(a sermon by Mark Parent)
(delivered at the Pereaux Baptist Church)
(September 25, 2011 – Exodus 17:1-7)
I have always loved the Old Testament in spite of its long list of begets and begats, its next to impossible to pronounce names, and its periodic support for religiously sanctioned violence.
The reason why I have loved, and continue to love, the Old Testament is because of the honesty with which the biblical characters are described. I think, for instance, of Jacob and his mother who collaborated together to deceive Jacob’s father and steal the blessing which normally should have gone to the oldest child. Or of King David, the greatest of all the kings of Israel, who committed adultery and to make matters worse, when the women he had cheated with became pregnant, tried to have her husband killed in order to cover up for his lustful mistakes. Or, I think of the attitude of the Israelite people depicted in our Old Testament reading for this morning taken from Exodus chapter 17. Recently freed from the slavery and oppression of the Egyptians, they quickly forgot God’s goodness to them and started grumbling about this or that — not enough food to eat, too cold, too warm, not enough water to drink.
The lack of gratitude of the Israelites and their grumbling rings so true, I am afraid, in my own life and behavior. I quickly forget God’s blessings and so easily resort to grumbling when things don’t go the way I think they should. There’s a little song which too often and too well describes me, “I grumble on Monday, grumble on Tuesday, grumble on Wednesday too, grumble on Thursday, grumble on Friday, grumble the whole week through.”
And, I fear I am not alone in this penchant to grumble and to forget or ignore all the blessings I do enjoy. In fact, I would be so bold as to suggest that a growing lack of thankfulness is a key characteristic of our contemporary society. C. S. Lewis once said of a women whom he knew who was always complaining about this or that that she didn’t have a complaint she had become a complaint. Many people have become a complaint today.
The reasons why are varied. To begin with the secularization of our society is part of the problem. People used to give thanks, say grace, before their meals but for most families and individuals that custom has gone the way of the dodo bird. I guess that this makes sense in a twisted sort of a way. If there is no God there is no one to give thanks to, so why bother?
Another factor must surely be the constant diet of bad news fed to us by the press. With 24 news channels this has become a feature of our lives, 24/7 as they say. Daily, hourly stories of murder and rape, fraud and cheating, greed and injustice, violence and war, death and destruction bombard us. For awhile now I am been thinking that perhaps I should take a sabbatical from reading or listening to the news. I recall John Wesley’s comment many years ago that most of what passes for news is about a significant as the fact that a bird, flying from France to Spain over the Pyrenees Mountains, happened to lose a feather. But in spite of my best intentions, I am drawn back to newspaper page, the internet account, the television story.
A newer reason why we grumble so much is due to the deteriorating economy in which we now live. Raised on the philosophy that buying more things leads to happiness and facing the prospect that we might not be able, in the future, to buy as much as we did in the past we grumble and we become ungrateful for the things we do have.
Closely tied in with this is the sense of entitlement which grew up following the Great Depression and the Second World War. Things that our grandparents or great grandparents marveled at, we take for granted. We no longer believe that we should put off, until we can afford it, that new house or that new car, that vacation in the Caribbean. We pull out the old Visa card and charge (if you will excuse the pun) full speed ahead.
More important, however, than analyzing the reasons why as a society we have become so lacking in thankfulness, in gratitude, is to reflect on how we can reverse this trend. How we can increase and foster a gratitude attitude.
We discussed this question at our breakfast prayer meeting this past week and immediately Mary starting singing the tune “count your blessings, name them one by one.” That was the tune which first popped into my mind when I reflected on how to grow in thankfulness. Interestingly, it is also what the psychologists and academics are saying who are studying this issue. For instance, Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California has focused on gratitude as his main field of study. He suggests writing down a list of things for which you are grateful or visiting with someone who was important to you life and talking with them or reviewing the day with your children and asking the question, “What were you most thankful for this day?” One author in the news magazine USA Today even dared to call for a return to saying grace before meals!
All these suggestions boil down to essentially the same advice, “count your blessings, name them one by one.” Take time to focus on what is good in your life, on what you are thankful for, and just as the little chorus concludes, “it will amaze you what the Lord has done.” You see a grateful spirit leads to even more gratitude and, according to Robert Emmons and other researchers, a lower blood pressure, better weight monitoring, and up to seven years longer a life span.
