Sunday, November 26, 2017

Gratitude - for your love

Ephesians 1:15-23        (NRSV)  

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love  toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.


Today is the last Sunday before Advent and the beginning of the New Church Year.   One of my daily meditations called it “New Church Year’s Eve,” although the author did note that we seldom celebrate with parties and fireworks.    It is also the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when you never know for whether or not folks are going to show up, especially if they travelled over the holiday.   But most importantly, it is Christ the King Sunday.  Paul said to the church is Ephesus, “[God] raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  And Matthew said “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.”  (Matthew 25:31)

You know, it’s funny.  Americans don’t really do kings.  We fought two long, bloody wars in order to get and maintain our independence from kings.  When folks began talking about declaring our independence from England, others said that was against Biblical teaching, because Paul said to the Romans, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:1-2)    Indeed, this passage is one which royal houses used to justify their reign over kingdoms and empires.   Because surely they would not be the rulers if God had not approved of their rule.  Oftentimes those rulers were also the head of the Church in their kingdom, particularly after the Reformation.  (Does everyone know that we are celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation this year?)  Queen Elizabeth still is the head of the Church of England.

But we rejected kings 241 years ago, and have managed to live without them ever since.  We elect our leaders, and when it seems like too many of those leaders are related to each other, we tend to rebel against those situations.   As a society, we are kind of individualistic.   Even as Christians, we might be more focused on Jesus as personal savior than Jesus king  and ruler of the world.  We might look at religion as more personal than corporate.   That’s probably why it is so easy for us, Americans, to stay home and watch church on TV, worshipping in comfort and solitude, or go to huge congregations where we don’t have to be involved in the life of the church, where we don’t have to do anything much beyond show up and maybe sing a little, and listen, and put something in the basket.  

Paul writes to the church in Ephesus saying, “ I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love  toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.  Now when Paul speaks of the love the church in Ephesus showed toward all the saints, he wasn’t talking about hugs and happy feelings.  He was talking about the actual work the church folk there were doing - feeding the hungry, welcoming newcomers, reaching out into their community to do good for others, even taking up special collections to help the people of Jerusalem and other places where there was great need.  And he gave thanks for them, because they were living the Good News.  They were returning God’s love by their faith and their actions, by their attitude of gratitude.  They were expressing their gratitude to God for Jesus in the best way they knew how, by obeying the commandments Jesus had spoken.  

There is so much more to gratitude than merely saying we are grateful for something.   When I first started writing gratitude lists I was told to only put down the things that would not happen automatically.  So, I couldn’t write down sunrise, because sunrise happens every day whether I am paying attention or not.  But I could be grateful for the beauty of the sunrise, because in the past I could not appreciate that beauty.  And then I pray, giving thanks to God for the gift of appreciation.  Paul was grateful for the church in Ephesus, for the love they expressed so beautifully through their works and faith, so he lifted them up in prayer, thanking God for them and asking God’s blessing upon them and their works.  We, too, are grateful for what we have received, so this past Thursday we sat down to meals with friends and families and gave thanks to God for all those gifts.  And on Facebook on Thursday, I saw folks posting, “If you have no where to go today, come eat with me and my family.”  These folks were truly showing their gratitude by sharing what they had with whomever showed up.

Many times we express our gratitude for others by saying “Thank you.”  Sometimes that is enough.  However, there is more to giving thanks than simply saying “Thank You.”  When I was growing up we wrote thank you notes when we received gifts.  And because my mother didn’t think simply saying, “Thank you for the gift,” was sufficient, the worst part of the day after Christmas was always the sitting down to write thank you notes that said something meaningful.  When our gratitude is great, we look for even more meaningful ways to say Thank You.  

There may be people in our lives whose love for us is shown so openly and consistently that we may not be quite sure how to express our gratitude.  So we might make a presentation to those special people.  We might even do that in the middle of a sermon.  I’d like to invite Hector and the Youth to come forward now.   

(Here the Youth make a surprise presentation of gifts to Leah Torosian and Kathleen Schales, for their great dedication and love.) 

In gratitude for their love, Paul’s prayers for the people of Ephesus are that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.  This prayer is not just for the people of the church in Ephesus, but for all of us, all members of the Church universal, all members of the body of Christ, who accept Christ as King and Lord of all, as the one who, fully human and fully divine, sits beside God showering us with blessings.

In gratitude for God’s love, for God’s gift of Jesus Christ, may we go from this place today to show our love for God, for Jesus our King, and for all of humanity.  May we go out to give thanks in the best way we know how, by sharing the love and blessings we have received with all people we meet along our way.  

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Gratitude - for goodness' sake

Psalm 100 NRSV 

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
    Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he that made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
    and his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever,
    and his faithfulness to all generations.


