11/22/2015 Sermon -Gratitude #4: “The Sound of Health (healthy relationships)”

I am grateful writingThis morning, I’d like to wrap up this series on Gratitude.  We’ve thought about making gratitude a lifestyle, regularly expressing gratitude to each other.  We need to express gratitude to God in the form of praise, giving honor to God, not just thanks (God, praise you for who you are.  Period.).

Expressing gratitude to God and the people around you can bring us both spiritual healing and physical healing.  Gratitude is good for us. Gratitude is good, and not just at Thanksgiving.  Our culture seems to connect it with eating a sumptuous meal, but the early history of Thanksgiving actually had little to do with food – it’s about people of different races coming together to celebrate survival (the “Pilgrims”), and about healing in a time of war (Abraham Lincoln established the holiday in 1863, at the height of the Civil War). But for us, it’s about gathering family to eat food, right?  Family and food.Thanksgiving 2015

And so I have this conversation with myself.  Be careful not to eat too much.  Or, do I eat what I want to eat and deal with it later (diet or workout)?  Am I thinking about it too much?  Don’t you think our culture has an unhealthy fixation on outward appearances?   On the other hand, from what I read, maybe it’s about time we started being more concerned about our health; what and how much we eat; the kind of exercise we get. The apostle Paul often referred to the Christian faith as a muscle that needs exercise, just as a boxer trains for a fight or a runner for a race.  It is he who first called the church “the Body of Christ” and told the Corinthians they needed better spiritual health.  I should think that this metaphor would mean even more to us since we live in such a health- conscious society.

1 Corinthians 12:14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

We tend to think of scripture as a kind of collection of timeless proverbs with universal wisdom.  And some of it is.  But sometimes we are eves-dropping on a conversation and you should be asking, “What in the world is going on between these people?”  And this is one of those times.  This Body of Christ was not well. In fact, the Apostle Paul came up with the metaphor of “Body of Christ” just for them.  It was a divided church, a group of people in conflict, people whose relational issues were getting in the way of their gratitude.
The foot was saying to the hand, “I don’t look like you, I don’t do what you do, I’m not sure I even like you, so I choose not to be with you.”  You get the metaphor.  I think you can imagine the conversation.  It had to do with economic differences between members, differences between gifts and abilities in the ministry of the church.  Judgments people were making about each other, and it was eating away at the ministry of this church in Corinth, making it ineffective.

My summary of 1 Corinthians goes like this:

There is no issue or attitude you’re hanging on to that’s worth sacrificing the love you have for each other through the living Christ and the relationship you share through the Holy Spirit.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  We all need each other.

DSC_5598 (2)Any issue that comes up within the church has the potential to become a virus.  You know of things that have come up here, and I know of things that have come up in other churches. The stories we could tell!  You have to have honest discussion, but any issue can become a crippling disease, unless you have an antidote for the virus.  That happens in the next chapter and includes words like,

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  (13:4-6).

And that truth is Christ.  That truth is the love of Jesus flowing through us because of our faith, helps us overcome the divisions, helps us defeat the prejudices.  Christ living in us makes us into tolerant, forgiving people.  God knows we can’t do that on our own.
The goal of gratitude is to get your mind off of thinking that other people owe you the kind patience and kindness (and so on) that you think they do. If you can appreciate them for who they are, you begin to change for the positive yourself.  I always like to say that nobody should be tolerating an abusive relationship, but if you’re praying for God to transform other people, good luck with that.  The “love is patient, love is kind” begins in you, in each of us. 

UCCLOGOWe are a United Church of Christ, or else we should change that sign by the street, and the logo at the top of our publications.  Can you read what it says at the bottom of the logo?  “That they may all be one.”  (John 17:22)  I am thankful to say that I believe that logo reflects the truth of what happens in here. But being a United Church of Christ, like any system of relationships, takes practice.  And there should be a warning symbol on that sign that says “God at Work.”  God is at work in all of us.  I don’t know about you, but God is not finished with me yet.

