Gratitude and Giving

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Thanksgiving and Stewardship Sunday

Second Scripture Reading:  Luke 10:25-37, The Good Samaritan.

An expert in the Law of Moses stood up and asked Jesus a question to see what he would say. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus answered, “What is written in the Scriptures? How do you understand them?” The man replied, “The Scriptures say, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.’ They also say, ‘Love your neighbors as much as you love yourself.’”

Jesus said, “You have given the right answer. If you do this, you will have eternal life.” But the man wanted to show that he knew what he was talking about. So he asked Jesus, “Who are my neighbors?”

Jesus replied:  As a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, robbers attacked him and grabbed everything he had. They beat him up and ran off, leaving him half dead.  A priest happened to be going down the same road. But when he saw the man, he walked by on the other side.  Later a temple helper came to the same place. But when he saw the man who had been beaten up, he also went by on the other side.

A man from Samaria then came traveling along that road. When he saw the man, he felt sorry for him and went over to him. He treated his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him.

The next morning he gave the innkeeper two silver coins and said, “Please take care of the man. If you spend more than this on him, I will pay you when I return.”

Then Jesus asked, “Which one of these three people was a real neighbor to the man who was beaten up by robbers?”  The teacher answered, “The one who showed pity.”  Jesus said, “Go and do the same!”

Friends, these are Holy Words.  Thanks be to God.

Prayer: 

Please pray with me.  “Now, O God, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with your love.  Amen.”

Sermon:

I’d like to begin this morning by making a controversial statement.  Thanksgiving is the best holiday of the year.  That’s right.  I’ll exempt from agreeing with me anyone who hosts Thanksgiving Dinner at your home, but no one else.  For those of us who just hop in the car and go to someone else’s house for Thanksgiving like my family does – though Kelley does bake and bring along to her Aunt’s house an incredibly delicious apple pie – there really is no better holiday than Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is great because the build-up is slow.  We don’t have to decorate for Thanksgiving or send Thanksgiving cards.  We don’t have to stress about a costume for our kids, or what they are going to wear to church.

Easter is complicated.  Its date is based on the lunar calendar and can be anywhere from early March to late April.  Christmas is confusing, because it’s always on December 25th, which means it’s always landing on a different day of the week.  How many times do we find ourselves asking, “What day is Christmas this year?”  How annoying is that!?  Thanksgiving, though, it’s always on a Thursday, which makes for no surprises.

On Thanksgiving napping is just about mandatory.  On the 4th of July we’re sitting in lawn chairs, in the heat, I don’t know about you but I can’t nap on a lawn chair.  But on the couch in front of a football game?  Absolutely.

How about those old family recipes at Thanksgiving?  They’re the best.  For me it was my Grams’ stuffing, and my Nana’s butterscotch pie.  The cool thing about the Thanksgiving spread too is if there happens to be a dish you don’t particularly care for, there is so much food on the table that you can skip it without anyone really noticing or being offended.

You have to agree, for all the reasons I mentioned, and you may have more of your own, Thanksgiving is the best.  But there’s an additional reason, and it’s the biggest and most important of all.  Thanksgiving is the best because it is a day set aside to be grateful.  It is a day to say “thank you” to God and to one another.  It is a day that reminds us, no matter what our circumstances, that there is always much to be grateful for.  It’s a day for gratitude, which I believe is God’s greatest gift.

Think about it with me for a moment.  Gratitude crosses boundaries such as nationality, age, gender, profession, and religion.  Every major religion emphasizes gratitude.  Did you know that there are approximately 6,500 languages in the world and every one of them has a way of saying “Thank you.” And studies have shown there is an intricate association between being grateful and having a healthy overall well-being.  The expression of gratitude stabilizes and heals.  Gratitude puts the wind in our sails.  When we aren’t grateful, we are bereft.  It was Meister Eckheart who said, “If the only prayer I have said was ‘thank you,’ that would be enough”.  I believe he was right.

