCain, David Brooks (he’s a political commentator) and many folks who worked in both the Regan and Bush administrations. He has been referred to as a public theologian. In his day he preached before great crowds of Americans—of all religious persuasions and even of no religion persuasion.Read More
John was born in 1725—in England. His mother died when he was seven. She had been a strong woman, spiritually. Taught him how to pray, even saw that John memorized some scripture. But then she died. That left John’s dad, John Senior—in a quandary. What should he do? He had a thriving business—in the shipping industry—but it required that he travel— a lot. No time or inclination to look after a little boy. John Sr. did what he thought best. He sent John, Jr. to boarding school.
Only for a couple of years, though. John Sr. remarried and retrieved his son. John Jr., his dad and the new wife lived together under one roof. Then John Sr. and his wife had a baby boy.
Now up to this point, John’s life seems pretty heart-wrenching, right? Small boy having to wrestle with the grief of losing a mother, coupled with feelings of abandonment in boarding school. Probably he competed for his dad’s affections with wife number two and then his half brother. But John’s life was about to take a turn for the better. John Senior got it into his head that John Jr. should accompany him on his sea travels.Read More