Here’s the road map for this time together this morning:
Five years ago a fellow named Dan Price, who was the CEO of a payment-processing company called Gravity Payments, decided that all of his 120 employees were going to make $70,000 a year. He himself had made over a million dollars the previous year, but he cut his own salary in order to fund this shift in compensation structure. As a young, white college student, he had founded the company with his older brother and they had done very well. So now, at the age of 31, he decided that all of his employees were going to make $70,000 a year.
For those already making close to that amount, this wasn’t much of a raise. Some employees grumbled that they worked hard but were now yoked to other employees who just clocked in and out and didn’t pull their weight. They felt it was hardly fair. But for an administrative assistant just hired a few months earlier, this raise was huge. She worried that she hadn’t earned it, wasn’t worth that much.
Some client companies withdrew their business, saying that this company had turned communist or socialist. They worried that this set a dangerous precedent that they couldn’t follow with their own employees. They worried as well that the cost of doing business with this company would rise. It didn’t.
Turns out it isn’t easy to live into a real-life example of the landowner paying all the workers the same wage. And yet, this company continues to do well. It is intentional about putting women and people of color in positions of responsibility. It is doing its best to walk the talk. [Patricia Cohen, New York Times, https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/seattle-company-copes-with-backlash-on-70000-minimum-wage/, and Gravity Payments website, https://gravitypayments.com/.]
So it turns out that living into this parable of the landowner in a literal way has been done. And people involved had the whole range of reactions that we saw in the parable. Some delighted at being included but feeling unworthy; others envious or angry and grumbling that it wasn’t fair.
Let’s take a closer look at this parable. Think about who gets hired first and who gets hired last. For a landowner looking for vineyard workers, he might pick the young, healthy, strong men first. As the day wore on, maybe he picked workers who were older, less sturdy. Maybe he added women, people of color, foreigners who didn’t speak the language. By the end of the day he might have been picking people who were blind or had Downs Syndrome or were missing an arm.
And then he paid them all the same wage. Whether they had worked hard all day or come in the last hour; whether they were able-bodied and strong or weak and infirm.
The parable begins by saying, “The realm of God is like this.” God invites all of us to labor in God’s vineyard and values all of us equally. We can be White or Black or Brown; heterosexual male or lesbian female or nonbinary or trans; young, old; able-bodied or physically challenged. Whoever and however we are, God offers us a place in the field and affirmation of our value. God is the ground of our being, the field itself in which we live and work. We are all a part of it, all connected, all valued.
This invitation to work in the vineyard is full of grace. The landowner goes out repeatedly, keeps looking, keeps inviting all day long. God seeks us out, keeps offering, keeps affirming our value—even when we don’t believe we have any. Criminals and straight-arrow types, those with graduate degrees and those who can’t read, those who have had every opportunity and those who have been oppressed all their lives. Yep. There is room in this vineyard for every last one of us.
On Friday we lost Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She staked her ground on making the case to a bunch of white male judges that women were being treated as second-class citizens in the very laws of our land. Sure, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”—but women, not so much. And because she was good at arguing the law, she was instrumental in changing the law so that women now have more rights than they once did. In the terms of our parable, she insisted that women be hired to work in the vineyard and be paid the same as everyone else. May she rest in peace, and may her work for justice and equality for all people endure.
I recently saw a documentary called Crip Camp, about a camp for disabled youth. Some people who came to this camp were so challenged that it was hard to understand what they were trying to say. But they were all welcome. They formed really tight bonds, because the level of acceptance and empowerment and love they experienced there was transformative. They were affirmed in their value as human beings who have much to contribute.
Years later, some of them became involved in the fight to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because many of them had stayed in touch with each other, they were able to band together and fight the fight. And eventually they won. Because they stuck together, supported each other, and found more people to join in the work. At one point you see some of them hoisting themselves up the steps of the Supreme Court because, of course, there was no wheelchair-accessible entrance. But they were determined to be in that courtroom, even if it took them half the day to pull themselves up the steps. They were there to say that they were invited to work in the vineyard, too, that they had value, but they needed some curb cuts and elevators and accessible bathrooms.
