Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Day

Before the tryptophan kicks in, I want to invite you to go with me on a journey—back to the region around the Sea of Galilee, almost two thousand years ago. Sometimes it helps for us to step back and listen again (as if for the first time) to this man named Jesus, who comes preaching and teaching and proclaiming the “good news” of the Kingdom of God throughout that region.

The Kingdom of God,” Jesus tells all who have ears to hear “is both already here and still coming.” He is a healer who cures diseases and casts out many demons—a person committed to making people whole. As his ministry begins to take shape, word about him begins to spread and the crowds begin to gather around him. When they do, he takes his disciples away: they go and hike up a mountain that overlooks the Sea of Galilee. And there, he sits down. That’s the first-century posture of a Jewish teacher—the equivalent of a preacher in the pulpit or a teacher at her smart-board. His friends gather around him as he begins to speak. (Mt. 5:1) What he says to them has come to us as “The Sermon on the Mount,” which makes up a big chunk of St. Matthew’s Gospel as he has given the story to us.

This core of Jesus’ teaching ministry needs to be heard anew in every generation. To do that we are called to come away from the crowds of our consumer society, in order to be still and listen to the words of life he speaks.  They are sometimes difficult words to hear because they are words that turn the worlds we have grown accustomed to upside down. Yet at the same time, they are words that begin to put things right again: words that call us back to who we really are and toward who we are meant to become.

Jesus says that the poor are blessed. He says that those who mourn are too. Not that they will be some day” but that they are, present tense. He says that the meek will inherit the land, and that those who hunger and thirst will be satisfied. He says that the merciful, and the clean of heart, and the peacemakers will be called “children of God.” (Mt. 5:3-10) These beatitudes (which is just a fancy Latin way of saying “blessings”) challenge us to become a people after God’s own heart. Jesus insists that we—ordinary common folk, fishermen and tax collectors and risk managers and nurses and social workers and teachers and dentists—are called to be a community that is “salt” and “light” for the world. (Mt. 5:13ff)  That we are called to grow together by hearing, reading, marking, and learning his words and then inwardly digesting them until they become something more than words on the page of a Bible or even on our lips. Until by God’s mercy they become a way of life for us. When Jesus says things like “blessed are the peacemakers” – we are meant to gobble these words up along with our turkey and stuffing and inwardly digest them, until our lives bear witness to this truth and we become instruments of peace. Even at family gatherings.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us an ethic that is rooted in the old covenant given by Moses at Sinai, and yet is recast in a way that is both more liberating and more demanding. More demanding: because love of enemies and turning the other cheek and going a second mile and giving someone who wants your coat the shirt off your back as well does not come easily or naturally to most of us. Yet liberating: because Jesus doesn’t offer a new set of rules so much as a way of life toward a newer and cleaner heart. He calls us to live bolder and more creative and compassionate lives that lead to reconciliation and transformation and new possibilities. He asks us to live in such a way that our lives become signs of the Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.

On the way to that end, Jesus speaks of spiritual disciplines—of holy habits like fasting and stewardship and prayer. As I hear him, he lowers his voice almost to a whisper, offering a prayer that to this very day binds Christians together even when we cannot perceive it: Orthodox and Roman Catholic and Protestant and Anglican—traditionalists, evangelicals, moderates and progressives. It is a simple prayer that is not owned by any one group, but shared by all of us who bear his name:

            Our father in heaven, hallowed is your name…
                        your kingdom come
                        your will be done,
                        on earth, as in heaven… (Mt. 6:7ff)

Then after all these words, on that same hill looking out over the Sea of Galilee, with the disciples still listening intently and maybe with the birds singing and some flowers right nearby, Jesus at last speaks the words appointed for this Thanksgiving day:  

Therefore 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. Look at the birds of the air…consider the lilies of the field…seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness… do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today. 

It is an old wisdom that by God’s mercy we live into one day at a time, and always with God’s help. It is a wisdom we will never fully realize on this side of Paradise. But these are words, nevertheless, that call us to continue together on a journey.  Look. Consider. Seek. 

Look at the birds.  You don’t have to preach to them as our buddy St. Francis did; just keep an eye on them. Pay attention to them. A soaring eagle, a blue heron, even the bird that has given its life to take center stage on our tables today.  To look at the birds and to really see God’s good creation is to remember that we are part of that circle of life. When we open our eyes and look at the birds we are able to see God’s hand at work in the world around us.

Developing the discipline of looking with wide-open eyes at the world around us—not judging or seeking to control it, but just to see it, is a form of prayer. I know that when I start to feel stressed and overwhelmed—when I become anxious—the first thing that goes is my vision, and I can become literally blind to what is right before my very eyes. There is nothing magical or terribly mystical about this. Nor do Christians have no monopoly on this. It’s just true. It is something we tend to do better at as children, and can lose in the midst of the rat race we sometimes confuse for living. Have you ever watched a little child chasing the seagulls along the beach? To look at the birds is the first step, I think, to healing the anxiety that inflicts us.  

Consider the flowers. I’m married to a person who sees beauty in dandelions. I have to confess I’m not quite there, but she figures that the difference between a weed and a flower is in the eye of the beholder and I guess that is right. Flowers call us to pay attention to the beauty of the earth. To consider something moves into the right hemisphere of our brains: beyond data and information to that place of amazement and wonder and curiosity and awe. Now this time of year in New England you might think, “well, we have to wait to consider the flowers.” But maybe not. Consider them right now: sleeping under the earth and waiting for the snows to fly, and then for spring to come again as it always does: waiting for warm earth and new life and new possibilities. The crocuses will bloom again and when they do we will indeed consider their beauty as they insist once again that life is stronger than death and that a long New England winter never gets the last word.   

Finally, seek the Kingdom of God. If you seek God first, then the rest of life really does fall into place. That is really the theological point of stewardship education, of reminding one another that this is just as true whether we are talking about our time, our talent, or our treasure. But we have to practice it until we start to believe it. 

There’s an old camp object lesson about this. You take a big pot and you pour into it all the little things of your life: the details of soccer and dance and the countless events that fill our days. You pour those in as sand. And then you add in some pebbles: the bigger stuff like family and friendships. Guess what. Already the pot is too full. These things won’t fit—not to mention the largest commitment of all—the larger rock that is meant to represent God in our lives. That object lesson reminds us all how easy it is to fill our lives up and have no room left for God.

But if you reverse the order: if you put the first things in first—if you start with the big thing and then the medium sized ones and then pour the sand, guess what? It all fits! The smaller things find enough room as the sand fills in the space around the larger stones. It’s amazing and it’s true in real life as well. Seeking the Kingdom first is about getting our priorities straight. When we get bogged down with the small stuff, we have no room left for what matters.

Today many of us gather together with family to ask the Lord’s blessing. I have yet to meet a perfectly “functional” family. We need to remember that we are not called to be perfect, but to be faithful; and to remember that we are—each of us—beloved of God. We have a choice as we gather with friends and family. We can find fault and collect grievances and fixate on negative behaviors—our own and those of others. All of which serve only to fuel anxiety and worry. Or we can look, consider, and seek.Choose wisely!

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