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!".)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Opposite of Fear

Psalm 27:1-4, 11
Romans 12:9-21

The pastor of a medium sized church not too far outside of Omaha, Nebraska, a friend of mine from seminary, as well as other pastors across the US, received this e-mail this week from their church insurance company.
Millions of people will mark the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks during worship services this Sunday. Given the Department of Homeland Security's encouragement to be on alert for suspicious activity, what could your church do to improve safety for members and guests?

XXXXXX Insurance Company offers these suggestions:
1. Station extra people at entrances — Ask additional volunteers to serve as ushers and greeters this Sunday. Encourage them to be alert for anyone who appears out of place. It might be a person wearing a heavy coat on a hot day; someone who avoids greeters, looks nervous or agitated, or an unfamiliar person walking toward the building with a duffel bag or backpack.

2. Put someone in charge — Who would be in charge of responding to a safety incident? If you don’t have someone to oversee church safety and security, appoint a staff member or volunteer to fill this role on Sunday, and begin to look for a person to assume this duty on a regular basis. Be prepared to contact law enforcement immediately if any security threat is observed.

3. Have a first-aid kit handy — If you own one, check to make sure that it’s easily available, fully stocked, and contains up-to-date supplies. If you don’t have one, purchase a kit large enough to serve the number of people who regularly attend your church.

I’m encouraging you to be informed, not alarmed. Because the Department of Homeland Security has urged law enforcement to be on alert this weekend, I wanted you to have some simple, tangible steps you can take to improve safety for your church members and guests.

For more information on church safety, visit the resources section of

Best regards,
The Team at Church Insurance
My friend's comment when he shard this letter was this "Just received an email from a
Christian insurance company concerning 'three things you can do to live in fear'...I mean 'improve church safety this Sunday.'" I sort of got the same impression he did when I read the text of the whole letter. While awareness of where we are and what is going on doesn't seem like a bad idea in the church, around the community, or anywhere really the use of worlds like "alert," "security threat," and "suspicious activity" as well as invoking the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Department of Homeland Security, was in his opinion (and in mine) going a bit over board. After commenting on the various suggestions my friend then wrote, "Don't get me wrong, I love the people I pastor, and I don't ever want anything bad to happen to them, especially this Sunday. But I also want us to realize that when God said 'Do not be afraid' over 300 times in the Bible, he meant it for stuff like this, too."

This letter, whether fully intentionally or not, was written to induce a certain level of anxiety, a certain level of fear in the pastor or church member who received it. Fully consciously or not, the sender of this note wanted to impress upon the church leadership at least enough fear to take the suggestions seriously, to get ready, to be prepared, to make people safe.

Here we are ten years after one of the most shocking national events of my lifetime and the lifetimes of many others - - one of very few foreign attacks on this nation's soil - - and even now sometimes I wonder if we have made much progress in our collective reaction and response from where we were in those first few weeks and months after it occurred. Here we are ten years later and still an appeal to our fear is assumed to be an effective way to motivate the general public - - not even just the general public, but the church-going, assumedly faithful people of our country.

Are we really still there? Are we really still in the same mindset that we were in that pulled this country and others into difficult wars around the globe that we're still fighting 10 years later? Are we really still carrying those same fearful emotions that pull us into ourselves, away from the same strangers, the same outcasts, the same friendless neighbors that Jesus chose to sit with at table and break bread? Are we really still that fearful?

I don't discount fear as a normal reaction not just to the events that are drawn to mind from ten years ago, but to the events we face on a smaller more intimate scale - - to the relationships that we count on that are ending, to the loss of a spouse, a parent, or a child, to illness that threatens life, bullies who threaten safety, an economy that threatens financial stability. Fear is certainly normal, but time and time again, over 300 times in fact my friend declared this week, God in Scripture, through messengers, and in the person of Jesus the Christ declares to us "Do not be afraid." Do not live your life out of fear.

Fear is more than just being cautious, making an emergency-preparedness plan. Fear is that emotion that can grip our heart, our mind, and our life and trick us into thinking we can block ourselves off from all evil, all disasters, all attacks, all pain the might happen, that could happen, that will happen. Fear is that response to the surprising or unknown that pulls us in, closes us off, and narrows our vision and concern to what is immediately around us, what is our own.

Fear is inherently self-centered - - whether the self is truly our own individual person, or our particular segment of the population, our culture, or nation. When we are afraid our vision is focused and our actions are centered on what will protect ourselves over and against an outside threat, with little to no concern for others around us. Fear cuts us off from our neighbors. Fear cuts us off from God.

"The Lord is my light and my salvation," the psalmist declares. "Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" He goes on to tell us that enemies are at the doorstep, surrounding the camp. Evildoers assail and foes are not far away. This is not a safe situation. There is definitely a security threat! In this or many other passages of scripture God does not romise a completely safe and sanitized existence, but still te psalmist asks, "Whom shall I fear?" How can she say that? How can we?

