Cultivate Gratitude

“Cultivate Gratitude”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; Sept. 24, 2017

16th Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 16:2-15 and Matthew 20:1-16

 

It was his first day at a new school and Teddy approached his teacher. “Teacher, what kind of school is this?” The teacher asked, “Well, what kind of school was your last school?” With a smile on his face, Teddy said without reservation, “Oh it was a very nice school.  The teachers were the best, the students were friendly, and learning was so much fun.”  The teacher responded, “Then Teddy, I have good news for you. You’ll be quite happy at your new school because it’s the same way here—good teachers, friendly students, and learning is lots of fun.”

 

It was her first day at the same school and Sally approached her teacher. “Teacher, what kind of school is this?” The teacher asked, “Well, what kind of school was your last school?” With a frown on her face, Sally said, “It was terrible. The teachers were too strict. The students weren’t nice at all. I never learned a thing.” The teacher responded, “Then Sally, I have some bad news for you. You’re probably not going to like it here either.”

 

Often, the old saying is so true: Life—it’s what you make of it!

 

In our reading from Exodus, we happen upon the people of Israel who have safely crossed the Red Sea by the powerful hand of God. For their thirst, they have been provided fresh water. God’s generosity is all around them even to the point of God leading them to a place where there are 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees. What an incredible sight that must have been to behold. In response to this God-blessing, what do the people of Israel do? In the twinkling of an eye, they forget God’s provision and power. In fact, at their very next stop, the people pull up a seat on the sand in front of poor Moses and they get right to it. The whole congregation has one thing in mind—complaining! Against Moses and Aaron they complain, and, of course, against God, “Why didn’t Yahweh just let us die in Egypt where at least we could eat our fill?” Nevertheless, God pours out blessings and provision as if to say, “If it’s proof you want, it’s proof you’ll have.” In the twinkling of an eye, manna falls from the heavens.

 

The pattern repeats itself down through the ages. God provides. People dance and celebrate. Then people forget God’s goodness. They praise God less while asking for more. Eventually, they become numb to God’s generous nature—as if they have never seen it before, never witnessed it in this God-given life they call their own. In time, God provides the greatest gift of all—his Son. Jesus steps into history as a helpless baby, grows into a man, and reveals God’s goodness with a different slant. It is a different slant that we happen upon today in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew. But before we get to the laborers in the vineyard, let’s back up a few verses to the end of chapter 19.

 

The rich young man comes to Jesus asking about eternal life. When he declares that he has kept all the commandments, Jesus looks into his heart and identifies the real stumbling block for the young man—love of possessions. So Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. When the young man hears Jesus’ words, he goes away grieving. Then Jesus remarks that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. The disciples are astounded. Peter speaks up (as Peter so often does): “Well, we’ve given up everything for you. What will we get in return?” (It seems Peter is interested in a little quid pro quo.) In response, Jesus gives Peter a preview of coming attractions by relaying a story about a generous landowner who hires workers throughout the day to care for his vineyard. Some begin working early in the morning, some around nine, some at noon, some about three. Others show up just before quitting time. When it’s time to settle accounts, the workers line up for their pay, beginning with those who’ve arrived last. Lo and behold, everyone gets the same pay—those who work one hour and those who have worked all day.

 

How do the workers react? Well, they do what we would expect them to do—what we would likely do—they complain. “We’ve been out here in the heat of the day working, back’s breaking—we’re worn out, and look at them over there. They hardly broke a sweat. This isn’t fair!”  But the landowner sees things from a different perspective. “Now wait a minute, I’ve done nothing wrong. You agreed to the wages. If I am feeling especially bighearted and I want to be generous with everyone, what’s that to you? I can do what I want with what is mine. Look me straight in the eye and tell me, are you jealous of my generosity?”

 

Well, are we? Are we jealous of a loving and caring God who pours down rain on the just and the unjust? If the last will be first and the first will be last, where do we stand? And if we are standing somewhere we don’t especially like, must we complain and be ungrateful?

 

Jesus, the Master Teacher, who endeavors to teach his disciples the fundamentals of the right way of living, repeatedly takes them back to school. Jesus takes Peter back to school at the end of the Gospel of John. On the beach by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus fixes breakfast for his disciples. Afterward, he and Peter take a walk down the beach and Jesus begins to tell Peter about Peter’s future. “When you were young you dressed yourself and went wherever you wished, but when you get old you’ll have to stretch out your hands while someone else dresses you and takes you where you don’t want to go.” [i]  Herein Jesus hints at the way Peter will end his life on this old earth—all to glorify God. Then he says, ‘Follow me.’”

 

And what does Peter do? Immediately, he looks down the beach, sees the disciple whom Jesus loves following behind them and asks, “What about him?” Jesus asks him, “What’s that to you?” Jesus is saying to Peter (and now to us, for that matter), “Don’t compare your life to anyone else’s life.” What Jesus is doing for or with someone else is none of your business. Your business is to follow Jesus. Your business it to keep your eyes on the Master Teacher!

