By Pastor Tracey Leslie
(From the sermon series This Holiday Season: Unwrap Your Gift)
Scripture: Philippians 4:4-7
There were two farmers – neighbors – one was an optimist and the other was a pessimist. One summer morning when they got up the sun was shining brightly, as it had for several days. The optimist said to the pessimist, “What a beautiful day. All this sun will help our crops to grow.” “Are you kidding?” said the pessimist. “Our crops are going to get scorched and wither up and die.” The next day when they woke up, it was raining hard. The optimist said to his neighbor, “Isn’t this great. Here’s the rain we’ve been needing.” “If it keeps pouring like this,” said the pessimist, “that rain will rot the roots.” Sometime later the optimist got a new hunting dog, a retriever. It was a great dog, well-trained and obedient and the optimist spoke of his dog in glowing terms each time he saw his neighbor. One day the two men decided to go duck hunting. They put their boat out on the lake and soon the optimist spied a duck. “Watch this,” he said to his neighbor. He took his shot and as soon as the duck went down, without the farmer even giving a command, his dog leapt from the boat, ran across the water, retrieved the duck, ran back across the water and hopped back into the boat. The optimist looked at his neighbor, beaming with pride. And the pessimist said, “I knew there was something wrong with that dog. That dog can’t even swim.”
In life, I suppose, there are those who see the glass half full and those who see it half empty. We’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving; but scriptures, such as this morning’s from Philippians, remind us that thanksgiving is more than a national holiday. Thanksgiving is a chosen way of life for those of us who name ourselves Christian.
Let me say briefly, however, what thanksgiving, for a Christian, is not. It is not a kind of self-deluding designed to distort or ignore reality. Being a Christian does not mean naively overlooking the reality that our world is in turmoil – that racism and nativism is on the rise, that gun violence has become a weekly event, that record-breaking numbers of refugees are being subjected to violence and starvation. It does not mean burying our heads in the sand over an opioid epidemic that has become a national health crisis. Nor does it mean that we forget about the devastation from this fall’s hurricane season or that half the island of Puerto Rico is still without power.
That being said by me… it is the apostle Paul who teaches us about the real basis of Christian thanksgiving. None of Paul’s biblical letters have a greater focus on thanksgiving than Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. Forms of the Greek words for joy and thanks are found 14 times in this tiny little letter that takes up less than four pages in most bibles. And what ought to make that even more striking is the fact that Paul writes this letter from behind bars. Paul is imprisoned, facing trial with a potential death sentence. And, let me tell you, as bad as prison can be today, 1st century Roman prison conditions would have made today’s American penitentiaries seem like a Park Avenue penthouse. Furthermore, life was no bowl of cherries for the Christians in Philippi either.
You see, it wouldn’t have been very easy to be a Christian in Philippi. Philippi was a Roman city. A significant chunk of its population was comprised of war veterans who, as a result of their faithful service to Caesar, had received Roman citizenship. Now Roman citizenship was a pretty good deal. It had some pretty sweet perks attached to it. Roman citizens were exempt from poll or head tax – that meant they taxed you just to be breathe the air more or less. They were also exempt from property tax. That was the upside. Citizenship did, however, have its downside. For one thing, Roman citizens were obliged to pledge their loyalty to Rome and to worship the Caesar as a god. Which wasn’t such a big deal for some folks, but it presented a serious problem if you were a Jew or a Christian who believed in one God. And it was even worse for Christians than for Jews. After all, Judaism had been around for a while and Jews were actually exempt from bowing down to Caesar. They were still expected to pledge their political loyalty; but they didn’t have to acknowledge Caesar as their god. But, Christianity was a new religion. There weren’t yet any special exemptions on the Roman books for Christians.
Now those who didn’t participate in emperor worship, whether Jew or Christian, paid a steep price. You see, various festivals and feasts to honor Caesar were where people went to cement friendships and business deals. Participation in those events served to reinforce, even guarantee, your place in the social pecking order – which was and still is very important in an Eastern culture. Worse yet, Christians who “bowed out” were held suspect by their neighbors. They suspected them of being rebels, traitors against the Empire; a threat to national security.
