Sunday, November 3, 2013

Giving Thanks to Gain Perspective

Luke 6:20-31


Every year, during the month of November, a large number of people on Facebook and other social media sites participate in "30 Days of Thanksgiving" updating their status each day with one thing for which they are faithful.  Last year I participated.

But I did not stop on November 30th.

Rather, I decided to continue for an entire year. In part, I wanted to see if I could make a commitment and follow through (though knowing myself as I do, this was hardly a significant concern). In part, I wanted to challenge myself to be more thankful in general.

The biggest, factor, however, was that I wanted to know what, if anything, I would learn about myself in the process, if I took just a few moments of every day to be thankful for something.

I did learn a few things: I have much to be grateful for. Most of what I truly appreciate in life is not any of my material possessions but my relationships first and foremost and my life experiences next.

I learned that my act of gratitude inspired others.

I learned that I am loved by many and there are those who will readily, if somewhat surprisingly, come to my defense when I am attacked.

There was one morning, a morning after which I had gotten the best night's sleep I had in months; a night in which I'd slept solidly after almost a week of getting virtually no sleep any night, tossing and turning and unable to fall asleep; this particular morning, I stated that I was thankful for good sleep.

Immediately a young woman commented that there were lots of things for which to be thankful and my choice that day was shallow and empty and I needed to "work harder."

This is a woman who has obviously never experienced prolonged insomnia. This is a young woman who clearly does not understand what is necessary for a truly good night's sleep: safety, security, comfort, peace. This is a woman who, it seems, does not understand that adequate, healthy, restorative sleep is absolutely NECESSARY for mental, emotional, and physical health.

When I express gratitude for good sleep, it is an expression of gratitude for all of the factors that made it possible: sufficient nutrition, a comfortable bed, warm blankets, a home in which my physical safety is not at risk, relationships in which my sense of security is not in jeopardy.

It is also an expression of gratitude for all of the benefits that come with good sleep: clarity of thought, emotional stability, sufficient energy to perform acts of daily living, and with that, the resilience to make wise and healthy choices in the face of temptation.

And when this woman belittled my expression of thanks, dozens of people came to my defense.

Some may be wondering what this story has to do with our gospel lesson this morning.

I am not, by an means, a wealthy woman. I am, however, incredibly rich in relationships. I am incredibly blessed by God.

I am incredibly blessed and rich in things that matter.  I have sufficient food and have not known hunger or the desperation of severe poverty in years.

This reality, and my ability and willingness to recognize it, leads me to worry a bit, as we read our gospel lesson.

Blessed are the poor.  I live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. I am among the top 2% of the world's population in regards to wealth, even if I'm in the lower 60% in the US.

Blessed are those who hunger.  I have have a fridge full of spinach at home. More than that, I have the luxury of skipping a meal here or there if I get too busy to eat or simply do not find anything that is immediately available all that appealing.

Blessed are those who mourn. I have certainly mourned in my life, but I am so richly blessed, it is hard to find much to mourn at present.

Blessed are those who are hated, excluded, insulted, and rejected because of Jesus. I have the privilege to stand before you today, in a position of authority and respect, because I am a pastor who loves to talk about Christ.

Woe to the rich, for they have received their comfort. Yep, I'm pretty comfortable in life.

Woe to the well fed, for they will go hungry. Yep, it's pretty clear just looking at me that I'm a little too well fed.

Woe to those who laugh, for they will mourn. If it's one thing I'm known for among most of my social circles, it's my laugh. Even having lost over 100 lbs in the last year, having become virtually unrecognizable to people who have known me for years, the moment I open my mouth and giggle, I am known.

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you.... I think I'm safe here ;) No one can please all people all the time.

Questions are abundant for us in this scripture! Where do I fall? Is this a scripture to comfort or to warn me? How poor do I have to be to be blessed? How rich is rich enough to worry?

Must I always know hunger to be blessed? Or is having grown up in poverty with occasional bare cupboards sufficient?