Have you ever had one of those mornings?  You know, the ones where you wake up to the reality of cats fighting for their favorite spot in your bed - on top of you? And the outfit you were going to wear has a somehow acquired a stain right on the front that you didn’t notice before?  And the tech you depend upon for pretty much everything decided it didn’t like the new operating system that was installed  automatically while you slept?  So you had to go to work extra early so your computer could talk to your iPad and make it all better?  You hope.

Oh wait, that was me.  Today.  *sigh*

On days like that, it’s a bit harder to do that gratitude list I talk about all the time.   It’s a little harder to make a joyful noise, and celebrate God - celebrate anything at all really.  As we enter the holiday season, for many people, gratitude becomes more and more difficult.   We have to work hard to focus on anything positive.   Sometimes it’s hard to be grateful in the way of Psalm 100. Sometimes we have to turn to Psalm 30, the 2nd verse, which says  “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.”  Sometimes we have to be reminded of the words of American poet, Andrea Gibson, “You are not weak just because your heart feels heavy.“  

I think most of you know that my husband of 25 years died two weeks ago today.   The first week just happened to be one of those insanely busy weeks that happen to everyone, so I really didn’t get any time to think about it.  I did the things I needed to do with the insurance company and the funeral home in Florida, and then continued just doing what I do.  I was emotional and a bit over-reactive, and doing my best to hold everything together.  But Monday . . . Monday there was nothing on my calendar.   Monday I started crying, off and on, for no apparent reason.  Monday the reality hit, that the man I had spent 25 years with was gone.  We’d been apart for 3 years or so, and divorced for a year, so I was really surprised to find myself grieving so hard.  And because I am who I am, I wrote a blog post about my feelings.  And I posted it on Facebook.  And miracles started to happen.   People responded on Facebook - hundreds of them.  My phone started to ring.  Messages and texts started piling up my phone.  And all of the people who contacted me had stories to share, stories of me and Ton’Ee and how we had touched their lives together and separately.  And how, if it was so hard for them to see him go, it must be so much harder for me after all those years together.  Those calls and messages filled me with gratitude, and reminded me that, even in the worst of times, there are always things to be grateful for.  The people who called and wrote reminded me of all that was good about him, and about us, and I am so grateful for them.   

I’ve found myself being grateful for very stange things over the years that I’ve been practicing gratitude.  Things like being grateful for the flu, because it made me slow down and take care of myself.   But it’s hard, sometimes, to see past the hard stuff, the pain, the grief, and the day to day stuff we all have to deal with.  
It’s at times like this that people who do gratitude lists end up with something like this one I found on Facebook (picture attributed to a radio station KKLA 99.5 FM).  

Early wake-ups = children to love
House to clean = safe place to live
Laundry = clothes to wear
Dishes to wash = food to eat
Crumbs under the table = family meals
Grocery shopping = $ to provide for us
Toilets to clean = indoor plumbing
Lots of noise = people in my life
Endless questions about homework = kids brains growing
Sore and tired in bed = I’m still alive!

There is so much to be grateful for - so many reasons to praise our God as the psalmist did.  So many reasons, really, to make a joyful noise, to come into God’s presence singing.  This morning, when Virgie came in to my office to tell me all her good news, we shared tears of joy over the wonders and miracles of life.  There is nothing quite so wonderful as sharing our gratitude with each other.  So, although I know I already did this once this month, I’m going to ask you to share the things you are grateful for today out loud.    

I’ll start - I’ve been here as your pastor two years!  And every single day, I feel more and more strongly that I have come home, to the place I am meant to be.    I am so grateful that we found each other and that you called me to come be with you here.   (Time for people to share gratitude.)

I imagine we could go on for half the day sharing our gratitude, and I know that we will share some stories with each other during our Pot Luck. Many of us will be doing that again on Thursday as part of a Thanksgiving family tradition - in between the turkey and football or whatever your own family’s traditions are.    

As we give thanks to our God for everything we have received, may we remember those who have no where to go, no feast to eat, no family to care for them.   As we lift our voices in thanks and praise to the Lord our God, who placed us here to care for the earth and for each other, let us recall that Jesus taught us to share what we have with those who are in need; to pour out our love on those who are unloved; to reach out to the sick, the tired, the depressed with healing hands; to comfort the prisoner and the lonely.   On this Thanksgiving Sunday, let us go forth from this place to show our gratitude in very tangible ways, to those outside these doors who need our touch, our help, our love.  

The Good News, my brothers and sisters, is that we are God’s people, God’s own beloved children, upon whom God’s blessings flow like water.  Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God, whose faithfulness is eternal, and whose grace-filled forgiveness and steadfast love endures forever.   


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Gratitude - For all that we have received

Joshua 24:1-3a, 13-25  NRSV 

24  2 And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.   

