Friday, June 20, 2014

"No Good Deed Goes Unpunished" - a sermon by the Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison, April 3, 2011

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

The Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison
New Bridges Presbyterian Church; Hayward, CA
April 3, 2011
Text:  1 Peter 3:13-22

I was brought up –
as I suppose you were too –
that one always did the right thing,
just because it was the right thing to do.
And by “the right thing,”
our parents meant
being nice to other kids,
even if they were mean to me;
helping people who needed help,
like opening the door
for someone carrying two big sacks of groceries;
giving up my seat on the bus or the train
to a pregnant woman,
or someone who was disabled,
or the elderly.
(Now, elderly folks, I understood,
were people who were,
oh, maybe forty or fifty years old.
Today, I think a little differently.)
Over the course of one spring,
when I was perhaps seven years old,
our sleepy little town was visited
by a number of hoboes, as we called them.
Now, I think, they’d be called homeless people.
Nonetheless, they were there,
and they were needy.
Our family never had much,
as we were growing up,
but we always had food to eat,
and a place to sleep at night.
These people had neither.
Our mother made sandwiches,
and together she and one or two of us children
would go out on the sidewalk,
where the hoboes could be found,
and would feed them sandwiches.
We did this frequently, throughout that spring.
Other people said the hoboes marked our house
as being people who would feed them,
so we shouldn’t.
But we did, anyway.
After all, our mother reasoned,
they were human,
and they were hungry.
They deserved their daily bread, too,
just like the rest of the world.

As we got a little older,
doing the right thing
took on new dimensions.
When I was in elementary school,
in the 1950s in Arkansas,
I didn’t understand why Mary,
my friend from around the corner,
couldn’t go to the same school I went to,
just because her skin was a different color.
We went in completely opposite directions
when we walked to school.
So when our father wrote a letter
(I found out, when I was much older,
that he was only one of many clergy
who signed that letter)
when our father wrote a letter
to the Governor of Arkansas,
saying that he believed the schools
in the entire state of Arkansas
should welcome all children,
regardless of their skin color,
why, I knew, he was doing the right thing.
And he was proud,
mighty proud
(which was unusual for our father;
he didn’t get proud very often)
that Governor Orval Faubus,
in responding to that letter,
called him a Communist.
I didn’t know what a Communist was,
except that it was obviously something
Governor Faubus didn’t like.
When I learned later, in junior high school,
what a Communist was,
I thought it was pretty funny,
that Governor Faubus would call my father
and all those other ministers
a bunch of Communists.
I guess nobody bothered to tell Governor Faubus
what a Communist was,
or maybe he just didn’t care.
I suspect the latter.
Our father was doing the right thing,
because it was the right thing to do,
and if it meant being called a Communist,
well, that didn’t hurt so very much.

For my brothers and sisters and me,
our father’s behavior in this situation
was an example of doing the right thing,
because it was the right thing to do.
It never occurred to us,
as it probably didn’t to you,
when you were young,
that sometimes, doing the right thing
came at a cost.
It was only when we were older,
when once again,
our father
(and our mother, who completely agreed with him)
took a stand against racism,
that we saw the cost;
indeed, that we felt it ourselves.
It was only then
that we began to see the truth in the phrase,
“No good deed goes unpunished.”
I don’t think our parents
ever really thought of themselves
as “good-deed-doers,”
to quote the Wizard of Oz.
They just believed,
and they taught us to believe,
that sometimes, doing the right thing
means taking a stand,
a difficult stand,
one which may result in some people
or perhaps many people
disagreeing with you,
calling you names,
making life extremely difficult.
I was a sophomore in high school,
in a small town in Kansas.
This time, it was the church itself,
not the government,
which was acting
in what can only be called
a racist behavior.
They owned a home, fully furnished,
which was intended to be used
by families in the community
who couldn’t afford a place to live.
This house had been used by several families.
But now, an African-American family needed that home.
The Session of the congregation –
the people who made decisions –
made a decision.
They decided that this family,
whose skin was a different color
than most in the congregation,
this family could, indeed, live in the house.
They just couldn’t use the furniture.
They would have to find furniture of their own,
or do without.
I suppose having a roof over their heads
was of some benefit,
but how they were supposed to live
at all comfortably
with no furniture –
well, I guess that Session decided
that they just didn’t care.
Or maybe they were afraid
of what the congregation would think
or say
or do.
Maybe, the people on that Session
had even been threatened
by members of the congregation
or the community
if they did the right thing
and let that black family
live in that house
and use that furniture.
So they didn’t do the right thing.
But our parents did.
That Friday afternoon,
our parents picked us all up after school,
with a bag packed for each of us.
(And by now, there were seven children in our family.)
They said, “We’re going out of town for the weekend.”
Which was unusual, because,
as you may know,
pastors NEVER
go out of town for the weekend.
And when we got out of town, they said,
“Oh, and by the way,
we’re not going back.”
Our parents decided that
my older brother and I
were old enough to understand
some, at least,
of what had happened.
They told us about the Session’s decision.
They told us that our father needed to make a decision, too.
His decision was that,
if the church was unwilling to welcome
and care for
all God’s children, regardless of color,
then he could no longer be their pastor.
So our father wrote a letter to the Session,
with a copy to the Presbytery,
Effective immediately.
Which, if you know the way
Presbyterians do things,
NEVER happens.

We moved to a neighboring city,
about two hundred miles away,
in Missouri.
The Presbytery in Kansas decided
that our father 
must have severe emotional problems
for him to leave that way.
It never occurred to them that perhaps
that congregation in Kansas
had the emotional problems.
So the Presbytery initially required our father
to undergo months of counseling,
before they would allow him
to be a pastor again
in another church
in another presbytery
in another state.
While he was receiving counseling
and awaiting the presbytery’s permission to move on,
Dad worked not as a pastor,
but as the janitor in the nearby elementary school.
Or so he told me,
though until recently,
my mother had never heard him say that.
But that may have been
a way for Dad
to save face with one of his children.
Little did he know,
in our eyes,
he was about the biggest man around.
He didn’t need to save any face
During that time,
we lived on food stamps
and government surplus food.
Life was not easy.
But it was easier,
having done the right thing,
than if our parents had simply given in,
had simply abided by the decision
of that Session in Kansas.

No good deed goes unpunished.
We learned, my siblings and I,
the hard way.
Our parents, through their decision,
through their actions,
committed a good deed,
a righteous deed,
and that deed was punished.
Even so, it was the right thing to do.
“For it is better to suffer for doing good,
if suffering should be God’s will,
than to suffer for doing evil.”

Doing the right thing,
even today,
can still be a difficult decision.
Sometimes it’s easy;
you prepare a meal for a family in crisis;
visit the sick and aged at the local care facility;
give to a deserving charity.
But then there are the other times,
the times that call upon 
all the internal fortitude,
all the Spirit you can muster.
You march for an unpopular cause,
and onlookers curse you, and throw things.
Your employer’s practices go against your beliefs,
and you resign your position,
having no promise of another.
You see an injustice being perpetrated by the government,
and you risk arrest to participate in civil disobedience.
You discover an injustice being perpetrated by the church,
and you risk losing your ordination
to take a stand and act in favor of what you believe to be the truth.
No good deed goes unpunished.
At least, not in this life.

But when we do the right thing,
because it’s the right thing to do,
even though we know 
there will be a price to pay,
we have faith.
We have the promises given to us by Jesus:
Promises of God’s eternal love,
of a heavenly home waiting for us
where there will be
And that says nothing, of course,
about the promise of forgiveness, freely given,
when we do the wrong thing,
which sometimes means
not doing the right thing.

There are, unfortunately,
no promises that life will be easy.
But we can look to the examples
that have been set for us
by the early church,
by Martin Luther King, Jr.,
and by Jesus, himself,
examples of doing the right thing
and suffering for it.
By their lives, Jesus, King and the early church are reminders
that no good deed goes unpunished.
Even when doing the right thing
means we will suffer,
even then, we can know
that God’s blessing
is being poured out upon us.
And for that blessing,
we can be thankful;
thankful, too, that we have,
in Jesus Christ, 
the supreme example
of doing the right thing
because it’s the right thing to do.

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