"Snarks on a Plane" – Matthew 20:1-16
If I did the math correctly, I figure I flew on 16 different airplanes over the course of my last four months of this summer’s sabbatical. (Lots of trains, boats, buses and automobiles, too. And I know many of you travel quite a bit, but 16 planes is a lot, for me, in that short span of time.) And, do you know what one of the things is that has the potential to stress me out as much as almost anything else? Yeah…flying in an airplane. Specifically, waiting to get off of an airplane. (I’m talking about anxiety and stress, here. Not a fear of flying.)
It’s small and petty, inconsequential in the grand scheme of things and I’m aware of this, even as it’s happening. But it ranks right up there, for me, with stubbing a toe, or installing car seats (especially the ones with that little metal clip), or with the feeling I get when I open the door that leads from the garage into my house after someone has left the pantry door open – that sits just beyond it – in a way that stops me in my tracks with a sharp, loud bang. It’s an annoying, frustrating kind of design flaw in our kitchen that both doors can’t be opened at the same time. It’s especially maddening when I’m holding onto an armload of groceries for dear life.
Anyway, these things – the toe-stubbing, the car seat installing, and that god-forsaken door – small and petty and inconsequential as they are in the grand scheme of things, can make my blood pressure shoot up and my frustration peak, in an instant. And I think and feel and say very un-Christian things in those moments, if you know what I mean.
And the same thing happens more often than I’d like to admit almost every time I get off of an airplane. And it’s all because of those people who don’t wait their turn. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Common sense and common courtesy and a simple ability and willingness to pay attention should tell any traveler that the people at the front of the plane get off first; that row two follows row one; that row three follows row two, and so on; that you wait your turn; that you are patient; that everyone is anxious to be out of that floating metal tube no matter how long or short the flight has been.
But there always…always…always seems to be that person – those people – seated at the back of the plane in row 37 who think they need to…that they HAVE to…that they DESERVE TO…get up and muscle their way off of the plane before it’s their turn. And more than once this summer – because of my predilection for stress and frustration on airplanes in the first place, remember – I let these knuckleheads get the best of me. By that I mean, when my blood pressure shot up, as my ears started steaming, I thought some things that weren’t very Christ-like.
I even said some things… I even DID some things… on more than one occasion that weren’t very nice, or pastoral, let alone anything like what Jesus would do.
To one woman who barreled her way past me as I tried to stand, I said, with as much snark and sarcasm as I could muster, “Oh, you just go right on ahead.” She turned around, completely unaware of her transgression and simply, genuinely said “Thank you.” And after another long flight, I pretended not to notice the passenger or their suitcase that had snuck up beside me as I waited to stand up, and I kicked it (the suitcase, not the passenger), pretending to trip on it, hoping they might get the point. Jesus would be proud, don’t you think? What’s funny is, they just apologized and hurried on past, so that they ended up getting off the dang plane ahead of me anyway!
I didn’t think it at the time, but when I read our parable for this morning, I couldn’t help it: “The last will be first and the first will be last.” That’s the lesson we learn from those workers in the vineyard, right? Most of us have heard this story before. It’s a good one for Lutherans, because it paints such a clear-cut picture of what grace is supposed to look like in God’s kingdom.
No matter how much time you put in, or not… No matter how hard you work, or not… No matter what you think you or him or her or “they” deserve, or not… everyone gets the same pay, the same reward, the same forgiveness, the same seat at the table, the same fullness of God’s love. And, in fact, in some cases because of what some have done or left undone – the last, the least, the most prolific of sinners, I mean – their measure of grace and mercy and peace and reward is even greater than those you and I might believe have earned the blessings we all desire.
“The last will be first and the first will be last.”
And that may be hard to wrap our hearts and minds around, but we can’t deny the simplicity of it. The parable is clear, confounding as it may be. And we can smile and nod our way through it, familiar, at least, with that moral to the story: “The last will be first and the first will be last.”
What worries me though, to be honest, is that if I struggle to honor it when I’m getting off of the airplane, what will it look like when and where it really matters?
Can I stop keeping score enough to forgive others – or at least enough to suggest that God can forgive when I can’t manage it? (The last will be first and the first will be last.)
Can I stop protecting my own self-interests to let the refugees in? (The last will be first and the first will be last.)
Can I stop justifying and judging enough so that I don’t have to take sides in Ferguson, or Israel, or Palestine; in Egypt or Syria or Iraq? (The last will be first and the first will be last.)
Can I stop quantifying and qualifying and comparing sins in ways that would let others in and keep others out? (The last will be first and the first will be last.)
Again, I’m afraid – because of all the snark and sarcasm and luggage-kicking on airplanes – that I’m not equal to the task. My hope, though… Our hope – thanks be to Jesus – is that God is better at all of this than we can ever be.
This is not an excuse to leave it up to Jesus. This is not a cop-out that lets us keep on kicking and screaming and snarking our way through life as we know it – holding grudges or keeping score or laying low and letting God sort it out in the end.
This is an invitation to remember that we have all been – and will all be – allowed to pass, with full benefit of God’s grace and mercy and love, whether we earn it or deserve it or work for it, or not, in the end. And the truth of that calls us to let go of the hard work of judgment – all of that score-keeping is hard, destructive, life-stealing work. And God’s grace – like the Landowner in the parable – means to release us from the wear and tear and stress and destruction that it pours into our lives. (“Take what belongs to you and go. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am so generous?”)
Our invitation, then, is to let God’s love be God’s love and to start practicing that kind of love and generosity, here and now – on airplanes, at the grocery store, in our classrooms, at the kitchen table, around this altar – to reverse the order of things right where we live; to forgive the sin; to drop the scorecard; to make room for the other; and to get out of the way so that the last will be first, for a change, for a CHANGE, trusting that we are already and that we will all one day be right where we belong: in the arms of God’s amazing, abundant, all-consuming, all empowering, all-loving grace.