Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Grateful Living

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 100
John 6:25-35

    Ten years ago, almost to the day, I officiated at the wedding of a beautiful young couple. Many people and churches had been praying for them since the groom was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma almost a year before. They postponed their March wedding until he could complete his chemotherapy treatment. But the chemotherapy did not remove all the cancer from his body. He was scheduled for a stem cell transplant. But first they decided to get married and go on a honeymoon in Hawaii—and the day after they get back his next ordeal began. There were many tears during their ceremony—we had to pause several times for the couple to hand each other tissues, but there was also joy. The theme of their wedding turned out to be thanksgiving. The groom asked for a few moments just before the benediction to say a few words. He said he now understood the words of Lou Gehrig, the great baseball player, who declared himself to be the luckiest man in the world in spite of being diagnosed with ALS, a disease that would take his life. He thanked everyone who had supported him with presence and prayer: parents who had loved him all his life, but especially in the last year; friends who had touched their lives in hundreds of ways besides helping them buy a house and renovating it while they were on a trip; a company that let him know that his job was never in jeopardy; coworkers who listened when he needed to talk; a brother who would drop everything when he called, and he called often; and his bride who endured all of this at his side and whose love never wavered. In spite of a life-threatening illness and facing a grueling procedure that promised to make the next six to nine months a nightmare, he was so grateful that he could barely speak through his emotion. And at the reception his brother and father continued the theme in their own thanks to all who had loved and supported the newly married couple and their whole family, and taught them how to receive, they hoped, as graciously as the support was given. Ten years later, I’m happy the report, the groom is working for one of the major industries in the Seattle area.
    Our national day of Thanksgiving honors a feast born in similar adversity. Less than a year after the first colonists landed in Plymouth, half their number had died due to the harsh winter. Even though their summer crops had been poor, the corn harvest looked promising. Governor William Bradford arranged for a harvest festival to give thanks to God. The festival lasted three days. Instead of succumbing to mourning, defeat, or resignation, the colonists chose to give thanks and celebrate. In adversity we learn to rely on one another, we recognize our interdependence, and true community is formed.
    Does it take adversity to make us truly grateful? Wouldn’t it be nice if we were grateful all the time? While I’ve been mulling over these scriptures this week in preparation for the sermon, I’ve discovered how often I’m anything but grateful. One of my best friends recently bought a Craftsman home near UW. Now every time I pass a beautiful Craftsman home, I wish I could buy one. Steve and I are agreed that we will never buy another home—it just doesn’t make sense at this time in our lives. But I am by nature a romantic and one of the manifestations of that romanticism is that I wonder what it would be like to live in almost every community that I drive through. Romanticism is the bright side of what I am thinking and feeling. The shadow side is envy. Instead of being grateful for my home and family and friends and neighbors, I’m envious. I wish I had what I see others with: a bigger home, a more beautiful lawn or garden, a gorgeous view, or better taste. I’m envious of tall people, and thin people, and people with a sense of style and grace—I’m really envious of elegant people. I envy people who can make music and people with beautiful voices.
    Envy is a sin. You know I don’t talk as much about sin as I do about how much God loves us. But envy is a sin precisely because it questions how much God loves us. It’s a challenge to God’s providence in our lives. Envy says that I think somebody else got a better deal than I did or that I haven’t gotten what I deserve or want. I have a friend with two daughters who taught me a valuable lesson. When one of her daughters complained that she was being treated unfairly—that the other sister got something better—my friend would say, “That’s because I like her better.” At first I was aghast, but my friend explained that she was only saying what the daughter who felt she was slighted already believed. And because she said it often and in front of both girls, they began to get the point. There was no favorite daughter. Each sister was different, with unique gifts and needs, each received what she needed, and both were loved equally.
    I remember being the guest of a woman for lunch a couple of years ago in a lovely restaurant in Seattle—the kind I would never have known about were I not her guest. I got out of my car in the middle of a cold, windy November downpour and I had had to walk several blocks to meet her. I was bundled under a soggy coat with a hood that fell down over my eyes. She met me on the corner near the restaurant and tried to protect me with her umbrella, but the damage was already done. Everything about me was drenched. When I took off my waterlogged coat to give to the maitre d’, half my sweater went with it. I couldn’t get my sweater back on because it was tangled in my purse strap. I looked like a drowned rat, and clumsy to boot, and my hostess was tall, beautiful, elegant, and dry. At the end of our lunch as I schlepped into my cold, wet coat, struggling to balance purse and day planner, I wondered aloud why grace is so elusive some days. The title of Mark Medoffs’ play, Children of a Lesser God, describes how I felt. My hostess seemed to have a more generous God than mine—or as my friend’s children would say, God liked her better. Do you see how subversive envy is in even the smallest situations? My envy questioned God’s fairness and love.
    I wasn’t grateful for the car that was waiting in the parking garage, or the money in my purse to pay the parking fee. I wasn’t grateful for the work to which I returned that afternoon that makes my heart sing, I wasn’t grateful for my gifts that made our conversation about ministry over lunch valuable to my hostess. I only saw what I lacked and not what God had given me. I only focused on what I wished that I had instead of the other kinds of grace that surrounded me. I want you to take just one minute and write down on your bulletin, or list in your mind, the times you have been envious just this past week. What were you envious of? What do you wish you had instead of what you do have in resources, gifts, or graces?
    Back to the wedding. I spent the two days of the rehearsal and wedding often standing next to the wedding hostess, a lovely woman with whom I was in a prayer and study group for three years. We had a chance to catch up on what had happened in our lives over the previous seven years. With each change in her life, Mary added, “We are so blessed! God has been good.” It was like a refrain in a song. Over and over again, “We are so blessed! God has been good.” Mary’s song of thanksgiving was woven in with the groom’s. Very different life circumstances, but one faithful and generous God whose love cannot be diminished even by our lack of recognition. Even when envy clouds our eyes, God is faithful. Even when our health fails, God is faithful. Even when we are doing well and forget that God is the source of our life and all that we have, God is faithful. Even when the future is uncertain, and we are afraid, God is faithful. Let us give God thanks and praise.

Let us pray.
God of grace and mercy,
You are the source of every good gift.
You clothe the lilies of the field,
You feed the birds of the air,
And you care as much for each one of us.
We ask you to lift the burdens we carry about our well-being,
Grant us peace in our hearts
And reliance on your provision
That we may be free from worry
And generous with our time, talents, and resources.



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