September 24, 2017
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 20: 1-16
I think it was very early on in my life that work first took on a transcendent, holy quality. Work was my identity. Work is what gave my life meaning, or so I thought. And so, like the workers in today’s parable who were up at dawn ready to conquer the day, I set out early to have all my ducks in a row so that I’d get a great, important job as early as I could in life. I was the editor of the high school newspaper, got a scholarship to college, and graduated with honors. I then immediately got my masters, and by the age of 22, I was in a PhD program at an Ivy league School. I believed my advisors who whispered into my ear, “Reagan, you’re going to be a star. You’re so young and you’ve got it all figured out.” I agreed with them. According to my calculations, I’d be a superstar professor by the age of 27, tenured by 35, and by 40, I’d be spending my summers leisurely reaping the benefits doing “research” in a villa in Italy.
First out of the gate, I’d reach the finish line well before anyone else and would be rewarded handsomely for all my efforts. It was a good plan. My calculations were reasonable. But what I failed to calculate was the cost of attaching my value as a human being to my job and to the rewards I felt my work deserved. Because when that job withered up and dried away, I found that I had nothing left. Six months into my PhD I found that I just couldn’t cut it and I took a leave of absence. But I had already placed all my value in my job and without that job confirming my value, I felt like I was dying. No shiny, prestigious job. No Reagan.
And in that void, addiction crept in and completed the destruction of all my well made plans. And like the workers in today’s parable who worked the entire day, I suddenly found myself at the back of the line waiting on my reward, with all the people I thought I was better than in front of me. I cried out to God, why me? I did everything right, I thought. Why was I in the back of the line with all those I saw as losers, when I had worked so hard to stay in the front?
And so, for the last 15 years, I been living in the wake of that great reversal. I’ve been living in the aftermath of what it feels like to trade places with the despised. And this great reversal, this trading places in line is what the parable from today’s reading calls the Kingdom of heaven. It’s a vision of the Kingdom that’s hard to swallow. It goes against everything we’ve been taught in life. It’s particularly hard to swallow here in America where from an early age it gets drilled into our heads that our value is tied to our jobs.
I mean everything is tied to our jobs here. Our healthcare, our retirement, whether we can get a credit card, rent an apartment or buy a car. It’s as if we have no identity apart from our jobs and so, here in this country, perhaps more so than anywhere else, we feel the pain when we don’t have a job or our job isn’t one that we’re proud of, or when folks of color or immigrants are systematically prevented from obtaining the kinds of jobs that our culture sees as valuable. Which is all the more reason why we need this parable. I mean it’s like the perfect parable for what’s going on in our country right now. We need Good News that isn’t rooted in our capacity to produce capital. We need Good News that rips us away from a world in which we are only taken care of if we have a job that has health care benefits, from a world where we are only granted citizenship if we are a scientist or a computer programmer, from a world in which we can only serve in the military if we can guarantee we won’t cost anything. We need Good News that God’s generosity and mercy are not reserved only for those who get to the employment office first or for those who finish their PhD at 27, because even those of us who think we have it all figured out, we will one day find ourselves at the back of the line. There will come a time when those who have had success will trade places with those we look down upon, and it’s in the shadows of that experience that we will truly know mercy. It’s in the pain of that great reversal that we will see that we are all children of God, each of us worthy of dignity and love, regardless of what it says on our business card.
On Friday night, I went to a gala dinner for Phoenix Multisport, a gym I belong to that allows recovering addicts the chance to do things like crossfit, boxing and yoga at no cost. I had heard about this gym when I first moved to Denver, but I was instantly skeptical that it could ever be a nice place. I mean, gyms are an expensive, particularly crossfit gyms. I briefly worked out at a crossfit gym in San Francisco years ago and it was a cornucopia of like the most successful people I have ever met. The pinnacle of success. And so when I heard about a free crossfit gym for addicts, I just couldn’t believe that something so symbolic of success would be given away to folks who, let’s face it, likely only started showing up for work very recently. Who would give away something that valuable to folks with ankle monitors? To folks who just barely scrubbed off the stench of their last drink. I didn’t think it was possible. But I was wrong. Phoenix is as nice as gyms full of Fortune 500 employees, because there are people out there who have seen what it’s like from the back of the line. There are people out there who, in one way or another, have heard the message of today’s parable and have caught a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven. And that this Kingdom isn’t a far away place in the future where we get rewarded for how early we get up in the morning. This Kingdom is breaking through right here, right now.
It’s breaking through every time we get jostled from our meritocracy and see that none of this belongs to us. That all of it is a gift and that we are more than our last paycheck, more than our 401 Ks and more than what we have succeeded in producing. We are so much more because God has made each one of us and we are all precious in Her sight. In her kingdom, our value has nothing to do with what we do and everything to do with whose we are.
But seeing this Kingdom of Heaven is hard, especially if we started out thinking we were on top. Because in order to see it, we have to trade places in line. We have to go from thinking we get paid first to getting paid last. I know it was that way for me. When I began to realize that my plans for my life in that PhD program were not going to work out, I fell into the deepest, darkest chasm I’ve ever been in. It felt like death because it was death. I was dying to everything I had ever believed myself to be. I was dying to the belief that my value was equal to my job. I was dying to the illusion that I deserved a better life than others. And then one day, I walked into a church, high as a kite, with nothing left to draw from myself, and I walked up to the altar and a priest looked into my blood shot eyes and said, “The Body of Christ.” And in that moment, I saw it– the Kingdom of Heaven. I saw the Kingdom of heaven because my own Kingdom had come down, and all I had left was God. Everything I had ever done or not done; all the work had done to make myself worthy; all of it melted away, and I saw things as they are from the back of the line. And it was beautiful and it set me free.
At the Phoenix dinner on Friday night, someone asked me why I became a priest and I told them that story. It was because of that moment right there, where the light pierced the darkness and I saw how the Kingdom of Heaven comes to us and shares with us that we are not any of the things that we have built up for ourselves because one day those things will be no more and we will be left with the only thing we ever had to begin with–that we are children of God.
And so tonight, I stand before you to say you are not your job, you are not how much money you make, you are not your benefits package or your employment status or your green card or your 401K. You are a child of God, and God has come here among us to save us from all that we are not but think we are. Thanks be to God.