When I arrived in Tyler, Texas, as the new Rector of the downtown Episcopal Church, I was told that this East Texas town was made up of a lot of good people. And I found that was true. Really good people, good hearts, ready to be caring to their neighbors….strikingly so. Over the decade I served in Tyler, I grew to love the people and the place.
However, Tyler was a little late to the party of desegregation that swept our country with the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that led to the intentional mixing of races in the educational process in our country. In fact, it was almost twenty years late. Civil rights, as it was known back in the day, which I now simply refer to as equal rights, found Tyler and East Texas to be strangely slow to even begin the dance. More about that later.
Along with the fact of the preponderance of “good” people, I was also told that there were no famous people in Tyler. Well, there was one famous person, Earl Campbell, the Tyler Rose, who won the Heisman Trophy as he was the star running back for the University of Texas Longhorns. Unlike many Heisman winners, Earl went on into professional football and made a similar impact there with the Houston Oilers. But Earl no longer lives in Tyler, but Austin. I wound up getting to play golf one day in Austin with Earl, which began my long relationship with the only famous person from Tyler. I was surprised to find out that I was the first person to invite Earl to play at the country club there in Tyler. Folks sure turned out to see their folk hero…. a regular Texas Paul Bunyan. It’s good to be a Friend of Earl.
And there was one infamous person in Tyler, Judge William Wayne Justice. How’s that for a name for a Judge. He was a leading judicial figure in driving the difficult change in desegregation, and was the brunt of the social resistance to this change. People told me he was the most hated man in Tyler. Actually, a Texas publication extended that honor by claiming he was the most hated man in all of Texas. Texans are prone to exaggeration about most things, even hate. But as I listened to conversation at coffee tables and cocktail parties, I found that was not an exaggeration. And so, in my first Christmas Eve sermon, I began my address with that name: William Wayne Justice. I paused after saying it for a full minute, just to let the nervous energy build. Then, I said, “My sermon has nothing to do with William Wayne Justice, but I was told if I wanted to get the attention of a Tyler audience, all I had to do was to mention his name!” There was method in my madness, and the congregation just got served!
It was odd that I came to know this infamous Tyler personality soon thereafter. I had been involved with a movement to improve racial relations in Tyler. Long story short, it led to my house being broken into by the Klan in the middle of the night as a threat. I got a phone call from Judge Justice to offer protection for me and my family, along with an invitation to lunch. Judge Justice told me that he knew what it felt like to stand up for something right and just, and to be the target of hatred. I appreciated his taking time out of his busy work to reassure me, but I had no idea that this would be the beginning of a cherished relationship.
Judge Justice and I began to meet regularly for lunch, which initially centered on the reality of Tyler race relations, but eventually evolved into a conversation about his life and faith. He told me about his preacher calling him out from the pulpit after his desegregation ruling, resulting in his walking out of the church service, and vowing to never go back. He began to ask me questions about faith, about God, about the purpose of church. Treating the questions and my responses gingerly, he finally asked me if it might be okay for him to attend church with me. His question was: would it hurt your reputation if I showed up at your church? Would it cost you if I darkened the door of your church? So from mentioning his name to get folks’ attention, now the man was actually going to show up! Can you say miracle?
Judge Justice started by coming in late, sitting on the back row, to be unobtrusive. If he could have worn a disguise, I’m betting he would have, something Groucho-esque. His distinctive look,, gaunt frame was pretty recognizable. I was proud of my congregation not pointing their fingers at him. Hell, I was happy they didn’t throw him out.
Slowly, he began getting there early, moving up into the middle of the congregation. He attended the Confirmation class, learning about this strange history of the Anglican Church and the legacy of catholic worship, which was new to this former South of God Christian. He decided to join us at Christ Church, and was confirmed by the Episcopal Bishop of Texas, becoming a consistent member of the congregation that met there on the brick streets of Bois d’Arc in downtown Tyler, Christ Church.
In fact, Wayne became one of my most ardent “evangelists”, inviting his friends, and I believe requiring his clerks to come to church. As he told me, he had discovered a “good thing” and wanted to share it, naturally. with his friends. He said he loved my catch phrase: “In the Episcopal Church, you can come to church without checking your mind at the door.” He loved to think, to ask questions, and follow those questions to a conclusion, and then assent by the actions of his life. For me, he was a dream parishioner.
I tell all this to get to the dramatic scene of a church school class that I was teaching one Sunday morning. The class was for adults and was focusing on the difficult teachings of Jesus. This particular Sunday, I was teaching on the parable from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 20, which happens to the the Gospel reading for the Episcopal Church this past Sunday.
It’s about a land owner who hires people to work in his vineyard. The owner hires folks to work at the beginning of the work day, then hires on more at noon, then more at three in the afternoon, and then, more at almost quitting time. And at the end of the day, the owner pays the workers the same wage that was agreed on in the initial contract. All the workers got equal pay, regardless to the length of time in the vineyard working.