Every day, every event, every contact we have with family and members gives an opportunity and a challenge to be the people we say we are.  Sometimes it’s easy.  Almost effortless.  Sometimes it’s not so easy.
The goal is to go from saying,

“I have no need of you.”  (1 Corinthians 12:21)

to…

[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  (1 Corinthians 13:7)

Paul is talking about our attitude toward other people as we bear, believe, and endure…

..on the way to Gratitude. The path to Gratitude might be blocked by some expression of forgiveness, or tolerance, or love that needs to happen.  This holiday season might be just the right time for that kind of gift.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about a study that showed how regularly expressing gratitude is good for you in all ways.  There are far more studies showing that a lack of forgiveness, that an unwillingness to forgive is bad for you.

You might be somewhere between “I have no need of you,” and “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.”

It might be helpful to know where you are on the continuum.  In that spirit, listen to The Forgiveness Self-Test.

Forgiveness self-test

Where Are You on the Path toward Peace and Healing?

Forgiveness is a healing journey for both body and soul. Yet, even if you know in your heart that you want or need to forgive someone, the path toward peace can be difficult. To move forward, it often helps to have an accurate sense of where you are right now. The following check-up was developed from a longer test created by Susan Wade Brown, Ph.D., as part of her doctoral dissertation in psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, CA., edited by Robert Enright, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin The full test, designed with therapists in mind, has been used in many scientific studies by experts including Dr. Everett Worthington, creator of the REACH program for forgiveness. (To learn more about the elements of forgiveness and how to approach it, click here.)Take about five minutes to assess your thoughts, feelings and behaviors related to forgiveness. You may find, as many other have, that simply taking this check-up moves you forward toward peace.Think about the specific person you want to measure your forgiveness toward. Rate each item to the extent that the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors match your own.

0 = Strongly disagree | 1 = Disagree | 2 = Neutral | 3 = Agree | 4 = Strongly agree

1. I’m going to get even.
Strongly disagree 0 1 2 3 4 Strongly agree
2. I’ll make them pay.
Strongly disagree 0 1 2 3 4 Strongly agree
3. I replay the offense in my mind, dwelling on it.
Strongly disagree 0 1 2 3 4 Strongly agree
4. I think about them with anger.
Strongly disagree 0 1 2 3 4 Strongly agree
5. I can understand where they are coming from.
Strongly disagree 0 1 2 3 4 Strongly agree
6. I have a clear ability to see their good points.
Strongly disagree 0 1 2 3 4 Strongly agree
7. I prayed for them, asking God to bless them.
Strongly disagree 0 1 2 3 4 Strongly agree
8. I told God I forgive them.
Strongly disagree 0 1 2 3 4 Strongly agree
9. My resentment is gone.
Strongly disagree 0 1 2 3 4 Strongly agree
10. I feel peace.
Strongly disagree 0 1 2 3 4 Strongly agree

Found in The Psychology of Forgiveness, by Michael E. McCullough, Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, Charlotte Vanoyen Snyder, C. R. (Ed); Lopez, Shane J. (Ed), (2002). Handbook of positive psychology. , (pp. 446-458). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press, xviii, 829 pp.)

Prayer 

God, someone here needed to know how important they are to the Body of Christ in this place, and the Body of Christ in their home.  And you have called us be ambassadors of reconciliation, helping to knock down walls and build bridges between people, especially between ourselves.  You call us to be people who show Christ to everyone by loving each other, by getting over whatever it is that might come between us in our homes, our community and especially in our church.  Give this Body continued good health.  Through the power of your Spirit we pray.  Amen.

11/15/2015 Sermon – Gratitude #3: “The Sound of Healing”

I am grateful writingFor the last couple of weeks, we’ve been thinking about gratitude, and how God calls us to a lifestyle of gratitude, with God and with each other.  Giving praise to God is a huge part of our relationship with God.

The Apostle Paul was a great model for expressing praise and gratitude:

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?  Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  1 Thessalonians 3:9, 5:16-18

Gratitude can be like medicine for healing, both physical and spiritual healing, and that’s where our scripture will take us today:

Luke 17:11-19. On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean.15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

Thankwsgiving 2004Do you watch cooking shows?  For Thanksgiving dinner, do you always have the same thing year after year?  What do you think might be unique to your house? We just published a church cookbook in time for the holidays, and that should be giving a few opportunities to try something new.  I just found this list – if you burn the Thanksgiving turkey, here are twelve reasons to be thankful:

  1. Salmonella won’t be a concern.
  2. No one will overeat.
  3. Everyone will think it’s Cajun blackened.
  4. Uninvited guests will think twice next year.
  5. Your cheese-broccoli-lima-bean casserole will gain newly found appreciation.
  6. Pets won’t pester you for scraps.
  7. The smoke alarm was due for a test.
  8. Carving the bird will provide a good cardiovascular workout.
  9. After dinner, the guys can take the bird to the yard and play football.
  10. The less turkey Uncle George eats, the less likely he will be to walk around with his pants unbuttoned.
  11. You’ll get to the desserts quicker.
  12. You won’t have to face three weeks of turkey sandwiches.

