It’s January 1897. There’s a deep snow on the ground in Chicago. A man named Mel Trotter is walking through the streets barefoot in the snow, but it doesn’t matter to him because he can’t feel anything on the outside nor the inside.
Mel’s a barber by trade, but he can’t keep a job due to his alcoholism. It’s the turn of the 20th century so very little was understood about addiction and treatment. He’s exhausted from the shame and guilt of years of trying to stay sober. Every relapse causes the Trotter family to go without the basic necessities of life.
That winter his two year old son became ill. The Trotter couldn’t afford the medicine he needed. A kind doctor gave Mel the money to purchase the medicine, but he ended up spending it on one of his drinking binges. Two days later he arrived home as they were carrying his son’s dead body out of the house. That’s the heart-wrenching spiral of addiction: By trying to numb the pain, a person often creates even more pain and the cycle of trying to numb it just continues to repeat itself.
That night in Chicago in January, 1897, Mel Trotter is walking barefoot in the snow because he traded his shoes for some whiskey. He figures he doesn’t need his shoes anymore because he’s on his way to a bridge to end his life. On his way there he meets a person who served as a chaplain at the Pacific Garden Mission. It was an encounter that set him on a path of forgiveness, faith, healing and recovery. He met the love of Jesus in that encounter.
The Gospel we read each Sunday is full of stories about people who meet Jesus and it changes the trajectory of their lives. That didn’t stop in the first century. It’s the same Easter hope we carry with us as followers of Jesus: That which is dead can be raised again to new life. That which is broken can be made whole again.
Mel Trotter ends up becoming an ordained Presbyterian minister. He has a heart for people whose life journeys are similar to his own. He intentionally seeks out the people everyone else has given up on. He eventually goes on to found over 60 different homeless shelter ministries around the country during a time of great need because there were so many traumatized young men returning from WWI. In my line of work you can’t turn around without somehow bumping into his legacy.
He was famous for absolutely refusing to give up on people. Because of his own experience, he steadfastly believed no one should be labeled as hopeless or a lost cause.
His philosophy was very simple. It went like this: When you encounter someone, no matter what that person’s life up to that person’s life looks like up to that point, you are only seeing a part of the story. The rest of the story has yet to be written because the Good News of Jesus Christ is full of surprise endings.
It’s a hopeful way of seeing the world because it leaves room for the possibility that any life can change.
It runs counter to the cynical, pessimistic tendencies we often fall prey to which cause us to think we know how things will turn out based on what we have seen so far.
In my daily life and work at the homeless shelter I often encounter people who are having the worst day of their lives and everything’s a mess. I constantly have to remind myself that what I am seeing is simply a snapshot in time , but it’s not the whole story and it’s certainly not the end of the story.
My sisters and brothers, the Good News of Jesus Christ is full of surprise endings. If all that we could have seen that night in January, 1897 was Mel Trotter staggering barefoot through the snow in the streets of Chicago, we would have probably never guessed how his story would turn out. No one could have predicted that over 120 years later there would be numerous organizations all over the country that he started which all are still feeding the hungry and offering safe shelter to the unhoused.
In the story that Jesus told in our Gospel reading, if we had shown up at the beginning of the day and listened to the conversation between the Vineyard owner and his two sons, we would have thought we could have predicted what the end of the day would look like. We don’t have names for them, but Barbara Brown Taylor calls these two “The Yes and No brothers.” There is something about the “No” brother that repulses us. I immediately don’t like this guy. If I were a betting person, I’d place my money on the “Yes, sir. Glad to do it” brother. He sounds like a sure thing.
But by the end of the story, everything’s changed. Many of the stories Jesus told have endings where everything is upside down. Jesus concludes this one by saying it’s often the very last people we would ever expect who end up doing the work of God’s kingdom. He tells the religious authorities, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
My sisters and brothers, at the heart of our Gospel reading there’s a challenge for us to not close the book on people and assume we know the ending of anyone’s story. When we’re quick to count someone out or write someone off, including ourselves and our own lives, we are in danger of missing the pattern of how God’s grace works in this world.
God’s kingdom is a place where redemption isn’t just some remote possibility. It’s the heart of the matter. It’s a space where the last can end up first. It calls us to have radical hope and offer ample opportunity for the outcome of the story to change.
We need to hold on to that. We need to unpack it and sometimes wrestle with it, but most of all we need to try to learn how to live into it.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is full of surprise endings. That's what makes it good news!