Late to the Field

Now I see. We are the laborers going to work almost at the end of the day.

The “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” (Matthew 20) sounds different now that I’ve been protesting personally. I used to preach on it in a congregation with the assumption that the parable was about being part of the Body of Christ that is the Church. I assumed that regular church-goers would identify with those who went to work at the beginning of the day. That they needed to be encouraged not to look down on people who didn’t share their commitment to regular worship or church involvement. The attitude felt magnanimous; privileged but generous. We could identify ourselves with the righteous ones who put in a full day’s work, but we also ought not be jealous that in the end God will welcome those who came late with just as much love and belonging as those who’ve been inside the Church circle since birth.

I see now that we are the late-comers. Or, I’ll just speak for myself but maybe it will resonate with others. I am a white woman, mainline Protestant, who grew up in the 80s and 90s. I went to the January 21, 2017 Women’s March as my first major public protest. Now, I had been to some rallies and marches, knocked doors for a few candidates and written to legislators before. But I’d still consider this my first action that was personal, in response to a personal affront.

As a pastor of a congregation that was not unified in its response to some of the marginalized groups or struggles of our time, (for example LGBTQ rights), or even identifying with the African-American population within our neighborhood, I preached in too broad of terms for effective protest. Sometimes when I thought I was taking a stance in a sermon, people heard it through their own filters and interpreted it quite differently than I intended. And probably I let them, out of a mixture of fatigue with conflict or feeling like it was pointless because people don’t change, or maybe, out of some idea of “pastoral care” and respect for their own consciences. People do not primarily join mainline Protestant churches for their social stances, but more for tradition, familiarity or friendship. So we’re a mixed bunch, falling on either side of many issues. There is probably way more “safe” preaching out of love and care for those who are inside, when what we could be doing is turning to the movements going on outside of our walls for examples of Christ-like hunger for justice. We are the late-comers to many of these struggles for justice in our time.

When the Black Lives Matter protests were happening specifically in my state over the police shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, I had two young kids, one of whom did not travel well at all, and no childcare alternatives. I chose not to be at those protests because I had a choice. By then I was no longer in leadership in a congregation setting an example for anyone. I knew colleagues and friends who were there, not as outsiders, but as those who are embedded in the communities that were responding. So, it felt like it was not my fight, and I could opt out. African-American mothers, whose children are at the same risk as those young men who died at the hands of police may feel like they have no choice but to protest. These are my brothers and sisters in Christ, but there was enough of a line between us for me to justify my way out of it. Not so, with the Women’s March. With the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, and all of the misogynist and racist rhetoric and actions during his campaign, for the first time it felt personal. The most convicting sign I saw from the marches across the world on that day said, “I’ll see all you nice white ladies at the next #BlackLivesMatter protest, right?” Right. I am the late-comer, not going to work in the vineyard until I am promised a paycheck. I need to own that, ask for forgiveness for that, and let that shape my involvement.

As several long-time activists shared after the Women’s March, those of us who are just now coming along, newly invested in this age of protest, need to look for leadership from those who have been committed to it for much longer. That humility is a form of the “servant leadership” we like to talk about in the church. Also, we could turn to Jesus more as we head out to march. Christ makes the struggle against injustice personal by becoming one of us, making us all his siblings. I want to be personally affected by being a follower of Jesus, whether or not a specific incident of injustice seems like “my” fight.

I anticipate The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” or “The Parable of the Generous Landowner” rolling around in my head for quite a while.

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