Expansive Grace and Envious Grumbling
By Charles Rush
May 17, 2009
Matthew 10: 1-16
(mp3, 6.8Mb) ]
been recently reading an interesting book on leadership by Richard Farson where he calls into question a number of platitudes about leadership and management.[ii] One of them is the notion that we ‘learn from our mistakes’ In fact, that is not true, despite the fact that we repeat this maxim over and over. Most of us continue to make the very same mistakes repeatedly throughout our life because the most characteristic mistakes are who we are in fact.
the whole business of leadership training seminars is predicated on the notion
that we learn from other people’s success. That is why corporations spend top
nickel for highly successful people to come tell their employees how they did
it. After 30 years in the business, Farson has concluded that this is not true
either. This is what he says that caught my attention, not only as a leader, but also especially as a Minister.
“While we may think we are motivated by hearing about
the success of others, believe it or not, little is more encouraging or
energizing that learning about or witnessing another’s failure, especially if
it is an expert. [Think, for example, the sheer joy that hack golfers exhibit,
when Tiger Woods shanks one into the water]. But there is an even stronger
reason why we can learn from the failures. It has to do with our ability as
human beings to relate better to people in their failures than in their
successes, and to learn more in the process.
psychologist Carl Rogers used to say that he didn’t really know how to talk to
people unless they were talking to him about a problem they had. At first I
thought that was an unfortunate limitation in his personality. But then I came
to realize that to some extent it was true for me too, that I related to people
so much better when they were talking to me about their failures than about
their successes. I have since noticed this is true of people generally. Very
few of us are capable of responding to another’s success with the same
sensitivity and wholeheartedness that we extend to that person’s failure. Few
of us also have the insight or the honesty of author Gore Vidal, who remarked,
‘Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.’ But it is more
than that. Responding to failure seems to bring out something good in us. . It
is less easy for us to share the experience of success than to share the
experience of failure.
that’s why gossip is such a unifying force. We attach to gossip the most
derogatory terms, yet is probably the single most
community-building and social-bonding experience we have. Gossip seldom
revolves around the description of others’ successes, however, because sharing
stories of other’s troubles is what brings us together.”
It is those
hushed conversations around the lunch table at work, on the patio at the
cocktail party, which is the glue that unites us.
curious fact and a spiritual insight worthy of highlighting. In our story this
morning, we have what I think is one of Jesus’ central teachings- the expansive
character of grace and the envious character of grumbling. We have a group of
workers grumbling at quitting time. Why? The first group was hired for a full
day’s wages at the beginning of the day. They were not ripped off or bargained
down. The boss didn’t get them on the cheap. He paid them union wage and
benefit. And they happily agreed to go to work. In fact, they are probably
happy all the day long, and why not be- they have work
and a fair wage. They will come home with food for the children and maybe
something special for the Mrs..
Then come people at noon and
another group at 3 in the afternoon. At the end of the day.
The owner is incredibly beneficent and simply pays them a full day’s wage anyhow.
first group grumbles. They are now unhappy. They do not say ‘Whoa good for you
guys getting a full days wage. Maybe you’ll buy a
round of beer.’ No. They say ‘it’s not fair’. From the time we are 3 years old,
we have developed this sense of justice. And from that time, we most often
invoke the need for justice when we perceive that our needs are not being met.
Now we invoke fairness. Now we need justice.
four year olds at Nursery school. A kid is happily playing with a truck in the
sandbox. Then he notices that Max has two trucks. Now he is unhappy and he goes
to the teacher, voice shaking with emotion. “Kate, Max has two trucks and I
only have one, it’s not fair”. Kate will say “Now Noah, you have a wonderful
truck and you love your truck. Why don’t we just go over to this sandbox and
you can have the whole sandbox to yourself?” And this is a real line from
little Noah “Max has ruined all of my happiness”. Isn’t that a great line ‘Max
has ruined all of my happiness’?
we would be perfectly content left to ourselves. It is only when we compare
ourselves to others that the grumbling begins. As the saying
goes. “Nothing depreciates a car faster than having a neighbor buy a new one.” Or we might update that for our town in the
90’s “Nothing makes you feel so cramped in your domicile as the handsome
addition on your neighbors home.” It has been said
that you can divide the world into two groups of people, those who think there
will be enough for everyone and those who are convinced that if others get
more, somehow they will not get enough. Which camp are you in most of the time?
