Help Needed in the Vineyard of the Lord: Thoughts on the Church Following the Election

This is an excerpt from a Sermon I preached at Lynchwood Christian Church in Portland, OR on November 13th:

Matthew 20:1–16

The Laborers in the Vineyard

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,[a] he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.[b] 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.[c] 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?[d] 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’[e] 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”[f]

This week my mind has been racing. I’ve mostly been angry, but that anger hides something. I keep thinking about friends I’ve had throughout the years, friends who were immigrants, friends who were Muslim. Regardless of the results of the election, it feels like this whole cycle has been a referendum on whether or not those friends matter. The hateful rhetoric during the campaign, the spike in hate crimes since the election, the general xenophobia of our country at this moment seems to have been baptized at the polls. Mexicans, Muslims, and others are to blame for the misfortunes of our country…which, apparently, used to be great but isn’t anymore.

All of this worries me. It makes me wonder about the way forward. How do we as a country heal? How are the divisions to be repaired? These questions seem to come up after every election. But for this one in particular, in which the racial rhetoric has been so charged, I am worried for another reason.

I am worried not just because we as Disciples of Christ celebrate unity in the midst of diversity, but because the Gospel is inconveniently embodied by a figure who makes it difficult to go after the marginalized. Jesus was born, after all, to a Palestinian Jewish family who were on the move. They lived in an occupied land, in which they did not have political power. They were threatened by the powers of their day, forced to flee their country, to take refuge in Egypt while King Herod sent squads around searching for newborns.

Jesus’ ministry included preaching to the poor and encouraging the powerful to give up their power. He welcomed the stranger, told stories about the goodness of Samaritans and hung out with sinners and outcasts. He more than once denounced a member of his own tribe who criticized his ministry for being about the wrong kind of people.

Even his mother,when pregnant couldn’t help but praise God for the fact that “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

This is an inconvenient message for a Christian in America today.

Whatever it is we know and don’t know of the Gospel, we know that it took the form of a particular person in a particular place. And the truth is that if Jesus were to come back today, knowing what we know about how it went the first time, then today it wouldn’t be as a white American.

It would as someone on the move, a vulnerable family hoping for something more, who have no place to sleep. It would be as someone seeking refuge from a war torn land, or the threat of violence against their family. It would be as someone threatened by the police force of a state worried about it’s security.

If Jesus came back today, he’d probably be Mexican. Perhaps part of a family simply seeking to give themselves a better chance, drowning in a global economy that treats them like they’re disposable. Or he’d come back as a refugee in Syria seeking Asylum hoping that some place will take him in. Jesus would appear as one of these who are vulnerable.

With everything we know about Jesus in the Bible, about who he was, who he hung around with, how he embodied humanity, we can say this: If Jesus came back today, he wouldn’t be white in America.

Right now in our country we risk neglecting Jesus. Maybe we do it because of fear, but remember when the Messiah came the first time, the powers of his day sought to snuff him out because of their fear. Remember that Herod was afraid when he announced the slaughter of the innocents. Remember that the Romans were afraid Jesus would incite a revolt and so they executed him in the way reserved for political dissidents: on a cross.

If we’re not careful in this country right now, whether by intent or on accident, we will succeed in executing Christ because of our fear of those who are different than us.

This should trouble Christians in our country right now. This hateful rhetoric that demonizes the unseen, that scapegoats the immigrant is a threat to the Gospel. All of this should trouble us, not just because of the divisions in our country, though they are great. It should trouble us because of something I think is left out of our scripture today, but what I am sure is implied.

I think there are lots of vineyards we can be working in. The vineyard of the Lord isn’t the only vineyard we can work in. Some work in the Vineyard of social clubs and gatherings of friends. They want to hang out with the people they already know, and they want things to be the same. That Vineyard is safe. That vineyard is familiar. It needs workers too. They are important.

But the Vineyard of the Lord, well, that Vineyard is different. It does the work of a poor, immigrant, refugee, brown skinned, vulnerable person who came to preach the good news to the poor and oppressed, who came in the name of the one who constantly announces “do not be afraid!” It’s a vineyard of the Lord and it is like the kingdom of God.

And there is work to be done.

It is a vineyard looking for workers right now. It takes hard work. indeed, there have been people working diligently there for years. They have put in hard work, and they are not about to give it up. But they are ready for more to join.

The work of this Vineyard is love. Not the Sentimental stuff, but the powerful stuff. The kind that breaks down walls and builds relationships. The kind that is ever expanding

Today, at this moment in our country, the offer is there: which vineyard will we, as a church, choose to work in? The social club or the Gospel proclaiming, risk taking, table expanding, all-people-welcoming Church?

It is not good enough to be blameless right now. Right now, it is not okay to be “not be those racist people.” It’s not good enough to have not voted for Racism in this election or to have voted despite the racism.

The call of the church is greater than that. The call of the Church is to establish the Kingdom of God, on Earth as it is in heaven. It is to break down divisions, drive out fear, and be in solidarity with the vulnerable. This will require us to get out of our comfort zones. But we know we have the tools. We know that a Church like Lynchwood, a church that is made up of so many great people, is ready for the challenge.

For there is work to be done in the vineyard. There are neighbors to welcome: immigrant neighbors, Hispanic neighbors, Muslim neighbors. Our country is full of people right now who are afraid of what the future will bring. They are afraid that no one is with them. That they will be snuffed out by the powers that be.

Like Jesus was.

Let’s be church for them.

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