 

Jesus is fully aware of our tendency to compare ourselves to others, to keep checking to make sure we get what is our due—what is fair! But being guided by questions like, “What about him? What about her? What’s in this for me?” leads nowhere fast. We measure with the wrong yardstick and end up unhappy and ungrateful.

 

Here’s a thought: What might happen if we began to cultivate gratitude as a spiritual practice? The word cultivate means to loosen or break up the soil in order to prepare the fields for planting. It also means to foster the growth of, to improve by labor, care or study. What if each one of us began to pay special attention to our own inner lives—to seek to improve by labor, care, or study—to cultivate the spiritual practice of gratitude? How might we grow?

 

Gratitude is one of the core responses of a disciple of Christ. Everything we do, from singing to worshiping to serving as a leader or teacher of the church to sharing in the life of this community in this time and place—should be a direct response to God’s abounding love for us. Surely it’s justified. Cultivating gratitude might begin with something as simple and as complex as gaining a different perspective; claiming a different attitude. While we may get all our things together to be schooled by Jesus—notebooks, pens, calculators, laptops—you name it—there is one thing that should be at the top of our “supply list.” Our attitude—it goes where we go. And everywhere we go—there we are—there we are with our criticisms and ungratefulness, our hopes and our dreams.

 

Although I am not proposing that we deny the hard things of life, taking on some Pollyanna attitude, I am convinced, we would live a fuller life if we began each morning with this thought: The very breath that fills my lungs is a gift from God. Thank you, God! Every day—God is more generous than we can fathom. But is our first thought to appreciate God’s goodness? Do we open our eyes and lips to praise God—first and foremost? Or do we go from morning to night with hardly a thought of God. We are, after all, so very, very busy!

 

Yes, it’s back to school and the lesson for today is this: Being a follower of Christ—well, it’s not about us. It’s about God who gave us life. Our life begins and ends as a gift. What we do with that life—well, that is our gift back to God!

 

Today marks the beginning of our Stewardship Campaign—the theme of which is “Cultivate Gratitude.” Next Sunday you will receive your Stewardship Packet which will include, among other things, a colorful wristband like this one that reads, “FPC of Valdosta / Cultivate Gratitude. (Notice the Presbyterian blue and red—or at least as close as Katie Altman and I could manage.) Consider wearing your wristband as a reminder of God’s generosity. Consider wearing it as a reminder to pray for your own inner spiritual life as well as the inner spiritual life of those around you.

 

In the coming weeks and months and years, may we cultivate gratitude as a spiritual practice. May we grow—flourish, even. Increasingly, may we give praise and thanksgiving to the One who gives us life—offering all that we have and all that we are to the One who offers us love beyond measure.

 

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[i] John 21:18, The Message

*Cover Art “Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard” By Lawrence W. Ladd via Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain

God’s Grace in Your Life

“God’s Grace in Your Life”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; Sept. 3, 2017

13th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 23; Hebrews 11:1-6; 12:1-2

 

Over the course of the summer, we’ve been searching for God’s grace in the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. We looked at Jeremiah who is called at a young age to bring a tough message to God’s people. Even though the people pay him little mind, Jeremiah presses on because he recognizes the hope available for all who repent. Esther showed up in our survey. When given a choice of protecting herself or protecting her people, Esther seeks justice no matter the cost. In the person of Rahab, we witness God’s redemption provided for insiders and outsiders because all who believe are welcomed into God’s loving embrace. Daniel lives a life at odds with Babylon. At a young age, he stands up for what he believes in. As an old man, he continues a life of disciplined prayer—come what may. Hannah is without child.  Incessantly mocked by Penninah (Elkanah’s other wife), no one can help her so Hannah takes her plea to God and God has mercy. Joseph is his father’s favorite—a fact that is made quite obvious to his siblings every time they see him walking around in his special coat.  Through trial and adversity, eventually, Joseph grows into his coat and becomes a man of substance through whom God accomplishes amazing things. We examined the life of Enoch.  Enoch’s story is simple: Enoch walks with God.  Enoch’s story is extraordinary: Enoch walks with God and then he is no more for God took him. Moses resists God’s call. But in the presence of the Great I AM, Moses is transformed into a man who eagerly seeks the face of God. Ruth, a woman from Moab, a foreigner, a widow, speaks incredible words of love and commitment to her mother-in-law—words that redefine the meaning of family and faith—words that demonstrate what the loyalty of God looks like.

 

As a church, we have been searching for God’s grace. Surely, we have found it! God’s unmerited favor abounds—which brings us to those oh-so-familiar words penned long ago by the psalmist:

 

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. The shepherd is in control. Often, we want control. Don’t we? But the role of the Shepherd is already taken. We are the sheep—our job is to follow.