A little exercise in thankfulness and gratitude.

*Research is showing that people who count their blessings may find themselves sleeping better, exercising more and caring more about others. People who remind themselves of the things they are grateful for — people who count their blessings one by one, consciously, every day — show significant improvements in mental health, and even in some aspects of physical health. And these results appear to be true whether you are a healthy college student or an older person with an incurable disease, according to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
You may be a leper on your last leg, but you are going to benefit from counting your blessings.

Here’s how the study worked: College students were asked to fill out a weekly report of five things for which they were grateful. They listed such things as “the generosity of friends” and “the Rolling Stones.” (maybe a group had just been to a concert) Another group, made up of adults with incurable diseases such as polio, were asked to write down a list of things that made them thankful.

Comparable groups were asked to count their hassles, instead of their blessings. They listed aggravations such as “hard to find parking” and “finances depleting quickly.” Instead of focusing on how rich they were, members of these groups focused on their poverty.

The results were predictable. In the end, the grateful groups felt better about their lives and more optimistic about their futures. The thankful college students exercised more, and the chronically ill adults who focused on blessings reported sleeping longer and waking up refreshed. The members of the grateful groups were also nicer to neighbors and more willing to help people with personal problems, leading the researchers to conclude that gratitude can serve as a “moral motivator.”

Being thankful is good for your physical, mental and moral health. It doesn’t seem to matter what you are grateful for, as long as you count your blessings. You can be appreciative of green grass, or generous friends, or loving family members, or pleasant elevator conversations. You can even thank God for the Rolling Stones.

[above material adapted from “Leper #10”, www.homileticsonline.com, November 27, 2003]

On a country road, Jesus meets 10 people with leprosy who need healing.  To get the full meaning from this story, first, we need to remember why Luke is telling this story about Jesus.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.  Luke 17:5-6

So, this will be a story about faith; try to remember that.

We know leprosy as a specific disease – Hanson’s disease – and when it’s untreated, it creates disfigurement that’s very difficult to look at.  But in Jesus’ time, Leprosy could have been any skin disease and there are two chapters in Leviticus about it (13 & 14).  According to the law, lepers had to wear torn clothes, dishevel their hair, cover their mouths, and yell out, “Unclean,” whenever they were near others. This is why they call out to Jesus from a distance; they were warning him that they had leprosy.  They couldn’t live among healthy people, so the only community available was with other lepers out in the countryside. You get a sense of their shame in the details.

Here are these ten lepers, horrible to look at, probably mostly Jewish, but at least one of the group was a Samaritan.  Normally Jews and Samaritans had nothing to do with one another (Jesus might be walking along the border of Samaria/Galilee to avoid traveling through), but the leprosy made these old prejudices disappear.  All lepers were outcasts from their families, their homes, their work, and their community.  Lepers could not live with healthy people, but they couldn’t survive alone, so they stuck together in remote places where they were forced to beg.

When you think about it, Jesus has a strange reaction to these people.  Maybe some of the details are missing, but he doesn’t seem to take the time for warm compassion, and doesn’t even seem willing to get personally connected.  He tells them, “Go show yourselves to the priests.”  Were there priests who lived in a nearby town?  Was he encouraging them to their home community of faith?  Did this little episode stretch out over time?  Maybe days?

Hiking in the area between Galilee and Samaria. CN - 2011.
Hiking in the area between Galilee and Samaria. CN – 2011.