The opposite of fear, apparently, is not safety. The opposite of fear is not security. The opposite of fear is not happiness. It's not wealth. It's not isolation. It's not uniformity. It's not protection, or knowledge, or comfort, or sanitization, or even preparedness.

The opposite of fear is hope. It's an active belief, an active trust that we belong to God. That even in the worst of times God can weave out of evil, or sadness or despair something good. It's not the belief that God creates the evil we experience or the pain we feel just to teach us something, just to test us or try us, just to have the opportunity to do good. But that out of the wrong that happens in the world or in our lives or even in our bodies, God can still find a way to to bring about something good. Hope is believing that no matter what is going on, God is still present and working for good,even if it's not the good we expect, and then living as if that is true. Hope is allowing the presence of God to fill our lives, fill all the impulses for love and welcome and compassion that have been emptied by fear, so that with God we can move forward in peace.

I want you to find the music insert that was in your bulletin this morning. Turn to the side with the chant called "Nothing Can Trouble." I want you to join me in proclaiming this gospel - - the good news of God's presence and power and not necessarily protection, but promise that we are never alone.

When two planes crashed into skyscrapers, another into the Pentagon, and a fourth into a field in Pennsylvania - -

When the economy threatens our savings, when all thatwe worked for seems to have no value - -
"Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. Those who seek God shall never go wanting."

When a wife or a husband of 64 years is suddenly gone; a mother or a father is no longer there to hold our hand - -
"Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. Those who seek God shall never go wanting."

When playground, workplace, and relationship bullies threaten to control us and strip us of our dignity - -
"Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. Those who seek God shall never go wanting."

When our deepest relationships are crumbling to pieces and we find ourselves questioning what we thought we knew, what we thought we felt, what we thought we believed - -
"Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. Those who seek God shall never go wanting. Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. God alone fills us."

Let's face no insurance company could recommend a first aid kit big enough to bind all the wounds physical, emotional, and spiritual left behind after a terrorist attack. And acting out of fear isn't going to do anything to prepare us to live in a flawed and sinsick world. But hope is. Trusting in God's promises and the gifts of God's presence in community is.

At our best - - like when we rally after disasters either personal or national, when we set aside our fears of who is different, who is rich or poor, who is black or white, who is gay or straight, who is Christian or Jewish or Muslim or atheist, who is democrat or republican, who is liberal or conservative, who is American or Iraqi or Afghani or Mexican or Egyptian or Saudi Arabian - - we show what it means to live with hope. When we live with love that is genuine, hatred of evil, and holding fast to what is good, we live with hope. We when show one another honor, share our resources with others, welcome strangers among us, we live with hope. When we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, when we persevere in prayer, and associate with all people, we live in hope. When we seek to overcome evil with good, then we are living with hope in Christ who overcame all evil to bring life.

And if it feels too soon for you, if the death is too recent, the emotions too raw, the pain too deep, and even hope still feels far away, that's when we have to hold hope for one another. That's when the church has to trust for those who can't. That's when God's promise to be here with us and among us is made true through the community of faith, the Body of Christ, and we must believe and trust and live in hope for each other.

Friends, brothers and sister in Christ, when we live into this hope, hope in Jesus our Christ, then we will find peace. May it be so, may it be so soon.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday Five: Work Space

Funny! A few weeks ago I did a post like this myself, and now it's a Friday Five from Rev Gals. The instructions are to describe 5 things on my workspace.

Here's what's here:
1. A Waterford crystal post-it note holder. For real. When I began to announce my call to ministry and at that time I thought a call to world missions, one of my mom's best friends and an elder in my
childhood church gave this to me. She said it would be perfect for my desk when I was a missionary. To this day it reminds me of the pure love and support of so many people even if they don't always get what this whole ministry thing is about.

2. A glass pitcher from home. Not a permanent fixture on my desk, but something I brought in a few months ago when there was a baptism. We have no pitcher for pouring water into the font, so I just bring the one my husband and I received as a wedding gift. Pier One circa 2003. Clear glass with a blue glass ribbon fused in a spiral around the piece. Works beautifully for the sacrament.

3. Freeze-dried chives. 18-24 months ago, when I was pregnant, I ate a lot of baked potatoes for lunch. The almost empty spice jar just hasn't made it home yet.

4.Yes that is my Hebrew concordance. While I have not used the ancient languages nearly as much as I had hoped in seminary (read: at all), I've been drawn back to them more and more lately. It's not at all surprising that. I've lost most of my proficiency. I wish I could take a refresher course.

5. An olive wood bound New Testament. A church member gave this to me last week. She bought it in 1960 when she was traveling in the Middle East. She inscribed it "Bought in Jerusalem, Jordan." She is very sick with cancer that snuck up on her about 8 months ago. She wants desperately to beat it and lives with great hope, but things do not look good at all. She gave me this book for my ministry. I am realistic about the way her disease is progressing and realize that my first use of it may be at her funeral.

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