18 September 2011

A Cure for Envy

Sermon text: Matthew20:1-16

Julie and Juanita were sisters but they were completely different. Julie was attractive and attracted to money. Juanita was plain looking and like to help people. Their childhood was a series of fights that culminated when Julie graduated high school. She wanted to go to an expensive private college in another state but her family couldn't afford that. She shamed her parents into taking out a loan for and as soon as she got on campus she immediately began blowing that money. She partied hard and went through thousands of dollars and flunked out of college the first semester. Meanwhile, Juanita plugged away at the community college where she was studying law enforcement. One of her three part time jobs was pulling night guard duty at a local department store. Imagine her surprise at 2 am one morning when she was making her rounds outside the department store and heard a rustling in the trash bin. When Juanita shined her flashlight in there it fell upon the frightened face of her sister Julie. It was like something out of a bad dream.

"What are your doing here?!" Juanita yelled.

"Where am I?" sighed Julie. "Take me home. I wanna go home"

Juanita had to leave her post on duty to drive her sister home in the dead of night. She just knew their mother was going to let Julie have it for being so selfish, for wasting all that money, and flunking out of school. But when Juanita dragged her sister into the house she couldn't believe the tears of joy her mother shed for having Julie back home.

"How could you welcome her home?!" shouted Juanita. "She humiliated our family. She wasted thousands of dollars. She's like a parasite on us!" Mother said, "I know. You're right. And she's also my daughter. Just like you."

Welcome to the Kingdom of God where all are paid equally. It seems so unfair! Is there a deeper lesson here? These are the questions we will consider. We need to get this message because it applies to each one of us. When we understand the truth of this parable it sets us free on the inside. We need to be freed from the prison walls of resentment, bitterness, and gall. When Jesus was hanging on the cross dying of thirst because his fluids were drained he was offered a drink of wine and gall and he refused to drink the gall. Jesus knew the gall of envy would kill him faster than the cross.

If you turn a garbage can upside down and leave it over a flower for weeks the flower will wither and die. It is cut off from its source of life and energy. It festers in darkness and slowly chokes and dies. That is what we do to ourselves when we cover ourselves with the garbage can called gall, bitterness, envy.

We are not talking here about coming to church. Yes, that helps. We come to church and there we are reminded that God loves us and cares for us and wants what is best for us. But what do we do with that knowledge? Does it sink in and take roots? Do we stay connected to source on Monday morning? How about Friday night? We must not place a garbage can over our lives and wither away in darkness. Awaken from your slumber. Stand up and lift that garbage can of gall off of you. As Jesus said to the crippled man who came to him for healing so he says to you: "Get up and walk!" And he did. And so will you.

God does not owe you anything. That is a hard concept to internalize. Your false assumptions about God may trap you inside a garbage can shaped prison of your own illusions about life. Everything in life worth having is a free gift from God to you. The old doctrine gets a bad rap these days but that was the central meaning of Predestination. Predestination was trying to say that God doesn't owe you anything. Certainly, God does not owe you salvation from your own sinfulness, from your own gall. So anyone who is saved by God is saved purely and only because God chooses to do so. Predestination says you cannot achieve your own salvation. That is a free gift that God may grant to you if God so chooses. Today it's different. Predestination is a forgotten creed. We all act like God owes us something. That makes us assume that everyone else owes us something too. We all walk around feeling cheated. This is an odd way to live. It has nothing to do with the Bible or good theology. That is what our text today is trying to get across to us. God does not owe you anything.

But you don't get the message so you feel cheated by other people. You resent your neighbor who has more than you do. She has better health. She is younger. Her children are better at sports. Her dog is cuter than yours. And you hold that against her and envy grows inside you like a cancer. Envy is quite a darling in the beginning. It may even make you feel closer to someone else when you share a secret grudge or resentment against a third party. Such triangulation feels good in the beginning. But envy is a cruel mate over time. Envy won't murder you on the street in cold blood. Like a drug addiction or alcoholism, envy kills more slowly over time. First, it compromises your immune system so your body becomes less able to resist germs and diseases. Then it feeds those germs and diseases so they grow strong within fueled by bitterness and anger. Finally, it kills you, the real you, the Christ in you. You may be still breathing. You may still be walking around. But inside your spirit has died. The Christ in you has been smothered. You have been robbed. You have been killed. Envy will rob you blind. Then it will kill you.