And then there’s marriage equality. Those who opposed it tried to make the argument that somehow allowing same-gendered couples to marry degraded and devalued marriage for heterosexual couples. And here the words of the landowner in the parable seem especially relevant. When those who worked all day complain that the landowner has made the others equal to them, the landowner replies, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong…. I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:13-15)
This has been a summer of Black Lives Matter demonstrations. We know that this country is built on centuries of slavery and oppression of Black men and women. We know that Black people have been underpaid and overworked all that time, continuing even today. And that God says in the kingdom, all are invited to the work, all are valued the same, all are paid the same. Can we accept that? Some people say, “Well, all lives matter—why are we just singling out Black lives?” Yes, all lives matter. And until we recognize that Black lives have been undervalued, abused, and oppressed for centuries, we will not be living into the realm of God, where all are invited and valued the same. So we need to make special efforts to affirm that Black lives matter.
Some of us have been reading Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. The author talks about companies who bring her in to discuss increasing the diversity of the work force, but when she mentions that our whole society is built on systemic racism—that the very people in this company are racist—some White people are so upset that they leave the presentation or start yelling. They refuse to engage, refuse to accept that Black people have the same value or that White people benefit in this society from White privilege, or that they, as White people, could be racist. I suspect they would be among those in the parable grumbling about the equal pay. They think that racist people are bad people, that racism is limited to individual bad acts and bad actors: a single police officer who kneels for too long on the neck of a Black man who may have had a counterfeit $20 bill. But the truth is we live in a racist society—we are soaking in it. We are good people, and until we learn to see and deal with our own racism, we are powerless to change it.
We like hierarchies. We like to feel superior. We like to feel as if we have earned our way. God says there is no earning God’s love or God’s grace or God’s invitation to join in the work. It is all a gift—for everyone. And for those who love to feel superior, that equality makes them crazy and mean. We see that playing out every day in this country: people who would rather be crazy mean than equal.
You notice that we read our working covenant today. In the Declaration of Independence, the words “all men are created equal” needed some further explicit definition and expansion, because originally the people created equal meant White men who owned land. Those words did not include slaves or women or a whole lot of others. In the same way, it is possible that the broad and inclusive words of welcome in our covenant may need some explicit and detailed refining. So we’re going to spend a few minutes reading and brainstorming as the start to a process of determining whether to amend this document. And if you would like to be part of a group that works further on possible revisions, that can happen.
At this time, Jerry is going to put the working covenant back on the screen for us to read again to ourselves. As you read, please consider whether we could add language that would explicitly welcome people of color, perhaps recognizing the challenges of White privilege and racism. We’ll give you some time to read the covenant, and then we will open things up for some brainstorming.
Questions to consider:
Do you feel that we need to change anything?
In what section of the covenant might we want to address this issue?
How do we convey to newcomers that we are working on this issue as an ongoing process?
OUR WORKING COVENANT
We covenant to be a community of God's people
-- Drawn together by our common faith in Jesus the Christ
-- Sustained by God's grace and love
-- Committed to a personal search for God.
We covenant to be a learning community of faith
-- Young and old
-- That seeks to understand the roots of our heritage,
the guides from other traditions and
the emerging truth from our present experience.
We covenant to be a supporting church family
-- To nourish each other
-- To listen and respond to each other's needs
-- To share our resources, talents and skills
-- To celebrate the richness of our church family and
of the gifts of God to us.
We covenant to be open and affirming
-- Of ourselves as God accepts us,
-- Of all people as God accepts us all,
-- Of our ordinariness and uniqueness,
in our personal struggle to find God.
-- Of our sexual orientation,
-- Of our different physical, mental and emotional abilities.
We covenant to be good stewards of God's creation
-- Healers and anointers of Christ's body, the earth and all life
-- Caretakers of our body, mind and spirit
-- Tithers of our time, talent and treasure
-- Proclaimers of God's care and love by
witnessing in the community
-- Actors toward justice and peace for all God's people
-- Supporters and celebrators of individual efforts
no matter how small.
(Adopted November, 1978, Revised 1985, 2005)