Milkbone Underwear

The Rev. Tom Baker
St. Stephen’s Church, Horseshoe Bend, Ark.
September 18, 2011
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 20
Matthew 20:1-16

The old TV series “Cheers” was about a group of friends who worked or gathered at a bar in Boston. There was the bar’s owner Sam; his girl friend Diane; the not so smart bartender Woody and his wise but goofy colleague, Coach; Carla, the waitress with an attitude; and my favorite character who every time he walked into the bar everyone would yell out, “Norm!”

Norm always sat at the same bar stool and had a sad but funny story to tell. He was just a guy trying to get by despite all the problems the world threw at him. One of my favorite quotes from Norm was when he came into the bar and the Sam asked how his day was. Norm, with his head down and tie undone, said, “Sam, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and I’m wearing Milkbone underwear.”

We all can relate. We’ve all had bad days. Days when it seemed nothing went right, maybe even months or years. It was as if some cosmic forced decided to make our life miserable. Now I know there are people out there who love to complain and whine. There are also people who live in appalling conditions and truly are in need. But Norm wasn’t a whiner and he was always able to keep his head above water. Norm was a loveable loser. The guy who never got a break and we loved him for it. It wasn’t Norm sitting there, day after day in Cheers sharing his troubles, it was me – it was you.

Life, especially these days, can be awfully unfair. The rich get richer and poor get poorer and those of us in the middle are just stuck. Things never seem to come out right.

And this isn’t just true about the big stuff. Sometimes the little injustices can drive you the craziest. When I lived in Baltimore I hated driving on the expressway not only because of the traffic but trying to exit off was never any fun. Without fail there was always a backup at the exit ramp. People had to slow down in order to merge onto city street traffic causing long lines of cars to form on the expressway. I hated being stopped on an expressway while people flew by me at 70; I always felt like a sitting duck. But what really got my blood boiling was seeing a car pass me – go to the front of the line I’ve been waiting in – and merge way in front of me. I didn’t know who I was angrier with: the driver who thought they were so special that they didn’t have to wait like the rest of us – or the schmuck who let them in. It just wasn’t fair.

There I was following the rules, waiting my turn, when all of a sudden along comes Mr. Special, usually in a nice new car, who because of some goodie-two shoes gets to cut in front of me and everyone else. It drove me crazy. What makes them better than me? And why wasn’t anyone that nice to me when I need to merge into traffic? And to make matters worse, the next time I’m waiting line, for anything, you think I’m going to let someone cut in front of me? No way, buddy; you have to wait like the rest of us. There are rules about waiting in line and I’m going to make sure we all follow them, no matter what.

This kind of thing doesn’t just happen on big city expressways. How do you feel when someone cuts in front of you in line at Wal-Mart? Or when you find out your neighbor got a better deal than you because they know the store’s owner? How would you feel if you found out that a co-worker who never seems to do much at work gets more pay than you? And let’s not even start to talk about folks on welfare …

The unfairness of it all can turn us angry and bitter. It can make us feel like the whole world has turned against us and we have no choice but to hunker down and look out for Number One. Instead of trying to live together we become lone individuals only concerned with what matters to us. Everyone else is out of luck – we got problems of our own.

Maybe that’s why today’s Gospel hits us square between the eyes. Did I just hear that right, Jesus? Do you really expect me to believe that those who worked a measly half an hour deserve the same pay as the ones who diligently worked all day long in the heat of the sun? That the bum who sleeps on cardboard, never did a once of work, and is probably drunk gets into your kingdom alongside me? The guy, who follows Jesus, is a priest and serves others? Is that fair Jesus?

You and I need to open our ears and really hear Jesus’ parable. We need to realize that this parable isn’t about what’s fair and what’s unfair. This parable is more about Jesus telling us about the radical love of God. A love so big it embraces even the guy who cuts in front of everyone else. A love that given to the first and the last.

But, we have to ask ourselves do we really want a God who’s going to dole out love as if it was a reward. Those who preach the Gospel of Prosperity would like us to think that way. You’ve heard them: if you belong to God, if you’re saved, you will be blessed. The football player who just signed a multi-million-dollar deal says, “I’m blessed – God made this happen – Thank you, Lord!” The mom whose house is spared from a damaging storm says she’s blessed as her neighbors try and pick up the pieces. We say God bless America… and don’t include the rest of the world.

Somehow we have tied together fortune and blessings. The Gospel of Prosperity, that’s so much of our religious culture today, makes us feel so good while the least, the last, and the lost go unnoticed and uncared for. Jesus wants no part of that. For Jesus the blessed are the people who mourn, who are persecuted, and who are hungry. Jesus surrounds himself with bums and those on welfare. These aren’t the folks at the front of the line. They’re the ones at the back of the line – and to them Jesus says, step right up and come on in.

Today’s Gospel should have hit us right between the eyes. Sometimes we need a shake up to remember that the way we want to order the world is not the way Jesus sees the world. How easy it can be for all of us, when life gets unfair, to retreat inside ourselves and look out for number one. Jesus tears down our self importance and calls us to live out the last shall be first. To let go of the thought that we’re so special, so blessed. The radical love of God is poured out on all. We can resent that and keep score of who is more worthy and who is less. Or…we can close the umbrella of our self importance, step out into the downpour of God’s grace and just appreciate that it’s there for ALL of us. Isn’t it God’s radical generosity that makes life meaningful for us all?

So, here we are. Good Christians. Doing our duty and following the rules. We showed up. We’re doing the work of the kingdom and when we leave here, we’ll head back into the fields. Into a world that counts every quarter hour of work, every accomplishment made, every rule to follow. Will we have the courage to stand with Jesus, ignore the values of our world, and welcome everyone into the radical love of God?