As I was reading this parable story of Jesus, I could see Judge Justice squirming in his metal chair, the uncomfortable ones that God issued to all churches at the beginning of Creation. They are always gray, and hard, hard on the derriere of Episcopalians, and the butt of South of God folk. You know the ones. He was screwing his bottom into that chair, first to the left, then to the right. I could see, could sense his uncomfortableness with the story because he was sitting on the front row, right it front of me.
And then, he exploded, “That’s not fair!” he offered his U.S. District Court opinion. This brought a long silence in the classroom, until I sustained his objection, “Precisely.” We all enjoyed the move of the Spirit in that Texas morning gathering, and celebrated with the hearty laughter also associated with Texans.
I went on to explain the pedagogical point of Jesus to the people listening to him in the original setting. Jewish folk, who had been part of the Covenant from the very beginning. They were now being joined by the unwashed, the unclean, even the uncircumcised, and given equal rights in this Kingdom of God Jesus was proclaiming. There was a radical tone to this message that this young rabbi was bringing. And to make sure his students got the point, Jesus told this story.
Today, the radical notion of God’ grace remains difficult for us to get out minds and hearts around. In our own time of disorientation as to whose life has value, the story pricks at our own sensibility. There is a native sense of unfairness when we hear it. How can it be fair that the owner of the vineyard pays someone who works for a few minutes at the end of the work day the same wage as the one who has been working from the break of day? It offends us. It shakes us. Judge Justice stands in for the early workers, grumbling, murmuring, complaining to the vineyard owner.
And Jesus’ point seems to be to redirect out natural attention on the vineyard workers to the reality of the scenario, the vineyard owner. It is the prerogative of the owner to set the rules of the day, and set the terms of value. And the owner in the case of our reality is God, who decides to extend Grace to all, whether we like it or not.
That’s so offensive to many of us….most of us. In our logic, the one who works harder, checks off the most boxes, follows the most rules SHOULD be the one who gets the most reward. In the world you and I grew up in, that’s the way it SHOULD work. What was your SAT score, your GPA, your class ranking? That’s the way it worked when I was growing up. My dad and my school counselor “splained it all” to me. Like Joel Goodsen in Risky Business, who did some respectable work in high school. But Mr. Rutherford reminded him it was not quite up to Ivy League standards. But Joel had learned his lesson, through all his sixteen years, that sometimes you have to say, “What the hell?” I’m cleaning it up for you, but Joel knows the score. He realizes he’s not measuring up. He is one of those servants who came late to the work party, so he’s not getting into Princeton. And then…. the surprise ending is that he DOES get in, a moment of grace.
Jesus is seen and heard breaking the rules of logic, extending God’s love and regard to all people, regardless. REGARDLESS. A surprise ending in the cosmic story of our existence.
Let’s be honest. It offends us. It can get under our skin, this grace thing. How are people going to behave themselves if the rules of efficiency and fairness are ignored by some foolish owner who decides to change those very nature of the game?
My own sense is that this is at the very heart of our problem in religion. Religion is, by nature, a structure of rules made to keep the order. It’s the natural driver behind our native desire for order. But, the Gospel, literally the Good News, is that the Vineyard Owner, the Creator, God, loves us and cares for us REGARDLESS, without regard to how many rules we keep…..or break. It is mind-blowing. It was mind-blowing to those who first heard it from Jesus. It was mind-blowing to Judge William Wayne Justice and his trained sense of fairness. And my hunch is, it is mind-blowing to you. YOU.
I have to confess that the real perk of being a priest was watching the mind-blowing power of God’s Grace mess with folks. I got a front-row seat in the Transformation Circus. To get to watch Wayne, to listen to his wonderings, his protests, his amazement, and to see him embrace the radical reality of Grace. And then, as a old man, begin to live out of that discovery. It was a blessing which makes me smile as I remember it.
It was the same years ago with the letter writer, Paul, who was grabbed by this notion of Grace, even though he too had been trained in the very structures of legalism. His mind was blown, to the point that he found himself proclaiming that in this Christ-filled world, there is no male nor female, slave or free, Jew nor Greek.
How do you respond to Jesus’ story? “It’s not fair!” seems to be the natural response. But then, when you pause to play within Jesus’ pool of Grace, splashing the waters on those you know, and dipping your own broken soul in these healing waters, do you find yourself opening to a deeper Truth that the Lord of Life might be intimating? Can you catch a whiff of this amazing thing called Grace?
It’s not fair, but it true. And that’s terrible news for those who like laws, limits, clarity. We become swamped by our need for bring “right”, and in order. But it was good news for my friend, Wayne, who found a rare kind of freedom late in life. How is it for you? Time of your life?