Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 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?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.” 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? Take what belongs to you and go; 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?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
When Do We Start the Work: Matthew 20:1-16
“Your picture and the salutation on your college transcript indicate that you are not of the sex entitled to be admitted to Harvard Law School.” That is what the letter from Harvard said in response to Pauli Murray’s application for admission. “Your picture and the salutation on your college transcript indicate that you are not of the sex entitled to be admitted to Harvard Law School. It was 1944. Murray, a brilliant student and voracious reader as a child, had already been prevented from attending one undergraduate institution, Columbia University, because of her gender, and another graduate program, the sociology program at the University of North Carolina, because of her race. Also though, by this point, Murray had already been jailed for refusing to move to segregated seating on a bus in Virginia, made friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, and been one of the few women in the law school at Howard University. Murray wasn’t really one to back down from a fight.
Here is Pauli Murray’s written response to the sexist admission policy at Harvard: Gentlemen, I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds on this subject. Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other? Murray continued to press Harvard for an admission. Murray had the grades. Only the school’s sexism was an issue. Even the president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, interceded on Murray’s behalf to no avail. Their policy was more important to them than the possibility of welcoming a very promising student. So, Murray ended up doing further study at the University of California in Berkley, and, eventually, Yale. Actively fighting for both women’s rights and civil rights of African Americans, Dr. Pauli Murray would eventually, in 1977, become the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, celebrated as the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest in the United States. Rev. Dr. Murray is now even a saint in the Episcopal church. What I’m saying is that Harvard missed out.
Rev. Dr. Murray, who was addressed as a woman during life, revealed a lifelong struggle with understanding their gender-identity and sexuality through many journals and personal papers that became available after their death in 1985. Were Rev. Dr. Murray alive today, they might understand themselves as transgender or genderfluid, and maybe not use she and her as pronouns, which she did during her life. A journalist named Kathryn Schulz, in an article about a biography of Pauli Murray, written by Rosalind Rosenberg, succinctly explains this. I’ll link to the article on the sermon blog.
Here is the reason why I am bringing up Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray today. In remembering the long and storied career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg following her death on Friday night, the activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham noted that Ginsburg had made sure to give Murray credit for developing a legal argument that changed the course of the fight for women’s rights in this country. Justice Ginsburg wrote the brief. But, Dr. Murray laid the foundation.
Dr. Brittany Cooper explained these connections in an article she wrote in Salon Magazine in 2015. I’ll link to it on the blog, too. One of Justice Ginsburg’s most important legal successes was a 1971 case known as Reed vs Reed, one where a mother was arguing that she had as much right to administer the estate of her deceased son as his father, her estranged husband. They had lived in the state of Idaho, that had a law, at that time, that men were to be preferred to women in this type of case. When the case made it up to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg, who was not yet a justice, was the lawyer who wrote up Ms. Reed’s argument before the court. What Ginsburg wrote was that Idaho’s law went against the 14th Amendment, which states that all citizens were to be guaranteed equal protection under the law. The Supreme Court sided with Ms. Reed. Dr. Cooper notes in the article that this was the first time that the Equal Protection Clause was used in a case regarding gender-based discrimination.
Beginning with the idea that Jim Crow laws that segregated schools based on race went contrary to both the 13th and 14th Amendment, Murray developed this into a law school thesis that Thurgood Marshall would eventually use to help craft the legal argument that convinced the Supreme Court to declare Jim Crow-era school segregation laws unconstitutional. And, adding to this, Murray’s own experiences with gendered discrimination in hiring and school application, Murray wrote a piece called “Jane Crow and the Law,” where she described the similarities between the sexism and racism she had been dealing with all of her life. Dr. Cooper said this work in particular was important to Ginsburg. In 1966, Murray would go on to work with an ACLU lawyer named Dorothy Kenyon, on a case in Alabama about laws forbidding women and Black people from serving on juries. They argued that these laws did not give women or Black people equal protection under the law. In 1971, Ginsburg built on both of their work in the Reed v Reed case. Ginsburg was so grateful for their wisdom, that she added them on as co-authors to her brief, even though she hadn’t actually written it with them. Once, when asked about this action, Justice Ginsburg said that they added their names to the brief to acknowledge that the Reed v Reed team was “standing on their shoulders” and that society should have been finally ready to listen to what they had been arguing for many years.
At first glance, today’s text from Matthew is a text about work. About who works, how long they work, and how they get credit for their work. But, I don’t actually think this is a parable about work. I actually think this is a parable about generosity. According the scholar Emerson Powery, landowner is a common metaphor for God in the book of Matthew. God, as the one who guided the work and oversaw the land, had the power both to call for workers and acknowledge his employee’s work. What is important about this powerful figure is that, when they had the opportunity to exercise power over their employees, deciding how much they got paid for how long they worked, this powerful person chose to be generous. Dr. Emerson puts it this way: “As the ultimate ‘landowner,’ God will use what has always belonged to the Creator for the good of all even if humans fail to view the world through God’s eyes.” The reign of God will not be marked by ranks and hierarchies based on first come, first served mentality. Instead, the reign of God will be marked by an abundance of care, by generosity, and by making sure everyone has enough, not just the people who were lucky enough to show up first.
This weekend, in the midst of mourning the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I was grateful for Brittany Packnett Cunningham’s reminder of this piece of professional generosity in the midst of a world-changing legal case. Not everyone who was influenced by Pauli Murray gave Murray credit. But, Justice Ginsburg did. Justice Ginsburg isn’t God, and she wasn’t perfect. And yet, I believe that we can see a reflection of the Divine in this act of generosity. So much of Pauli Murray’s work as gone under-recognized, an unfortunate consequence of the racism and sexism of the movements in which she worked. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, however, helped make sure that Murray’s name, not just her work, is remembered in connection to the work to make sure our country lives up to its highest ideals. How have you been a recipient of divine generosity? And, how are you, and we as a church, passing that generosity along? May Justice Ginsburg’s memory be a blessing. And, may we also remember Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray as an ancestor of our faith and as a perfector of our union. I pray that we can continue the work that the Holy Spirit began in them.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.