LETTING GOD BE GOD
Matthew 20: 1-16
If you didn’t get to see my Children’s Message today because you are receiving this message by mail, I’ll tell you of its point. I made an agreement with our worship team, saying I needed them to be in the sanctuary at a certain time. Three of them were there on time, and so I gave them each a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. The others came in later, but I still had candy so I gave them each one too! They too are my friends! The ones ready on time got the deal I told them about; the second ones got more than they expected. But the ones on time were not happy that I gave the same candy to the others. Matthew tells us words that people repeat again and again even today: sometimes “the last shall be first, and the first last.” In potluck fellowship dinners before Covid, we often had people arrive early. They chose the table they wanted and waited for others to gather. They eyed the plates of food as people brought them in and placed them on the buffet table. As they eyed the food they wanted, an emcee called people to attention, asked me to offer a prayer, and then—surprise—she called tables either at random or on her own whim, and the table where the first people sat was not first. Was there resentment? Was there a cry of “unfair?” Or did they say, “It’s just dinner.” Issues of fairness and the grace of the giver are at odds in this parable. Here’s another example. When I was applying to colleges my A- average in high school and my SAT and ACT grades produced no scholarships for me. So my college tuition was $4500 a year- no scholarship. My Dad sat with me and said he had to save some money for my three other siblings to attend college too, but he would pay half the cost each year, and I was expected to pay for the rest. So each summer I came home and worked at Six Flags Over Mid-America for $1.70 and hour, and was our church Assistant Custodian for $2.35 an hour. During the school year, I applied to be and became the Head Waiter at Mary Ann’ sorority, and that kept my fraternity expenses down! But I heard how many fraternity brothers were at college on scholarships: some from in state, some from other states. Their costs were much less than mine. Still, it never occurred to me to dwell on that. There was an agreement for tuition I had, and an agreement that others received. When my own children went to University of Florida, they earned what are called Bright Futures Scholarships, which made their tuition zero or nearly zero. The big expense then was housing, but they learned, and I learned, how many others paid the full in-state tuition, some paid out of state tuition, and some attend for free on athletic scholarships. This is how the world works. There are agreements, and there are gifts.
Now, let’s turn the screws a little tighter. Years ago, there were some people of color who were invited to attend places of higher education through grants called Affirmative Action. Some Anglo persons felt offended because the others attended for less money and perhaps even lower qualifications. To some it was a gift; to others it was an outrage. I remember a cry went up among those in my parent’s circle of friends who resented it. But like my college tuition, I paid what my college said was the tuition. College Boards and Administrators decided who to invite from other states, or from other religious or cultural backgrounds. My deal was an agreement; a tuition amount. Their offer to attend was more like a gift. I think a reason Jesus tells us this parable is to name situations when we feel slighted; to name situations when others feel slighted, and to help us deal with our feelings regarding an agreement from a boss, a school, or a parent, and a gift any of those persons offer.
In this time of heightened awareness of how people of color are treated at traffic stops or even in their own apartment, I looked back over my life. These days I am more aware of my privilege as a white male. In the three traffic stops in my life, I was nervous about getting a ticket, but never nervous about losing my life. I was shocked to learn the parents of black teenagers have to give their sons “the talk,” not about sex, but about how to react when they are pulled over in a traffic stop. We live in such different realities because of the color of our skin. In the time our daughter was getting ready to accept her call to ministry and then put on the mantle of “Chaplain,” I learned how differently she was treated as a woman in ministry. Even now, she has some people ask for a male chaplain, and she gets one for them. I’ve never had someone ask for a different pastor, or different teacher! But this truly happened to me: when I was being tested for ministry in the Presbytery of Arkansas, I had over 40 minutes of questions put to me, much longer than anyone else. I learned later it was not because I was a white male, but because I was a Yankee from Princeton Seminary. The Secretary in my first church in Arkansas told me she had never met an actual Yankee ‘till she met me! And that was my welcome to ministry! I only know my own experiences; I really don’t truly know what it is like to be female in America, or an LGBT or Q person, or a person of color in America. My feeling is, people like me: male, white- could easily be asked to work at 5:00 p.m. and be given the same wage as the crack of dawn laborers. In Arkansas my congregation taught me that when I was bringing up uncomfortable topics from the pulpit, that I was “meddling.” Today I’m meddling. I think as I see our world, my Bible call me to “meddle.” People are reacting to issues of agreement and of grace in intense ways. But it is not new. The book of Genesis is filled with favoritism and human reactions.
Mary Ann suggested that we watch a movie two weeks ago called “The Green Book.” I knew nothing about it, but I’ve learned to trust my librarian wife’s recommendations. What a phenomenal film. It is based on the true story of a black man named Don Shirley. He was highly educated, getting degrees from the Catholic University of America, and from St. Petersburg Conservatory. As a cultured concert pianist and composer living in New York City and being treated as a treasure, he decided to have his manager arrange a tour to the deep south to perform. That was in 1962! He was wise enough to know he’d need a good, strong, protector/driver to take him from concert to concert. He chose an Italian American named Tony, who had street smarts but no higher education. Tony was given “The Green Book” as they set out, but Dr. Shirley had no idea what was really in store during their journey. Tony could have accommodations wherever he chose along the way; and Tony could eat wherever he chose along the way, but Dr. Shirley, the featured performer, could not eat at the venues that invited him; he could not use the restroom at venues that invited him; and he could not stay in the decent hotels where Tony could stay. He had to stay in flophouses for “Negros” listed in “The Green Book.” The full name of the book was “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” listing recommended places for people of color to eat and stay. The carte blanche that was given to Tony, and that were withheld from Dr. Shirley, the featured artist, was eye-opening. The film was not without controversy: family members of Dr. Shirley said all depictions were not accurate, but my point is this: if ever there was a black man who was not treated fairly, whose contract had no asterisks about accommodations, here is one example. But he is not the only example. Sometimes there are groups in our nation that can get better treatment as the 5:00 p.m. arriver (metaphorically speaking) than others who have worked hard for the same … or less. A Harvard Study published in December of 2018 concluded that the “Gender Wage Gap” was wider than we thought, with women only earning half the income of men in the same positions. I’ve never been in that situation. And I keep trying to step into the shoes of “the others.” Jesus did that all the time. I suspect he was trying to reach people like me, and perhaps people like you, when he told this parable.
Last Tuesday a story in the Orlando Sentinel intrigued me. A Central Florida man of color was jogging in his Deltona neighborhood when he was detained by a Volusia County Sheriff’s deputy saying he matched the description of a burglary suspect. He was suddenly surrounded by deputies. The man, after being detained, was told he was no longer a suspect, and was released. All were safe. But it occurred to me: I used to walk at night for my exercise, with a dark jacket and ball cap and headphones on through two subdivisions. I mean night: 9:00 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mary Ann finally told me to stop, thinking I might get mugged. Neither of us thought I might be identified as a suspect for something. But why not? Sheriff Chitwood turned a bad situation into a good one: he invited the black man to participate in the department’s bias training series. My mind went back to the 2016 Brock Turner case, a 19-year-old white male who assaulted a 22 year old female while she was unconscious. He was indicted on five charges and convicted on three felonies. For his heinous acts, he served just 3 months in jail.
What must it be like to be “the other?” The one who is treated differently? How do you feel when others seem to get treatment that you have not gotten, either because of money, or influence, or skin color, or gender? There are people in this very congregation who went from a white-collar world of privilege to getting up every morning at 4 am to be at the labor pool, shoveling rocks, along with others, for $40.00 a day. It can happen; It does happen. Many people say, “There but by the grace of God go I.” But does that imply that God withholds hold grace from others, but has chosen to make you feel blessed? It’s worth pondering as our Christian heart call us to see people as “children of God,” and not as “those others.” Some say Jesus offered this parable to describe how the Jews who were following Jesus were treated as favored, while Gentiles who chose to follow Jesus had to prove their devotion. Even Peter and Paul wrestled with how to welcome Gentiles who wanted to follow “The Way.” How will you react when God sheds extra grace, even amazing grace, on someone else instead of on you? We can give thanks for grace, but we should not expect it. God gets to do whatever God chooses to do! That’s God’s job description! “I Am Who I Am!” Let God be God.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 20, 2020