"Making Those Deadly Comparisons"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 21, 2008
Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16
No matter whether we care to admit it or not, many of us are into comparing ourselves with others. We compare our houses, incomes, cars, lifestyles, values, what our church is doing and what our children are learning in school with people who are in our universe of friends and acquaintances.
We are aware of this most clearly when it is our moment on the stage. For example, there is an unadvertised dress code when a defendant enters a courtroom. A defendant does not want to appear to the judge or a jury that he or she has no respect for the court. Each dresses to impress.
Generally there is no problem if we want to dress down, but there is a line that can be crossed. That line is determined by how we want others to perceive us. If we are going through a rebellious period in our growth pattern and we do not care what people think, that is one thing. If, however, we are trying to communicate accountability and responsibility, we may want to dress in order to make that message visible. We seldom get a second chance to make a first impression. People will always draw conclusions about us from what they see long before they are introduced to us.
A son decided to take his retired father to lunch one afternoon. While they were eating, a number of teenage boys sat at a table close to them. One of the boys had pink hair that rose to a peak on top of his head as though starched. He wore a bright blue shirt with no sleeves. His pants looked as though a slight tug would send them to his ankles. He had tattoos on his arms and neck and body piercing jewelry on his eyebrow, nose and lips. He was wearing numerous ear rings that went completely around his outer ears.
The older man could not keep his eyes off this young man. Sensing the stares from the older man, the boy finally had enough and said, “What is your problem, old man? I suppose you never did anything wild when you were young.”
The older man’s son knew that his father would never let such a comment go without some spontaneous retort. His father said, “I apologize for staring and I do not want to appear rude. As a matter of fact, I did do something wild when I was about your age. I once made love to a peacock and I thought you might be my son.”
How we dress does make a statement! When we take risks with how we look, we open ourselves to a wide range of interpretations about who lives inside because people do make comparisons.
Two years ago our Stewardship Committee was engaged in its annual effort to sensitize our congregation about the financial needs of our church. We had put two large posters in the narthex. One of them featured a chart that looked like a staircase. The theme was, “Will You Take The Next Step?”
The staircase revealed the number of families that were giving an amount that fell within a certain bracket, e.g., 47 families or individuals were on record as giving between $40 and $60 a week, 18 were giving between $100 and $150 a week and so on. The thinking of the Stewardship committee was that if people could compare their amount with what others were giving, they might decide to step up.
The chart, however, received mixed reviews because once people saw the amounts that others were giving they were pleased with their place on the chart. Rather than being motivated to increase their giving to the next step, a number of people made only modest increases.
Comparisons imprint us with the sense that we are in competition for some elusive goal. What is that goal? Generally that goal has to do with our pursuit toward something that we value.
Most of us are familiar with the parable in our lesson today. Early in the morning, a winemaker hired men to work in his vineyard. He negotiated with them to pay each the regular wage of one silver coin. They agreed. He did the same thing at 9:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m., and at 5:00 p.m. At the end of the day, he told his foreman to pay everyone the same wage. “Wait a minute,” exclaimed some of the workers, “We worked all day and you are giving us the same wage as those who worked one hour. There is something wrong with this picture. You are not being fair with us.”
The winemaker said, “I have not cheated you. You agreed to work for the regular wage. If I want to give the same wage I gave you to those who worked one hour, is that not my right? Or are you unhappy because I am generous?”
If there is any story that evokes a visceral response from us it is this one. The reason it does is because we often associate our personal worth with a monetary reward. We engage in comparisons each time we refer to people as blue or white collar workers. We know that if we worked an entire day and were rewarded the same wage as someone who worked one hour, we would not be happy.
Jesus frequently used exaggeration to connect with his audiences. He used a material symbol to teach a spiritual lesson about God’s nature. Jesus was giving hope to people who were fearful that in God’s eyes they could never achieve the religious stature of the Pharisees. They could never give to their Temple anything that approached the giving patterns of the Pharisees.
Jesus wanted his listeners to know that God is very generous and compassionate and does not make comparisons as people do. God loves people who are rich, poor, faithful, unfaithful, peaceful, cruel, young, old, believers or non-believers. In fact, it is impossible for God to withhold God’s love from anyone. God’s love continues to surround each person with opportunities to grow up and mature in spirit. A Scripture tells us that rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.
There are plenty of Christians who carry themselves every bit as proudly as did the Pharisees. Their prayers are beautiful. They can quote Scripture. They seldom miss any function in their community of faith. They are obedient and faithful in their responsibilities. They have the right formula in place that defines salvation for them. The difficulty Jesus had with such people came at the point where they believed that their attitudes and best practices have earned them a right of passage to God’s presence that others may not have.
In our lesson Jesus said, “Those who are last will be first and those who are first will be last.” Jesus was taking aim at the righteous. If there is any doubt about what Jesus was teaching, we have a sister parable where a tax collector and a Pharisee went to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee was quite confident of his salvation but the tax collector said, “God, please be merciful to me. I am a sinful man.” Jesus said, “The tax collector and not the Pharisee understood the nature of God.” (Luke 18:14).
There is an interesting poem that captures the essence of Jesus’ message; a message that many saved Christians may not agree with or appreciate hearing. When we compare ourselves with others, we often forget that this habit is a response we created. Here is the poem:
I was shocked, confused and bewildered as I entered Heaven’s door, not by the beauty of it all, nor the lights of its décor. But it was the folks in Heaven who made me sputter and gasp – the thieves, the liars, the sinners, the alcoholics and the trash.
