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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 24, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 20:1-16
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Back in 2015, the CEO of a relatively small (70 or so employees) tech company in Seattle announced that he was going to change his pay and the base salary for all the employees at the company.  He was going to take a 90% pay cut and he was raising the base salary for employees to $70,000 per year.[1]  Show of hands: How many of you remember this?  At the time, I remember it being met with a variety of responses.  Some people say the CEO, Dan Price, as a working class-hero.  Other people thought he was nuts and that this would bankrupt the company.

The reason he made this move, he said, was that he had read a study that claimed people were happiest when they had an annual income of $70,000.  So, he figured, why not help his employees be happy?  One result was that the company lost some clients.  There were clients who thought that Gravity Payments would have to raise their prices to pay these increased salaries, even though Price’s salary decrease covered them.  Another result was that they gained clients, enough clients that Gravity Payments had to go on a hiring spree.[2]

I suspect the biggest immediate challenge Gravity Payments faced was the loss of two of their “rock star” employees (as one report labeled them) – and there may have been more defections in the intervening two years.  These first two employees to leave “reportedly thought it was unfair that other employees (those making less than $70,000) were getting big raises, while not necessarily contributing as much to the company’s success.”[3]  Does that remind you of any scripture you’ve heard or read lately?

I wonder if Americans are more disturbed by today’s gospel lesson than people from other cultures.  We like to think that our nation, our culture, our economy is a meritocracy, that people’s ability to earn money and climb the social, political, and economic ladder is based on their skills and hard work.  And two years ago, with over half of American households earning on the order of $54,000 or less per year,[4]  Price’s new minimum wage at his company called that notion of a meritocracy into question.  Just as an aside, it turns out that the median household income in Seattle when Price made this decision was right around $70,000.[5]  Still, this kind of generosity for the sake of happiness does challenge the notion that we live in a meritocracy.

I don’t think any of Jesus’ disciples, or anyone else that might have heard this parable originally would have thought that they lived in a meritocracy.  In the Empire of Rome, the family you were born into made a huge difference in how you lived.  Nonetheless, fair is fair, and if I work all day (for 12 hours) out in the vineyards under a scorching sun and some bum works only one hour, from 5:00 to 6:00, I expect to be paid more than that bum.  12 times more, in fact.

This may be one of the reasons this parable has historically been interpreted to be about salvation and heaven.  In this interpretation, treating the parable as an allegory, “the owner of the vineyard is God; the reward for the laborers, the denarius, is salvation; the first hired are God’s first people, the Jews; the last hired, the Gentiles or recent converts.  A generous God gives to the latecomers the same free, gift of salvation that God gives to the first faithful.”[6]  This interpretation goes back at least as far as the 4th century.  And after all, the parable does start out, “The kingdom of heaven is like …”

But remember, Matthew is writing to Jewish followers of Jesus, so when Luke and Mark would say, “The kingdom of God,” Matthew says, “The kingdom of heaven.”  In Jewish culture, one does not mention God by name.  And remember, too, that the word that gets translated here as “kingdom,” is the same word that is used to describe the Empire of Rome.  So maybe it is better to translate these gospel phrases as “the empire of God” and “the empire of Heaven.”

Jesus is saying, “You know what the empire of Rome is like.  Let me tell you about the empire of God.”

So, what was Jesus saying about the empire of God?  This is what I hear.

First thing in the morning, a landowner goes out to hire some day laborers to work in his vineyard.  This is a strange act, a countercultural act.  Typically, it would be the landowner’s steward, the manager, the person who runs the day-to-day operations of the vineyard, the one who will pay the day laborers at the end of the story, who would go to the marketplace (or the Home Depot parking lot) to hire the day laborers.  He hires some people, agreeing to pay them the going wage, a denarius, just enough for to keep a small family fed for the day.  In other words, the families of the people in the marketplace who aren’t hired probably wouldn’t eat that day.  This initial group goes off to work in the vineyard.

