Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Extravaganza!

Texts: Philippians 4:4-9, John 6:25-35

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

I have a friend who calls this ‘the most beautifully named holiday of the year.’  And I think he is right, there is nothing more beautiful than gratitude.  Martin Luther called gratitude “the most basic of Christian attitudes”.  The ability to truly give thanks is something that we are all called to do.  Eucharist, the sacrament we partake in every Sunday, means “thanksgiving”.  Gratitude is an integral part of being a Christian. And it is the foundation of Joy, in fact you cannot even have joy without gratitude.  And gratitude can be a true source of strength for us as we face a world that can, at times, be rather unforgiving.  That being said, I am a little embarrassed to confess that this is not something I have always fully understood.

You see, I can be rather similar to those people who followed after Jesus in today’s Gospel.  They ate, and their stomachs were filled, but they still felt empty, they wanted more.  Just one more sign, and then I will believe, just one more miracle and I will follow you anywhere.  I get that.  I can be rather distrusting, always wanting a little more certainty before I invest too much of myself.  It is a default mode of mine, a defense mechanism, I am always hesitant to get too excited, be too happy, fall too much in love.  Any time I have a sense of wonder at the world it always comes with a reminder of my own mortality.  ‘Never get too attached’ my mind says, ‘it won’t last.’   I lived like this for a long time, I put walls up around Joy, I avoided vulnerability, never let myself rejoice too much for fear of getting hurt.  Of course I often felt like something was missing, like a part of me was being hollowed out, or was slowly wearing away with time, and I never really ever felt full, or satisfied.  But one learns to live with it and focus on other things.  And even though I knew it was not the best way to live, I didn’t really know how to change it.

Paul, on the other hand, he got it, he understood what he needed to do, and he encouraged the Philippians to do the same.

Rejoice in the Lord Always, again I say rejoice!

Paul knew better than most how hard it could be to be joyful always.  He wrote these words from the confines of a prison cell and he was not at all certain if he would ever see freedom again.  Yet despite the suffering he endured, and the potential execution hanging over his head, he still knew joy and urged others to rejoice as well.   Paul understood, Paul knew what it meant when Jesus said “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  Paul believed, had full confidence in Christ.  And even in the midst of suffering he was thankful to God, thankful for Christ’s work in the world, Christ’s defeat of death.  He was thankful for a God who loved us enough to be present in the world in such a truly tangible way.  He was fed by that gratitude, and he was able to rejoice in God no matter what the circumstances.  

So for the longest time I found it rather difficult to relate to Paul when he talked about joy.  When he talked about being strong, that I understood, but joy…

Then one day I heard an interview with Dr. Brene Brown, a sociologist and researcher who’s main work was studying vulnerability.  Anyway, in this interview she called “Joy the most terrifying and difficult of emotions.”  Then she talked about something that she liked to call, ‘foreboding joy’.  That is a reaction we have to joy, it is when we start to think about all the bad things that can happen.   Joy brings with it vulnerability, and for many of us vulnerability truly is terrifying.  So in order to stem any feelings of vulnerability, “we try to beat vulnerability to the punch” by preparing for something bad to happen instead.

‘ Yes!’  I thought, ‘that is me, I do that.’  But then she went on to say that some people don’t do that.  Some people, when faced with joy, that oh so delicate of emotions, instead of reacting in fear, they react in gratitude.  Instead of thinking of what horrible things might happen to come and take this joy away from them, they think of how grateful they are to have that moment of joy at all.  They lean into Joy rather than away from it.  

I used to think that if God could just make me joyful then I would be more grateful, but you see, I had it backwards.  Gratitude is something that can be practiced, and not just on days like today, and not just for big things, but for everything.  Gratitude is what we need for joy to take root in us. When I looked at today’s epistle, I thought to myself, ‘well look at that, it’s all right here’ “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  

Don’t let worries of ‘what may be’ plague you, but focus on the things you are thankful for.  And learn to be thankful to God for everything.  

Studies have proven the life changing ability of practicing gratitude.  Researchers have determined that all it takes is writing down three things a day you are grateful for, no matter how small, before you see real changes in your outlook on life.  And when you start to do this, it doesn’t take long before you start looking for things to be grateful for.  It doesn’t take long for your world view to change as well.  People who took part in that study showed an increase in charitableness, and happiness and became less worried about material things, they felt more satisfied with their lives as a whole.  

Paul obviously knew all this, Jesus definitely understood the power of being thankful, and the saints- it is clear that so many of them just ‘got it’.  But it took me reading about these studies, hearing Brene Brown speak before I was able to put things in their proper order
If being generally thankful only three times a day can be so life changing, so joy educing.  Can you imagine what it would be like if we were thankful to God all the time?  I can, and it is something I would truly love to see.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Things fall apart...

