September 24, 2017
Many years ago, I regularly led an informal prayer service where we would read and discuss scripture and freely share prayer concerns around the circle.
People would pray for the world, for their friends, for those struggling with addiction and homelessness. One day, at the start of the prayer service, I explained that, since we always prayed for others and for the world, today, we would pray for ourselves because we too needed prayer. I looked around the circle and asked: For what do you need prayer? Now, when I looked around the circle, I saw lots of need present. Most of the people in that circle were struggling with addiction and mental health concerns and were alienated from their families. Each person was dealing with some type of medical issue: HIV or high blood pressure, diabetes or a broken leg. All of the people in the circle were experiencing homelessness. But when I asked: For what do you need prayer?, silence greeted me. No one said a word. Finally, one woman who I knew faced many challenges spoke up. Miss Sarah, she said, I feel like all my prayers have been answered. The heads around the circle all nodded, agreeing with her statement.
Their gratitude astonished me.
We all face challenges. There is no one in this room for whom life is all good, all easy, all right all the time. I know this because I have spoken with most of you about your lives. If it isn’t struggles with employment or finances, it’s your kids or your parents or your ex or not connecting deeply with friends. If it isn’t struggles with addiction or your mental health, it’s a lack of self-love or self-esteem or a mountain of self-doubt about your abilities. Or maybe it’s grief or illness or just not knowing what you want in your life. Or maybe you know what you want, but no matter what you do, you can’t attain it. You’re stuck. We all face challenges.
And we have all received gifts. Gifts from God, gifts from family, gifts from friends, gifts from strangers. Life, love, encouragement, abilities, opportunities to serve and learn, even mundane gifts like food, clothing, what is necessary for health and wholeness on a basic level.
Jesus tells a parable today about a generous landowner who employs people to work in his vineyard at various times during the day. Regardless of the time they start, regardless of how many hours they work, at the end of the day, the landowner directs the manager to pay every worker the same amount, the amount on which the landowner and early workers had agreed at the beginning of the day. Naturally, we think, those early workers are incensed. “Those people have only worked a few hours, you have made them equal to us who have borne the scorching heat of the day!” The landowner responds: Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?
At first glance, this story seems to say something about wages, economy, or even equality. But I think this story is about a generous landowner, a generous God and envious workers, envious us. Why does God’s generosity so invoke our anger or at the very least our incredulity? Maybe it’s because we live in a society where we require people to earn their keep, to work hard if they are to receive anything. Maybe. But maybe we are just envious. Maybe we feel like life is a competition for God’s blessing, that God’s blessing is a finite resource. If someone else gets blessed, maybe we won’t because the blessing will have run out. Maybe we want God to be our God but not someone else’s God thus assuring our special place in God’s kingdom. Not that we would consciously believe any of this…
We likely all know the gut-rot of envy. Whether it is envy of someone else’s material possessions, someone else’s relationship, or someone else’s way of life, we know envy. When envy consumes us, especially when we think that God has blessed someone else more than us, our envy can poison our relationship with God and God’s people. And yes, blessing is a tangle of a theological concept. Why is it that some people have more than others? Have better luck with employment, relationships, health, life? Why do some people get what we perceive they deserve and others much more or less than we perceive they deserve? There are no easy answers to these questions.
Regardless, if envy is a poison, what is the antidote? Gratitude. Conscious gratitude. That is what l learned from the people who sat in that prayer circle with me week after week. I would invite prayer, and the gratitude would pour forth: Thank you, God, for waking me up this morning, for giving me strength in my arms and legs. Thank you that I am not out there anymore, that I had a bed to sleep in last night, that I had breakfast this morning…and on and on with gratitude.
In the years since I sat in that prayer circle, I have begun each one of my prayers: Gracious God, thank you for this day. Because if I have nothing else for which to thank God, at least this day is a gift, a day of sunlight and birds singing, a day of connection with people and God, a day in which I may learn and serve and grow. In thanking God for the day, I realize that there is much else for which I may be grateful. Not only may I embrace gratitude for the big things, life, grace, forgiveness, I may give thanks for the ordinary and necessary things, enough to eat, work and chances to use my gifts in the community, the kindness of strangers, the opportunity to love and be loved.
With my eyes of my heart opened to the world, I see that God is generous, incredibly generous not just to me but to all people, and that means we will always have something for which to say:
Thanks be to God! Amen.