So, all things considered, we’d want to know why Paul thinks that he and the Philippian Christians have grounds for rejoicing. On the surface, it doesn’t sound as if they have much to be thankful for. But the crux of the answer is found in verse five of this morning’s passage when Paul tells the Philippians that “the Lord is near.” Now, that word for “near” can describe a temporal nearness (for example, Christmas is drawing near) or it can describe a spatial nearness (standing in this spot, I can say that the choir is near). So Paul wants the Christians in Philippi to remember the good news that Jesus Christ their Lord is near to them, both in time and space. Jesus Christ is near to them through the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was the source of all power and boldness for the early Christian Church. The Roman citizens of Philippi have Caesar as their lord. But, Caesar’s not near to them. He’s way off in Rome. But the one true God is always near to his people. Even in the Old Testament, we read the assurances of God’s nearness to his people in their time of need. Psalm 145 declares “the Lord is near to all who call upon him.”[i] Psalm 34 assures us “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.”[ii]
Our God is not some impersonal deity looking down on us from a distance. Our Lord is near. In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome he writes at great length about how Christians experience God’s nearness through the Spirit. When what we see around us is not what we are longing for in the world, we need to be able to see through the lens of the Spirit.
If you were in worship last week, you might remember me talking about how what we see is what we get. When we overlook (or disregard) the mercy of God, we wind up seeing shortage and we see others as a threat to our own security and our lives are filled with fear and anxiety… and there’s certainly plenty of that in the world today. But when we choose to focus on the abundant grace and mercy of God, we see and receive so much more. Paul acknowledges to the Romans that it is tough to live with the reality of sin and suffering still around us while knowing that, ultimately, God will redeem all of creation.[iii] But if we can pray from a place of trust and thanksgiving, God’s Spirit draws near – in our minds and hearts – helping us to pray differently, to see things differently, (and ultimately) to live differently. In fact, to live in ways that bring the reality of God’s nearness and God’s redemption to bear on our world right here and right now. In other words, how we pray, how we see things, how we live can allow others around us to truly experience the nearness of the Lord through us.
We worship and give thanks because our God is one who is near us. Brothers and sisters, we stand on the threshold of Advent, that four week long season that prepares us to celebrate the birth of Jesus; to celebrate the good news of the ultimate experience of our Lord’s “nearness” when God took on human flesh in the infant Jesus who would grow to live and walk and teach and ministry among us and die and rise for us.
Friends, as Paul points out, prayer is not so much about our wish list for God as it is simply a practiced awareness of God’s presence; God’s indwelling Spirit that transforms the way we see and engage with the world. Prayer is not so much about getting the stuff we want from God as it is about noticing/comprehending the nearness of God so that we can see and prayer and live differently. When we learn to live in the present presence of God, we can live from a place of gratitude, of rejoicing and thanksgiving; we can live in peace and gentleness, rather than anxiety and fear.
Did you know that Buddhist monks make an entire ceremony out of drinking tea? They advise that one must be fully present, in the moment, to enjoy the tea – to savor its taste, relish its aroma, the sensation of the warm cup in one’s hand.
Famous monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:
If you are ruminating about the past, or worrying about the future, you will completely miss the experience of enjoying the cup of tea.
You will look down at the cup, and the tea will be gone.
Life is like that.
If you are not fully present, you will look around and it will be gone.
You will have missed the feel, the aroma, the delicacy and beauty of life.
It will seem to be speeding past you. The past is finished.
Learn from it and let it go.
The future is not even here yet. Plan for it, but do not waste your time worrying about it. Worrying is worthless.
When you stop ruminating about what has already happened, when you stop worrying about what might never happen, then you will be in the present moment.
Then you will begin to experience joy in life.[iv]
I think those are words the apostle Paul would appreciate as he calls us to rejoice and to give thanks.
