“Keeping Score” sermon

Living a Visionary Life- Right Relationship #4 “Keeping Score”
sermon by Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon
First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County
March 23, 2014

Chalice Lighting: “Try to live your life in such a way that others live theirs better.”- Felix Adler*

Text Matthew 20: 1-16 “The Parable of the Vineyard”*

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Sermon: “Keeping Score”

The kingdom of heaven, says Jesus, is like a boss who needs help. So she goes out at the crack of dawn, to where the laborers gather, and she asks, “who wants to work in my garden? I’ll pay the going wage.” A few workers hop in the van, and are whisked off to work. Then at 9:00 am, the boss comes back, and asks again, “who wants a job in my garden?” She takes a few more people in her car. She does the same thing at noon. And then again at 3 pm. And then at 4:30 p.m. – at the very end of the day – she picks up a few more workers, with a promise to pay.

And then when evening comes, the Boss does pay everyone. She pays the going rate to the folks who worked all day. She pays them a full day’s wages. But then she also pays a full day’s wages to the folks who came at 9 am – and the folks who came at noon, and 3 pm, and even the folks who only worked for the last hour! Everybody gets the same amount, a full day’s pay.

And when they see this, the folks who have been working since the crack of dawn say, “hey that’s not fair! I worked a lot longer than they did!”

And the Boss said, “didn’t I pay you a full day’s wages, just like I promised you? So why are you complaining?” This said, Jesus, is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. It’s not fair. It’s really not fair.

You can imagine, can’t you, that if you were one of the people working all day in the vineyard, you might be upset. We have an innate sense of fairness. It runs deep in us. This principle of fairness, this basic morality, has been found in other primate species too. Capuchin monkeys have been observed to show their displeasure if they receive less reward than other capuchin monkeys in the same group. A cucumber is thought of as an acceptable reward for doing a task, but if their primate colleague gets a delicious bunch of grapes for the same task – well, the cucumber monkey gets angry. That’s not fair!

That’s not fair! It’s a refrain we develop almost universally as children. And parents often say the same thing in response (say it with me, that’s not fair, oh yeah, well…) “life’s not fair.”

Yeah, we say it, as parents, and maybe it ain’t, but we never really fully become adjusted to life not being fair. It offends us if life’s not fair. When we see a CEO make hundreds of million dollars a year and the employees of the company make minimum wage, we don’t shrug our shoulders and say, “oh well, life’s not fair.” And actually, it’s pretty clear Jesus doesn’t either. In the sermon on the plain, he says the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor, not the rich, and he also says it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to go to heaven.” He himself was poor.

But if Jesus is so caring about the poor, why this parable, with such vastly unequal pay? I think it’s about more than money. I think he’s looking at our innate tendency to keep score, and through the lateral thinking of a parable, playing with it a little bit.

Abbey and I have been happily married for almost nine years now, despite the fact that I am a petty, shallow, self-centered jerk. OK, that’s a bit harsh: in fairness to myself, I do have my good points, and can be quite compassionate sometimes. But believe me, no-one spends as much time in my head as I do, and I know I can be fairly…well, amusingly, ridiculously petty.

And so much of it is this tendency to keep score. It is so primal in us, such a natural reaction. It is like on this trigger switch. “Honey, could you do the dishes?” My first thought…my first thought is, “but I did them yesterday! AND I changed the cat litter. And I’m not supposed to change the cat litter. Not the blue one- I change the green box, I remember when we got the green box YOU said You were going to change it…”

I could go on and on. I DO go on and on, in my head, keeping a running tab of the ways in which I am being ill-treated in this relationship. Not surprisingly, by about 30 seconds of this, I am feeling really aggrieved about my besieged place in the universe and my hampered role in the household.

Now, I hope I’m not the only person who thinks this way. (for the sake of the sermon, at the very least, if not my own.) But I think many of use do. We all keep score, to some extent. We all look out to the universe and say, “how am I doing? Am I getting everything I deserve?” Right? Am I getting everything I deserve?

We tend to think this less when the relationship is clearly unequal. When you’re a parent, people don’t like to hear you complain, “I give so much more to my kids then they give to me.” Well, duh. You’re the parent. That’s the way it works. Maybe they’ll take care of you when you’re in your last days, but that’s not really reciprocity. You don’t have kids as an insurance plan against being lonely in old age. You have kids, because you sign up to take care of somebody more than they’ll take care of you. That’s the deal.

