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Sermon during PC(USA) Chapel service offers powerful insight to a parable perplexing to many

The Rev. Carlton Johnson helps national staffers prepare for Juneteenth with a prophetic take on the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Arka Roy via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — During Wednesday’s online Chapel Service, the Rev. Carlton Johnson helped the PC(USA)’s national staff to celebrate Juneteenth a few days early with a thoughtful and provocative take on Matthew 20:1-16, the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.

Johnson, associate director for Theology, Formation & Evangelism in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, urged the 55 or so people gathered for worship ahead of Monday’s Juneteenth celebration to think of the parable as subversive speech akin to hymns and spirituals handed down by enslaved people as “coded language, above and beyond those who meant us no good.”

“A righteous system with a righteous workforce demands we look at the whole system,” Johnson said, “to make sure all are being compensated right.” It’s also important, he said, “to make sure we keep the distinction between legal and right. Enslaving people was legal. Denying women the right to vote was legal. Forcing children to work in coal mines was legal. But we have to ask: Is it just?”

This parable “was once used to suggest we trust enslavers” who “will treat you right if you do what they say to do.” But this landowner — “plantation owner” is close to the original Greek, Johnson pointed out — is dismissive of those who work for him. “The employment level at the time was heartbreaking,” Johnson said. “Many stood desperate in the public square, hoping someone would pick them up for work. This lowlife plantation owner takes advantage of their desperation.”

To the first group, he offers a denarius for the day’s work. He goes out to the marketplace three more times that day, offering to pay laborers “whatever is right.”

“The day goes on and the plantation owner hires more workers,” Johnson noted. “The day gets shorter, but the pay remains the same.”

The Rev. Carlton Johnson

Those who have toiled the whole day for the agreed-upon pay begin grumbling when the wages are paid. “Most of y’all would start hating on your co-worker,” Johnson said. “Why’s she getting paid more than me? Foolishness. All they wanted to do is take care of their families. It’s easier to attack a person than a system.”

Nat Turner and others instrumental in organizing slave rebellions “were not troublemakers,” according to Johnson. “These men were ministers of the gospel.” The late U.S. Rep. John Lewis would say, “If they got in trouble, they made good trouble,” Johnson said.

“I believe that is our call,” he said. People oppressed or in poverty don’t want to remain there. On June 19, 1865, “the last colony of enslaved people were notified of their freedom. That’s the good news of Juneteenth,” Johnson said. The “full good news” brought by Jesus is that “by working for the freedom of any group of people, we are all made free. That’s the kingdom of heaven, where the last will be first and the first will be last.”

“The Creator put us here together to work for the freedom of people, to be warriors in the struggle together to pull everyone up,” Johnson said, turning next to a quote by Vertner Woodson Tandy, the first African American registered architect in the State of New York: “We must fight till hell freezes over and then fight on the ice.”

“Friends, this is the gospel,” Johnson said during his benediction. “We are called to unite and fight for what is right.” The good news of Jesus as also expressed by Donny Hathaway, Johnson said, is that “someday we’ll all be free.”

“May the God of peace, joy and liberation be with you now and until the end of time,” Jonson said, closing with a Yoruba blessing from Nigeria: “Ashe, ashe. Go in peace.”

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