 Sermon for November 17, 2013
Text: Luke 21:5-19
By the time Jesus and his friends were there, a temple had stood on that spot in Jerusalem for over 500 years, but the building that they were looking at was a relatively new construction built under the authority of Herod the Great, and by all accounts it was a spectacular building to behold.  Towering above the rest of the city, the whole Temple plaza was about the size of 6 football fields. Its walls stood 100 feet high, and were made of stones that could be 15 feet to 40 feet long and weigh up to 500 tons.  Lining the edges of the temple mount were long porches or walkways, each one with a roof that was supported by three rows of columns standing 37 ½ feet high.  Outside of the temple building there was a court paved with marble, and the temple itself sat on a foundation of immense slabs of marble covered in gold.  I am telling you all this because I want you to have at least a vague understanding of what today’s Gospel passage is referring to.  When the disciples are talking about the beauty of the temple, it is because the temple was one of the grandest buildings of its time.  Not only was the building beautiful, it was also the center of all Jewish worship, As Jesus once said when he was 12 years old it is his Father’s house.  So when Jesus tells his followers that there will come a time when the temple will be no more, it was a shocking, perhaps even a devastating thing for them to hear. 
So they say to Jesus “what will be the signs that this is going to happen?” “Tell us what to look for so we can be prepared, maybe they thought they could even stop this awful thing from taking place if they were only able to see it coming.  I understand where the disciples are coming from.  I am constantly trying to do this, I am always imagining possible outcomes of my actions, I’m constantly trying to predict what the future holds, and when I am really unsure of something I will desperately beg for a sign, something to guide my way to help me get the outcome that I want, if only I could see the future clearly then I could manage my life so much better.  I don’t know why, but it seems so much easier to focus on tomorrow than it is to focus on today.  Staying present, in the moment, can be so difficult to do, but in a way that is what Jesus is telling his followers to do.  Telling them not to worry about what they are going to say, because the holy spirit will tell them.
Way back in Luke Jesus teaches a lesson about anxiety.  He tells his listeners that they should not worry, that God will be with them, that even the birds of the air and the lilies of the field are looked after by God.  And he asks them “can any of you, by worrying, add a single hour to your span of life?”  The answer of course is no.  Worrying gains us nothing.  Today’s Gospel relies on that teaching.  Jesus wants his disciples to stop looking to control what cannot be controlled, but instead to live faithfully and to testify to that faith through their lives and their words always trusting that God will give them what they need when they need it.
 And in 70AD, less than 40 years after the event in today’s Gospel reading the temple does get destroyed.  And the followers of Jesus are certainly persecuted, and there certainly are wars and revolutions and people who say they are the true messiah, all of this happens, but it is not the end yet.  And now here we are, almost 2000 years later. 
And the question is, what is Jesus saying to us?  What are our great temples?  Our beautiful but impermanent temples that we tend to rely on instead of God?

  Things happen in our own lives, and we feel blindsided by them, and we wonder why.  There are days when I feel as if one thing is piling on top of another, like I will be buried underneath the burdens that I carry, and I struggle trying so hard to fight them, but sometimes there is little that can be done.  It is in those times, when things are truly dark that we absolutely must cling to God alone.  All of the things that we have to make us feel secure, all the cars, and houses, all the money, and all the church buildings, our feelings of self-reliance and even our relationships, they will all pass away eventually.  And if we spend our time having anxieties about all those things that lack any real permanence then we are merely distracting ourselves and giving ourselves greater worry than we need.  Because our one true source of strength that will stay with us when all that we have falls away, that one source of strength is God, God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ.  And when we let God be the source of our strength, we find our lives constantly being made new.  We find that our relationship with the world and all that is in it, is put in its proper order.  When God is our strength and our focus, we are able to throw ourselves, everyday, into this world like it is both the first and the last day of our lives.  We are called by Jesus Christ, by God, to love fully, to give generously and to forgive completely and with God as our strength and guide we are able to do just that.  
Today we are celebrating the baptism of Shea Ann.  Baptism is a true sign of our commitment as Christians to listen to, and have faith in the Holy Spirit working in our lives.  In Baptism we are made new by God, and with that we are set upon a journey to live out our new identity as one who is marked as Christ’s own forever.  Thankfully though, this is not a journey we make alone, we all promise to support the newly baptized.  For even though only God can be our true strength, it is together that we become Christ’s body.  And as such we are God’s hands and mouth in the world.  I think we are all aware that bad things are going to happen in our lives, but when we stop wasting our energy in worrying about what is to come, we free ourselves to live faithfully and generously, we free ourselves to be true testaments to the great power and love of God in all that we do and say.  
Christ does not promise that we will not be faced with suffering, in fact he says the exact opposite.  But he does promise that we are not alone, that we can endure and that “By our endurance we will gain our souls." 
The italicized portion was added for the 10a.m. sermon