But I wonder to myself, “Why the walk? Why couldn’t Jesus just heal them right there?”  Maybe that’s what they thought.  It’s hard to know if they were even expecting to be healed.  They might have just been begging for money.  They ask Jesus for help, and he tells them to go do the thing you are supposed to do when you are already healed.   So this is all about faith, believing that Jesus has the power to do the thing you need.  People, believe you will be healed and take that step.  And when the one returns to thank him, Jesus said to him, “your faith has made you well.”  The other nine only got rid of their leprosy; the Samaritan was made well.

If we could only learn to go to Christ when life isn’t desperate.  An 18th century Jewish rabbi once said, “If you are asked how things are, don’t whine and grumble about your hardships. If you answer ‘Lousy,’ then God says, ‘You call this bad? I’ll show you what bad really is!’  When asked how things are and, despite hardship or suffering, you answer ‘Good,’ then God says, ‘You call this good? I’ll show you what good really is!'”

What does God want from us as we travel through life?  Faith!  Trust.  Gratitude.  When bad times come along, we go to God for help, for inner strength, for peace, for healing.  And along the way, God gives so many opportunities to be thankful.  Real spiritual wellness comes when we thank God for those good things that come along, big or small, and you can find those good things when even life seems lousy.  We are each part of an imperfect, sinful world.  We need forgiveness.  We need healing.  We need to be made well, to have faith, to trust.  We need to give thanks, to make gratitude a lifestyle.

Someone here is taking a step of faith toward healing; it might be a healing that no one else can see.  Others are thinking about how God has made a difference in their lives.  Today is the perfect day to take a moment and thank God.

Someone else might be thinking about the terrorist attacks in Paris, which leave me a little speechless, but I appreciate what Fred Rogers had to say:  “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

“We hold it to be the mission of the Church to witness to the Gospel and Jesus Christ in all the world, while worshiping God and striving for trust, justice, and peace and to make a difference through the love of Christ.”  (SPUCC Covenant of Membership)

We have identified ourselves as helpers.  During the holidays, you might find an opportunity to use your gratitude as a reservoir for helping.  Maybe you’d like to contribute to the food collection we always have for the food pantry.  Maybe a little time given somewhere.  Maybe an extra helping of tolerance or forgiveness in your own household.  Pray that God gives you opportunities.

Prayer

O God, we feel so hopeless sometimes, so alone, so untouchable, needing to be healed by you.  And you stand by us, waiting for us to turn to you, waiting for us to believe.  All along, we know that the ups and downs, the good times and bad times along the road, all these things have been leading us to you.  You are the destination; you are the one we have been looking for.  Within ourselves, we know you hold the key to the peace and fulfillment we know we need and only you can give.  Forgive our lack of courage in turning to you.  Forgive us for being so preoccupied with ourselves that we ignore you when you call.  But now we open the door of our lives to you.  We thank you for all the circumstances and people you’ve given us; we thank you for our church, for all the ways you’ve brought us to yourself.  With faith in your living son Jesus, we each give ourselves to you.  Only you can make us clean.  Transform us through your Spirit into the kind of people, who are known for their faith in a loving God, known as people who bring peace to a hurting world.  Amen.

11/8/2015 Sermon – Gratitude #2: “The Sound of Praise”

Last week we began a series focusing on gratitude and how God calls us to a lifestyle of gratitude, with God and with each other.  You heard Paul say, “We always give thanks to God for all of you.”  We spent a little time expressing gratitude to other people during our worship, and I heard that continued after the services.  The church thrives on gratitude and it’s a huge part of our relationship with God.

This morning, we’re going to direct our gratitude straight to God.  There is no better scripture to use than Psalm 100.  Psalm 100 is often called a doxology. Doxology means “Words of Glory.”

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.

Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.

For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.

Note: This sermon is based on an idea presented in www.homileticsonline.com.  The “Sound of Soul” (November 21, 1999)

How does that flute work?  No one knows. Really. No one knows precisely. Not even the most accomplished flute player.  Not the person who made the instrument. Not even the best scientists of sound — specialists who spend their lives studying the acoustics of music.  That kind of sound is a mystery.  There’s more to it than just blowing air into an opening and covering holes with fingers.

The key to the mystery seems to be air turbulence. Jets and swirls and waves of air pressure come together at the heart of wind instruments to make the vibrations we hear as music. Like a horizontal tornado.  This turbulence has only been recently photographed by scientists.  And they still can’t say for sure that these little swirls of air are what makes the flute sound the way it does.  Isn’t that interesting?  Such a basic thing, been around for thousands of years, and we don’t completely understand it.

