Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; Sept. 24, 2017
16th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 16:2-15 and Matthew 20:1-16
It was his first day at a new school and Teddy approached his teacher. “Teacher, what kind of school is this?” The teacher asked, “Well, what kind of school was your last school?” With a smile on his face, Teddy said without reservation, “Oh it was a very nice school. The teachers were the best, the students were friendly, and learning was so much fun.” The teacher responded, “Then Teddy, I have good news for you. You’ll be quite happy at your new school because it’s the same way here—good teachers, friendly students, and learning is lots of fun.”
It was her first day at the same school and Sally approached her teacher. “Teacher, what kind of school is this?” The teacher asked, “Well, what kind of school was your last school?” With a frown on her face, Sally said, “It was terrible. The teachers were too strict. The students weren’t nice at all. I never learned a thing.” The teacher responded, “Then Sally, I have some bad news for you. You’re probably not going to like it here either.”
Often, the old saying is so true: Life—it’s what you make of it!
In our reading from Exodus, we happen upon the people of Israel who have safely crossed the Red Sea by the powerful hand of God. For their thirst, they have been provided fresh water. God’s generosity is all around them even to the point of God leading them to a place where there are 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees. What an incredible sight that must have been to behold. In response to this God-blessing, what do the people of Israel do? In the twinkling of an eye, they forget God’s provision and power. In fact, at their very next stop, the people pull up a seat on the sand in front of poor Moses and they get right to it. The whole congregation has one thing in mind—complaining! Against Moses and Aaron they complain, and, of course, against God, “Why didn’t Yahweh just let us die in Egypt where at least we could eat our fill?” Nevertheless, God pours out blessings and provision as if to say, “If it’s proof you want, it’s proof you’ll have.” In the twinkling of an eye, manna falls from the heavens.
The pattern repeats itself down through the ages. God provides. People dance and celebrate. Then people forget God’s goodness. They praise God less while asking for more. Eventually, they become numb to God’s generous nature—as if they have never seen it before, never witnessed it in this God-given life they call their own. In time, God provides the greatest gift of all—his Son. Jesus steps into history as a helpless baby, grows into a man, and reveals God’s goodness with a different slant. It is a different slant that we happen upon today in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew. But before we get to the laborers in the vineyard, let’s back up a few verses to the end of chapter 19.
The rich young man comes to Jesus asking about eternal life. When he declares that he has kept all the commandments, Jesus looks into his heart and identifies the real stumbling block for the young man—love of possessions. So Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. When the young man hears Jesus’ words, he goes away grieving. Then Jesus remarks that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. The disciples are astounded. Peter speaks up (as Peter so often does): “Well, we’ve given up everything for you. What will we get in return?” (It seems Peter is interested in a little quid pro quo.) In response, Jesus gives Peter a preview of coming attractions by relaying a story about a generous landowner who hires workers throughout the day to care for his vineyard. Some begin working early in the morning, some around nine, some at noon, some about three. Others show up just before quitting time. When it’s time to settle accounts, the workers line up for their pay, beginning with those who’ve arrived last. Lo and behold, everyone gets the same pay—those who work one hour and those who have worked all day.
How do the workers react? Well, they do what we would expect them to do—what we would likely do—they complain. “We’ve been out here in the heat of the day working, back’s breaking—we’re worn out, and look at them over there. They hardly broke a sweat. This isn’t fair!” But the landowner sees things from a different perspective. “Now wait a minute, I’ve done nothing wrong. You agreed to the wages. If I am feeling especially bighearted and I want to be generous with everyone, what’s that to you? I can do what I want with what is mine. Look me straight in the eye and tell me, are you jealous of my generosity?”
Well, are we? Are we jealous of a loving and caring God who pours down rain on the just and the unjust? If the last will be first and the first will be last, where do we stand? And if we are standing somewhere we don’t especially like, must we complain and be ungrateful?
Jesus, the Master Teacher, who endeavors to teach his disciples the fundamentals of the right way of living, repeatedly takes them back to school. Jesus takes Peter back to school at the end of the Gospel of John. On the beach by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus fixes breakfast for his disciples. Afterward, he and Peter take a walk down the beach and Jesus begins to tell Peter about Peter’s future. “When you were young you dressed yourself and went wherever you wished, but when you get old you’ll have to stretch out your hands while someone else dresses you and takes you where you don’t want to go.” [i] Herein Jesus hints at the way Peter will end his life on this old earth—all to glorify God. Then he says, ‘Follow me.’”
And what does Peter do? Immediately, he looks down the beach, sees the disciple whom Jesus loves following behind them and asks, “What about him?” Jesus asks him, “What’s that to you?” Jesus is saying to Peter (and now to us, for that matter), “Don’t compare your life to anyone else’s life.” What Jesus is doing for or with someone else is none of your business. Your business is to follow Jesus. Your business it to keep your eyes on the Master Teacher!
Jesus is fully aware of our tendency to compare ourselves to others, to keep checking to make sure we get what is our due—what is fair! But being guided by questions like, “What about him? What about her? What’s in this for me?” leads nowhere fast. We measure with the wrong yardstick and end up unhappy and ungrateful.
Here’s a thought: What might happen if we began to cultivate gratitude as a spiritual practice? The word cultivate means to loosen or break up the soil in order to prepare the fields for planting. It also means to foster the growth of, to improve by labor, care or study. What if each one of us began to pay special attention to our own inner lives—to seek to improve by labor, care, or study—to cultivate the spiritual practice of gratitude? How might we grow?
Gratitude is one of the core responses of a disciple of Christ. Everything we do, from singing to worshiping to serving as a leader or teacher of the church to sharing in the life of this community in this time and place—should be a direct response to God’s abounding love for us. Surely it’s justified. Cultivating gratitude might begin with something as simple and as complex as gaining a different perspective; claiming a different attitude. While we may get all our things together to be schooled by Jesus—notebooks, pens, calculators, laptops—you name it—there is one thing that should be at the top of our “supply list.” Our attitude—it goes where we go. And everywhere we go—there we are—there we are with our criticisms and ungratefulness, our hopes and our dreams.
Although I am not proposing that we deny the hard things of life, taking on some Pollyanna attitude, I am convinced, we would live a fuller life if we began each morning with this thought: The very breath that fills my lungs is a gift from God. Thank you, God! Every day—God is more generous than we can fathom. But is our first thought to appreciate God’s goodness? Do we open our eyes and lips to praise God—first and foremost? Or do we go from morning to night with hardly a thought of God. We are, after all, so very, very busy!
Yes, it’s back to school and the lesson for today is this: Being a follower of Christ—well, it’s not about us. It’s about God who gave us life. Our life begins and ends as a gift. What we do with that life—well, that is our gift back to God!
Today marks the beginning of our Stewardship Campaign—the theme of which is “Cultivate Gratitude.” Next Sunday you will receive your Stewardship Packet which will include, among other things, a colorful wristband like this one that reads, “FPC of Valdosta / Cultivate Gratitude. (Notice the Presbyterian blue and red—or at least as close as Katie Altman and I could manage.) Consider wearing your wristband as a reminder of God’s generosity. Consider wearing it as a reminder to pray for your own inner spiritual life as well as the inner spiritual life of those around you.
In the coming weeks and months and years, may we cultivate gratitude as a spiritual practice. May we grow—flourish, even. Increasingly, may we give praise and thanksgiving to the One who gives us life—offering all that we have and all that we are to the One who offers us love beyond measure.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] John 21:18, The Message
*Cover Art “Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard” By Lawrence W. Ladd via Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain