"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Harvest Thanksgiving

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Harvest Thanksgiving SJE Edmonton
Genesis 2:4-25, Ps 126, Matthew 6:25-33

“But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? 6:31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, —What shall we eat?’ or —What shall we drink?’ or —What shall we wear?’”

Today is a day about gratitude, about being deliberate in order to give thanks for all that God has done for us.  It is maybe something that should form a part of our daily bread, as one of the callings of the Christian is to be thankful for God’s grace.  So let’s talk about this calling of those who follow Christ, and what it means to be thankful and to experience gratitude, and why it is so important that we live in that mode always.  This is one of the things that can allow some handle on the age of anxiety that we live within today…as anxiety is really the defining characteristic of our era.  I’m not suggesting a magic technique that will free you from anxiety, or that the right attitude will solve serious challenges with anxiety – that’s not it at all.  What I am speaking of is what the Gospels tell us about contentedness, and how that forms a challenge to our culture’s fixation with happiness at all costs.  There is also a question of suffering tied up in the question of thanksgiving, as in how can we give thanks in a world full of suffering.  Our reading from Genesis speaks of the cradle of humanity bounded by the four great rivers: Euphrates, Tigris.  This is the area current under the torment of ISIL, so there is a certain tension present.  Also, if I may quote Gandalf, there are those who died who should have lived, and those who lived who should have died.  The world is not a fair place.  How then to we give thanks when we’re walking with suffering?

I’ll start by telling you a story about my friend Herb.  Herb was a Manitoba farmer, one of those “salt of the earth” types of guys who is the image of the men and women that build, and continue to build this country.  I met him as the husband of one of my seminary classmates.  Herb, coming from mixed farming, understood in a way that this contact with the land teaches you, the cycles of life and death and our ultimate powerlessness to effect change in those circumstances.  Not long after we developed a friendship, Herb was diagnosed with cancer.  It was cancer that would ultimately result in his death a couple of years later.

I visited Herb in the hospital a number of times, including once in the ICU right after his second or third surgery.  I anointed him each time, and prayed over him, including a prayer I almost always include in healing prayer – thy will be done.  Ultimately, much of what we seek to have control over is far beyond our control, and only in the hands of the Lord.  So while we pray for healing, we know too well that healing might be something entirely unexpected from what we had in mind.

As a personal aside, this is very true in my own struggle with chronic pain arising out of a back injury with my military service.  Many have prayed for healing, and there has been a ton of healing, but the pain remains.  I’m thankful for all that the pain has taught me, and how it requires that I slow down to be more deliberate about life…to focus on the things it allows me to see, that I wouldn’t in a rush…and to understand what other people experience in their suffering.  My chronic pain has been kind of a post-graduate degree in suffering, and it makes me a better person.  Am I happy for the pain?  Not at all, but I am grateful that God has entrusted me with such a burden.  Even after 16 years of pain, I’m thankful and content.

Now Herb was an amazing believer, who spoke openly about his faith both in and out of season.  After one of his earlier hospital stays, we had them over for dinner, and Herb explained to me how grateful he was for hospital stays, and particularly hospital stays where he was in a semi-private or ward room.  I was a little surprised and asked him why.  He told me that his prayer each time he entered hospital was that God would place in his path people that he needed to speak with, to witness to them about God.  Sure enough, each hospital stay that Herb had, even when he was very ill, he would come back with stories of amazing discusses with other patients and with staff about faith.  Herb, even in the midst of his terminal condition, was always thankful for those opportunities.  Wow.

As I hold Herb up as an example, I’ll say clearly that I think Herb had a specific gift of evangelism, because his example is so far beyond what most of us would be able to do in that setting.  What I wanted to focus on was Herb’s thanksgiving for those opportunities, his conscious decision to not dwell in the disease or the coming loss, but rather in the opportunities he had to meet new people in need, and to tell them about God.  Herb was thankful, even as he knew he was approaching the end of his earthly walk.  Herb is a real role model for me, as I think about the challenges I face, and how I should see those challenges in the greater picture of my life as a servant of the Lord.  Now, from the perspective of the world, Herb would have been justified, and even expected, to become fully consumed with his lot in life, but he instead turned to consider God’s gifts to him, even on the journey of illness.

In terms of dealing with adversity, I’m reminded of Job’s response to his “friends” and his spouse when they suggest that he should just curse God and die.  Think about this image, Job sitting in an ash pile, scraping the painful sores that cover him from the bottoms of his feet to the top of his head.  Job replies to his wife:  “Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2)  We hear the exact same sort of thought from Matthew’s gospel “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt 5:44-46)

Is that thought a challenging one for you?  It would not surprise me if it was, because our first-world culture as a whole spends so much time focusing on happiness as the end goal of everything.  It is not right that the evil receive the same rain as the good in the world’s mind.    You do not need to be long exposed to media, or advertising signs, or even your workplace to find out how many things you are missing that are standing in the way of your happiness.  In fact, this too can become a burden on us, because the messaging is all very clear…if you’re not happy – it’s your fault, because happiness, ultimate, complete happiness is within your grasp.  So if you can’t find that ultimate happiness, it is double damnation because that too is a failure of yours.

It’s interesting to listen to St Paul’s thoughts on this.  “10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”  This is an important idea, for Paul does not say that he is happy with being shipwrecked, or happy being hungry, or happy being in need…rather he says that he has learned how to be content in whatever situation faces him.

Against this backdrop of what we’re living today and the trend for our future, listen again to those words from Matthew, this time in an informal translation: “What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving.”  (The Message, E. Peterson).  This is the key in today’s Gospel, the move from getting to giving.

God’s giving.  The reading today eliminated the sentence just before the clip which tells us “24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”  The word translated as ‘money’ in that sentence is the word mammon, which is not just describing wealth, but rather tangible things that have the ability to seize control of a person’s life.  This sets up for us a contrast: are we seeking mammon-success in the world, or the contentedness of Paul?  If you choose the path of mammon-success, this is a certain way to obtain greater unhappiness, as the cycle of acquiring mammon only demands that your acquire more.  Jesus takes this a step further in the text we’re reading today…it’s not just obsession with mammon, with things, that we need to avoid…it is also obsession with the fundamental needs of life: clothes, food, drink. On all these front Jesus tells us simply to not worry about our life.  The word translated here as worry, or sometimes as anxious, is probably better translated as do not be preoccupied with these things.  We still need to acquire food to eat, but we are not to be preoccupied about that process, because God will provide.  This dynamic: a focus or grasping of mammon, versus a focus or grasping of God, is the point of today’s reading.

Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman wrote an article contrasting the Gospel’s liturgy of abundance with this world’s liturgy of scarcity.  In Genesis, and throughout the Gospels there is this image of overflowing abundance from God’s good creation.  In the feeding miracles, we read everyone is fed plus there is some left over.  This is the liturgy of abundance, enough for everyone.  The world follows the liturgy of scarcity, which says there isn’t enough to go around, and if you get something you have to grasp it tightly so that no one can take it away…or you won’t get your fair share.  This is a particular challenge in Alberta.

One commentator on this text noted that at one point in his work as a missionary in a poor country he felt he could not preach this text to the poor…because it was cruel to tell the poor not to be concerned with their fundamental needs.  He also thought the text should not be preached to the well-off, as it would only confirm a “comfortable prejudice that spiritual values must be place above material ones.” (F.D. Bruner, p. 329)

This is an expected western bias…we are conditioned to think like Maslow, that there is a hierarchy of needs that we need to fight to ascend.  We apply this same imagery to our relationship with God.  The thought of a person who is hungry being somehow closer to God than us as the wealthy, is a confusing idea.  This is a lie, and the message of the text is a more fundamental one…do not be troubled by the things of this world, but rather focus on God’s gift of life.  Even in the worst moments of this world are redeemed by God’s gift of grace.  This is the source of the strength from which we head of these extraordinary stories of strength in the face of adversity, and it is at least part of what was going on for my friend Herb.  His choice, in the face of his terminal diagnosis, was to focus not on the disease or the coming end, but rather to focus on God’s gift of life.

This is a hard thing to do, particularly when we are immersed in a culture that bombards us with contrary messages.  Even though I know this, I still find myself troubled…and particularly when I compare myself to others.  My life is richly blessed, and God has gifted me in incredible ways, beyond belief and far beyond what I deserve.  Still, I find myself from time to time looking enviously at others and wondering…why don’t I have what he (or she) has?  I should be in a bigger house, have a newer car, nicer clothes, more friends, more love, more money.  That worldly focus is exactly what the teaching is pointing us to today.  A focus on mammon, including other’s giftings or stuff, is a sure path to unhappiness.  A focus on God’s gift of life and grace to us, is instead a path to contentedness.  Another way to look at this: if everything you had, and I mean everything, was taken away from you…what would you have left?  What would you have left? (at this point a young man said “God”.  Amen).

What’s more, a right focus on God’s blessings on us and our lack of focus on the necessities of life, are what will ultimately free us to worry about other’s needs.  Once we cut the tie that binds us to a cultural vision of plenty, we are able to look outwards to see the needs in the world that we are able to answer out of a place of contentedness.  This is, in fact, the only way that we can truly minister to other’s needs, once we accept that God’s love for us is sufficient to address our needs, without us becoming preoccupied with the things we will eat, drink and wear

It is significant that this text comes right on the heels of Jesus teaching the disciples how to pray.  The Lord’s Prayer is one way that we can work ourselves to a position where we are inoculated against our cultural focus on mammon.  In its traditional form, the prayer contains petitions for all the things we need, and rightly places the responsibility for provision of those things in God’s hands, not ours.  It also focuses us on the truly important cycles of our lives as Christians – not the larger car or home, but rather mutual forgiveness, freedom from those who would do evil to us, and sufficient bread both the physical kind, and the spiritual kind.  Three petitions for God, three petitions about us.  It really is a capsule summary of right relationship, and right focus.

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name. (1)
10 Your kingdom come, (2)
your will be done, (3)
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread, (4)
12 and forgive us our debts, (5)
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, (6)
but deliver us from the evil one.  (Matt 5)

The idea is not that we don’t work, or don’t shop for groceries, or be concerned about the future, but rather that the primary focus of our lives is on God’s grace, and in trust that He will provide what it is we need.  That focus frees us from the things that the world insists should be the centre of our being: the pursuit of things, the pursuit of happiness, both of which can become all-consuming idolatries of themselves.

The reading today also snipped off the concluding sentence which is an important one in this idea of proper focus, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”  There is no need that we are anxious for tomorrow, because there is already enough anxiety present around tomorrow.

This teaching is echoed throughout the Scriptures, that there is no need for our preoccupation with the things we need to survive, because God will provide.  Like the Israelites and manna in the desert, we do not need to gather more than we require, for it will only spoil.  Rather we are able to rest in the arms of the Lord, focused on His grace, certain that our needs will be met.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

(c) 2015

A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Craig S Keener
Matthew: A Commentary, Frederick Dale Bruner

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“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” -JRR Tolkien, TFOTR


Written by sameo416

October 10, 2015 at 7:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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