Sunday, September 18, 2011

Gratitude or Grudge

Matthew 20:1-16
In our worship we also shared this short skit by Andy Lund, modified only slightly for American listeners.

Well, our landowner, Hermann H. Schuster, sure was excited to find the day laborers when he went to the marketplace. Of course, he should be. Needing more laborers probably means there is a lot of work. A lot of work probably translates into a large field and a good crop. A good crop equals a nice profit which certainly stands for security, food on the table, and money to stretch even farther than that.

But as excited as he is to find the laborers I bet the workers are even more excited to find the work. The day laborers in the marketplace aren’t all that different than the day laborers we can see today in parking lots and pick-up points not far from our own community. They wake up each morning uncertain about where the day’s work will be, how much if any money will be made, and wondering if there will be anything to bring home at the end of the day.

The marketplace must have felt a bit like a school yard game of kickball. The workers were all gathered while the landowner and farm bosses came and scanned those who were there. Sizing them up, trying to assess their ability for hard, efficient work. They picked workers like the captains pick kickball teams and most certainly some are left behind. All of the laborers selected to join a team most certainly were grateful to be picked for work, promised a fair daily wage, the usual going rate which would assure if nothing else, he would earn this day’s daily bread.

The landowner was happy to find workers, first in the morning, then in the middle of the day, and even at the end, but his happiness probably paled in comparison to the excitement the laborers felt each time more were added to the work crew. Especially those picked at the very end. Whether they really were lazy like our skit portrayed or they had just been passed over by every other boss and the landowner every time he went back for more, by that late hour of the day they were likely just trying to figure out how they were going to explain back home that there was no food to eat. All of them who were picked, those first in the morning straight on through to those picked just before the whistle blew, were grateful, TRULY grateful just to have some work to do, some money to spend, some food to bring home.

No one in their right mind would have expected what happened when the whistle blew. Those in the morning were promised the daily wage, and however he said it going on in the day, those who were picked last (and apparently those watching them carefully) would have expected payment in proportion to how much they worked. But when payout time came, and the last to be picked were the first to be paid, and they were paid the full amount…!!! Their thankfullness must have gone through the roof. Their gratitude became incomparable! The crumbs they had mentally divided among the hungry mouths at their table grew in their minds’ eye. The servings got larger, larger than they deserved for the amount of work they put in, and they were grateful beyond grateful for what they were receiving, for the unexpected blessing put right in their hands.

As their gratitude grew, however, that of the laborers who worked all day seemed to slip away. It was replaced with first excitement, then anticipation, and ultimately, unfortunately, jealousy. Having been doing the calculations in their heads while in line, they began to assume that instead of getting the day’s wage they had been offered they will get enough money to feed their family for 5 or 6 days instead. They had been promised what was fair and adequate and enough, but they began to hope for, expect even what they didn’t have, what wasn’t promised, what was well over the top.

By the time they get to the front of the line and are paid exactly what was good and fair, every last drop of gratitude is gone, and looking down at their daily bread, jealousy is all that is left. Jealousy when they had received exactly what had been contracted at the beginning of the day. Jealousy and a complete misunderstanding of the unbounded grace they have they have just witnessed and experienced. Their gratitude has been completely eclipsed by their judgment of the situation.

The parable illustrates more than one spiritual truth, but the one that strikes me today, particular as we are gathered to dedicate an overflowing wealth of ministries and disciples in our church, is it is impossible to hold onto gratitude, true and pure, gratitude and jealousy, or even wistfulness, at the same time. We just can’t do it. We can’t be fully and completely grateful for what we have when we are looking longingly at what we don’t. We can’t be fully attentive to and nurturing of the gifts in front of us while we’re wishing they were more, different, or better than what we have.

Let me give you an example - - A few weeks ago, someone sitting with me asked me how, almost 4 years after my family moved here, I was liking Hudson, how I liked my home. Hudson, of course, couldn’t be a better place for my family, I replied. And I mean it. My home I wavered, is working. I’m grateful to have it. Except, well, the carpet in the basement is getting kind of old and grungy. I think about trying to replace it, but some floorboard or something is kind of wobbly, and I’m afraid of what I might find. We love it, though. Really. The location is wonderful we’re grateful for the neighbors we have and our proximity to downtown. The kids’ rooms are big enough, but well, the storage space isn’t great. We’ve got these 1940s closets that really don’t hold all the hand-me-downs and kitchen supplies we’ve collected over the years, not to mention the 3 sets of china we inherited from my grandmother. It’s a great house, really, but if something just right became available….