I used to have coffee every other week with an Ivy League physics professor, and we would talk about mystery, un-explainable things, and our limited knowledge of the things of the universe.  He was a believer because he accepted mystery and could ask, “Why not?”  Science is a continuous exploration of the mysteries of God’s creation, and this is one of those mysteries: how sound is produced in a flute.  Scientific truth isn’t at odds with God.  Science shows how awesome and incomprehensible God is.

Faith is our willingness to embrace the experience of mystery, without having to understand how everything works.

We don’t know exactly why a flute sounds the way it does.  But we DO know what a soul in tune with God sounds like. We do know what believers sound like when they are connected to God.  It is the simple sound of praise, and anybody who believes can play this instrument.

“Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth,” is what Psalm 100 says. “Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing.”  Psalm 100:1

We can make joyful noises.  We can come into God’s presence singing.  Give it a try.

Now, we can get an idea of what this psalm means if we act like scientists for a moment, and use our imaginations to do a little acoustical research on these words. The book of Revelation comes close to describing our prayers this way…

 And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God… Revelation 8.4

Picture yourself shooting this psalm into the opening of a researcher’s test instrument, and then photographing the jets, swirls and movements.  Here it goes, joyful noise into a high-tech testing device, prayer set to music aimed toward God….

 “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” was played on the organ – lightly, the first stanza.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  That is worship.  (You realize, by the way, that an organ is nothing more than a huge collection of flutes!)

If church needs to be defined as a business, worship is what we produce. Worship is the most important thing we do.  It’s what believers do together.  Peel it all away and worship is the purpose of the church – everything we do is a product of worship.  And the most basic content of that worship is giving God praise.  Giving God gratitude.

Everyone, no matter how young or old they are, can stop for a moment and say, “Praise God, praise you, Lord.  ” Praise God from whom all blessings flow (Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser used to sing this to himself during games when he was under pressure).  The power of change is here for each of us – and all of us together when we praise God, when we praise the God from whom all blessings flow.  It’s possible that this is so simple it’s hard.

We are an instrument of worship.  It’s why we are here. We come together to praise God and something supernatural happens in the room that we don’t completely understand.  It changes us as we do it.

If we can visualize the air pushed through this instrument swirling around like smoke in a breeze, or incense in a bowl, we get a sense of what worship is: the lifting, or pushing to God of our praise, through our own souls.  God hears it and thinks, “Wow. This is beautiful.”

The next stanza of the Doxology is played:  “praise him all creatures here below”

Yangshuo, China.  CN - 2007
Yangshuo, China. CN – 2007

The most natural expression of worship happens through music.  And that is a spiritual mystery.  What’s the psychological connection to worship and these sounds we hear and make?  A mystery.  But God wants it: come before his presence with singing.  It’s a command, a command performance from the king.  We hear about British musicians giving command performances before the royal family.  Handel’s Messiah was written for the king.  And now it’s your turn.  God the King has called for a command performance.  It’s okay to be a little nervous.

Serve the Lord with gladness – come into his presence with singing.  It’s a worship service, because we worship our King, because we are servants of this King.  When we gave ourselves to Christ, we gave ourselves to the King; God is in charge here, not us.

But this is not a heavy-handed king. This king loves us, and we have every reason to “come into his presence with singing.”  We love to be there.  It’s amazing to be in the presence of this king; this king isn’t protected by a security detail; this king embraced you at the door as soon as you walked in!

Palestinian Shepherd“It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” (v. 3)

This king doesn’t sit on a throne in a palace; this king looks an awful lot like a shepherd, taking care of a flock that needs a lot of help and guidance.  A shepherd who will give his life for those sheep.  The King, the God of the universe comes to be with us in the most personal ways.

And so, we have a lot to be grateful for.  A lot of reasons to give God praise.  When somebody asks you to say a public prayer, don’t panic.  I know that some of you panic!  It’s easy.  Just start by saying, “Praise you God…” and say the first things that come to your mind.  I praise you God for who you are, for giving us life, for creating this day…

The next stanza of the Doxology is played: “praise him above, ye heavenly hosts”

The most beautiful music this instrument plays in worship is music of praise. This is how we have relationship with the God the Creator, God the King.

“Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.” (v. 3)

Let’s think about that word “thanksgiving.”  When we think of Thanksgiving, the American holiday, and Thanksgivings past, most of us remember family, friends, and the many things for which we are thankful.  Blessings.  What exactly do you remember about Thanksgiving?  The people.  Those most valuable things on our thanksgiving list are the things that could not be bought with anything in our pockets or checkbooks.  And we should be thankful.

But this scripture, this psalm, calls us to focus our impulse for thanksgiving, our impulse for worship, completely on God. We take ourselves out of the equation; we give thanks to God, for God.  Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  It’s beautiful music to God’s ears.

 The next stanza of the Doxology is played:  “praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

 Each of us can remember can remember a time when it wasn’t easy to praise God.  Someone here may be having that experience now.  Maybe there has been a death, or a separation, or a financial setback.  Do not give up.  God promises that the blessings will flow

 For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations. (v. 4)

There is the story in the second chapter of Mark, when four friends of a paralyzed man couldn’t bring him to Jesus because of the crowd that was around him, so they tore a hole in the roof above where Jesus was and lowered him through it.  They could see from where the blessings were flowing.  And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “My son, your sins are forgiven,” and he was healed.

There are times when we carry our friends and family because they can’t make it there themselves.  There are times when we give encouragement. There are times when we are simply there for each other.  We hold a hand, we pray.  If we make gratitude a lifestyle, if we “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” those blessings from God flow through us to the people we live with and work with and go to school with.  We become God’s flowing blessing.

Because the blessings flow, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me.”  Praising God with a grateful heart gives us the strength – and the willpower – to walk out of the dark valleys together.  We are all overcoming together.  We are all praising God together.  We praise God from whom all blessings flow.  And God loves the music of our praise.

 Prayer

We sing:

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

11/1/2015 Sermon – Gratitude #1: “The Sound of Saints”

1 Thessalonians 1:1-5.  Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:  Grace to you and peace.

2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4For we know, brothers and sisters* beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake.

The sermon series this month is going to get us thinking about gratitude and thanksgiving.  Just to get ourselves into that kind of space, let’s watch this video…

As I think over possible sermon themes from month to month, it seems to me that many of us who have the responsibility to stand in front of the church and speak during worship are oftentimes talking about problems. And God knows we have a lot of them.  Individually, we have challenges.  As a culture, we have issues.  As God’s church in the midst of it all, how do we live through the hard things of real life with faith?  We get together like this and worship, listen to God’s Word, and God gives us strength through our faith.  Together.  We leave, and maybe can see our problems in a new way.  Then we come back the next week for a refresher!

I’d like to think for a moment about the times in between, and about how we train our minds and hearts to live life in a fulfilled way, in a joyful way.  In a contented way.  And I see a direct connection to gratitude.

We’ve got two Bible studies going on right now, and both of them are about our need for Sabbath.  Quiet time-space to just stop and breathe, to let God speak to you and help you get your spiritual bearings.

I didn’t just change the subject; in that quiet space, the first thought, the first prayer, needs to be one of gratitude.  Then thankfulness and gratitude should permeate our conversation with each other – it’s one of the ways you “love your neighbor as yourself.”  If we can make that our habit, I believe a lot of amazing things can happen, and the power of God can do a lot of good in our lives.

So, this month, we’re going to be thinking about gratitude.  A lifestyle of gratitude.  Researchers at the University of Georgia just published a study on the importance of gratitude in a marriage, and I would say, in all relationships…

After interviewing 468 married individuals on relationship satisfaction, covering everything from communication habits to finances, they found that the “most consistent significant predictor” of happy marriages was whether one’s spouse expressed gratitude. “Feeling appreciated and believing that your spouse values you directly influences how you feel about your marriage, how committed you are to it, and your belief that it will last,” (says study co-author Ted Futris).

And that goes for good times but perhaps especially bad ones—when couples experience stress and their communication devolves into what the researchers call a demand/withdraw cycle – i.e., one partner demands or criticizes; the other tries to avoid a confrontation. Gratitude can disrupt this, acting as a buffer.