So we tend to keep score less when it comes to unequal relationships like parents and kids. But in a relationship of equals, the scorekeeper in us is loud and proud. Like at work. Some of you work in large offices, you know how it goes. Sometimes people aren’t supposed to share how much they make, but everybody wants to know. There’s a lot of chat at the water cooler about salaries and benefits. And it’s not just about the money. It’s about respect. Am I getting my share? Am I getting my fair dues?

Now, I don’t know that Jesus is suggested that we never keep score. It’d be a vain hope, in my case, because my inner scorekeeper doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. And truth be told, I need it for justice. I need to get riled up when human beings are treated awfully, are refused a living wage, when the powerless are manipulated for the sake of a few dollars more for the powerful. I don’t want to lose track completely of when life’s not fair – at least not for the least among us.

Our natural urge to keep score can be useful. But in some situations, this keeping score can be very toxic. For at least two reasons. First of all, we’re not very good scorekeepers. Most of us aren’t as objective as we think we are. When I’m standing in my kitchen thinking of how I “always” do the dishes, a few seconds later I remember how Abbey did cook dinner, today and yesterday. And she got the kids, and figured out our taxes.

And there’s all the stuff I don’t know. The time Abbey has done things I don’t even notice. There’s a whole range of stuff I would never notice in a million years. Like dusting. I don’t even know what that is. That’s not the way my brain works. But I know it’s helpful. And I know she’s always doing things that I fail to recognize, that my inner scorekeeper totally fails to appreciate.

In fact, we’re all here because of kindnesses that other people did toward us, some centuries ago, some last Tuesday, that we’ll never know about. It’s hard keeping score of that.

And the second reason it’s no good keeping score is because, after all, life’s not fair. And that’s probably not such a terrible thing.

It’s not fair that we’re on this planet, breathing this air, going about our days. There are trillions of possible people that could be here, and it’s not fair that it’s us. We’re lucky just to be here, right? This no innate justice that says we deserve to be here. We already have more than we deserve, just by being alive.

So maybe we can be ok with a little bit of unevenness in life. You know that quote, attributed to Saint Francis? Was actually written by the world’s greatest poet and writer, “Anonymous” over a hundred years ago. Here it is:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

That’s a very different message then “am I getting what I deserve.” What would it be like, if we judged our days, not by how happy we were, but how happy we made somebody else? Now we know making other people happy will likely contribute to our happiness. But what would it be like to make other people’s happiness the very goal? It’s really something to say, “well, God, maybe I didn’t have such a happy day today. But you know what, I’m grateful I got to contribute to someone else’s happiness.”

Of course, we can go too far with this too. If there’s a relationship where, day after day, month after month, one party is taking advantage of the other, it could stop being service, and just become a cycle of abuse ultimately meaningless to anyone. We are human beings, and no one should be a doormat, just as no one should be a perpetual consumer. But we are capable of making our lives not simply about us, but extended the devotion of our acts outward to the universe.

I read a wonderful story on the internets the other day. There was this guy Nate Bagley, who decided to interview couples to find out what made for lasting relationships.* He interviewed couples that had been together for decades. Nate, as it happened, was single, but he wanted to know: what’s the truth about lasting relationships?

He found a lot of great attributes of lasting relationships that I urge you to look up sometime, but the only thing that stayed with me was a quote. It was from a woman in Georgia who has been married for over 60 years, and her advice to Nate was: “don’t be afraid to be the one who loves the most.”

Don’t be afraid to be the one who loves the most. How often are we afraid of that. How often does our inner scorekeeper try desperately to not be the “losing side” of that equation. The sucker, the one who loves more than they are loved. Well, that’s a game I hope I’m willing to lose. I hope to among the suckers, who loved the world more than it deserved, who pour my heart into this world without equal recompense. Let’s all race to be first on that vineyard, and when somebody shows up at the last hour and gets the glory, let’s think to ourselves, “good, they need it, I’m glad they’re here.” Let’s be willing to let love win, and ourselves lose, if need be. Because when we die to ourselves – when we let love become more who we are then are own egos – it is in that moment, that we are connected with eternity.

AMEN

 

Endnotes:

Felix Adler was the founder of Ethical Humanism. This quote found from https://www.facebook.com/TheLiberalLectionary though I was unable to obtain an original source – if apocryphal, many sayings of a similar nature are in Adler’s writings.

This is the New Revised Standard Version translation. The classic King James version uses the phrase “in the eleventh hour” which has now become a famous idiom.

Found at http://www.businessinsider.com/nate-bagleys-best-relationship-advice-2014-2. Lots of good stuff there, for a web article.

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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