25 November 2009

Thanksgiving 2009 Message

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his disciples about the providence of God so that they would regard life with thanksgiving and trust rather than anxiety.

A reading from Matthew:

25Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Word of God, word of life.

Thanks be to God.

My mood was a mirror image of the weather yesterday – sullen, rainy and ugly for a good portion of the day. Some might argue I had good reason for a bad attitude:

· A fellow pastor I’ve come to know through blogging circles was essentially fired by her congregation last week.

· Some administrative matters within campus ministry weren’t handled the way we were promised they would be handled, and will likely have a negative impact on how we work together.

· Matters concerning the decisions at the Churchwide Assembly continue to be discussed, debated and a cause for division, for reasons I’ll admit I really don’t understand.

· A leader for whom I have a fairly high amount of respect dropped the ball in a recent open letter to his constituency, choosing fluffy, patronizations instead of just telling the honest truth.

· And let’s not even start talking about politics…

This has become something of an annual ritual for me. I’m going to start calling it the Advent Funk, even though technically we aren’t even in Advent yet. But this year our usual list of grievances about society observing Christmas while we church folks aren’t even through Advent seems magnified due to economic woes and worries about the church in general and the ELCA in particular. Maybe you’re feeling it, too: how many of you have felt disheartened at some point in the last week or so?

Troubled. That’s the best word I can use to describe my outlook in these times. Maybe it’s your best, too. We’re troubled by the economy, troubled by health care, troubled by concerns about the honesty and integrity of our elected officials. We’re troubled by dissension in our church, troubled by differences that are not easily put aside, troubled by our brothers and sisters who choose to punish the church for controversial decisions. We’re troubled by mistakes we have made and by the consequences those mistakes bring. We’re troubled by the unintended painful consequences of doing the right thing. We’re troubled because it can be so hard to discern right from wrong, faith from fear.

There’s a word making its way through the internet right now: “blamestorming.” Blamestorming is what happens when everyone gets called into a meeting to figure out why something didn’t work. And, frankly, at times these past few months my Facebook page has looked like one gigantic blamestorming session. The church is failing because of X. Health care reform won’t work because Senator Y is an obstructionist. Bishop Z doesn’t have a clue about the ‘people in the pews.’ Trouble gets explained away and laid at the feet of others so we can feel unjustly persecuted. It’s amazing how much easier it is to deal with trouble when the fault lies with someone else.

Jesus didn’t have a lot to say about avoiding trouble. In fact, in the gospels Jesus often says flat out that trouble will come:

· John 16.33: I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

· And in our last verse from tonight’s reading: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Trouble happens, Jesus says. Sometimes trouble happens because we make mistakes. Sometimes trouble happens because of the mistakes of others. But trouble will be a constant. The question is, how shall we live with trouble?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”[1] This is what I wonder in the midst of great troubles: are we aware that the sheer fact of life itself is not a given, that even our troubles come to us only because God has created, and continues to create? Or, as one of my seminary professors put it, there is something, when there could be nothing? When we consider the universe, as the psalmist says, the sheer magnificence of all that God has created, should we not be in awe of the fact that our small lives are each a matter of great importance to the One who flung the Milky Way into the sky?

In other words, brothers and sisters, do you realize that you are deeply loved and cherished by the one who shaped you in your mother’s womb and continues to be at work in you through the Holy Spirit? In the midst of our troubles and our contentment, in our sorrow and our joy, God is ever-present and continuing to hold us in love. There is no trouble which can take us out of God’s care, and no sorrow so deep that God will not heal in time. For this, even in these times of trouble, we give thanks.

I am reminded every year around this time of the story of Martin Rinkart. Rinkart was a pastor in the German city of Eilenberg during the Thirty Years’ War. In 1637, a great illness swept through the city. At the start of the year there were four pastors in town. One left and could not be convinced to return. Rinkart buried the other two, and was eventually burying 40 to 50 people every day. In May of that year, Rinkart buried his own wife. No one would have questioned Rinkart’s right to bitterly mourn his troubles. Yet he wrote the following poem as a prayer for his children:

Nun danket alle Gott mit Herzen, Mund und Händen.
Der große Dinge tut an uns und allen Enden,
Der uns von Mutterleib und Kindesbeinen an
Unzählig viel zu gut bis hierher hat getan.

Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices,

Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices.

Who from our mother’s arms has blest us on our way

With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

We give thanks, not for a life without troubles, but for a God who accompanies us in the midst of every trouble and every joy. So, friends, troubled or not, take today for the gift that it is, and tomorrow as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics.

The painting is "Troubled" by Jason Reynolds of Portland, OR.

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