How deeply must I mourn? How long must I weep? What must I lose and mourn that I might gain a blessing? Is the loss worth it?

Even if there are those who hate me, who exclude me, who insult me, who reject me, does God really expect me to JUMP FOR JOY!? Seriously!? Abused, reviled, bullied, excluded, taunted, tormented by others and I am told to do a happy dance?

And will God truly deny people comfort, food, joy, and respect in eternal life simply because they received such treatment here, on earth, in this life?

If it is a blessing in God's kingdom to be poor, hungry, to mourn, and be persecuted in this life because such people will be rich, satisfied, will laugh, and be rewarded in eternity; does it necessarily follow that it is a curse to be be rich, well fed, happy, and respected in this life, because God would deny these things in eternal life?

I do not believe so.

The Kingdom of God is not about denying anyone. The Kingdom of God does not operate on an economy of scarcity. Scarcity is the language of this world. Scarcity is a mark of the temporal.  I believe the language used in this passage is a reminder that the blessings of this life are short-lived. They will pass away just as our bodies will pass away. Just as the kingdoms of this world will pass away.

The Kingdom of God, though, is something else entirely. The Kingdom of God is eternal, everlasting. The blessings of God are greater and more significant than the pocket change of the millionaires. The Kingdom of God operates on an economy of abundance.

There is more than enough for everyone.

I think the problem in this passage is our perspective. Much like the young woman who felt my gratitude for a good night's sleep was shallow and insufficient, it is not that those who are rich, well fed, joyful, and respected now will not have access to abundance, good food, joy, or respect in eternal life. Rather, it is that they will not have the perspective to understand these blessings.

Having great wealth and blessings in this life can desensitize us to our blessings. Living in relative comfort, we can forget what it to want for basic necessities and end up yearning for more. There is more than enough, and we often become consumers en masse who want "just a little bit more."

It is not that the wealthy, well fed, happy, respected few on this earth will not have access to the abundance of God in the afterlife. But how much will it mean to them if they've known such comforts all their life?

A radical shift in perspective needs to take place.

Jesus tells us how, and sets the example himself as he lives out the values he proclaims: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.

Jesus calls us to put others before ourselves, to respond to hate with radical love; and he shows us how, loving his enemies and calling them friends, doing good to those who hated him, blessing those who cursed him, praying for those who mistreated him, reconciling the whole of creation to its creator as he chose obedience to death.

Everything about God's kingdom is the opposite from our understanding of how things work on earth.

Do to others, not what you feel they deserve, but what you would have them do to you.

In the kingdoms of this world, operating under an economy of scarcity, power leads to abuse. Studies have been done that demonstrate that the biggest predictor of immoral behavior is power. Being granted power encourages people to behave less like Jesus.

One does not need to look far to see this: presidents and CEOs of major corporations growing richer and richer and richer, amassing more wealth than they could possibly spend in 10 lifetimes, accumulating this wealth through the exploitation, abuse, and coercion of their employees.

Everything about God's kingdom is opposite from our understanding of how things work on earth.

Exploitation, coercion, and abuse have no place in the Kingdom of God. Respect, love, dignity, kindness, compassion, generosity. These are Kingdom values.

Perspective. Perspective changes our choices.

Putting others before ourselves, responding to hatred with radical love, turning the other cheek, giving beyond what is demanded, giving to all who ask, not demanding repayment. Doing these things will not only bless us in this life; these acts are a blessing in themselves, and unlike material possessions, they are blessings that will never pass away.

Eternal life with eternal blessings. Perspective. Being grateful in plenty and in want. In this way we are preparing ourselves to know and understanding the blessings to come.

Thanksgiving, even for the small, simple, and relatively insignificant things in life is still thanksgiving. Thanksgiving gives us perspective. Thanksgiving reminds us that we have much for which to be thankful. Thanksgiving sets our minds to an economy of abundance.

May you recognize the abundance of God's blessings present this day and always.

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