As I close my sermon this morning, I want to invite you to open your program. Throughout this holiday season, we’ll be creating a Gift Board. Each week, there will be a piece of holiday gift wrap in your program. This morning, I invite you to take out that gift wrap and write on it something for which you are especially thankful that begins with one of the letters in the word “thanksgiving.” Now, you might make this a pretty simple exercise; like, “ah, the letter ‘h;’ I’m grateful for a holiday honey ham.” Or, you might want to go a little deeper. Using the letter ‘h,’ I’m grateful for my dog, Hope. Most of you have heard about Hope; she’s our dog with seizures and inflammatory bowel disease. Sometimes I catch myself feeling annoyed by the cost of her medications, the extra time required for her care, the number of hours we spend at Purdue with her. But I’m also thankful that God entrusted her to Britt and me. She’s a wonderful and loving dog and we’re blessed to live in a time and place where she can receive such remarkable medical care. She’s a really good dog and – though she might not be able to walk on water – she adds a lot of joy to our family. So use that gift wrap in your program to write down something for which you are thankful this holiday season.
Also through this season, I encourage you to check out the Trinity Voices blogpost.[v] The info is right there in your program. Each week it will include a new post and ways you can engage with each week’s theme. Those ways to engage are also going to be printed in the program (in case you don’t have easy internet access).
To cultivate the gift of Gratitude, this week consider engaging in one or more of the following practices:
I want to especially encourage you to try out that last suggestion. You might be amazed to discover – as I sometimes am about myself – how often I catch myself thinking and comparing my circumstances to those of others. And friends, nothing steals our joy faster than comparisons. There will always be someone who is richer, healthier, more appreciated at their job, has a more comfortable home, a more affirming, supportive family, more obedient children, more reliable transportation… need I go on? But when we catch ourselves being resentful or envious, we need to simply breathe deep, tune in to the nearness of God’s presence, and give thanks for an opportunity, experience or relationship for which we are grateful.
Rejoice in the Lord, my friends. Rejoice today and always. Rejoice especially because our Lord is near. Amen.
[i] Psalm 145:18. NRSV
[ii] Psalm 34:18. NRSV
[iii] See Romans 8:18-27
[iv] From Father Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation; online daily meditation for November 23, 2017.
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
I know that some of you have heard me speak before about the puppy Britt and I fostered while we were living in Dayton, Ohio. It is that little puppy who always comes to mind when I read the story in this morning’s gospel.
It was an unusually warm and sunny February day. Britt and I were at United Seminary in Dayton. We were driving around to the back parking lot to meet a professor to go to lunch when there – in the middle of the road – was a puppy. The little guy had collapsed in the road. His head was slumped over a dead leaf. Britt stopped the van and walked toward the puppy. He was a pitiful sight. He was so undernourished that his skeletal frame was visible all over. He was deformed – swayback, flat feet and misshapen legs. He was filthy and his smell made me sick to my stomach. Nevertheless, he was so pathetic that I loaded him into my Explorer and headed to the local no-kill shelter. Even the shelter volunteers cringed when I entered the door with the little guy. They examined him announcing that he was dehydrated and severely malnourished and very close to death. They gave him subcutaneous fluids and then proceeded to explain that there was no room at their facility for this puppy. I had two options, I could take him to one of several shelters in the area which would give him a limited time for adoption and then euthanize or Britt and I could become his foster parents until he recovered enough to be put up for adoption. Well, this pup was no likely candidate for immediate adoption. So home we went with worming medication and instructions to feed him a ¼ c. of dog food every three hours or so for the next three or four days. Before his meal, he received a bath. The shelter had emphasized that, because of his young age, some of his deformities could be corrected with nutrition and exercise. That weekend life revolved around that weak little puppy. His crate was in the basement. Every three hours, we released him from the crate and put him in the backyard to do his business. We stood and waited while he wobbled around the back yard. When he finally did business, he was greatly praised then we headed inside for food and water. The flight of stairs to the main floor was encouraged for exercise. But it could take up to five minutes of coaxing to get him up those stairs. Once he made it to the top of the stairs there was, again, a great deal of praise and a dish of food and water waiting in the kitchen. After he ate and drank, he stumbled back down the stairs to his crate where he fell into an exhausted heap and slept until we awakened him three hours later to repeat the whole procedure.