And so this is Thanksgiving Sunday here at First Church, a day to pause from our tendency to be anxious about what we don’t’ have, and to consider and give God thanks for all we do have.  So let’s do that literally.  We are going to take just a few seconds to silently reflect and give thanks to God for those things we are most grateful for.  Anyone want to share?

In addition to being Thanksgiving Sunday, today is also Stewardship Sunday.  Some of you are thinking to yourselves, what is that?  Good question.  Stewardship is one of those old fashioned church terms that should probably be updated.  The term makes sense though if we think about it.

Stewardship is about being good stewards of the church.  On Stewardship Sunday, we consider the resources needed for the well being of the church and we make our financial pledge for the following year.  Our pledging is good stewardship because, on a practical level, it helps our finance committee know how much to budget for the following year, and helps us know the kinds of ministries we can take on and carry out in 2017.  Stewardship and being good stewards is important for the church.

But pledging and being a good steward is about more than helping the finance committee figure out the budget for next year.  You see, there is a reason why Stewardship Sunday is also on Thanksgiving Sunday:  Because we don’t pledge out of guilt, we pledge out of our gratitude for the church.  We pledge out of thanksgiving for the ministries of this church that have touched so many lives, including each of our own.

Join me for a moment in going back again to our Good Samaritan parable.  I know you’ve heard it so many times by now, but experts do say we need to hear something seven times before we learn it…my wife Kelley would probably double that number for me.  So let’s recap one more time.

A lawyer approaches Jesus and asks, “Hey, how do I get to eternal life?”  You know here in our church and most progressive Christian churches we don’t typically look at that question as necessarily being about heaven. Instead, we see this lawyer as asking simply how he might walk more closely with God; how he can be one in the spirit, a more faithful follower, and we trust that eternity will work itself out.  And we notice, after Jesus tells the lawyer to love God and love his neighbor as himself the lawyer asks an additional question, “but who is my neighbor?”  In response, Jesus tells the famous parable:

There’s a guy is in a ditch.  A Priest walks by, someone we would think would help, but he must have been late to a temple potluck, we don’t know, and so he crosses to the other side of the road and goes on his way.  Another guy, a Levite or temple helper, he should have stopped, too.  This Levite must have been texting or tweeting or snapchatting, we don’t know that either, and he crosses to the other side and went on his way too.  We would have thought these people would have stopped to help especially because, like the man in the ditch, they were all Jewish.

Of course, Jesus can’t tell a simple story about one person helping another person.  There’s always more to the story when it comes to Jesus, something deeper going on.

So the third and final guy that comes walking along is not Jewish, instead he’s a Samaritan, and Jews and Samaritans did not get along.  And of course, what does he do?  He helps!  He is the guy that of all of them that the original hearers of this story would have thought wouldn’t have stopped to lend a hand, but he does!  And not only does he help, but he bandages his wounds, puts him on his donkey, gives the innkeeper some money and says, “Hey, I gotta go, but if there are any extra charges I haven’t thought of put ‘em on my card and I’ll take care of them.”  Wow!  Just wow!

So Jesus tells this story to expand on our understanding of who our neighbors are.  The question I have though is, “What moved him to do it?”  “What made the Samaritan stop?”  The story doesn’t come out and tell us why, but if we look closely for the answer we can find it there.

The Holy Spirit moved through the Good Samaritan’s heart.  That’s right.  The story says that the Samaritan looked at the Jewish man in the ditch and “felt sorry.”  Some translations say he “felt pity.”  Another word for pity is compassion.  He felt compassion.  Where do those feelings come from?  From God.  He let God, and thereby the man in the ditch, into his heart.

Our culture tells us not to feel too much.  We especially tell our young boys this in a myriad of different ways.  Feelings are for wimps we tell them.  Or if we do feel something we are trained to make judgments to justify and stereotype a situation so we can comfortably move on with our lives.

But that’s not the way of God.  The way of God is opening ourselves up to the situations and feelings of others.  The way of God is making ourselves vulnerable to the sorrow and pity of others.  The way of God is having compassion for someone else.  God calls us to be open to the plight of our neighbors, and according to this scripture, even those neighbors for whom we might find it most difficult to have compassion.