At 9:00, the landowner is again in the marketplace and notices that there are people, day laborers, who were not hired.  He sends them to his vineyard to work, saying that he’ll pay them what is right.  Well, some money is better than no money, so at least the family will have something to eat.  They head off to the vineyard.

At noon and at 3:00 (I have no idea why this landowner keeps going to the marketplace, but there he is again), he finds more people who have not found day work, and he sends them off to the vineyard to work, promising to pay them what is right.  At 5:00, the work day is almost over, and there are still people who haven’t found any work.  The landowner sends them to the vineyard to work for that last hour of the day.

Finally, the day is over, and it’s time to pay the workers.  For some reason (and maybe it’s just to make the storytelling work), the landowner decides that the people who were hired last should be paid first.  And the landowner has his steward, his manager pay everybody for a full day’s work, even though some of them only worked for an hour.  Like I said earlier, if I was one of the people who had worked all day, when I saw the guys who only worked one hour get a full day’s wage, I would be thinking, “Ka-ching! I’m going to get 12 days’ worth of wages for just one day’s work.”  And I’d be pretty ticked off that I only got one day’s wage, as had been previously agreed.

But I think what Jesus is saying is, in the empire of God, everyone gets enough so they and their families can eat.  When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re praying that we, all of us, those who work hard and those who only show up for the last hour, get enough to eat each day.

This notion that in the empire of God, everyone will have enough is the moral underpinning for my support of the New Poor Peoples Campaign.  50 years ago this December, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “announced the plan to bring together poor people from across the country for a new march on Washington.  This march was to demand better jobs, better homes, better education – better lives than the ones they were living.  [The] Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy explained that the intention of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 was to ‘dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.’”[7]

Throughout the many speeches and sermons of the last year of his life, Dr. King described both the unjust economic conditions facing millions of people worldwide and the vision of poor people coming together to transform society.  He realized that if the poor of the United States organized, if they came together in direct actions, they could awaken the conscience of the nation, “changing the terms of how poverty is understood and dispelling the myths and stereotypes that uphold the mass complacency and leave the root causes of poverty intact.  He described this force as a multi-racial ‘nonviolent army of the poor, a freedom church of the poor.’”[8]

Unfortunately, “the assassinations of Dr. King and Senator Robert Kennedy, a key proponent of the Campaign and Presidential candidate, only served to cripple the Campaign and greatly limit its impact.  King emphasized the need for poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans to unite.  He asserted that the Poor People’s Campaign would only be successful if the poor could come together across all the obstacles and barriers set up to divide us and if they could overcome the attention and resources being diverted because of the US engagement in the Vietnam War.”[9]

It has been 50 years since the first Poor People’s Campaign was being organized and the problems of poverty and the causes of poverty have not gone away.  That is why Disciples of Christ pastor and moral leader the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, is calling for a new Poor People’s Campaign.  I got to hear his call at General Synod this summer.[10]  Let me quote him.

“[The African American church does] not know how to preach without engaging the powers in the public square.  Whenever I open the Scriptures, I read about a God who hears the cry of the suffering and stands on the side of the oppressed for justice.

“As I have prayed and read the Scriptures this year, I hear a resounding call to the very soul of this nation:  We need a new Poor People’s Campaign for a Moral Revival in America.…

“Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King called for a ‘revolution of values’ in America, inviting people who had been divided to stand together against the ‘triplets of evil’ – militarism, racism, and economic injustice – to insist that people need not die from poverty in the richest nation to ever exist.  Poor people in communities across America – black, white, brown and Native – responded by building a Poor People’s Campaign that would demand a Marshall Plan for America’s poor.…

“The fights for racial and economic equality are as inseparable today as they were half a century ago.  Make no mistake about it:  We face a crisis in America.  The twin forces of white supremacy and unchecked corporate greed have gained newfound power and influence, both in statehouses across this nation and at the highest levels of our federal government.  Sixty-four million Americans make less than a living wage, while millions of children and adults continue to live without access to healthcare, even as extremist[s] … in Congress threaten to strip access away from millions more.  As our social fabric is stretched thin by widening income inequality, politicians criminalize the poor, fan the flames of racism and xenophobia to divide the poor, and steal from the poor to give tax breaks to our richest neighbors and budget increases to a bloated military.…

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II

“At such a time as this, we need a new Poor People’s Campaign for Moral Revival to help us become the nation we’ve not yet been.…

“Throughout America’s history – from abolition, to women’s suffrage, to labor and civil rights – real social change has come when impacted people have joined hands with allies of good will to stand together against injustice.  These movements did not simply stand against partisan foes.  They stood for the deep moral center of our Constitutional and faith traditions.  Those deep wells sustained poor and impacted people who knew in their bones both that power concedes nothing without a fight and that, in the end, love is the greatest power to sustain a fight for what is right.

“This moment requires us to push into the national consciousness a deep moral analysis that is rooted in an agenda to combat systemic poverty and racism, war mongering, economic injustice, voter suppression, and other attacks on the most vulnerable.  We need a long term, sustained movement led by the people who are directly impacted by extremism.”[11]

So now a New Poor People’s Campaign is being organized.  We are now a few months in to the launch of the Campaign.  The launch will continue through next summer and will focus on highly publicized civil disobedience and direct action over a 6-week period in at least 25 states and the District of Columbia during the Spring of 2018.  The Campaign will force a serious national examination of the enmeshed evils of systemic racism, poverty, militarism and environmental devastation while strengthening and connecting informed and committed grassroots leadership in every state, increasing their power to continue this fight long after June 2018.

I have already committed to find ways to be part of this campaign.  I must do it because it is the work of the empire of God.  I invite you to join in this New Poor People’s Campaign, too.

Amen.

[1] Sam Becker, “The $70,000 Minimum Wage Experiment Reveals a Dark Truth,” CheatSheet, https://www.cheatsheet.com/money-career/the-70000-minimum-wage-experiment-reveals-a-dark-truth.html (Posted 26 January 2017; apparently updated; accessed 23 September 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew Frankel, “Here’s the average American household income: How do you compare?” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2016/11/24/average-american-household-income/93002252/ (posted 24 November 2016; accessed 23 September 2017).

[5] Gene Balk, “$80,000 median: Income gain in Seattle far outpaces other cities,” The Seattle Times, (posted 15 September 2016; accessed 23 September 2017).

[6] Lowell Grisham, “The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard,” Lowell’s Sermons, http://lowellsermons.blogspot.com/2011/09/parable-of-laborers-in-vineyard.html (posted 17 September 2017; accessed 23 September 2017).

[7] “Dr. King’s Vision: The Poor People’s Campaign of 1967-68,” Poor People’s Campaign, https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/poor-peoples-campaign-1968/ (accessed 23 September 2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] I am amused that it was at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod that I hear Rev. Barber’s call to the New Poor People’s Campaign, rather than at the Disciples of Christ’s General Assembly the following week.

[11] William J. Barber II, “Rev. Barber: America needs a new Poor People’s Campaign,” ThinkProgress, https://thinkprogress.org/rev-barber-why-america-needs-a-new-poor-peoples-campaign-dd406d515193/ (posted 15 May 2017; accessed 23 September 2017).

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What follows is a lengthy report, which, honestly, I would have made shorter if I could have figured out how.

Assembly and Synod – background

Both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ (which are commonly abbreviated as DOC and UCC respectively) are covenantally based; each congregation has autonomy to govern their own affairs and all the congregations live in covenant with the other congregations and expressions of the denominations. In the DOC, congregations are grouped geographically into Regions (we’re part of the Christian Church in Northern California-Nevada). In the UCC, congregations are grouped geographically into Associations (we’re part of the Bay Association) and the Associations are grouped geographically into Conferences (we’re part of the Northern California-Nevada Conference).

Both denominations have denomination-wide ministries. In the DOC there are the National Benevolent Association (that’s right, the NBA), Disciples Home Mission, the Council for Christian Unity, and the Division of Oversea Ministries/Global Ministries (to name just four of the at least fifteen General Ministries of the denomination. In the UCC there are Local Church Ministries, Justice and Witness Ministries, and Wider Church Ministries/Global Ministries (to name just three of the six National Settings of the denomination).

