Sermon for Sunday, September 21, 2014
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
As many of you know, I was for several years a brother in a monastery. Because monastic blood runs deep, the brothers in the order would sometimes get together with brothers from other nearby monasteries , just to get to know each other. In these gatherings, I came to understand one of the truisms of the monastic life: that each community has a set stock of characters who – though they are different people with different names – are in a way the same person. For example, each community tends to have a brother who is the “wise sage,” and most every community has a brother who has a gift for making people laugh. Each community tends to have a kindly brother loved by all, as well a resident curmudgeon. Each community seems to have a brother who, though he may not have much education or be particularly bright, can speak truth in a way that no other brother could. Each community seems to have somebody who, while he is quite high maintenance, is nonetheless fiercely loved – “high maintenance, but worth it.” And each community seems to have a person whose failings and shortcomings are visible to all save perhaps himself, and who is sometimes treated as a scapegoat, but whom the brothers (begrudgingly) acknowledge shows them something about themselves. (“He’s the one who is going to help you get to heaven,” is how it’s often put.)
Each community has particular characters that tend to be found in every other community. And just as each community has particular characters that tend to be found in every other community, so are their particular behaviors that are found across communities. Which brings us to today’s readings.
Each of today’s three readings introduces us to behaviors that are found across communities. The three behaviors are: complaining, what the tradition calls “indifference” (which doesn’t mean we don’t care – more in a minute), and comparing ourselves to others.
Complaining. Today’s lesson from Exodus is a classic complaining story (which tend to appear in the books of Exodus and Numbers): the Israelites have just been released from slavery in Egypt, they have just been miraculously saved from Pharaoh’s army, who drowned in the Red Sea, and already they are complaining (about the lack of food in the wilderness). The Israelites’ complaining will continue on-and-off throughout their 40 years in the wilderness, often blossoming into what the scriptures call “murmuring.” It’s one thing to “blow off steam,” which can be a helpful thing to do. We might say to a friend or our spouse, “Can I just blow off steam about something?” We’re not asking them to do anything, but just to listen as we blow off steam. While “blowing off steam” can be helpful, if we are not careful it can sometimes lead to complaining, in which we are asking somebody to do something. We might not be asking them directly – our desire might be unspoken and implicit – but we’re not owning our capacity to make a difference, and we try to get somebody else to take responsibility for what really belongs to us. And complaining in turn can lead to “murmuring,” which happens when somebody doesn’t respond to our complaining in the way we want, and we begin to take our complaint around from person to person – all sorts of people except the one with whom we really should be talking! Remember the stories in Numbers about the people murmuring and God allowing first a plague then poisonous snakes to run among the people? Like a disease, murmuring can affect a whole body, creating a tone of skepticism, or of passivity or of “playing the victim.” Murmuring can have a devastating effect on a community’s life together, be it at work or in our household, or here at church or in our neighborhood, and it is a spiritual discipline to work against murmuring.
In just a moment, I’ll talk about what we can do to counter murmuring, but I want to first move on to the second behavior that tends to be found across communities.
“Indifference.” Indifference is a healthy behavior. As I mentioned earlier, “indifference” does not mean that I don’t care, like, “I’m indifferent to the roof leaking.” I care a lot if the roof leaks! “Indifference” has to do with clarity of purpose and freedom. And so for example Paul, in today’s reading from the letter to the Philippians, is clear that God’s purpose is for the Philippians to “live [their] life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” And Paul is free to be used in whatever way God chooses to use him to achieve that purpose: “For to me living is Christ and dying is gain… and I do not know which I prefer.” Paul is clear about his purpose – that the Philippians “live [their] life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” – and he is free from wanting to control how God might work that purpose out – “I’m happy to live or die, Lord, so long as your purposes are served.” Indifference is healthy for a community because it frees us to serve God’s purpose. As easy as it is for murmuring to spread in a community, so it is difficult to grow indifference. Growing indifference requires prayer and conversation; it requires trust in the goodness of God. It is often hard-won. If a community is able to nurture indifference, God will be able to use that community for extraordinary things.
And finally, today’s gospel lesson. In today’s gospel lesson we see the common behavior of comparing ourselves to others – those who worked all day compared their wages with the wages of those who worked only one hour. Comparing ourselves to others is only human – we all do it. While comparing is normal, if we are not careful, it can lead to jealousy, which when full-blown becomes becomes destructive to a community. Recall, for example, the story of Cain and Abel. When Cain saw that the Lord had regard for Abel and Abel’s offering, but not for his, Cain killed Abel, presumably out of jealousy. And remember, too, the story of Jesus at his crucifixion; Pilate saw that it was out of jealousy that the religious authorities handed Jesus over (Matt 27:18). While comparing ourselves to others is normal – we all do it – if we are not careful, comparing of ourselves to others can lead to envy, which can be extremely destructive to a community.
There is one medicine that we can take that helps to ward off both murmuring and envy, as well as inculcating indifference – gratitude. Gratitude will help us to remember that we have been rescued from slavery in Egypt and to trust that God will yet provide in the wilderness. Gratitude will help us realize how gifted and blessed we are, so that we need not be worried about the wages of those who began only at five o’clock. And gratitude can help us realize not only how much God has already given, but how much God will continue to give, so that we might be indifferent to how God wishes to use us.
A helpful way to nurture gratitude is to take time at the end of the day to rummage through the day that is past and to look for the presence of God. Take maybe ten or fifteen minutes in the evening, and maybe have a journal handy. Maybe ask Jesus for help in rummaging through your day, and then make a list of the ways in which you noticed God present. Maybe when you’re done, take time to thank God for all the gifts He has given you in that day. And maybe – in order to get tomorrow’s session off to a good start – ask God for the grace of noticing God’s presence in your day tomorrow. Practicing being thankful for God’s presence and gifts in your day will, over time, nurture gratitude – I guarantee it. And it will help to ward off murmuring and envy, and help to bring us to a place of indifference in regards to God’s will.
I have a hunch that we would all like to live lives filled with gratitude, that we would all like to live lives free from murmuring and envy, and free to accept whatever God may give or withhold. And I have a hunch that all of us can live a life of gratitude in the circumstances in which we find ourselves right now. I wonder, what would it look like for you to nurture the gift of gratitude in your life at this time?