 

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. When will we lie down in green pastures? Not when we feel threatened but when we feel protected and cared for. And this right path? It may not be a path to earthly fame but it is a deeper path set before those who long to be near our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. The Lord carries the staff in hand. When need be, the Lord carries us.

 

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Imagine a lovely meadow with a stream passing through it.

There sits a rough-hewn table and chairs and, lo and behold, God appears with a tablecloth to spread across it. Then God looks at you and me and beckons us to come forward.  God prepares the table—oh what a gracious and hospitable God we serve.

 

Yes, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

 

God’s grace abounds for all who have faith. And what is faith? Scripture tells us faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen. Faith in the Living God shaped the lives of the Hebrew people. It shapes us, too, if we have the courage to answer the call to be ambassadors for Christ.

 

Christ the King Catholic Church in San Diego has a statue of Jesus on their property. In 1980, the members of the church were astounded when it was damaged. Vandals broke off Jesus’ hands so that his arms now end at the sleeves.  Although there were many offers to repair the statue, after much prayer and consideration, the church decided against it. Instead, they placed a plaque at the base of the statue that reads, “I have no hands but yours,” a reference to the well-known poem by St. Teresa of Avila:

 

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

 

Christ has no body—Christ has no hands—but yours!

 

As I worked on the sermon this week, I kept thinking about the work of your hands. I imagined Sissy Almand preparing the elements for Communion today; Kerri Routsong, Tom & Sue Miller, Libby George & Carol Busch chopping onions and peppers, galore, for delicious salsa to be sold at the Christmas Toys & Treats event. Donna Gosnell came to mind because with her hands awe-inspiring music pours forth from the piano and the organ and the flute. With their hands, Elise Phelps and Chasey Grodecki create beautiful drawings that are works of art. I thought of Brian Almand who made the swivel stand on which our sanctuary Bible rests and Grayson Powell who built the clock that graces the church office. Becky Stewart came to mind because she has the creative gifts to make everything around her more beautiful. Then I imagined all of you pitching in to help whenever and wherever needed—serving on Session and church committees, organizing events, singing in the choir, assisting with the Father Daughter Dance, the Bun Run, Break Bread Together, or Stop Hunger Now. And finally, I thought of the good work you do out in the world—caring for people, offering medical care or legal or financial advice, planting and harvesting and tending to God’s creation, providing needed services like accounting, teaching, or making travel arrangements for 21 people who are about to journey to Scotland. There is no doubt, in innumerable ways, you are the hands of Jesus in the world.

 

And Jesus, the pioneer, and perfecter of our faith beckons us onward.

 

What’s that in your hand, O Lord, our Shepherd?  All that you need, my child.

 

What’s that in your hand, Jeremiah? My excuse note.  Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.

 

What’s that in your hand, Esther? My purpose, which is to do the will of God at such a time as this, even if I should lose my life in the process.

 

What’s that in your hand, Rahab? A crimson cord that will bring God’s saving grace to all who are hidden safely in my house—even though I am a foreigner.

 

What’s that in your hand, Daniel? Only hands stretched out in prayer and praise for the God whom I serve, who has come in the night to shut the mouths of the hungry lions.

 

What’s that in your hand, Hannah? A baby.  I have named him Samuel for I have asked him of the Lord.

 

What’s that in your hand, Joseph? I hold forgiveness in my hands—forgiveness for my brothers who intended to do me harm, but God intended it for good.

 

What’s that in your hand, Enoch? Just an old staff I use when I go on my daily walks with God, through the fields of wildflowers and honey suckle, just over the ridge…forever.

 

 

What’s that in your hand, Moses? A shepherd’s hook for God has given me another flock to care for—God’s flock—God’s people.

 

What’s that in your hand, Ruth?  The hand of Naomi for where she goes, I will go. Where she lodges, I will lodge. Her people shall be my people and her God shall be my God.

 

What’s that in your hand, Jesus? The bread and the cup.  They tell my story.  They tell your story. Do this in remembrance of me.

 

 

What’s that in your hand, my sisters, and brothers in Christ?  The power to continue the story of God’s love, God’s mercy, and God’s grace in a world desperate for shalom—healing, wholeness, a full life.

 

At this time, let us turn our attention to our hands—those instruments that are a gift from God. 1 Peter 2:9 instructs, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…” Presbyterians believe in the priesthood of all believers so it’s not just the Minister or the Church Staff or the Elders who work in the Body of Christ. It’s all of us and it is all kinds of work. I invite you to join me in the litany printed in your bulletin after which we will humbly receive the anointing oil as a symbol of God’s blessing upon our hands of labor.

*Cover Art “A Tender and Grimy Grace” © Jan Richardson; Subscription.