We were fine until the check-in line in Athens. As part of my sabbatical in 2017, my daughters and I hiked in Greece for six weeks. The trip was a generous blessing and we were remarkably free of disasters and grumbling until we were ready to fly home.

We stood in line at the Athens airport for one of those self-serve kiosks where you check your luggage and print your boarding passes. The girls each got three boarding passes – Athens to Milan, Milan to Toronto, Toronto to the States. I got two – Athens to Milan, Toronto to the States. I went to the airline counter, and the agent gave me one of those typically Mideastern/Mediterranean shrugs. “{Shrug} Get your boarding pass in Milan,” she told me.

On the plane, I asked the attendant where I should go when I got to Milan. “Why didn’t you print your boarding pass in Athens?” she asked. “You’ll need your boarding pass to get through customs. {Shrug} Go to the ticket counter”.

Except there was no one at the ticket counter or the next or the next. When there finally was… “Why didn’t you print your boarding pass in Athens? You’ll need a boarding pass to get through customs. {Shrug} Try down there.”

As we ricocheted through the Milan airport looking for help, what had seemed like a lavish two-hour layover was ticking away as, until we had walked all the way to the customs line. It was a line of people snaking back to front, shoulder to shoulder filling a room the size of this sanctuary. All of them were slowly passing – or not passing – through a single point of entry.

There were people from everywhere in that line – Saudi Arabian women in burqas, young people from Central America, people using walkers and babies in strollers. And all of us were clutching in our hands what would get us through the line – our passports, papers, and boarding passes.

A guard at the beginning of the line – or was it the end – wouldn’t let me into the line without a boarding pass. I told the girls to keep moving. I’d catch up.

Then, frankly, I was caused a scene, until “{Shrug} and the guard led me to a large television screen, pressed some buttons and I was talking to an Italian airport problem solver who spoke English. Her assessment was “You are about to miss your flight. “{Shrug} Go back to customs line.”

When I went back to the customs line, the girls were about where I had left them.

How could that happen? They had gotten to the front of the line, didn’t want to go through without me- kind daughters – so they started over. At the end of the line. Or the beginning.

Now there were Pakistanis in turbans, couples clearly newly in love or newly married, chic looking French professionals, Asian families with multiple generations traveling together, an old woman in a wheelchair, and toddlers having meltdowns. All with passports, papers, and boarding passes. My hands felt alarmingly empty.

At the entry point, a man behind bulletproof glass glanced at the girls, their boarding passes, stamped their passports and they were through. Then, “Where your boarding pass? Why you not get it in Athens? You can’t go through customs without a boarding pass.” Then, {Shrug}, he stamped my passport and waved me through.

Jesus tells a parable. It involves a landowner who cares as little for rules and as much for people as a reckless, generous, rule-breaking Italian customs official. Workers line up, and the landowner hires at the beginning of the day and throughout the day and at the end of the day. When evening comes, the landowner has everyone line up from the first to the last, or was that the last to the first? In any case, workers line up, and everyone gets the same amount of pay put into their sweaty, dirty, scratched up hands.

It doesn’t seem fair, does it?

It reminds us of a student who shows up only for the last day of class and receives an “A.” It reminds us of a new employee who works for only one year and receives full retirement. It reminds us of someone who doesn’t have their paperwork in order and yet gets to cross the border. It reminds of people who cut the line. It reminds us of people who don’t get what they deserve.

We must admit that this parable is irritating if not offensive to many of us. Most of us have trouble managing our envy and covetousness about other human and earthly things.

From one end of the spectrum, we wonder how it is that some people begin with so much, earn so much, or keep so much. How some people get good grades, excel at work, find great friends and foster healthy relationships. Maybe if we’d been handed everything on a silver platter, we’d be up there at the head of the line, too.

Oddly, when we look from the other end of the spectrum, we are likely to be just as begrudging. We see people who eat and drink what they want, cut corners, cut classes, change spouses and careers. They didn’t stay inside the lines, and yet their hands are full of good things.

Then we remember that Jesus didn’t say this was a parable about human things – about money, or grades, or economic systems or even labor negotiations.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like this landowner…” When we translate this parable to be an illustration about heavenly things and see Jesus’ image of our God – reckless, generous, rule-breaking – well…it still doesn’t seem fair.

You show up for worship. You serve on committees. You give of your hard-earned income. You care about our community. You take food to people who need it. And yet someone can come along late in the day or late in life and receive God’s grace just the same as you? Someone could have lived a terrible, corrupt, degenerate life and at the end open their hands to receive God’s forgiveness as thoroughly as you?

Like the early hires in the parable, we tend to grumble. Many of us have trouble celebrating the good things other people receive – even when they are good things from God. Another pastor quips: No one sings, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saves a wretch like you.”

Do you want grace? Get in line. We were here first. We deserve a little bit more.

To all of that, before all that line forming, line shoving, line assessing, inspecting what is in other people’s hands, Jesus offers a landowner who say, “{Shrug}. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Jesus’ landowner actually uses a Mideastern/Mediterranean idiom: “Do you have the evil eye because I am generous?” The evil eye was – and still is – serious business in that culture. An evil eye falls upon someone, and they are not entirely responsible for their behavior. If an “evil eye” has struck the people with jealousy, it’s not entirely their fault.

So, even when they grumble, the landowner is being generous to those at the end – or was it the beginning – of the line.

“{Shrug}” shrugs the landowner, of Jesus’ story, “I can be generous with what is mine. Who are you to question? I place in your hands what I choose to give you. I place in the hands of others what I choose to give. This is my vineyard, and I can be reckless, generous and break the rules.”

When we passed through customs, we were free but fearful. There were less than 10 minutes before our flight was to take off and my hand was still empty.

Over the intercom, I heard my name “Signora Lohrenz. Lohrenz”. At the gate, an agent put into my hands a boarding pass, as if it were mine all along.

My daughters and I walked onto the plane and took our place among people from all over the earth, different nationalities, speaking many tongues, across the age and ability spectrum. We were for ten hours a little community of people who had everything we needed, whether we deserved it or not.

Jesus tells a parable. Jesus invites us to step into the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven is like a vineyard, like an international air flight, like a sanctuary. There are no lines in the kingdom of heaven. There is only a community. It is a community of people who have received – not what we deserve – but what a reckless, generous, rule-breaking God chooses to offer. We are handed the same great abundance. Grace. Boundless grace. Mercy. Endless mercy. Purpose. Great purpose. Life. Abundant life.

Jesus invites us to feel the weight of all the generous goodness God has poured into our hands, our hearts, our lives.

Jesus invites us to look around – from wherever we are – and see those with whom we travel, see all people receiving into their hands what our generous God chooses to give.

We might say, “God has been generous with me, and God has generous with you. {Shrug} There is no line in the kingdom of heaven. Welcome to the community of those who don’t get what they deserve.”