The First and the Last
A sermon preached by the Rev. Adrienne Koch at Cheshire House on Sun., September 24, 2017
Were really important in the third grade.
With her waist-high purple slacks and
Thick horn-rim glasses
Hawk-eyed, glaring at the blue tape
On the floor that
Bobby Miller’s big toe is touching,
Unobtrusively, underneath his cheap neon sneakers.
And out of nowhere
Suzan Johnston’s arm extends
To shield Bobby from the teacher’s glare
Nudging him back behind the line.
She takes her rightful place at the front
Of the pack.
Were really important in the third grade.
The goal was to be first.
Even if it meant losing a friend or two
or not getting picked for kickball at recess.
It may have even meant an occasional bladder infection from “holding it” too long after snack time.
“I don’t have to go” is a common line-leader retort spoken to the teacher while crossing one’s legs.
But, the personal sacrifice is worth it, to be first, isn’t it?
The line leader is the young “self-made” American.
The one who keeps the young culture’s radar on track toward the American Dream,
replicating its own version of greatness…
maybe one day, Bobby Milly, you too could be first in line, if you get your act together.
But today, I can feel the hard truth in my bones: we are not in the third grade anymore.
The rules have changed with our new teacher, who tells us in the gospel:
“The last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Can you imagine it? Suzan Johnston being asked to go to the back of the line after all her hard work and sacrifice? Well that just doesn’t seem fair, does it?
This phrase from Jesus seems upside-down, it’s not the way we’d been taught before, the way our “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” culture is supposed to work.
But maybe Jesus knows the topsy-turvy nature of the words “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” because he says them twice and, in between the repeat, he tells us a story about what “fairness” looks like in God’s kingdom:
In God’s Kingdom, the people who work quarter-time, part-time, and full-time jobs all get paid the same salary.
The person who was scheduled for a full day’s work, but came in late, is given a full day’s wage, too.
It’s hardly the American Dream, is it?
The American Dream, as is an 86 years old phrase. It was defined in 1931 with the idea that “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
“Opportunity… according to ability or achievement”—means that those with superior skill, higher performance, greater efficiency, more ingenuity and better acumen will be richer, and more powerful than those whose abilities are sub-par. Wealth and power are the highest achievements in the American Dream.
The American Dream is for 3rd grade line leaders, but it is not for Christians.
We should not be surprised at this, we have heard this kind of teaching from Jesus before.
We know that those who follow Christ are taught to take the last seat at the table when invited to dinner with friends. It is not personal success that determines one’s seat, but one’s honest assessment of one’s own position in life. Those who are humble, those who put themselves last will be invited to take the first seat of honor (Luke 14).
The American Dream tells us to take as much pride as we can in what we do well, and how long we do it for, because our doing it is what makes us deserve all that we have.
But the Kingdom of God tells us that “all things come of Thee, oh Lord, and of Thine own have we given thee.”
All that we have, comes to us by the loving hand of God, and for this reason, each person deserves a place at the table regardless of opportunity, ability, or achievement. And that is why the American Dream is not for Christians.
In fact, the American Dream may not really “be for” anybody but itself.
Last week, 60-some, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptists worshipped together at the Unity Shack after fundraising for Shack-a-thon. The goal—to raise enough funds for Habitat for Humanity to build one house.
One house in an effort to make a small difference for one family out of the more than 500,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the US.
The Kingdom of God tells us that regardless of their opportunity, ability, or achievement, that family deserves the same kind of housing security that you and I have.
And that is what Jesus’ parable of the vineyard is getting at.
“The last will be first, and the first will be last,” is an equalizing phrase meant to combat the competitive impulse to be first while stepping on the backs of everyone else in line.
But it takes a long time to change a culture, and so we don’t get this lesson from Jesus once in scripture, but in three different stories in the gospels.
We’ve already spoken of the story of the vineyard in Matthew.
“The last will be first, and the first will be last,” shows up again in Luke when Jesus reveals the entrance to the Kingdom of God; it is “through the narrow door.”
So, uninviting that no person with any amount of power and wealth would ever dream of trying to fit through it with their grandiose egos, when they could simply build their own bigger door.
But fitting through the narrow door is the only way in.
In Mark, Jesus reminds us again, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” He says it after warning that we should be ready not to gain the perfect home, job, and family for the sake of the Gospel, but instead, to lose our homes, or our jobs, and our families for the sake of the gospel.”
The American Dream is not the dream of the Kingdom of God.
The American Dream is no dream at all.
It is a nightmare for the poor, the dis-abled, and the sick,
for the DACA dreamers, for the victims of hurricanes and earthquakes, for the homeless, for the racially marginalized.
The American Dream is a bad dream for the most vulnerable among us.
Can you even imagine what our society would look like if we ditched the “so called” American Dream and let Jesus teach us the ways of the Kingdom here, and now?
Can you imagine it?
Suzan Johnston “holding it” all morning,
Just so that she can race to the blue line
In front of Mrs. B’s waist-high purple slacks and
Thick horn-rim glasses
In order to extend her hand
to Bobby Miller whose big toe is inching,
longingly toward the front,
and invite him to be first in line.
“The last will be first, and the first will be last,” is an “all are welcome” sign
hung around the neck of your actions,
every day, the great ones and the small ones.
It is your invitation to work in the vineyard of God, laboring until your hands blister,
not so that you can make more money or have more power than those around you,
but so that you can find your way to the narrow gate of entry into God’s kingdom
where the dignity and value of every human being is honored,
where we all receive the same wages for our labor,
and where true line leaders take their place at the back of the pack.