13 I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive yards that you did not plant.

14 “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”


It’s November.   Gratitude month.   We decorate our homes and classrooms, and the sanctuary, with the sorts of things that remind us of our history and heritage.  Of Fall and Harvest, and the super humongous meal we will be sharing in a few weeks.  I will actually be sharing several of those meals, because just about every organization I belong to is having some kind of Thanksgiving dinner event.     We complain because the stores are all Christmas-y already, and we haven’t even had our first turkey of the season yet.  We try to think of things we are grateful for, but sometimes life gets in the way, and we forget about gratitude.

Normally, when this scripture reading comes around, the focus is on that last half sentence.  As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  And usually the preacher talks about what it means to serve the Lord, and what false gods or idols might be taking our attention away from God.  But this time as I read it, that statement in the middle stuck out as if it had been writ large, on a billboard, with bright lights shining on it.  Verse 13. 

Thus says the Lord … 13 I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive yards that you did not plant.”

So be grateful, you silly people.  Because . . . seriously.  Did they really need to be reminded of what God had done for them?   Well, frankly, yes.  These people did nothing but complain, even with God personally guiding them into their new home.  Even though God provided manna and quail to feed them every day.  Even though God provided sweet fresh water, enough for all the people and all their livestock.   When we run into someone like this, we might say something like, “He’d complain if they hung him with a new rope.”   Now, I have no idea why someone would complain about being hanged with a new rope.  Maybe it’s scratchier around their neck than old rope?   Anyway . . .

They had so much just handed to them, but still they complained.  Still they neglected to be grateful.   Still they turned to other gods, the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia and even the gods of the people whose land they had just occupied.  

There’s an old story about two friends who were shoemakers.  One was doing pretty well, while the other was less successful.  He asked his old friend for a loan so he could get a shop in a better location, and his friend, wishing all the best for him, gave him the loan.  That new location was a success, and over the years his business flourished, eventually becoming a large and very popular shoe manufacturing firm.  Meanwhile, the old friend, who still had his little shop back in the old neighborhood, was facing financial difficulties.  He went to his successful friend to ask for a small loan, and was turned down.  He did not understand.  He said, “But back in the day, I lent you that money to put down on a better location and now you are one of the largest shoe manufacturers in the country.  If I hadn’t helped, today you would have nothing.”   “I know,” said his friend.  “And I appreciate that.  But what have you done for me lately?”  

I think the people of Israel were a bit like that.  I think maybe sometimes we are a little bit like that.  I was so very grateful to qualify for student loans so that I could attend college and seminary.  I celebrated each semester when the money came to pay for tuition and books and housing and all of the other expenses involved.   Years later I am somewhat less grateful when I make that payment every month.   Truthfully, I’m not at all grateful.  I can always think of “better” things I could do with that money than pay my student loans.   But you know, I have enough.   Even after I pay the loans, I have enough to live on, and feed the cats, and keep the lights on in the Parsonage, and get a pedicure now and then.  I have all I need.  And were it not for those student loans and the education they paid for, I wouldn’t be here now.    So I really should be grateful.  

Everything we have today comes from God.  Everything that we have received throughout our lives, comes from God.    Sometimes we forget that.  Sometimes we think that the things we have come from our own efforts, and that we have no one to thank except ourselves.  Yes, we have worked hard to achieve all the things we have achieved.  But without God given talent, we wouldn’t be great musicians or singers or dancers.  Without God given intellect, we wouldn’t be teachers and preachers and attorneys.  Without God given compassion and care, we wouldn’t be willing to work with people less fortunate than ourselves.  Without God’s love, we wouldn’t have any love to share with others.  

“Gratitude turns what we have into all we need.”  You all know, I think, that I have a practice of writing down ten things I am grateful for every morning.  It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that coffee is almost always at the top of that list.   And we all know that coffee is a gift from God.  Sometimes I write down things, like a car that runs and my Roomba, but most of what is on my list every day can only come from God.  Bird song in the morning.  Sunrise.  Rain.  Cooler weather.  Cats.  Friends.  People who understand me.  I often note on my list that my needs are met.  Maybe I don’t have everything I want, but certainly, I have all I need, and more.    

Gratitude is more than a good feeling.  Acknowledgement of gratitude has to be more than just a list.  Gratitude is an action word.  It is something we do.  When we are grateful, we share that for which we are grateful.  We are grateful that we have enough, so we buy tomatoes to put in food boxes for those who don’t have enough.  Or toys for children who might not get a gift this Christmas otherwise.   Or we help out at Christian Cafe.  Or with food distribution at the SMART Center.  We are grateful we have furry children, so we help Second Chance Animal Shelter with donations or by volunteering.  We are grateful for our education, so we make donations to the schools we attended, or to the Disciples Mission Fund to support all of our institutions of higher education (especially Chapman University).   We are grateful for our police, and firefighters, and city workers, so we say good things about them on Facebook and support them however we can.  We are grateful God gave us voices, so we share our talent in the choir, or during congregational singing.  We are grateful we have a church home, so we show up, and we help out where ever we can.   As greeters and presiders, or decorating the sanctuary or baking cookies, or where ever our gifts and talents are needed.   