We are a part of the regional and general ministries of our denominations both because of our congregation’s covenant to be part of the denominations and because of our financial support of these ministries through our annual budget.

I spent the first two weeks of July attending the national/international gatherings of our two denominations. For the UCC, it is a national gathering because our churches are all within the USA. For the DOC, it’s an international gathering because we have congregations in both Canada and the USA. There aren’t very many DOC congregations in Canada so, sadly, much of the language used at the meeting tended to forget about them.

These meetings happen every two years on the odd numbered years. The UCC’s gathering is called General Synod and the DOC’s gathering is called General Assembly. Delegates to the UCC’s General Synod are selected by Conferences; I attended General Synod as a “visitor” and got to participate in banquets, worship, and workshops, but I didn’t get a voice or a vote on the resolutions that came before the Synod. Delegates to the DOC’s General Assembly are potentially all the pastors in the DOC plus delegates selected by congregations (typically two per congregation). We could have sent four delegates (me, Pastor Brenda, and two church members), but I was the only person representing the congregation at General Assembly.

Synod and Assembly – themes

General Synod was held in Baltimore and happened first. The theme for General Synod was “Make Glad,” based on a verse from Psalm 46. Psalm 46 is a scripture that is very meaningful to me and I will be preaching on it on August 20 when we mark the thirtieth anniversary of my ordination.

It seems to me that General Synod focuses primarily on the resolutions they consider. The whole resolution process is very involved. The resolutions typically come from Conferences or ministries in the national settings of the church. Then they are assigned to committees randomly made up of delegates from across the UCC. The committee can modify the resolution, wordsmithing it, hopefully improving it, and (in some cases) combining it with other similar resolutions that come to Synod. Once the committee has modified the resolution, it is presented to the whole Synod, where it is debated, potentially further amended, and voted on. It’s quite an involved process and it means that the schedule is different every day.

William Barber

There are some workshops that are offered. I attended one where the Disciple of Christ minister the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, spoke. Actually, I’m not sure Dr. Barber knows how to give a speech; he knows how to preach. He also spoke (I mean preached) at a Gala that night. It was one of two amazing sermons I heard at Synod. Dr. Barber is helping to organize a new, nationwide Poor People’s Campaign here on the fiftieth anniversary of the original Poor People’s Campaign organized by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I will be preaching about this new Poor People’s Campaign in September.

Another highlight of Synod was a keynote conversation with Glennon Doyle, an author and the founder of Momastery, an online community where millions of readers meet each week to experience her shameless and laugh-out-loud funny essays about faith, freedom, addiction, recovery, motherhood and serving the marginalized. To be honest, I had low expectations, but Glennon was engaging, witty, and insightful. She has a YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/glennonmelton) that you might want to check out.

General Assembly was held in Indianapolis. The theme for this General Assembly was “One” and the focus scripture was John 17:20-21, a line from the lengthy prayer Jesus prays in the Gospel of John before his arrest and crucifixion. “I ask not only on behalf of these [the disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Some of you may recognize that the official motto of the UCC comes from these two verses: “That they may all be one.” I was amused that it was the DOC that was focusing on this verse.

The really big thing that happened at General Assembly was the election of a new General Minister and President. Sharon Watkins completed two six-year terms so it was time for someone new. We elected Teresa “Terri” Hord Owens as the new GMP. Terri is the first African American woman to take a leadership role like this in an historically mainline church in the USA. She may even be the first African American woman to take leadership of any denomination in the USA. I think her election points to the strides the DOC has made in addressing racism within the denomination and how the General Assembly’s theme, ‘One,’ is being lived out in the church.

