On the Plains of Moab Blog
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January 29, 2018, 9:51 AM


The Memorial Service for Woody Woodlief on Friday, January 26, 2018 was not recorded. I wish it was. The singing was electric. The passion was felt in the room. A man who worked hard in life; came to Christ late in life; and who walked the valley of shadow of death in faith; and went to be with Jesus. The service was to honor him. But we worshiped the God who saved him. I think Woody would have wanted it that way. I post the text of the sermon. I wish I could share the spirit that was present that night.

Text: Matthew 19:30-20:16

It was Sunday, October 8th – barely over three months ago – Woody found himself in a hospital room at Lewis-Gale Hospital. I had just arrived as his prognosis was being discussed. It wasn’t good. Cancer. In the lung. Inoperable. Not long.

And in the din of several conversations going on in that hospital room in those hectic moments, Woody leaned over to me, smiled, and said, “I’ve had a great life.”

In the face of a crushing diagnosis, Woody was resolved to cash in on the Faith he had been growing into for many years. And, to the day he drew his final breath this side of Glory Tuesday, January 23rd at 8:56 AM, he walked through the valley of the shadow of death unwavering.

Woody made the words of Jesus his own: He heard his Master say, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:34 ESV). He labored faithfully through pain and discouragement and frustrations and doctor appointments and tests and medication changes and good days and bad days – always with his eyes to the Lord. Woody wasn’t one to do anything half way, and he certainly wasn’t going to drop the ball down the homestretch.

Let me say here what I’ve been telling his family: I have never, in eighteen years of pastoral ministry, witnessed someone so strong in faith in the face of mortality. Oh, I’ve heard many talk it; but then fall into inconsolable despair when the crushing diagnosis came down. Woody was an encouragement to me. He was an encouragement to this congregation. And he really wanted, with all his heart and soul, to be an encouragement to his family, whom he loved dearly.

Joyce, bless you, you never left his side. To the family, thank you for your love demonstrated in such trying circumstances.

Well done. Well done.

Born near Henderson, North Carolina. Settled in the Roanoke Valley. Married at an early age. Worked his way up from the upholstery line at Rowe Furniture – spitting tacks – rising to Senior Vice-President of Manufacturing. 45 years distinguished service. Tennis, golf, hunting, tooling around his cabin in Floyd County. Remarried later in life to Joyce – these past thirty-eight years strong. Two families calling him affectionately, dad.

A church-goer, by habit, for most of his life. But as Woody liked to say, he didn’t really have the Gospel in his heart for most of his life. Professing, but not possessing. Going through the motions. Going through the motions until Joyce started attending Bible Study Fellowship – and he began helping her with her “homework.” Woody found himself being absorbed into the Bible. The Holy Spirit was chipping away at his heart. He was being wooed in. He spoke fondly of a dear friends who had the courage and boldness to share the Gospel with him point blank--Belle and Bobby Cooper and our own Judy Stanley -- who are all here tonight. He was never the same.

Which brings me back to the Scripture from Matthew I read a few minutes ago. “The parable of the laborers.” Returning to that hospital room on October 8th. Woody mentioned this parable that night. When he understood what Jesus was teaching in this parable, he immediately saw himself. He saw the grace of the Gospel personified. He felt the love of God in his heart.

The parable is about a man going out early in the morning to find some workers for his vineyard. He finds some and hires them. He went out again at 9:00 and found some more workers. Again at noon. And again at 3:00. Each time, hiring additional workers. And it wasn’t enough, so he went out again at 5:00 to hire a few more stragglers.

At the close of the work day, when the workers received their wages – their paychecks were identical. The sense of fairness stretched beyond recognition, the 6:00 and 9:00 AM’ers were the first to say, “Hey, man, that ain’t right! We got here first. We have worked longer. We deserve more.”

The master’s response was “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (20:13-15 ESV).

Woody understood rightly that this parable had nothing to do with economics. This wasn’t a blueprint for personnel practices in the workplace. Woody understood this was about the incomprehensible way God calls men and women into His Kingdom at all ages and stages of life. It was about the generosity of God. Some He calls as children. Some He calls as twenty-somethings. Some He calls in mid-life. Some He calls late in life. In the metaphor of the laborers in the vineyard – some come in at 6:00. Some at 9:00. Some at Noon. Some at 3:00. And some, don’t get that call until 5:00 – just before closing.

And, when these “laborers” “hired” throughout the ages head finish their earthly callings and head into the Kingdom of God consummated on the Last Day as the New Heavens and New Earth, each one will hear the words of approbation from their Heavenly Master: “Well done, child. Well done, child.”

The parable opens with Many who are first will be last, and the last first. (19:30 ESV) and ends with So the last will be first, and the first last (20:16 ESV). This means there is no difference between the first and the last: Everybody enters the Kingdom “fields” by grace. The first and the last all stand before the glory of God knowing it had nothing to do with how well they did. How good they were. How hard they worked. How long they’d been there. Knowing they hadn’t earned it.

It was about faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the Cross.

It was the wages of God’s kindness and generosity.

Woody was 70 years old when God called him out of his churchianity to labor in His vineyard. Woody was the straggler who came aboard at 5:00. Woody Woodlief, the five-o-clock kid!

On the Friday before his passing, Woody told me his favorite verse in Bible was Romans 10:9-10. And then he quoted it y memory: If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. (ESV).

Woody may have only been working in the vineyard from near closing time, but he surely made the most of the opportunity. I always tell people, it’s not how you start; but how you finish. It’s not about when you get there; but that you did get there. It’s never too late in life to find life in Jesus.

I want to say that over the last three months, Woody taught me; and taught this congregation so much about gratitude for the gracious call of the Lord. I knew Woody for nine years. He was my parishioner. He was my brother in Christ. He was my friend. He was my sparring partner.

Let me share one more story. Woody was a good tennis player. He was fiery competitor on the court. Joyce says that he was so passionate and into it that she had to refrain from going to watch him play. Woody earned a room full of trophies for his playing achievement. A number of years back, he and Joyce went out to dinner while painters were working on a job in their home. Due to the fumes from the paint thinner they were using, apparently there was a spark ignited from an open electric socket, and the house caught fire, destroying the kitchen and the living room. Woody’s trophies were all destroyed in the fire. But, let me tell you, for Woody, there are now eternal trophies in Christ that will never, ever be destroyed.

Woody Woodlief was originally from North Carolina. Lately, he was from the world. But, please understand, he may have been in the world; but he was not finally of it. Delivered in life by God’s gift of faith. Beholding now the glory of the Lord.

Glory be to the Father; and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.   Amen.

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