There stood the kid from seventh grade who swiped my lunch money twice. Next to him was my old neighbor who never said anything nice. Herb, who I always thought was rotting in Hell, was looking remarkably well.
I asked Jesus, ‘What’s the deal? I would love to hear your take. How did all these sinners get up here? God must have made a mistake. And why is everyone so quiet, so somber – give me a clue.’ Jesus said, ‘They, too, are all in shock. No one thought they would be seeing you.’
Perhaps it is our human nature that causes us to make comparisons. All of us engage in the practice. Our mistake comes when we assume that God does the same. Many faithful Christians cannot understand a mercy so wide that all of us are surrounded by God’s love in spite of what we believe, how we think, the attitudes we hold on to, the shady deals in which we have engaged or the secret lives that some of us live.
Jesus was teaching his listeners that in the grand scheme of things, God allows us to grow up at our own pace. This is what having free will looks like. When people begin to compare their theology, their righteousness and their beliefs with those that govern the lives of others – such thoughts can be deadly. Believing that we possess the pearl of great price is a wonderful gift, but we must never assume what God will or will not do with those who have not yet discovered that pearl.
There is an ancient story that came from India long before Jesus was born. It captures what Jesus was teaching. The King of India was dying and he divided his kingdom among his five sons. His first son had developed into a person who became the wisest and the most spiritually aware of the five. He was left in charge of the others. Soon the King transitioned from this life and each son began to manage his portion of India.
The years passed quickly and it became time to divide their land among their sons and make their way to the great mountain to be with God. Once the division was completed, the five of them set out on their journey. One by one, however, the brothers fell by the wayside as they each pursued distractions that greeted them. Only the crown prince and his dog made it to the base of the mountain.
Suddenly, a chariot descended from the top of the mountain. Holding the reins was a magnificent angel. He came to carry the wise soul to his next level of consciousness. The angel, however, would not allow his dog to get into the chariot. The prince said, “You are telling me that my best friend, my companion of 13 years cannot come with me.” The angel said, “Yes. Where I am taking you, these lesser life forms cannot come.” The prince said, “Then I cannot come with you.” The angel asked, “Do you mean that you are willing to give up Heaven so you can stay with your dog?” The prince said, “Yes.” The angel hesitated and then reluctantly allowed the dog to join the two of them.
“Where are my brothers?” the prince asked. “They were not as wise as you. They did not last during their sojourn to the great mountain.” The prince said, “Please take me to them.” “Very well” said the angel, “but I can only go part way. My powers will become greatly weakened when I approach where they are.”
The angel took him until his spiritual energies were almost depleted. “I cannot go any further.” He pointed, “There are your brothers.” The prince and his dog left the chariot to be with his brothers. The angel said, “Do you mean that you are refusing to be with God because you love your wayward brothers that much?” The prince said, “Yes. I do love them and I wish to stay with them. They need me more than God does. Goodbye, my friend.”
Suddenly, there was a great disruption of his physical reality. God’s voice was heard throughout the realm. “You are, indeed, the wisest and the most spiritually aware of your kind. I will give you your brothers to instruct and to guide. One stage of your lives has ended and the next is beginning. All of you may come to me.”
Jesus said, “The first will be last and the last will be first.” This is a very different teaching from one that suggests that some of us arrive in God’s presence and others of us do not. Again, when we make comparisons, that is our reality, not God’s. God has a plan for all of us that we must wait to experience. Be confident that God’s love is well beyond what most of us understand. Even though this has not been the message of The Church, it nevertheless is true.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We are grateful, O God, that you never sleep. You are never aloof from us. Each time a sparrow falls, you know. Each time someone expresses his or her pain or gratitude, you hear. Each time someone feels alone and forsaken, you are present. How many times do the earthquakes, winds and fires of life try to convince us otherwise? How many times has the unexpected evoked our frustration because our plans were spoiled? How many times have our worries chased smiles from our faces, inviting fear to take up residence in our minds? Help us to remember that only we can dilute the strength of our peace by the thoughts and emotions we create. Only we can allow doubt to cloud our remembrance that you walk beside us. Thank you for helping us to remember that we belong to you, and that our constantly changing world is not our final destination. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving God, this week has been one of the most remarkable times in our nation’s history, when the financial markets were filled with fears and uncertainty. Companies that were icons in our society vanished over a weekend. Once solid ground suddenly became like quicksand. As we prepare for next Saturday’s gathering for disaster preparedness, we recognize that uncertainty, loss and frustration can come unannounced into our lives in a form that forever changes who we are.
Our faith tells us that there will always be a silver lining to our clouds, that pain is never permanent, that vacuums are always filled with unexpected surprises and that the day will come when these experiences will be nothing more than a blip of an ancient memory. And yet the journey to that day often seems long and exhausting. Comfort your people, O God. May the challenging realities that so many of us face help to bring a different perspective to our lives. There are times when we are tempted to find fault, blame and complain and we forget how to be grateful for the bounty that we take for granted.
Today help us to find healing for our spirits. May those of us who remain worried and anxious, leave this service feeling reassured by the understanding that your presence surrounds us and all others. Rather than believing that there is so much more that we will need to make ourselves feel whole, inspire us to take what we have, as humble as that may be, and use it to make your Kingdom more visible. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .