Sermon: “Last in Line” (September 21, 2014)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Last in Line” (Matthew 20:1-16)
September 21, 2014
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One of my favorite comedians is Brian Regan. In one of his routines he describes the deep seeded need all of us seem to have to “one-up” each other, even with something as mundane as having our wisdom teeth removed:

“I made the mistake of trying to tell a story about having only two wisdom teeth pulled, and I learned a lesson: don’t ever try to tell a two wisdom tooth story, because you aren’t going anywhere. The four wisdom tooth people are going to parachute in and cut you off at the pass—‘Halt! Halt with your two-wisdom tooth tale!’ (You say) ‘I had my two wisdom teeth pulled…’ (and you are immediately interrupted) ‘I had four pulled! No, five! No, nine! I had nine wisdom teeth pulled! All of mine were impacted. They were coming in upside down, the roots were wrapped around my tongue—they were tusks! No anesthesia! They pulled them out with pliers and I was eating corn on the cob that afternoon.’ (Regan concludes) Pin the blue ribbon on his chest. That knocks the socks off of my two wisdom tooth tale” (from I Walked on the Moon, 2004).

This desire to “one-up” each other, to be first, recurs throughout our lives.

On the first day of school when I was in third grade, every time our teacher, Mrs. Stevens, asked our class to line up for lunch or recess or P.E. there was a mad dash to the front of the classroom as we pushed and jostled one another to be first in line, scolding one another, “No cutting!” She let it go for a little while but then one day Mrs. Stevens did something that stunned all of us. After we had lined up she walked to the very end of the line and said, “This is actually the front of the line,” as she led us all in exact reverse order out of the classroom.

Of course the next time she asked us to line up we scrambled our way to be last in line. But nothing got past Mrs. Stevens as she would sometimes choose someone in the middle of the line and declare that person to be first in line that day.

For the hyper-competitive ones in our class, Mrs. Stevens’ approach made no sense at all, but for those who were used to being last in line or simply among the forgotten middle, her approach was a relief.

But in our world people like Mrs. Stevens tend to be more the exception than the rule. By and large our society is fixated on being first, on proving ourselves in one way or another superior to others.

And this focus on being first can become pathological and devolve into a narcissistic spiral in which personal achievement becomes the “be all/end all” of life. In his 2009 memoir Lost in the Meritocracy Walter Kirn describes his own experience with this:

“A natural born child of the meritocracy, I’d been amassing momentum my whole life, entering spelling bees, vying for forensics medals, running my mouth in mock United Nations, and I knew only one direction: forward. I lived for prizes, plaques, citations, stars, and I gave no thought to any goal beyond my next appearance on the honor roll. Learning was secondary, promotion was primary. No one ever told me what the point was, except to keep on accumulating points, and that struck me as sufficient. What else was there?” (p. 9).

Moreover this desire to be first, to prove ourselves superior to others tends to divide people into two categories: winners and losers, as Bruce Springsteen sings: “Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line” (from the song “Atlantic City” on the 1982 album Nebraska).

Or as Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi used to say, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” or as another Hall of Fame coach, Bill Parcells, says, “There is winning and there is misery.”

But there is good news for those who find themselves last in line, good news for those who feel lost in the meritocracy, good news for those labeled as “losers”… as Tom Petty sings, “Even the losers get lucky sometimes” (from “Even the Losers” on the 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes).

In today’s parable about the landowner and the workers in his vineyard Jesus turns this whole meritocracy worldview upside down. While we live in a world fixated on being first, Jesus tells us that it is the exact opposite with God. “In the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who hires various workers to work in his vineyard with some working all day long, some working part of the day, and some barely working at all. The landowner had assured the workers, “I will pay you whatever is right.”

At the end of the day the landowner pays those he hired last before paying anyone else, and he pays them a full day’s wage. Then he proceeds to pay everyone else the same amount. The others are upset because having worked much more than the slackers who had barely worked at all, they expected to be paid more. They had become entitled, and like most people who are entitled, they began to whine—or as Matthew tells us—“they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last only worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’”

“You have made them equal to us,” they grumbled.

Prior to experiencing the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ the Apostle Paul was a rising star among the Pharisees, and like those who had worked in the vineyard all day long, Paul took pride in his accomplishments and had become entitled. Listen to how he describes this in his Letter to the Philippians:

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (3:4b-6).

In the meritocracy of keeping the law Paul was first in line among the Pharisees. He had been circumcised on the eighth day, which was exactly what the law required (Leviticus 12:3). He was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, which carried special weight because Benjamin was one of the sons of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, and the tribe of Benjamin took particular pride in that. Moreover, he was a pure blooded Hebrew, and a faithful keeper of the law.

Paul considered himself a winner, entitled to being first in line.

But after Paul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), he began to see things very differently, as he goes on to tell the Philippians:

“Yet whatever gains I had these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (3:7-9a).

Several years later Paul similarly wrote to Timothy: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost” (I Timothy 1:15).

In other words Paul saw things as they really are. He saw himself as equal to “them,” as first in line only in the line of sinners, and as a loser in that he had lost everything for the sake of Christ. And Paul spent the rest of his life preaching and writing about the unconditional grace of God in Jesus Christ—quite a turnaround!

And today’s parable shows us that what was true for Paul is true for you and me, as Anglican scholar Michael Green comments:

“The point of the story is plain… All human merit shrivels before his burning, self-giving love. Grace, amazing grace, is the burden of this story. All are equally undeserving of so large a sum as a denarius a day. All are given it by the generosity of the employer. All are on the same level…There are no rankings in the kingdom of God” (The Message of Matthew , 212).

This parable of Jesus is offensive, deeply offensive, to anyone in the church who sees life as based on merit and not mercy. If you try and translate the pathological drive to be first in line into church life, you will not only be sorely disappointed you may eventually become impossible to be around. ☺

One of my favorite writers, the late Brennan Manning, refers to this parable in describing the impact of the grace of God in his life:

“My life is a witness to vulgar grace—a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands, or buts… A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminant compassion. It works without asking anything of us” (All is Grace, 193-194).

So what does it look like to live life in light of this parable?

What does it look like to live from a starting point of mercy rather than merit?

What does it look like to let someone actually finish their two-wisdom teeth story?

I once saw a video featuring a sprint in the Special Olympics. During the race one of the runners tripped and fell. Rather than the others seeing him as one less competitor to worry about in their desire to be first, they all stopped and went back to the fallen runner. They helped him get back up, locked arms, and all crossed the finish line together, smiling and laughing as they did so—and in so doing reflected the gospel in the famous line from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in which the Dodo proclaims, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”

The reality is that Jesus is the Landowner, and as he bore the cross, Jesus himself bore “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” for you.

Jesus deliberately got caught on “the wrong side of that line” and took his place last in line for you.

And Jesus the Landowner personally assures you, “I will pay you whatever is right,” and then pays you infinitely more than you deserve…with mercy.

So if you find yourself last in line or among the forgotten middle, there is good news.

In the kingdom of heaven the starting point is mercy, not merit.

The mercy of God marks the end of the meritocracy, and means being last in line is actually the very best place to be.

Amen.