First Congregational Church
September 21, 2014
15th Sunday after Pentecost
“Generosity and Envy”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A man suffered a serious heart attack and had open heart bypass surgery. He awoke to find himself in the care of nuns at a Catholic hospital. As he was recovering, a nun came in to ask how he was going to pay for services. He was asked if he had health insurance.” No health insurance,” The nun asked if he had money in the bank. “No money in the bank.” The nun then asked, “Do you have a relative who could help you?” He said, “I have only a spinster sister, and she’s a nun.” The nun got a little perturbed and announced loudly. “Nuns are not spinsters! Nuns are married to God,” “Yes, that’s right!” said the patient, perking up. “Send the bill to my brother-in-law.”
The gospels of Matthew and Mark and Luke all contain similar passages as what was read by Miss Ella this morning. They all talk about Jesus and the “little children” and the kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven in the same passage. That “little children” passage from the book of Matthew is one of several that talk about the kingdom of heaven. In fact, the kingdom of heaven must have been one of Matthew’s favorite topics, because he included in his gospel, “the kingdom of heaven is like: A man who sowed good seed in his field, a mustard seed, yeast, treasure hidden in a field, a merchant looking for fine pearls, and a host of other symbols.
Matthew 20:1-16 NIV
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Thank you, Bob. I won’t ask anyone to raise hands, but I wonder how many of you side with the workers hired in the morning, and how many side with the landowner. And how many of us thought about those who were hired at the end of the day and what they might be feeling.
Can we imagine - setting aside any feelings of merit or misconduct - to what it might feel like to have no job, to be passed by all day, living all day with the distinct possibility that once again, you won’t be bringing home the bacon for dinner that night. Maybe it would be good for us, to once in a while be in that place, for a moment, when gratitude and blessing erupt all over you, and humility is not forced but a genuine condition of the heart.
As children, it seems like we learn words in threes: please thank you, I love you and it’s not fair. When we hear passages like this parable, for some, it strikes at that innate sense of fairness that seems to be part of our DNA, regardless if you are wearing the workers’ shoes or the landowner’s shoes.
I wonder how often we think about generosity and its tendency to set up expectations. And I wonder how often we think past those expectations and take a look at the envy that can creep in and begin to squeeze the heart. When our hearts are so squeezed by envy and unfairness, we begin to live life out of a scarcity mentality, rather than an abundance mentality, and instead of beauty, life begins to take on that hard, darkness that so describes someone that may come immediately to mind.
I think we need to hear this parable sometimes, so that we remember to look at our lives and decide how we will live. There’s another parable that goes around the internet sometimes, a Native American legend. A grandfather is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old grandfather simply replied, “The one you feed.”
“Christ’s life was - in part - about showing us that we have a choice in deciding which wolf to feed. David Lose, from Luther Seminary applied this struggle so perfectly. He said, Jesus was “killed not just because he proclaimed that the grace, and mercy of God was available to everyone, even to those (we in our human frailty) deem so incredibly unworthy. Christ’s declaration revealed the hardness of heart, the stone-cold frozenness of spirit that afflicts far too many of us. His inclusive, boundary-breaking generosity revealed the envy and competitiveness of those in power. His vision of another way of being in the world - he called it the kingdom of God - betrayed the lie told by the protectors of the status quo that theirs was the only way. Shamed by such a vision, and unable to embrace it, they put the visionary to death.”
Mr. Lose also suggested a congregational activity, that given any other Sunday, we might have done. But in the interest of time, imagine that you have two 3x5 cards. On one card, you write a resentment, a grudge, a lack or something of which you are envious. Mentally do that, and no peeking at your neighbor’s card! On the other card, write a blessing, an abundance, something for which you are grateful in your life or of someone else. Mentally do that, and still no peeking at your neighbor’s card.
Now hold both cards in your hands, face down in the palm of each hand. Notice with them that, physically, these two pieces of paper weigh the same, but the subjects are very different weights. Spiritually, existentially, one of those cards is weighing heavier, like chains secured to an anchor wrapped tightly around your heart, while the other is light as a feather.
To finish the illustration, we would have passed some empty offering plates, for each of us to “offer” the one we want to God and the other to take home as a reminder of what we chose. We might have even burned the “offered” cards, or shredded them for special effect. Just in case you’d like to finish your illustration, there are empty offering plates at the sanctuary doors, where you can mentally leave your card.
It’s not always easy to keep up with our choices, and sometimes life hits us upside the head with what we least expect - with everything from grief to envy to even contentment and peace. But we can continue to try to be more true to our choices. Christ’s choice was to give us the ability to choose more than we deserve, loving us from the death of scarcity and fear to the new life of abundance, courage, and faith. So let us pray our way into the new week.
Gracious God and Giver of all that is Good, thank you for constantly and continually loving us with the freedom to make our own choices. Help us to be true to our choices and you, that regardless of age, we continue to grow into the people you have always seen us to be. Help us to put down the burdens that keep us blinded to possibility and stooped to what may seem like defeat. For all the ways you reach out to us and love us, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.