And it is
not just about material things either. One time someone asked Henry Kissinger
why the fights on the faculty at Harvard were so prolonged and intense. He had
a great response. He said ‘because there is so little at stake’. Apparently
Harvard Don’s can hold a grudge far longer than Robert MacNamara or Nyung Din
Thieu. I used to think that scholars ought to be the most generous class in
society because if you take out the corrupting influence of power and the
seduction of money, and you mix in a broad appreciation of the humanities, you
should have true gentleman and ladies. And you do of course. There is often
terrific wit and charm at lunch. But it is
also the case, that when you take out power and money, all you have left is
reputation. Bolstering reputation, guarding, promoting reputation can be full
time work and can exercise the ego far more than the crass exploitation of
power and money.
Xenephon were contemporaries. Both were students of Socrates. Both ran in the
same circle of eminent Greek citizens. Both knew each other. Both were
voluminous writers. And yet, neither one of them ever mentioned the other a
single time in their work. They treated each other as if their reputation were
of no regard. This may be the cruelest cut that envy can muster.
regard envy is not a productive by-product of competition. It has been said
that envy is the consuming desire ‘to have everybody as unsuccessful as you
are’ (Fredrick Buechner). When it is full blown, envy is somewhat different
from greed or competitiveness. ‘Unlike a greedy person, the person afflicted by
envy (phthonos) does not necessarily want the goods they resent another having;
they simply don’t want others to have them. They differ from a competitive
person in that their aim is not to win but to keep others from winning.’ (Anchor Bible Dictionary, p. 529). The Germans used to call
this condition ‘schadenfruede’. It is when you relish in the demise of your
neighbor. And neighbor is not very helpful in our culture because we are too
mobile. You are most likely to allow your imagination to have free rein with
envious thoughts with colleagues, with siblings, with very close friends. These
are people you are most likely to really measure your self-esteem against. [On the phone with your fantastically successful sister. “Oh
dear, I’m so sorry your husband drove the Mercedes through the garage and into
your living room… Just before the party… and just before the fundraiser for
Mayor Bloomberg too… terrible. Maybe you can call your interior decorator and
now you can trade in the Magenta curtains for something in chartreuse].
grumbling is not about others and what they have. The real issue is about us. It is about our self-esteem and
self-acceptance. This is fundamentally a spiritual issue as Jesus
illustrates. It is about the anxious fear that we have that we are not
measuring up, that we are not lovable, that we are not as cool as other people.
It is about our fear that we are not going to be taken care of by others or by
God. It is about our anxieties over our perceived deficiency and our fears that
our deficiency is going to expose us in a vulnerable way. It is about allowing our fears to control us,
unleashing negative spiritual emotions towards others as a defensive technique.
As the Jewish proverb notes ‘Love is blind. Envy sees too much.’ The poet Joan
Didion is right. She says ‘to cure jealousy is to see it for what it is, a
dissatisfaction with self.’
contrasts our envious grumbling with the expansive grace of God, which is the
only real antidote. We have to experience the profound acceptance of God in our
lives and know that we are okay just like we are. Grace has to get into us,
into our very pores, not just cover the image that we carefully manage for
others to see. Grace has to pour over all of us. We don’t have to use
competition with others for our sense of well being. We don’t have to be
motivated negatively, driven by our fears and anxieties. God offers us a
positive spiritual center and a positive spiritual energy. Jesus tells us that
God loves us and frees us to love one another.
come to realize that it takes a conversion of the heart before we can genuinely
pull for each other. . It is not simple to sustain positive spiritual energy.
But this is the message of Jesus. Jesus encourages us to draw on positive
spiritual energy, to empower others and lift them up. This takes a conversion
of the heart and mind. Others report that this was the magnetism of Mother
Theresa, that when you were in her presence you were lifted up by her positive
One of the most powerful and simple things that we can
do to release positive spiritual energy for one another is to bless each other.