Assembly has a higher emphasis on education and worship than does Synod (at least that’s my experience) and maybe that’s why there seem to be more visitors at Assembly. Instead of spending so much time on wordsmithing resolutions, the Assembly either says, “Yes, this is the sense of the Assembly” or “No, this isn’t the sense of the Assembly” or “This needs more work before we will vote on it.” This allows the Assembly to talk about the issues rather than the wording, but I still noticed a lack of voices of opposition to issues being discussed. One of the issues we discussed was how to include more voices in the discussions about the issues, both before Assembly within local churches and during Assembly. No decisions were made, but it is something that the DOC is seeking to do. And it is a reminder to me that we need to find creative ways to make sure all voices are heard when the church (in all its settings) seeks to understand God’s will and call.

Synod and Assembly – Resolutions

I guess it’s not surprising that similar issues came before both the Synod and the Assembly. Both gatherings adopted resolutions calling both the church and the nation to grow in our welcome of immigrants. Both bodies adopted resolutions condemning Israel for its treatment of Palestinian juveniles arrested in the occupied territories. Both bodies made amendments to their organizing documents (the Constitution and Bylaws in the case of the UCC and the Design in the case of the DOC); the amendments to the UCC’s Constitution still need to be ratified by the Conferences.

Both the Synod and the Assembly adopted resolutions on climate change, though their foci were different. The Synod resolution focused on the prophetic role of the church in addressing climate change. In addition to calling on the church to continue learning about and advocating for policies that address climate change, the Assembly resolution calls for members, congregations, and ministries of the denomination to become carbon neutral by 2030 and carbon positive by 2035. This is a bold invitation and I hope we will take it seriously. I think our biggest challenge as a congregation will be figuring out how to make up for the carbon we release by burning natural gas to heat the church.

The Assembly adopted the resolution endorsed by our congregation, repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. I spoke in favor of this resolution, telling the Assembly of your endorsement of it. The UCC had adopted a repudiation a few Synods ago. The Synod adopted a resolution on the economy that calls for a $15 per hour minimum wage.

The Synod adopted a resolution that will change the way some of our denominational ministries do fundraising. I am not yet clear on the implications of this resolution for our congregation. It will be interesting to see how it is lived out. Meanwhile, the Assembly received and commended to the congregations a study document on “Stewardship as a Spiritual Discipline,” a document I hope we will engage with in the coming biennium.

Synod and Assembly – the non-meeting (the really good) stuff

While I’m always fascinated by the process of writing, (in the case of the UCC) amending, discussing, and voting on resolutions, they are not the only important thing that happens at these events for me. The most important thing for me is the sense of connection attending brings me. I am reminded how we, our congregation and each of us, are part of something bigger. I get to hear stories about what’s happening at other churches, what’s going well and what they’re struggling with. I am reminded that we are not alone.

I also treasure the opportunity to hear great preaching. Sometimes this happens at the formal worship services. Sometimes this happens at banquets and rallies. Banquets may be too strong a word. Eating cafeteria scrambled eggs off of plastic plates (yeah, I’ll be complaining about the plastic plates) at 7:00 in the morning is hard to think of as a banquet. Still, it is worth going because you never know what you’ll learn. Two of the best sermons I heard were at breakfast banquets. And even when there isn’t a great preacher, the banquets are interesting. They are sponsored by one or two of the ministries or special interest groups of the denominations and they are one of the best ways to network with people in the denominations who are passionate about those issues and ministries.

Traci Blackmon

I got to hear the Rev. Traci Blackmon (who was elected one of the executive ministers of the UCC at Synod) preach at both gatherings. Her sermon at General Synod was built around an image that I may well use sometime in the future. Her sermon at General Assembly (at a breakfast meeting, really) is making me rethink protesting and nonviolent tactics. And as I mentioned earlier, I got to hear the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, a few times at the meetings. Every time he spoke about a resolution being considered by the General Assembly (and I think he did three times), the whole assembly knew they had heard the word of God.

If you would like to see photos from General Synod, check out bit.ly/2uH94NR. I’m not aware of a central gathering of photos from General Assembly, but if you do a photo search on Facebook for #docweareone or search for that hashtag on Twitter, you’ll find some.

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