There once lived a rich man who had no greater desire than to do good to those around him, and especially those who worked for him.
He noticed that one of his workers, a carpenter, was very poor, and was struggling to feed his family. He could see for himself that the hovel in which the man lived with his wife and children was falling into disrepair, and was no longer a match for the cold and rain that beat down upon it. He felt great compassion for the carpenter and his family, and he had an idea.
He called the carpenter to him one morning and gave him these instructions:
“I want you to build me a beautiful house,” he said. “I want you to spare no expense, and employ only the finest craftsmen for every job that’s needed. I have to make a journey, and I will be away for a while, but when I come back, I want you to have the house ready for me.”
The carpenter was delighted to be given this task, and immediately, he set out to work. But knowing that the master would be away, he decided to make a good profit on the enterprise. Instead of hiring the best craftsmen, and using the finest materials, he cut corners wherever he possibly could. The master would never know, and he could keep the difference, and make a lot of money for himself.
And so the house was built. From the outside, it looked beautiful, but as the carpenter well knew, it was not at all sound. The timbers in the roof were weak and badly fitted. The bricks were seconds, and would soon begin to crumble. The roof tiles were rejects from the quarry. The building had been carried out by inexperienced workers for low pay.
When the master returned, he came to inspect the house. “I have done as you instructed,” the carpenter told him. “I have used the best materials and the finest craftsmen.”
“I’m delighted to hear it,” said the master. “Here are the keys. The house is yours. It is my gift to you and your family. May it be a fine home for you for the rest of your life.”
In the years that followed, the carpenter could often be heard to mutter under his breath, “If only I had known that the house was meant for me…” (From One Hundred Wisdom Stories from Around the World, edited by Margaret Silf)
Fact is, life (which the story symbolizes as the rich man) is abundant and means great things for us—so it puts us to work, gives us gifts of time and talent and energy and money and says, “Spare no expense.” “Build me a beautiful house.” The instructions seem clear enough. The challenge may even delight us, as it did the carpenter. But the central issue–the central ambiguity–is “what’s in it for me.” WHOSE house is being built? If it’s someone or something else’s, then what’s in it for me?
Now by “houses” here we’re talking about anything in which we can dwell—a literal building, for sure, but also such things as key friendships, a marriage, a career, an artistic or athletic passion, and (most importantly for us today) a congregation. It’s the responsive reading from earlier:
This house is for the ingathering of nature and human nature.
This house is a cradle for our dreams,
the workshop of our common endeavor. (Kenneth Patton)
But, again, how we imagine ourselves in relation to this house and all the houses we build determines everything.
If we imagine ourselves as somehow separate, then we’ll cut corners, hold back, withhold, pocket the extra cash, see the result as gain for us. Us against them. Someone else is gonna have to deal with the weak and badly fitted timbers in the roof; someone else is gonna have to contend with the crumbling bricks; someone else is gonna have to deal with the defective roof tiles. Someone else, but not me, because I’ll have gotten mine, I’ll be long gone…
That’s what the carpenter thinks. And who here has never thought like that before? Cause I want to meet you—you are a living saint!
For the rest of us—we have to learn the hard way, and muttering under the breath just like the carpenter is part of the deal. We have to learn the instant karma way. There is just no separation between ourselves and the work of our hands and hearts. An ancient Buddhist saying puts it like this: “the hand of the dyer is subdued by the dye in which he works.” In some form or fashion, through life’s abundance and generosity, we are handed the keys to each house we’ve ever had a part in building. Life says, “The house is yours. May it be a fine home for you for the rest of your life.” Life intends good things for us, but a big factor is how we respond….
Now when I say “instant karma,” I mean it ultimately doesn’t matter that no one might see how we hold back. Doesn’t matter that the master won’t know. WE will know. WE will know. Every choice we make, every action we take, has an inevitable impact on our hearts and minds and character. Every hurtful action rebounds upon the actor; and so does every neglectful inaction. Sins of commission, sins of omission. Weak and badly-fitted timbers, crumbling bricks, defective roof tiles: WE’LL have to deal with them, eventually. Every one will rebound upon us, instant-karma style.
My message today is about cutting through the ambiguity and getting to clarity. Work as if whatever house you are building you’re gonna live in for the rest of your life, cause believe it, the keys are coming to you. So spare no expense. Don’t hold back. Don’t hold back from your friendships, don’t hold back from your marriage, don’t hold back from your career or your passions. And don’t hold back from this congregation. If the thought of not holding back pains you, because what you are building you don’t really believe in, make a change. But if you DO really believe, put the pedal to the metal. Gun it. Give and don’t stop until it feels GOOD.
Be like Walter Overby, our stewardship campaign chair. Back on October 2 he said this: “I celebrate the fact that I’ve integrated support for UUCA into my life all year round. This is the sixth year I will pledge 5% of my income. I’ve learned that it works for me financially and it makes me feel invested. When I come here and see a coffee cup, it isn’t just A coffee cup, it’s MY coffee cup. When I see that piano, it isn’t just A piano, it’s MY piano. And when I see my minister, he’s not just THE minister, he’s MY minister. It feels good.”
Yes it does! It DOES feel good! This is OUR house. Life has given us gifts of time and talent and energy and money, Life has been generous with us, so let’s be generous right back, let’s take care of our house,
(whose house is it?)
(can’t hear you)
Gotta take care of it.