Did you see how it happened? I didn’t until I was reading this parable. As I wish for what my house is not, my gratitude for a place to sleep, a roof over my head, warmth in the winter, and a cool retreat in the summer just slips away. What I also noticed is that when I get preoccupied with what my house is not, I forget to take care of it as it is.

Maybe you have your own examples, but I think we also do this as a church sometimes. Take the children for example. We are grateful for the young people we have in this church. We say it all the time. We remember a time when in worship there were 3 or 4 kids, maybe 5 who came forward for a children’s sermon (if that?) and we are thrilled that a new generation is here. But then we see what is happening down the road. Or we remember what happened in the good old days with huge children’s assemblies and Sunday School rooms bursting at the seams. Or we think about the church we knew before we moved here and how it didn’t have to worry about a critical mass. We start to talk about what we could do if we just had a few more…. And you can see our pure unadulterated gratitude start to slip away. You can see our attention to the details of the ministry we have right before us start slip. The vows we took at baptisms of children become words we spoke in tradition and nurturing and welcoming the youth we have becomes someone else’s job, the parents, the grandparents, the Sunday School teachers or staff, but certainly not the job of each of us or all of us.

It is very difficult if not completely impossible to be both grateful and jealous at the same time. Grateful and hopeful? Now that is possible. Grateful and appreciative and engaged with what we have and who we are while also recognizing that God can and will do a new thing in and through us. It’s not just possible, it’s our calling as disciples of Jesus. But gratitude and jealousy or resentment don’t fit in the same spirit. Being grateful on the one hand and believing we are lacking on the other is completely impossible by definition. They are mutually exclusive and don’t co-exist in the life of disciples or the church. We have to choose which one we will hold and let the other go.

You were given when you arrived this morning, two index cards. I invite you to find those now and on one write down on one some resentment, some grudge that you hold in your heart, something you believe you lack, or something of which you are envious. It could be something in your own life, your own home, the world you experience on a daily basis, or it could be something you see in this church and our ministries. On the other card I invite you to write down the opposite – some blessing, some area of abundance, something for which you are grateful in your own life, the life of someone else, or the life of this church. They don’t have to be immediately related to one another if that doesn’t come easily.

The point here is that you can’t hold onto both. You can’t hold onto gratitude and grudges at the same time, and sometimes you just have to choose which you will keep and which you will throw away. No one will read these. They are between you and God, so write honestly because honesty matter, and make this action your prayer and your commitment.

(Take time)

I’ll invite the ushers to come forward now. They have the offering plates, but this is not the time for our offerings of money. (I promise, that will be coming later.) Now is the time to offer to God the way we will go forward. It’s symbolic yes, but hopefully it signifies something real. You can only walk out of here today with one of your cards. Choose which thing you will carry with you, your gratitude or your grudge, and which you will give up today. Tuck the one you will keep away, and we will collect and destroy without reading the other.

Will we always be true to our choices? No, but perhaps this exercise can help us be more true. In the end, the only one who is true is the One who came preaching, teaching, and embodying this new life and kingdom, the One whose death and resurrection lets us see and believe that this new life is possible. But let's be clear: while this One is true, he is not fair. Because this One gives us more than we deserve, loving us from the death of scarcity and fear to the new life of abundance, courage, and faith.

(I didn't intend to write a manuscript, but preparation at the computer seems to turn into one whether I mean it or not. In worship I preached this with minimal notes, but here's what I think I hope I said. The general idea, and in this printed version that last paragraph completely, are heavily influenced by David Lose's "Dear Working Preacher" letter this week, That's Not Fair!".)

1 comment:

Common Household Mom said...

I always have had trouble with this parable. It's difficult to swallow, but I guess that's true of a lot of what Jesus says.

I like your extrapolation about the workers' situation, making it less about the wage than about being able to provide for their families. And the index card exercise sounds quite meaningful.