Sunday, November 18, 2012

Change Focus

Change Focus
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 18, 2012
Gordonsville Community Thanksgiving Service
at Christ Episcopal Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 6:25-33

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,  or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. [1]  

Thank you all for inviting, or maybe it was drafting me to speak this year, which ever I'm very honored and excited to be before you this morning. Happy Thanksgiving to all. I hope that this week brings for you, all of you, happiness, time spent together with friends and with family, a chance to take a break from it all, at least for a day, and to give Thanks. Blessings also for those of you who will be giving of your time to serve. This holiday, Thanksgiving, especially, can bring out the very best in us, because I do think that gratitude is central to what it means to be human, and such a child of God, but my question for this evening is, "How often do we find ourselves unthankful, ungrateful, and even sometimes bitter, when we have that hard to deal with combination of expecting more and getting less?" It is this that seems to blind us to the truth about what we truly have and what we have been given.
Let's think for just a moment about our expectation. What are the things in our world that we simply expect to be taken care of. We simply expect it, we wake up in the morning, and we go through our day and things are happening all around us, but we don't even notice them. We are so insulated from the truth that surrounds us at every moment, that we have these unconscious expectations.  We expect them, and so we are not thankful for them. Bill Engvall, a comedian best known for his work with Jeff Foxworthy and that Blue Collar crowds, sums this idea up nicely when he's talking about losing his luggage on an air flight, he has this bit where he points out the silly way people tend to state the obvious, and he thinks they should have to wear a sign that says, I'm stupid, so he goes down to the lost luggage place, says hey yall lost my luggage, and the lady there, he says bless her heart, says "Has Your plane landed yet?" Which he replies with, "no princess I'm having an out of body experience," and his familiar refrain of "Here's your sign", but then he says something poignant, he says he didn't want to be too hard on her because as he says, "People in lost luggage never have a good day, no one ever comes by there to say, "hey thanks got my bags," instead all they do is catch grief all day. Isn't that true, a perfect picture of the fact that we don't thank folks for the things we expect. Most of us don't even realize there are "lost luggage" people until we need to use them.
We don't even notice the things we expect there until they are gone. Electricity and heat, and the convenience of grocery stores, and shopping malls, and the internet, and cell phones. Ask the folks who were so struck by hurricane Sandy how important electricity is to their lives as the temperature plummets and they are without heat, but did they feel as thankful for it mid September? Or think about us mid-summer when that storm swept through here knocking down trees and the power of many was out for days afterwards, and it was all of 100 humid degrees. So quickly it's gone, and we notice finally what we miss. We have all these things and we are dependent on all these things, but because we expect them, we rarely show our gratitude.
Do we even know where they all come from? Do we know the intricate process that brings power to our house so that we can heat our rooms, store our food at cool or freezing temperatures and then ratchet up the stove to extreme temperatures to boil our potatoes so we can mash them and swerve them up for our guests this Thursday? Do we know where our potatoes come from? Do we know the loving hands that planted the seed, row upon row upon row, somewhere in the middle of Idaho? These are the unthanked strangers to which we owe so much, but on the flipside we are also those same unthanked strangers for other unknown strangers because the services we provide throughout the world, the lives we live, they make an impact as well, though many times we also are blinded to the fact that our lives really do matter, from the big things we do to the small.
I'm a teacher as well as the pastor over at the Presbyterian Church, and at the end of the year we send a new group of seniors off into the world to go impact it, but the ripples of impact spiral out from us and we don't always see how they become manifest, sure we see that commencement day, but what's beyond? I think they call it the butterfly effect, that a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa can be the breeze that starts a hurricane. How are our actions effecting people? And are they thankful for what we give? Should they be?
But these are questions for another day, because this week we focus on the things that we are thankful for. Our Gospel passage talks about the gifts that God bestows upon birds, lilies, and grass. Now I know that it's a metaphor, but let's think about it literally for a moment. As an English teacher I think it is always important to understand the literal before jumping to the figurative. Would you be thankful for something so simple as what birds eat, the clothes that a lily wears, the monotone green of the grass's fall ensemble? Or do we expect more? But what is more exactly? What do we mean by more? Clothes, cars, stuff, whatever the guy next to us has, or our neighbor down the street, or those in the next tax bracket up, is that what we mean by more? To the birds God provides food, to the lilies water and sunlight, the same for the grass, and then they in turn provide their natural gift to the world. Would it require a lowering of our expectations to be truly thankful for the sunlight, water, air, and food that give us life, each breath, relationships, each day, a loving, sustaining, nurturing, providing, redeeming, forgiving, constant, saving God or would it instead take a change of focus? A look beyond the secondary sources back to the original source of all things. That is what we do this one week of the year. We try to reconnect, if just for a moment, to the source of our lives, so that we can be truly thankful for them.
Two events of have really clicked in my mind as I was trying to develop the ending for these remarks. One was this morning, our choir over at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church sang the hymn about counting your blessings, and it made me think of the song that Rosemary Clooney and others sang in White Christmas, when they sang

When I'm worried and I can't sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep
Counting my blessings

So I thought about how we are blessed in so many different ways, and how it is great to recount them to ourselves, so we can feel gratitude, but then another thing happened yesterday, too, that now has me thinking how we can take that old song's idea just a little bit further. Some of you may know that I am the Offensive Coordinator of the football team over at Blue Ridge School, and you may also know if you read the paper or watched the news that we won the state championship yesterday. What an amazing day! Afterwards we had a small team pizza dinner bought for us by the parents of the players, also very cool. But as we were about to start I put on my pastor panic thought, what if they ask me to pray? Absolute panic, who do I thank, who will I forget, etc. etc. But it got me thinking, how many people have created in some way the success that we had yesterday. Obviously the boys with their hard work and the other coaches and I had a deep role, but who shaped us, who shaped each player, every one of our experiences, all of our relationships, good and bad, all of them have created the individuals that won that game yesterday, and the hand of God was in all of those relationships. And I know this is just one example, but every blessing in our lives is like that as well, so instead of just counting our blessings I want us to also try to trace them.It is a good exercise to try to trace the amazing people who have touched us, and the amazing providential system that God sets up to provide all of the glorious blessings of our lives. I opened this evening talking about electricity, heat, and air conditioning, and those glorious potatoes from that unknown farmer our in Idaho. It's fun to trace our blessings from person to person, but it is also worthwhile to trace your blessings back to God. Not just going to sleep counting blessings, but tracing them, seeing the way that God provides for all of our needs, in ways so beyond our expectation that the very idea of expecting mocks God, for God gives ever so much more than what we can fathom, ever much more than what we can expect, ever so much more than what we can even understand, even the challenges, the struggles, the adversity, all of it is a blessing to us. May we be ever and truly thankful. Amen, which truly means, may it be so.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 6:25-33). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.