Text: Matthew 20:1-16
I begin my sermon this morning with words of deep appreciation. As most of you know, I have been a part of this community for over 22 years. Over those years, we have experienced together many life-changing and profound moments. Some of them have been in times of great loss and grief; and some have marked joyous occasions. I think about our community coming together around the events of 9/11. How on that day and in the immediate days following we sat together, cried together, supported one another, and called upon our faith for courage and understanding. I think about each time our community experiences the death of one of our beloved members. I am always moved by how we come together to offer our love and support for their families; and how we honor the lives of our friends through thoughtful and meaningful funeral liturgies. I shall never forget how our community came together to stand against Amendment One several years ago. The congregational meeting where we voted unanimously to take a stand against Amendment One and issued a statement for marriage equality will forever stand as a highlight in my ministry with you. The depth of appreciation and care I, along with so many in the LGBTQ community, felt that day still is overwhelming. The way this congregation has, on so many occasions, responded to the needs of our human family around the world has so often moved me to a more profound sense of faith, community, human respect, and love. Most recently, I am reminded of your response to the request of our friends in the Republic of Georgia for help in ministering to the Yezidi refugees. The list goes on and on—one act of caring and love after another in times of great distress and in times of great joy and celebration.
And yet, with so many moments to recall, these past fifteen days with our Cuban pilgrims has again deepened my appreciation for this community and the way you so graciously and magnanimously respond to friends and strangers alike. You, this congregation, in ways that are beyond what words can describe, made real to our Cuban sisters and brothers how Jesus taught us to live and be in the world. As I sat yesterday morning and listened as they reflected on their experience with us, I was filled once again with an exceedingly deep appreciation for this church. Your care, your love, your hospitality, your very presence offered a sincere witness to the love of God for Beny, Maria Victoria, Berta, Harry, Kenny, Ruben and Orestes. A witness that they will take back home to Matanzas, Cuba with them; an experience that demonstrated in great depth what it means to be a part of the family of God.
It is very rare for a preacher, especially a Baptist preacher, to be rendered speechless. It’s even rarer to render Roger Crook speechless. But last Sunday, both Roger and I found ourselves just that—speechless—as Orestes and the Matanzas group presented us with their 25th anniversary gift to our congregation—the cross from their sanctuary. Those of you who were here last week may remember Judy at first translating that they were presenting us with a replica of the cross from their church, the idea of which seemed brilliant and appropriate and gracious. But Orestes quickly corrected Judy—it is not a replica, it is the actual cross that up to this point, has hung in the sanctuary of First Baptist Matanzas. They gave us the cross out of their church. The cross upon which parents have looked in gratitude when babies were born, the cross under which couples have professed love and commitment, the cross to which a whole community has offered themselves in prayer for the welfare of its members, the cross to which our own pilgrims have voyaged these 25 years. I was, and am, completely awed. All week I have caught my breath in the moments which I recall the gift. And to be completely honest, it has been a humbling and somewhat uncomfortable experience.
You see, I am profoundly grateful for the gift of the cross. It is meaningful beyond any expectation of any gift I could have imagined. It is the epitome of a priceless gift—one that could never be valued monetarily because of the love and the sacrifice it represents. And yet, it is the very pricelessness of the present that makes me uncomfortable. How could they have given away their cross? And why on earth would they give it to us?! Yes, we’ve been partners a long time. Yes, I think Pullen has been a good sister and partner to Matanzas. Yes, we’ve been generous in our financial gifts to Matanzas. And yes, we have been a presence to them in times of deep isolation and fear. But I haven’t been able to shake this deep response of unworthiness in the face of such selfless generosity. And I know from my conversations with many of you that you struggled to process the gift as well.
As I tried to work through this, I played a little game with myself and my family. I asked, “What would Pullen give that could be the equivalent of the Matanzas church’s gift of their cross?” I thought about the communion pieces we gave them earlier this year—they were lovely and thoughtful gifts, but buying pieces that we could easily afford to share seems to pale in comparison. One day as I mused out loud about this, Larry King jokingly suggested that we chisel out the Jesus window to give them in return. While that would certainly carry huge monetary value, and a great deal of sentimental value, it is still, at the end of the day, one of a large set of stained glass that I fear most of us take for granted and some of us, quite frankly, would like the chance to replace anyway!
I won’t take you through all of my possible gifts—it would take far too long. I am not kidding when I say that this has been deep on my mind and in my heart this week. And I will tell you what I arrived at: there is no gift that Pullen Memorial Baptist could give that would rival the gift First Baptist Matanzas gave us. For First Baptist, that cross is the very center of their sanctuary. They gave us their heart. It is entirely irreplaceable, and as Orestes said last week, “there is a hole now that will need to be filled.” I have every confidence that First Baptist will discern what and how to fill that hole, for the Spirit will see to that. But it doesn’t change the fact that we have been given something that is beyond our ability to repay. And I am deeply humbled. In the end, I came to the conclusion that my/our only response can be one of gratitude and acceptance. There is really no other response to contemplate.
I thought of the Matanzas cross given to us when I read the story of the laborers in our gospel reading for today. That story raises all kinds of questions about worthiness, fairness, and value. Many of us can’t resist falling into the trap of equality in this parable—it isn’t fair that those who started early are paid the same as those who waltz in at the end. It is our common human failing. But isn’t it true for all of us that in one way or another, at one point or another, we are the laborer who is plucked out of our misfortunate at a late hour, and redeemed by no virtue of our own. Hasn’t that happened to you? It has to me. And grace and generosity in those moments are much harder to accept than the licks and rejection we expect. I will admit that holding the First Baptist cross in my hands last Sunday I felt like the last laborer in the field, who couldn’t possibly have earned my wage. And that is exactly why this parable is so critical, especially in our country and our culture. The gift is grace, and grace alone. And the heart to receive the gift is also grace and grace alone. Learning the art of receiving is about opening our hearts to the gift that is God’s grace.
For me, there is a gift within the gift from our Cuban friends. For a congregation that struggles with articulating a theology of the cross, the gift within the gift is an invitation to redeem this symbol of our faith. The gift of this particular cross opens up our hearts and our minds to see something different and new when we look at the cross—to see the beauty of relationship, the love of friendship, and how sacrifice can be an authentic expression of our faith. While our faith tradition has defined the cross as a symbol of a necessary sacrifice and suffering, this cross reminds us that we can choose sacrifice from a place of love and gratitude. While our faith tradition has glorified the cross as God’s plan for the salvation of humanity, this cross says that we find our salvation in caring for and loving one another. While our faith tradition has taught us that the cross was God’s premeditated plan for redeeming humanity, this cross reminds us that our redemption arises from love that is born and expressed every day. And while our tradition has taught us that the power of the cross is about being victorious in our suffering for some future life, this cross reminds us that the power of the cross is in standing in solidarity with each other when we suffer in this world, here and now.
The old adage, “it is better to give than to receive” should never be forgotten. And, learning the art of receiving is also a necessary component for a life of faith. For it is in learning to receive that we come to know God’s gift of grace. The hymn writer described it this way:
Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace,
Freely bestowed on all who believe!
You that are longing to see God’s face,
Will we this moment God’s grace receive?
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our need!
For our community, the cross from the First Baptist Church of Matanzas is that symbol of that marvelous, infinite, matchless grace.