“What distinguishes the marriages that last from those that don’t is not how often they argue, but how they argue and how they treat each other on a daily basis,” says Futris. (Adds lead author Allen Barton,) the study “goes to show the power of ‘thank you'” and suggests a “practical way couples can help strengthen their marriage.”

And while expressing thanks has been shown to boost one’s health, (reports the Huffington Post,) this shows how doing so can positively impact someone else, too. 

      (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/pere.12094/full)

Clapping Hands 2We always give thanks to God for all of you.  That’s how Paul begins his first letter to the church in Thessalonica.  We always give thanks to God for all of you.  I could say that to you.  There are so many reasons.  And I know that you could say it to each other.

Think of a time when you were truly thankful to God.  When I ask you, in this moment, where you sit, if you are thankful, and the reason for your thankfulness, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?  I know that it might have some connection to the people in your family.  The church is a different kind of family.  And this family thrives on gratitude also.   Let’s think of some ways to express gratitude to the people in this room; speak to someone who is here with you today.

Gratitude – that’s what believers sound like; that is what saints sound like.  That is what we should sound like.

This is All-Saints Day, a very old tradition in the church, and traditionally in the church, this is when we have a time of remembrance during worship, to give honor to church members who have passed away during the last year and we thank God for them. Reading the names brings back a lot of memories.

But I wonder if you realize that you are a saint.  The word saint is used 66 times in this version of the Bible (only once in the Old Testament), and it is almost always used as a kind of nickname for living people who believe in Jesus.  These are people who have trusted in Christ as their savior, and because they believe their sins died with him on the cross, they are sanctified.  Their only qualification to be called a saint, or, “sainthood,” is faith in Christ.  In the Bible, everyone who believes is a saint.  No acts of heroism, special ability, or halo required!  If Christ is your savior, you are a saint!

“We always give thanks to God for all of you.” That is what saints sound like.  Believers in Christ should always be able to finish that sentence in a genuine way… with their families, in their workspace, and especially in their churches.  It’s not as if faith is an escape from unpleasantness, but I do believe that faith gives you a greater strength to rebound from hard things.  Believers are grateful people, especially during hard times.   The presence of Christ in our lives makes it possible when gratitude seems impossible.  A regular exercise of gratitude can change how you see the world.

Robben Island Prison, Cape Town, South Africa.  CN - 2008.
Robben Island Prison, Cape Town, South Africa. CN – 2008.  Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years of imprisonment here.

In a book called Visions of a World Hungry, Thomas G. Pettepiece described a communion service that was joyous even when there seemed to be no reason for joy. The experience took place on Easter in a [unnamed] prison with almost 10,000 political prisoners. In that setting a score of Christian prisoners experienced the joy of celebrating communion without bread or wine – a communion of empty hands.

The non-Christians said: “We will help you; we will talk quietly so that you can meet.” Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards’ attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. “We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine,” I told them, “but we will act as though we had” …

I held out my empty hand to the first person on my right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Afterward, all of us raised our hands to our mouths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. “Take, drink, this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with men. Let us give thanks, sure that Christ is here with us, strengthening us.”

We gave thanks to God, and finally stood up and embraced each other. A while later, [a] non-Christian prisoner said to me: “You people have something special, which I would like to have.” [A father who had lost his daughter] came up to me and said: “Pastor, this was a real experience! I believe that today I discovered what faith is. Now I believe that I am on the road.”

-Ronald E. Vallet, Stepping Stones of the Steward (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989) 32.

Paul finishes his letter to the Thessalonians by saying:  15See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.16Rejoice always,17pray without ceasing,18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:15-18)

Let’s not wait until Thanksgiving to express gratitude to God and to each other.  Let’s make it part of the daily language it needs to be in our homes, with our families and friends, and especially in the life of our church.  Let’s make gratitude a lifestyle.  Honest gratitude is a tool God will use in huge ways.

Prayer

God, we give you our humble gratitude this morning, confessing that we are not always as grateful as we should be.  Not only have you given us yourself through Jesus, you have surrounded us with people who always look out for us. You have given us family and friends who bless us every day with good things. We thank you for the ways you speak to us through them.  And we thank you for challenging situations – and people – that stretch us.  Help us remember to give thanks in all circumstances so that you can use us as tools to make a difference in the world you love. Amen.