Now the shelter had told me that the little guy could not be adopted until he was neutered and recovered and he couldn’t even be neutered until he was strong enough for surgery. So, we now knew, this pup would be with us for at least two months. So, we named him. That sorrowful little puppy became Elos from the Greek word eleos which means “mercy.” We had known, and the shelter had confirmed, that Elos would not have survived much longer. Without our intervention, Elos would have likely been dead within a day or two. Only mercy had saved him. He looked horrible, he smelled terrible and he was too weak to demonstrate any regard for anyone or anything. Elos needed mercy and mercy is what he got; mercy in the form of a warm house, a soft blanket, nutritious food, clean water, affection, training and exercise. All were his for the next two months and Elos thrived on them. His weight almost doubled. His bones and muscles strengthened and some of those deformities corrected themselves. And he was, by far, the happiest puppy you could ever see. He had a zest for life and was full of orneriness. His wobbling turned into bouncing. Elos seemed to bounce with glee wherever he went. He rolled around on the floor with our Doberman puppy – who was 3 times his size – but Elos didn’t seem to notice. He would drag throw rugs and other items – also three times his size – around the house. And, his greatest delight was up-dumping water dishes – the fuller, the better. Little Elos was a puppy much in need of mercy and mercy is what he got. Mercy made him whole. Mercy saved him. And mercy bore the fruit of joy and delight.
Mercy is an important theme in the Gospel of Luke. In this morning’s story, Jesus enters a village and is approached by ten lepers who cry out to him for mercy. They’re keeping their distance because, by law, their disease rendered them unclean. They were required to keep their distance. So these lepers, separated from their community without any viable means of supporting themselves, were dependent for survival upon the mercy of others. They needed alms and, perhaps, that’s all they hoped to get from Jesus. Perhaps… And yet, they address him as “Master” – the only time in Luke’s Gospel that anyone other than the disciples call Jesus “Master.” And so, maybe, just maybe, they do have insight into the fact that Jesus has more to offer them than a piece of bread or a couple coins.
In response to their plea for mercy, Jesus instructs them to go show themselves to the priest. Now, that implies healing because if someone’s “leprous” condition were to go away, they could rejoin society only after the priest gave them a clean bill of health.
But, before Jesus gives them these instructions the gospel writer tells us that Jesus saw them. And that little word “saw” is a big and important word in the gospel of Luke. Seeing is something that connects us to one another and to God. To see is to acknowledge. To see is to comprehend. Jesus saw the lepers and he responded with mercy to what he saw. Even before they reach the priests, the lepers receive healing. It is discernible to them – simply by seeing – seeing from the condition of their skin that their disease is gone. And so, we’re told, that one of them – when he saw that he had been made clean – returned to Jesus to praise him and thank him. Nine go merrily on their way. But one sees and offers thanks for that which he sees. His sight yields insight which leads to gratitude and joy. He receives more than physical healing. He receives salvation. What he sees is what he gets. The other nine apparently don’t see what this one Samaritan leper saw.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan – also in Luke – Jesus tells a story of another Samaritan who sees. In that story, a man traveling down a notorious stretch of road from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed and beaten and left for dead. Two religious folk happen upon the man – a priest and a Levite. Each of them makes visual contact with the man. But, when they do, they pass by on the other side of the road. They see – and yet they fail to see. A third man happens by and this man is a Samaritan. He, too, sees the victim. But, when he sees, he seems to comprehend the man’s suffering. Because he sees, he is moved with compassion; he sees an opportunity to show mercy.
People of God: there is physical sight and then there is spiritual sight; our ability to see the saving mercy of Jesus at work in our lives; and the ability to see those places of opportunity to offer God’s mercy to others. After all, three men were traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and all caught sight of that miserable, beaten up guy lying at the side of the road. All three saw with their eyes, but only one could see the opportunity to show mercy.
Likewise, only one of the 10 cleansed lepers truly sees and responds to God’s mercy bringing healing and salvation into his life. That one cleansed leper responds with thanksgiving; grateful because he has seen. He receives far more than the other nine because of what he sees. What you see IS what you get.