Now, this is a church, and it is not run by Jesus.  It is run by human beings trying to be like Jesus.  So we aren’t perfect here.  But in our doing our best, this is also what we do.  Ours is a ministry of compassion to all people, that’s our continued call.

Back when I was still new here, I needed to find one more advisor for a youth mission trip.  I went through the phone directory and kept coming up short.  Eventually, I went to Jim Kew, our Office Administrator at the time, and asked if he could give me some names.  One of the names on the list was a guy by the name of Craig White, who I had never met.  I called Craig and without hesitation he said, “Yes, I’ll go on the trip.”  I thought, “Okay, I’m all set.”

About a month later Kelley and I had the youth advisor team over to our house for hamburgers, hot dogs, and a time to get to know one another and talk about the trip.  When we got to Craig he said – and I kid you not, I asked his permission if I could share this – Craig said, “I hate teenagers.  I’m not very good with youth and I don’t like them.”  I thought to myself, “Oh my goodness, what have I done!?”

Craig had been a teacher for years but sort of got burned out.  When a computer job at the high school opened up where he could work with no teenagers around to bother him, he took it.  He was convinced he wasn’t to be a teacher anymore.

Craig and I both thought he would go on that trip and that would be it.  However, through his experience with his small group of teenagers on that trip, Craig realized he didn’t hate youth, not at all, he loved them.  God opened his heart to new understanding.  And ironically, Craig’s run as a youth advisor lasted for 7 years, until he decided it was time to go back teaching in the classroom and he needed the time to focus on teaching again.  Craig will retire as a classroom teacher at the end of this year.

About two years ago, church member Dave Wadhams called me, terribly shook up.  His best friend Bob Weizel had just died of a sudden heart attack.  Bob and his wife Ann had not attended church in a while and didn’t have a place that came to mind right away of where they could do a service.  Dave asked if we could have the service at First Church.  I said, “Of course.”

I met with Bob’s widow Ann and her family.  It was obvious that she and Bob shared a special and loving relationship, and had raised a wonderful family.  And this church not only showed compassion to Ann through those darkest of days for her, but she has continued to experience that compassion through this church.  She began attending worship here regularly, and then she began singing in the Women’s Praise Choir.  Just two weeks ago she officially joined the church.  Ann had been in a terrible ditch, and she will tell you it is still not easy – it is a loss like that never goes away – but this church has helped to lift her out of the worst of it.

Just this past weekend on our retreat, our youth painted bricks.  They wrote their pressures on their bricks.  Pressure at home, at school, pressure to fill out their resume, the pressures of body image, the pressures of this anxious time in our country.  And they carried those bricks around for the weekend – to the bathroom, to bed, to get up and get a drink of water.  They felt the physical pressures literally weighing them down.

And then at the end of the retreat they laid those bricks down, giving them to God.  We shared with them the message that God’s love for them is not dependent on whether they make the sports team or get into what they are told is the very best college, that they are a magnificent creation of the divine just as they are.  We shared with them how God sees them in the ditches of their lives, calling out to them to stand up in the knowledge of God’s love for them.

This message, my friends, the message of all these stories and so many more, are vitally important…and they are messages we can only find in church.

Our congregation coming forward with our pledge cards is, I think, one of the most meaningful things we do in worship all year long.  We process forward, one after another, placing our pledges in the old and worn tithing box that has been a special tradition of our church for a very long time.

As we come forward – young and old and in-between, longtime members and newer members – to place our pledges in that box, we are, each of us, symbolically placing the gratitude we have for the way God has touched our lives through this church, in that box as well.  And that’s a beautifully meaningful thing.

When this church is at its best, we are opening hearts and minds to the sorrow of others, we are feeling pity for others, we are allowing ourselves to feel compassion for others, which leads to peace in our lives –a peace that passes all understanding.  It leads us to enter into the ditch. It enables us to help others to stand up and step out of the ditch, neighbors of all kinds.

And so we give today, on this Thanksgiving Sunday, out of the gratitude we have for the way the transforming power of God has moved in our lives and the lives of so many others through this church.  May it be so.  Amen.

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