This past week we had tryouts for our upcoming musical "White Christmas." The actors heard my "there are no small roles" lecture, but we all know that's a nifty concept only if it applies to the OTHER guy. Five of us were involved in deciding the cast. Like a game of chess, each move affected every other. One actor could dance. But he couldn't project. A senior actress was a soprano; we needed an alto. Another wasn't reliable. There were no perfect answers. Finally, after a lengthy, post-audition discussion, a sleepless night, and more early-morning conversations, I made the final decisions. Mid-day on Friday I taped the cast-posting to the auditorium door and fled.
One of my most talented students had not been given a principal role, even though she could sing, dance, and act. I owed her an explanation before she read the list for herself. We met privately Friday morning, and I told her what I had done. She cried. We hugged. She cried harder. Her best friend had gotten the part she wanted.
I knew what that was like. I had grown up in the shadow of a beautiful, popular, best friend. She came from a middle class family, never had to work after school or on weekends, manicured her fingernails nightly, constantly lotioned her freckleless skin, and had enough clothes to make it two weeks without wearing the same outfit.
She was a cheerleader, one of five selected. Her tryout was flawless; mine was mortifying. As I yelled "Go, Tigers, Go!" my knee socks plunged to my ankles. It was not until two years later, after being voted junior class secretary, that I finally felt like less of a failure. (Apparently no one cares what your knee socks do as long as your legs are under a table.) My friend was nominated for football homecoming queen. I hung streamers to decorate the gym for the dance that followed. Somehow being spring queen attendant didn't measure up. The popularity scale was not tipping in my favor.
Playing second fiddle is not an easy job. John the Baptist knew that all too well. Remember him? He was Jesus' bold, nomadic cousin who wore camel-hair clothes, munched on honey and locusts, and proclaimed the coming of the Lord. An excited crowd followed this man, listened to him, and was baptized by him. "Could this prophet be the Messiah?" they wondered. We can only imagine how easy it might have been for John to become arrogant and prideful, to bask in the glory lavished on him by the crowd, to relish the limelight into which he had been thrust. But that was not John's way.
The prophet had only one message, and it was revolutionary: one was soon coming who wore sandals that John was not worthy to untie. Humility in action. When Jesus arrived on the scene and asked to be baptized by John, John claimed he was unworthy of such a task. Nowhere do we get a glimpse of a man whose pride caused him to sabotage the intent of the Messiah. Nowhere do we see anything but acceptance of his job as second-fiddle, a position he was determined to fulfill with excellence, even if it cost him his head.
John spent ten months in prison before being beheaded by King Herod's henchman, all for admonishing Herod to stop his adulterous affair. Before dying, however, a little life-reflection caused doubts to creep in, and John sent word to ask Jesus if He really was who He said He was. When word of confirmation came back to the prophet, he knew his purpose had been fulfilled.
It sounds so easy, doesn't it? But if you've ever been called to step back and watch your best friend get the promotion ... or the boyfriend ... or the role ... you know how difficult it is to trust that God has a plan. Yet in His world, there really are no small parts. In His world, without those "second fiddle" positions, there would be no harmony. Perhaps, in His world, that is the leading role, after all.
So, what is my point?
Sometimes, ladies and gentlemen, life isn't fair.
And I'm so glad it isn't. Think about it.
If it were, we would all be living in a dump, running around barefoot and begging for food, like half the world. If it were, we could be persecuted for our faith, unless, of course, we were bowing to Allah or Mohammed. If it were, the majority of us would be uneducated, unhealthy, and uncivilized. If life were fair, we would get what we deserve.
And that's not a pretty picture. Especially when it comes to eternity.
Born sinners, none of us deserves forgiveness or mercy or grace. The parable of the Prodigal Son oozes such love. It's the story of an obnoxious son who couldn't wait for his father to drop dead and demanded his inheritance NOW. One can't help but read this story and wonder why the parent didn't knock his insolent son into next week, but that's not what happened. The father obliged, the son left town with his money belt sagging, and his partying cost him dearly. He ended up living with the pigs. "Just desserts," most of us would say.
When we read the lad comes to his senses and returns home, most of us have little mercy on him. We root for justice, hoping the son has to wallow in his emotional sty a little longer. "Teach him one final lesson, Daddy," we silently cheer. But that's not what happens. The father RUNS to greet his son. Noblemen didn't run; it was beneath them to gird up their loins so as to show off their legs. But this father ran. And then threw a grand party to celebrate his son's return.
That's what God does for us. His mercy covers our transgressions and refuses to be fair. His grace stands and cheers when we get better than what we deserve. We like that kind of "unfair," don't we? It's the other kind that's hard to accept, isn't it? When we are forced to be thankful for what we have instead of what we don't get. But even then, we have a choice ... we can stay in the sty and feel sorry for ourselves or we can count our blessings for what we do have available to us. I hope my student chooses wisely.