So, what do we see on a day to day basis? Do we see and then go merrily on our way? Or do we truly see the many ways in which the saving presence of Jesus can and does intersect with our lives and, through us, with the lives of others? Do we recognize God’s mercy? God’s grace is freely and abundantly offered. But it’s hard to receive it if we don’t see it.
This is a week of thanksgiving and next week we’ll talk in greater detail about the gift of gratitude. Gratitude is a spiritual gift. It involves a purposeful decision to see things differently. To focus our vision NOT on what we are lacking but to see how much we have and how blessed we are. I think much of the strife in our world today – a rejection of equal rights for those who are different, efforts to deport or keep out refugees, condemnation toward those battling addiction – has to do with how well we see. When we see shortage; when we see others as competition; when we see others as threatening to our own well-being, we have – to a large degree – made a decision to see the grace of Jesus as something small and limited and in short supply. But when we choose to see Jesus’ grace as amazing and abundant; prolific and indiscriminate, then we have compassion for our own weaknesses and we’re better able to show generous mercy toward others. Sometimes it’s hard to see; but friends, God’s mercy and grace are all around us. We’re no different than those lepers in Luke’s gospel. What you see is what you get.
By Pastor Linda Dolby
Sanctuary – defined as a place of refuge and safety. We all entered this sanctuary – this place of refuge and safety this morning to sing praises to our God, to pray to our God, to hear the word of God. Last Sunday, people just like you and me entered the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs Texas. Sanctuary – a place of refuge and safety - became to site of a terror attack. 26 people were killed with a Ruger AR-556 rifle.
The sanctuary became site of terror. Makes you a little afraid, doesn’t it. Yes, this morning you have overcome your fears and you are here – trusting in the sanctuary of this space. Scripture says perfect love casts out all fear. You see, we have a choice to make: shall we live a life of love or fear? We are here because we know God loves us and we hope to live a life in that love.
Responding to a question put to him by the preachers and theologians of his day: "Which command in the law is the greatest, Jesus said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
This is known to us as the Golden Rule. Love God. Love your neighbor. But today I want to focus not so much on love - a much overused and abused word: we love our pets, we love ice cream, we love a beautiful day, we love our families. Today I want us to look at Jesus' other words in these verses: "with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in his version of the Bible called The Message, "with all your passion, your prayer, your intelligence."
You have probably seen and read this overused words: "dance as though no one is watching you, love as though you have never been hurt before, sing as though no one can hear you, live as though heaven is on earth." Passion. That's what these words are talking about. Passion, which causes us to dance, to love, to sing, to live - as though heaven is on earth, which is true on these glorious autumn days. That's what Jesus is talking about in our gospel lesson for this day.
If we were to poll people who don't go to church and ask: "What do you think of the church?" they might say a lot of different things. But one answer probably will be quite common - they will answer that it is boring. Christians are boring, church is boring, most sermons are boring, the music is boring.
How did this happen? When did Christianity, in the eyes of unbelievers, become boring? If you look at the ministry of Jesus, it was a lot of things, but no one would ever accuse him of being boring! Wherever He went He was ruffling feathers. There was an energy, there was a passion - He was living on the edge. There was a supernatural power that was there. There was passion there.
Jesus says this: "here is what the whole sum of my life is about: Take everything that you are about, all of your mind, all of your heart, all of your soul, and all of your strength, in other words, everything that you are, and pour it into loving God, living for God, being invested in God. Live passionately to the glory of God. Give God everything you've got. Don't hold back on anything." This is the opposite of doing religion, going through the motions, just sort of doing something because it just sort of suits you every once in a while. This is pouring your whole being into something - that's what Jesus was saying. That is what life is all about, pour your whole being into loving God, live fully, - for the glory of God.
A theologian of the second century, named Irenaeus said, "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." Instead, we try to domesticate Jesus, making him into our own image instead of making ourselves into his image. I got an email this week describing this. It was called the ethnicity of Jesus. Full of stereotypes, it made the case why Jesus was Black, or why Jesus was Californian, and then it said: "There are 3 equally good arguments that Jesus was Italian: he talked with his hands, he had wine with every meal, he used olive oil. There are also arguments that Jesus was Irish: he never got married, he was always telling stories, he loved green pastures. But the most compelling evidence of all - proof that Jesus was a woman: he had to feed a crowd at a moment's notice when there was no food, he kept trying to get a message across to a bunch of men who just didn't get it, and even when he was dead, He had to get up because there was more work to do!