There is a cure for envy. There is something that can stop envy dead in its tracks. The cure for envy is a spirit of gratitude. Such a cure requires repentance.

"Why do you never preach repentance?" asked the preacher.

"It's the only thing I teach," said the Master.

"But I never hear you speak on sorrow for sin."

"Repentance isn't sorrow for the past. The past is dead and isn't worth a moment's grief. repentance is a change of mind, a radically different vision of Reality." (Anthony de Mello, Awakening: Conversations with the Master, p 258)

Jesus, our spiritual master, teaches repentance in his parable from Matthew 20:1-16. Listen to this story.

"God's kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. They agreed on a wage of a dollar a day, and went to work.

"Later, about nine o'clock, the manager saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went.

"He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o'clock. At five o'clock he went back and found still others standing around. He said, 'Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?'

"They said, 'Because no one hired us.'

"He told them to go to work in his vineyard.

"When the day's work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, 'Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.'

"Those hired at five o'clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, 'These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.'

"He replied to the one speaking for the rest, 'Friend, I haven't been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn't we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can't I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?'

"Here it is again," says Jesus, "the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first." (Matthew 20:1-16, The Message)

The Great Reversal we need to seek is to throw off the garbage can of gall that has us trapped inside. Break free from the prison of resentment. The dynamite that will break our prison walls is called gratitude. We have already been given what we need to live gratefully. Listen to this story.

There was a poor Jewish rabbi who lived in the city of Krakow in Poland. His name was Isaac, son of Yekel. He had almost no money. Then one night Isaac, son of Yekel, had an exceptionally vivid dream. He dreamed that underneath a bridge in the city of Warsaw there was a great treasure. The dream was so real that when he woke up, he was troubled. He was all the more troubled when the next night he had exactly the same dream, and again on the third night the very same dream. There was nothing for Isaac to do, but walk to Warsaw and see for himself. When he finally arrived, he saw the bridge just as he had dreamed it. He went underneath to take a look, but he was grabbed by the back of the neck by the captain of the guard who said, "You Jew, what are you doing prowling under this bridge?" Isaac was a simple man who wouldn't lie: "I've dreamed that underneath this bridge there is a treasure and I have traveled many miles to find that treasure." The captain of the guard burst into laughter: "You fool. You traipse over the world because of your dreams. If I were so foolish, I would be lost in the city of Krakow right now, for I also have dreams. For weeks I have dreamed of a voice that came and said, 'In the city of Krakow, in the home of a certain Jew named Isaac son of Yekel, underneath his stove is buried a great treasure.' But imagine that when half the Jews in Krakow are named Isaac and the other half Yekel." He laughed again and sent Isaac home. The son of Yekel quietly made the long journey back to Krakow. Isaac went to his home, moved his stove, and began to dig. There he found a great treasure. With the money he found he paid all his debts and married off his three daughters. With the money that remained he built a synagogue for the praise of God. He found his treasure in the place he had been living all along.

We come to worship to remember that the treasure is here, that we have already been given all that we need to live gratefully. Focus inside and count your blessings. Stop eying others with envy. Envy is a killer. It will not kill the person you envy. It will kill you. Do not resent those whom you deem unworthy but whom God chooses to bless. God is a generous God and is free to bless any and all as God wishes. Dig deep inside your self like Yekel son of Isaac. You will find your hidden treasure within your heart, within your mind, within your soul. Gratitude is the secret treasure that will break you out of your prison of resentment. Envy kills. Gratitude gives life. A grateful spirit is the cure for envy. Repent means change direction. Go in another direction. Follow Jesus in joy and leave your old friend envy behind. You will find you are happier and bring more joy to others.


The story of Isaac son of Yekel comes from William Bausch, Storytelling: Imagination and Faith, Twenty-third Publications: Mystic, Connecticut, 1984, 76-77.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035, on September 18, 2011 (OT25A). Phone 713-723-6262 | sjpresby.blogspot.com

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