First and Last
Matthew 20: 1-16
I want to start with an image from our weekly life together at the Wesley Foundation. As you know, one of our main weekly gatherings is for dinner and forum on Thursday nights. Cooks are in the kitchen and setting food out on the serving table in the dining room. Meanwhile, students start to straggle in, weary and heavy-laden from a day at class and toting their backpacks all over. They drop the packs – and sometimes even set their cell phones down! – and they start catching up, introducing themselves to people they haven’t met, joking, and eagerly anticipating the feast about to be served.
As I said, they straggle in. Over a period of about 15 minutes the group gets bigger and a natural circle-like shape emerges as we stand waiting for the final preparations and for the blessing to be offered. At some point, as the last-minute arrivals straggle in at 6 on the dot it becomes obvious that the circle has reached capacity. That’s usually when I holler, “Let’s make the circle bigger so everyone can join us.” And even though we have to negotiate tables and chairs, circling waaaaay around to make room, it always works. Everyone fits. The circle expands.
That’s the image I want you to keep in mind.
So the last will be first, and the first will be last (Mat. 20: 16). I’ve always found this a little confusing. Sometimes I hear it as a mysterious but true, and a little impenetrable, like a Zen koan. At those times I can just sort of be with it, let it sit, and not worry so much about articulating what it means. Other times I feel more exasperated: What does that mean? If the last are first and the first are last, is this forever? Is this some sort of eventual punishment for having once been first, or promotion for having served your time as last?
Let’s be honest, here. It seems like the last are getting a better deal somehow. They showed up at 5 o’clock and you’re paying them the same as me? I’ve been here since dawn! I know that not everyone here today feels like a “first” kind of person. I know some people struggled to get here today. Some of us are struggling on a lot of days. But for those of us in this room, we’re “first” in the world. We live in the “first world,” though we have mostly stopped referring to it that way, and our country loves to chant things like “USA! #1!” Even if it’s just a twin bed in a cramped dorm room, those of us here have a place to sleep at night and food to eat. And I suspect, even if we don’t like thinking of ourselves as being among the “first” in the world, we identify with those dawn workers in the parable.
This isn’t how it works most of the time. The early bird catches the worm! First come, first served. We know how it works and, by and large, we like it that way. We’re used to it. It makes sense to us and we’ve been trying our whole lives to get into even more of a “first” position than the one we’re in now.
But the dawn workers didn’t hear Jesus saying the whole first-last thing. So it’s interesting to hear how they complain. Do you remember what they said? “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” (v.12, emphasis mine). You have made them equal to us. It’s not as if the last get paid and the first don’t. The first get paid what they were more than happy to work for at the beginning of the day. But now that there are some Johnny-come-latelys in the mix, they think their standing should rise. They expect more now, just because they got there first.
I wish the church didn’t still need to hear this message. But we do.
A few years ago I was talking with some students about what made the Wesley Foundation such a meaningful part of their faith life. The student president at the time was an outspoken, feminist, politically astute, sharp and witty young woman. So she surprised me when she said in a matter-of-fact way, “My own church would never let me lead anything.” She’s not the only one. I have heard from college students and recent graduates that they leave school and the Wesley Foundation ready to offer their gifts in new congregations, only to be told they have to pay their time before they’ll be allowed to participate as true leaders in the congregation. We were here first. Don’t you know it’s 5 o’clock? It’s seems a strange trend for a church constantly bemoaning the lack of young people.
What would it be like if one of the students speaking today or here in the congregation wanted to serve on the church council here? Would we remind them of the time or get excited and ask about their gifts for ministry?
What would it be like next winter, if some of the PACEM guests at the homeless shelter took us up on our invitation to worship here, and they kept doing it even when the shelter moved on to a new location? What if they wanted to help with the children’s time or the building maintenance? Would we be thinking about when they got here (last!) or how they could serve, too?
I’ve been thinking of our national and church debates about same-sex marriage in light of this parable. I have a hard time understanding the position that allowing same-sex marriage somehow diminishes or detracts from heterosexual marriage. No one is threatening to abolish marriages as we know them now; it’s about widening the circle to let more people in.
You have made them equal to us. That’s the scandal and the key to this whole first-last thing. What we like to think of as the natural order of things is completely overturned. It’s not that the last and the first switch places, with all the ensuing privileges or losses. It’s that “first” and “last” no longer have meaning – at least not a ranking-style of meaning. Nothing is taken away from the first, except their artificial power, ranking, and privilege the world gives.
Jesus starts the parable by saying, “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” (v. 1). The whole rest of it is what the kingdom of heaven is like… The kingdom of God is a reality in which all day long, all life long, there are continual invitations to participate. The kingdom of God has work and a place for everyone. In the kingdom of God what is promised is fulfilled; promises are kept. The kingdom of God is an experience of generosity.
We are a people who pray, as Jesus taught us to say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” With the words of this prayer we beg God to create God’s kingdom here and now in the fullness with which it exists already in heaven. We the church are “already-not yet” people. The kingdom of God already exists but it has not yet come in its fullness here. It has come near, if we have ears to listen.
So maybe there is a way that first and last retain their meanings and aren’t smoothed into an common experience. Maybe, if we can never grasp the truth that sets us free, we will be last. Maybe, if first or last is all we can ever see, it’s all we ever will see. And we’ll completely miss the fact that we’re standing in a circle that can always be bigger, where there is room for everyone, no matter how, when, or why we came. No matter who we used to be, no matter who’s standing next to us. A circle, like our Thursday circles, where we anticipate the feast to come and all are fed.
Thanks be to God!
© Deborah E. Lewis 2011
18 September 2011
Wesley Memorial UMC