Think Outside the Lines

Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16

When I come to a new place to share in ministry, I like to do some research – so of course, I was reading up on how water got to Los Angeles, snippets of the lives of powerful and influential people, and, believe it or not, a bit more about the history of Disney.

On Youtube, I was linked to a channel called Defunctland which covers different facets of the history of DisneyLand and other theme parks, and there it was that I discovered something fascinating.

Disney is the single company we have to thank for switchback lines – you know, the lines when we wait to go through security at the airport, like a snake, zig zagging. Disney came up with that concept to deal with the immense crowds gathering and waiting to ride their popular attractions. (FYI – even Costco uses them at their outdoor food courts.)

In the 90 documentary – kind of a nerd – called History of Fast Pass, the video dives into the evolution of lines at DisneyLand and other parks.

- At first, it was a long line of people as people waited for hours, but eventually, engineers started trying to design ways to make the lines trick you into thinking you were getting closer to the ride and entertaining you with your surroundings – like talking robots and visuals.

- Eventually, they came up with the concept of FastPass, where you could grab a ticket and return at a different time. What was great was that this meant more people were spending money in the park and experiencing other attractions rather than just waiting in line. Everyone was happy.

- But then Fastpass started getting tweaked, not by engineers, but by the financial department. Suddenly, you had to register in advance, up to 60 days, to reserve your spot – and to the present, you have to pay for the privilege of being able to go through the lines quicker. And now, some attractions are sold out or at capacity before they open.

- Ultimately, the documentary claims – FastPass has evolved so that it favors the super Disney Nerd who knows all the ins and outs, when to login, how to make the best use of it, and it favors those without a lot of money to spend.

What is fascinating to me is how so much of our culture and our world so often runs on the same pattern. If you have knowledge, you can work the system to your advantage. If you have money, you can move to the front of the line.

In a community and county and country like our own, where those working with the most vulnerable are seeing a spike in deaths among unhoused neighbors, when so many people feel locked out of opportunity, when laws are being passed to “exclude” people based on who they are and who they love, and where those with money and knowledge seem to have a FastPass to skip the long waits, I wonder – is this the kind of society God desires from us? What is God’s vision and imagination for how we might live together?

In this season of Lent as we often think about letting go of things, maybe this is a season to imagine something more than what we have.

In our scripture this morning, I think we are challenged as we think about our world and even how we understand God's heart – its a parable with many quirks. But as Jesus begins telling the story, we learn that this story is about the Reign of God. It is about the kind of community God wants to create – on earth as in heaven. And it challenges us as we think about our world.

You could rename this as the extravagant vineyard owner, because of his peculiar traits in this story. For one, he has no middle manager whose job it would be to actually go out and hire the laborers. Instead, he does it himself. (take that Jeff Bezos!)

And he continues to hire people throughout the day – maybe the work is that much needed in his vineyard. There are grapes to harvest and plant and tend – and they need hands to get it done. Or maybe the owner has no idea how much work needs to be done, but just hates seeing people not working, milling around the community square.

And finally, when it comes to pay day – we get the most extravagant decision of all. The vineyard owner pays everybody the same, starting with those who came at five o’clock until those who sweated most of the day, leaving those who were there for a full day’s shift grumbling under their breath.

But the owner is puzzled. It’s his money.  It’s his poor business sense. It’s his extravagance.

Jesus leaves us pondering this by saying, “And the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”

It can be easy to listen to any of Jesus’ parables and think there is one answer, but that is always the wrong way to think about the peculiar stories. In Godly Play, a children’s worship model that my wife and I are fond of, parables are described as stories that need to be unwrapped. And you unwrap them every time you hear them, encountering something new or experiencing the story from a different vantage point.

A pastor I heard once said, “Scripture, like these parables, are like diamonds – they sparkle from every direction as you look at them.”

Part of the way we must challenge ourselves to think about this parable is to do what Jesus asks – to expand our imagination, to think outside the lines. I don’t think this parable is giving us business advice or how we should pay people – but it does challenge us to live into a more expansive vision of faith than following Jesus just so we can get our FastPass into heaven. Rather, we follow Jesus because Jesus turns upside down the ways of the world, inviting us to imagine a world where generosity and love and grace extend to all in surprising ways.

The vineyard owner in this story has power – we have power too as a church.

We have power in the way we use our resources to lift up others or make spaces of welcome and inclusion. We have power in the message we share on our signs and in our lives. We have power in the choices we make of where to spend our energy and what to imagine is possible here in the foothills.

I give thanks then that I get to be a pastor of a church that has a history of just doing that – of extending a fierce and courageous welcome to through our open and affirming identity, who creates a safe space for littles on in our preschool, who welcomes Western Service Workers for resources, food, and support, who opens up the table for those who are in the midst of transition and deconstruction and transformation.

Theologian NT Wright comments on this parable that there is a particular message to Jesus’ disciples – don’t think just because you’ve been around Jesus for a long time that you get special favors. That you get to skip to the front of the line. Following Jesus and pursuing this way of grace is not about getting paid commensurate with experience – rather it is always about those workers who were neglected at the end of the day, folks in Jesus’ day and our own who may not have had the best grades, who may not fit into the acceptable categories, who may stick out.

But in Jesus’ vision – and perhaps in our own work as the church – those are precisely who God is reaching out to and calling to be central to the Reign of God on earth.

Perhaps that challenges us a church, especially those of us who have poured in hours of hard work in our faith community, to always remember that Jesus is among those at the edge of our society, those we pass by, those who society is working to exclude.

I believe people are hungry for a church that gets rid of the Fastpasses of our world and helps us imagine and live into something new, where those on the margins get the richest of blessings.

Close with my parents, including those people staying in their homes and treating them like family. With birthday cakes and birthday presents. And how I would grumble, until I got older and my faith and understanding of Jesus deepened.

And I knew my parents would say to me, “Nathan, this is our home – we can share it with whoever we want. This is our love – we can share it with whoever we want.”

That’s a lesson I am still learning.

And that is the lesson of Jesus – and the table which we are about to gather – the love of God to all. Praise be to God!