25th Sunday After Pentecost
I Samuel 2:1-10
About once a month, a few of us will gather on a Tuesday night up in Clarke Hall on the third floor for a class called Faith & Public Life, where we sit and discuss some news story or public policy and how it informs and shapes our faith. Over the months, we have talked about different instances of gun violence, about the prison industrial complex, and about the health of our own planet. Quite honestly, I sometimes don’t even start planning what we’ll talk about until the day of the class, as it seems that our nation has a knack of having some kind breaking news story the morning of the class.
In our most recent class this past week, we were discussing the current relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, with a particular emphasis on the war in Yemen. As we were talking about everything, one of the people in attendance made a remark about how it seems that we have a new tragedy or infuriating news story just about every single day. And the question came up: how in the world can we even keep up with everything without being discouraged or becoming cynical?
That’s a challenging question, isn’t it? Every morning, it seems that I wake up with a sense of dread because I know that there will be some breaking New York Times notification on my phone from the night before. It’s hard to even keep up with all that has happened, because as soon as we begin dealing with one tragedy, another one pops up, and we completely forget the previous story. Even in this moment, we could think of five to ten devastating news stories that are happening right now, and I would dare say that, two weeks from now, we’ll have a completely different batch of stories to be thinking about. It’s hard to stay encouraged; to keep hope of things changing in our world. It’s hard to hold all of these stories at once without losing a part of our spirit in the meantime.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus is speaking to the multitudes and tells them,
Do not worry, saying, “what will we eat?” or “What will we drink” or “What will we wear?”… But strive first for the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
He illustrates this by having the multitudes imagine a place far from the Roman occupation, from their worries of the day, and from the stressors of life. He takes them to the field. Look at the lilies, he says. They don’t worry about life, about what they wear or how they’re going to eat, and yet they’re still more beautiful than King Solomon in all of his glory. Or look at the birds up in the sky. They’re not worried about the scarcity of their food, whether it be cultivating crops or storing the excess harvest away in a barn somewhere so that they always have a backup food supply, and yet they still are fed. And you—people created in the image of God—you are far more important than they are to God. What makes you think that God won’t take care of you?
Jesus takes this crowd away from the chaos and noise of daily life out into the places where they don’t have much control over what happens. And even when they don’t have control, life still goes on. For he’s making a point about creation itself; outside of global politics or national policy, creation finds a way to bring forth life; creation itself was first created for life, and life abundant.
On Thursday evening, I walked out of the church building to see the absolute chaos of rush hour traffic that day. I live over on the west side and I knew that there was no chance that I would be able to get a bus home. So since I had on my boots and heavy coat, I decided just to walk home through Central Park. Now, I know that Central Park isn’t the same as a wild field in First Century Palestine, but I have to admit that seeing the Park on a snowy evening did something to me. I saw the beauty of the Great Lawn, undisturbed under four inches of snow. I heard the silence of the park, as very few people were out in the storm, and I stopped a few times to watch dogs frolic in the snow and ice without a care in the world. I have to admit that there was something restorative about it, of being able to step out of my shoes—out of my worries and to-do lists—and just watch the world spin for a few minutes. And in that moment, I was filled with a sense of gratitude—that I got to live here in this city at this time with the people that I know. Gratitude that the world didn’t rest completely on my shoulders, and that life can go on without me.
For there’s something holy about simply watching life happen. Whether it’s taking a walk through the park, sitting around a table with close friends, or standing in a field with the lilies and the birds, sometimes the best worship is to simply sit back and be overwhelmed by awe and thankfulness for God’s grace that makes all of this possible in the first place. To be immersed in gratitude that any of this is possible, and that we get to experience life in all of its fullness, its challenges, its joys, and its sorrows. Gratitude for life itself. And above all, gratitude for one who created all of this in the first place; resting in the grace that the God who has brought us this far will hold us through whatever comes next and knowing that that will be enough for us.
For I strongly believe that if we lose this sense of gratitude, we will be overwhelmed by the mess around us. If we lose our sense of perspective on this world, imagining ourselves to be more powerful than we are or worth less than we are, we are liable to give into the anxiety of trying to make it on our own; the worries of making sure that we can somehow live to see another day by our own efforts; the stress of having the weight of the whole world resting on our shoulders.
When we walk in the way of gratitude, we are freed from the anxiety of trying to take on this world on our own. To quote the prayer of the recently canonized Archbishop Oscar Romero:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
As we gather with friends and family around the table this week, may we be reminded of the calling of this holiday: giving thanks and being filled with gratitude. For it is through gratitude that we are able to make it out of this world with our spirits intact. It is through gratitude that we can make a difference. It is only through gratitude that we are able to live fully into the life that God has given us from the very beginning.
May our lives this week and evermore be an unending prayer of “thank you” for all that God has done, is doing, and will be doing.
Thanks be to God. Amen.