And we are grateful that someone told us about Jesus, so we share the Good News with other people.  April tells a story about telling one college classmate about Jesus while her roommate sat nearby.  And then, how her roommate turned to her and asked, “Why did you never tell me that?”  Our gratitude for God’s gifts - all of God’s gifts - should be shared, loud and proud, so that others can know how much God loves all us, and them, and all the people of the world.  

It’s Gratitude month.  Go out and be grateful.  


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Gratitude - For all the saints

 Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37  

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
    those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
    from the east and from the west,
    from the north and from the south.[a]
Some wandered in desert wastes,
    finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty,
    their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress;
he led them by a straight way,
    until they reached an inhabited town.

He turns rivers into a desert,
    springs of water into thirsty ground,
a fruitful land into a salty waste,
    because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.
He turns a desert into pools of water,
    a parched land into springs of water.
And there he lets the hungry live,
    and they establish a town to live in;
they sow fields, and plant vineyards,
    and get a fruitful yield.

A couple of months ago,  Michael and Jordan talked to me about how cool it would be (for them and the choir, anyway) if every month had a theme, and how even cooler it would be if they could get the theme, the scripture readings and the sermon titles at least 2 months in advance.  And I agreed that it would be very cool indeed if that could happen.   And while normally I’d have given that very cool thing approximately the chance of a snowball in Selma in August, I decided that it would be a good discipline for me to do that.  So I did.  

Themes haven’t been that hard to come up with so far.  October was Stewardship month, of course.  December is Advent, so that’s kind of built in.  And November - well, it does have Thanksgiving right at the end, so obviously it is Gratitude month.

Now, you all know, I think, that I work hard at finding things to be grateful for.  Every morning, no matter which side of the bed I wake up on, I find 10 things to be grateful for before breakfast.  Two of them are usually coffee and cats, but hey.  They are two of my favorite things.   But this - today - is All Saints Sunday. Today is the day in our church calendar dedicated to remembering all those who have come before, who have served as guides and mentors and inspirations.  I’d like to read you an excerpt from the UCC Still Speaking Daily Devotional which I get in my email every morning.  

On November 1st, Emily C. Heath, Senior Pastor of the Congregational Church in Exeter, New Hampshire, wrote:   Martin Luther famously said that while we live we are all simultaneously saints and sinners. We are imperfect and messy, prone to doing all the wrong things, and completely hapless. And yet, we are also the beloved children of God, trying every day to get it just a little more right. In other words, we are human beings who are alive.

Protestants believe something else, too. We believe that when we die we join the Communion of Saints. Far from a club for people who lived perfect lives, or believed without doubt, sainthood is a state achieved not by works but by dying in the hope of Christ's grace and love. 

So when I talk about someone who has passed, and refer to them as one of the saints of the church, we are not to consider all the things they may have done wrong, but celebrate the one thing they did right for sure - died in the hope of Christ’s grace and love.   

Today I would like to do something a little different.  We have already lifted up the names of our loved ones for prayer and remembrance.  What I would ask of you now is to tell us about some of the saints of the Church - maybe this congregation, maybe another one.  I would like us to share our gratitude for the people who have gone before us, who have inspired and encouraged us.  I would like to begin.

My brother Nick - who is probably rolling on the floor of heaven laughing at being called a saint of any kind - but who throughout his lifetime helped me whenever I needed a shoulder to lean on or advice.   He was always there for me.  When the day came that I confessed to him that I had become a Protestant, and was even going to become a minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), his response was to return to the church of our youth, attending faithfully and participating in many parish activities,  and encouraging me on my faith journey, until his death on Christmas Day, 2010.  

What saint would you share memories of today?   ………………………

The Psalmist reminds us today of God’s steadfast love.  The saints we have lifted up in gratitude are our example of God’s love and God’s grace.  For they have been given to us for a season, to inspire, to encourage, to strengthen, in God’s name.  Some traveled in the desert wastes, thirsting and in danger, until God came in answer to their cries and led them by the straight way to shelter in God’s arms, to the living water that is Christ.  Some abided in God all of their lives faithfully.  But no matter where they began, all ended their lives in faith, with hope in Christ.  

Pastor Heath went on to say in her devotional that we are all saints in training.  And as such, we will often get it wrong.  But each day we have new opportunities to practice doing the right things, to practice loving one another as God would have us do, to work toward a world in which God’s peace and justice prevails, where none must hunger and thirst, or live in fear. In the week to come let us express our gratitude each day for all that we have received, and for the knowledge that one day we too, will join all those saints who have gone before, and who wait for us joyfully in the company of our Lord, Jesus Christ.