The second way in which we can increase a spirit of thanksgiving is to focus on the important things of life. When you think about it, the things which we whine about, the things which spark our grumbling are really often not that important. Usually in our society they are tied up with things, because of our overstress on materialism. This thing doesn’t work as well as it used to, or that thing has got dirty or scratched. Indeed, most of what we grumble about really are more inconveniences than anything else and when we reflect on the important things in life it becomes clear that they are of secondary importance. As Jesus said, “seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness and all these things shall be added to you as well.
A lot of what Jesus came to teach us what how to focus on what is most important and avoid being distracted by that which is of lesser importance. And Christianity, when it is at its best, does the same thing. I think, for instance, of that lovely Shaker hymn “’tis a gift to be simple ‘tis a gift to be free.” We know the tune because of the hymn “lord of the Dance.”
Whenever I hear that tune it brings to me the words one of my parishioners to me. Stricken with prostate cancer Ray Maybe had gone through a tremendous struggle thinking that God was punishing him with cancer but finally, near the end, he found peace. I know because, by the grace of God, I was there to hear his words.
He refused to die you see, even though his family began to pray as loved ones do, when hope is gone for a cure, for his release from his pain. I too began to pray for his death and to reflect on whether some form of euthanasia was permissible. But God was working with him and needed that time.
One late afternoon when all the family had gone to do a few errands before coming back for the night shift, I was sitting there in the evening twilight when he came out of the morphine induced fog he was in, and focused on me sitting there. Then, gently, he reached for my hand and, taking it in his, said to me, “Mark after the brokenness comes healing, and after the healing, simplicity.” And he then lay back on his hospital bed in peace. Not long afterwards he passed over and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.
When we focus on the simple things of life, it is amazing how stress vanishes, worries fade, thankfulness begins to grow.
Count your blessings, focus on what is really important, be simple hearted, and then thirdly, deepen your faith. The biblical story in which Moses succumbed to the people’s grumblings and found water for them was used by the early Christians as a foreshadowing of the spiritual water provided by Jesus. It was used a signpost to point to the salvation won for us by Christ’s death and resurrection.
I don’t purport to understand fully the death and particularly the resurrection of Jesus. I know all the biblical theories and the theological explanations and I have my own theories on how to meld the biblical stories with modern scientific understandings. But I don’t really get too excited about all this.
At the recent Hayward Lectures sponsored by Acadia Divinity College the special guest speaker was slated to give a lecture defending the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement against recent well publicized attacks. I didn’t attend mainly because for me it doesn’t really matter. For me, the most important thing is not any theological explanation, not any doctrinal position. The important thing, I my view, is that Christ’s death and resurrection is an assertion, a flesh and blood statement, if you will, that at the heart of life lies self giving love and that love when given out pure motive is stronger than evil and more powerful even than death.
I love C. S. Lewis’s depiction of this in his children’s book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” In this charming book, Jesus is depicted as a great lion named Aslan. Aslan comes back to free the Narnians from the spell of the Wicked Witch who has decreed that it will always be winter and never Christmas. Aided by sons of Adam, Peter and Edmund and two daughters of Eve, Lucy and Susan, Aslan and the talking animals of Narnia are winning when the Witch reminds Aslan that Edmund is a traitor and the magic decrees that a traitor must die. Aslan offers his life in exchange for Edmund’s and the Wicked Witch quickly agrees, reasoning that with Aslan gone she can easily defeat her foes.
Aslan makes the exchange and he is taken into captivity. Just like in the biblical story, he is mocked and beaten and only the women, the two girls, Lucy and Susan dare follow, to watch and to weep. As they sit by the dead body of Aslan, their hope destroyed, suddenly color comes back onto Aslan’s body and he springs to life. Amazed, the girls asked what happened and Aslan explains that while the Wicked Witch was right about the penalty of death in the old magic for a traitor there was a deeper magic she was unaware of and that was that when an innocent person out of love gave his life for another then death itself would begin to work backward. With that Aslan invites the girls to climb on his back and then lets out a mighty roar which the Wicked Witch hears and she know that moment she hears that sound that her reign is ended and her reign is limited.
There is, I believe, at the heart of life, a deeper magic, the magic of self-giving love. As the hymn writer, Frederic Lehman put it, “the love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell, it goes beyond the highest star and reaches to the deepest hell.”
When we deepen our faith and reflect on this love, it is then that thanksgiving grows deep inside for it is then that we realize that while there is much pain and suffering in this life, that while death still troubles and wounds, beyond it all and underneath it all and above it all is the power of God’s magnificent love and we are all quite safe.
As the celebrated British writer G. K Chesterton once put it, and with this words I will close, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”