We want to tame Jesus, to make him like us, when salvation means that we are freed from our sins so that we may become like him - one who lived and loved passionately, with his whole heart, mind, and soul. Once I heard another clergyperson say, "The church is a swimming pool where most of the noise is from the shallow end." The shallow end, where it is safe and secure, where people just dip in their toes. He went on to say, "and people see Jesus as their lifejacket. " Have you ever tried to swim while wearing a life jacket? It's possible, but it's uncomfortable, bulky. Then he said, "I would rather think of Jesus as my life guard, so that when I dive in the deep end, he is there watching, protecting, ready to save me if I get in over my head."
As I was thinking about the shooting in Texas, I remembered this story - a true story - that was told by Bishop Will Willimon. He says, “It all started early one morning when Louise Degrafinried's husband Nathan got up from bed in Mason, Tennessee, to let out the cat. The cat stood at the edge of the porch, his hair bristled up on his arched back, and he hissed. Nathan asked, ''What do you see out there, cat? A big man stepped from around the corner of the house and pointed a shotgun at Mr. Degrafinried. "Lord, Honey, open the door, he's got a gun."
The man with the gun shoved Nathan inside, pushing him and Louise against the wall. "Don't make me kill you!" he shouted. The couple knew immediately that the intruder was one of the escaped inmates from Fort Pillow State Prison. He and 4 others had been loose since the previous Saturday.
Louise Degrafinried, a 73 year old grandmother stood her ground. "Young man," she said, "I'm a Christian and we don't believe in no violence. Put that gun down and you sit down." The man relaxed his grip on the gun, then laid it on the couch. "Lady," he said quietly, "I'm so hungry. I haven't had nothing to eat for 3 days." ''Young man, you just sit down there and I'll fix you breakfast." "Nathan," she said to her husband, "go get this young man some dry socks."
With that, Louise went to work. She fixed bacon, eggs, white bread toast, milk and coffee. Then she got out her best napkins and set her kitchen table. She says, “when we sat down, I took that young man by the hand and said, "Let's give thanks that you came here and that you are safe." I said a prayer and then asked him if he would like to say something to the Lord. He didn't say anything, so I said, "Just say, "Jesus wept." Then we all ate breakfast.
"After breakfast, we sat there and I began to pray. I held his hand and kept patting him on the leg. He trembled all over. I said, "Young man, I love you and God loves you. God loves us all, every one of us, especially you. Jesus died for you because he loves you so much."
"You sound just like my grandmother," he said. "She's dead." One tear fell down his cheek. About that time, we heard police cars coming down the road. "They gonna kill me when they get here," he said.
"No, young man, they aren't going to hurt you. You done wrong, but God loves you." Then me and Nathan took him by the arms, and took him out of the kitchen toward the door. "You let me do all the talking," I told him. The police got out of their cars. They had their guns out. I shouted to them, "Y'all put those guns away. I don't allow no violence here This young man wants to go back." Nathan," I said, "you bring the young man out to the car." Then they put the handcuffs on him and took him back to the prison."
That afternoon, two of the other escapees entered a backyard where a couple was barbecuing. The husband went into his house and came out with gun. The prisoners shot and killed him and took his wife hostage. They released her the next day.
Mrs. Degrafinried lived her faith, which led her to take a risk. She risked loving. I’m sure we afraid, but she lived out of love. She was prepared to do that from a lifetime of following her Savior, someone she loved with all her heart, with all her soul, with all her mind - which led her to love her neighbor as herself.
So, my friends, let's dance as though no one is watching, love as though we've never been hurt, sing as though no one can hear, and live as though heaven is on earth." That's passion. That's the Golden Rule. May it be so. Amen.
On a lifelong journey of seeking to live out God's call on my life and to reflect His grace.
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