You can begin with your children. Parents should single out their kids, lay
your hands on them and pray together that God will bless them with wisdom,
character, compassion, understanding, grace, and love. And your spouse… you
should bless them often. Dionne Warwick’s wonderful song
‘Each morning I wake up/ before I put on my make up/ I say a little prayer for
From time to
time, someone in the congregation will pop into my head reasons I can’t always
articulate. And I have learned to take a moment and stop. I hold the image of
them in my mind for a moment and I ask God to bless them with grace.
that each of us is surrounded by negative emotions and negative spiritual
impulses by our jobs and the values of the marketplace which impact us directly
and indirectly. I know that we are periodically swamped with challenges and
frustrations that give an opening for the release of our negative side. So I
stop from time to time and pray for positive spirituality to engulf you. You
ought to try this too. As you go through the day at work, pray for a blessing
on your colleagues. When you are having a difficult
negotiation, pray for the release of positive spiritual energy. For your
loved ones, pray God’s blessing on them.
of it as opening a channel. Jesus suggests that there is a reciprocal
relationship between our praying and our activity towards others. Each week we
pray ‘forgive us (horizontal) as we forgive others’. We open the channel of
divine love as we love one another. We open the flow of grace as we bless
others and ask God’s grace upon them.
is another phenomenon about grumbling. It doesn’t necessarily end when our
needs are met. A lot of you are thinking
‘well if I just had enough power, if I just had a big pile of money’ I wouldn’t
grumble. Not exactly.
Abraham Maslow… advised mangers to listen not for the presence or absence of complaints, but rather to what people were
complaining about- that is the quality or level of complaint. He called them
grumbles. In the least healthy organizations, Maslow said, you can expect to
hear low-order grumbles-complaints about working conditions, about what he
called ‘deficiency needs.’ For example ‘I don’t get paid enough’ or ‘It’s too
hot in here.’
healthier organization, Maslow said, there would be high-order grumbles-
complaints that extend beyond the self to more altruistic concerns: ‘did you
hear what happened to the people over in Plant Two? They really got cheated.’
Or ‘We need better safety standards around here’. But in a very healthy
organization, there would be ‘metagrumbles’- complaints having to so with needs
for self-actualization: ‘I don’t feel that my talents are being fully
utilized’. Or, ‘I don’t feel that I’m in on things enough around here.”
The great irony, of course, is that it is only when
people’s talents are being used and when they are being included that it ever
occurs to them that this is an issue to complain about.
we tendency towards envious grumbling does not necessarily disappear when our
lower order needs are met. If anything, the temptation is magnified. Think of
marriage. On the whole, the institution of marriage has been getting better and
better throughout the 20th century. In the beginning part of the century, the
divorce rate was low and hardly anyone went for counseling. They just gutted it
out. As our marriages got better and better, people began to expect more from
marriage and when a number of the remedial needs were met, they began to seek
out counseling in order to achieve deeper intimacy, trust, and love. Today, the
divorce rate is higher and people grumble more about their marriages than they
did in 1920, in part, because they are so much better and we expect so much more fulfillment out of marriage than they did
As with marriage, so with so many other areas of our lives.
We have a rising standard of expectation which means that the temptation to
grumbling increases as we have more. It doesn’t go away. And the very root
anxieties about our selves, our fears about not being acceptable, increase.
They do not decrease.
calls us to a manner of living where we consciously stand against the negative
spiritual energy that anxiety releases. Jesus calls us to release the expansive
spirit of grace in our midst, to build one another up, to bless one another.
This doesn’t mean that we have no criticism of each other or that it is all
sweet gushy butter. No. But it does mean that we regularly lift each other up
and say “I want the best for you. I want you to be all that God has in store
for you”. We are the people that release blessing on each other. Amen.
version of this sermon was preached by Rev Rush on Oct 12, 1997.
[ii] Farson, Richard. The
Management of the Absurd (New York: Touchstone Press)
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