Advent: Hope for Fulfillment
Isaiah 2:1-5 First Sunday of Advent
What do you long for? In what ways do you feel unfulfilled?
Often our longings are low-level. Often they are expressed in one of my favorite song lyrics of all time, written by Cole Porter. It’s in the verse that begins “I Get a Kick Out of You”:
“When I’m out on a quiet spree,
fighting vainly the old ennui …”
Often our longings take that form – of a disquiet; a feeling that happiness is incomplete, somehow; a feeling of boredom, perhaps; of world-weariness.
But, as we gather in this place, there are always some of us who experience more intense feelings of longing. Some of us here this morning long for work that would be more fulfilling beyond the paycheck. Some of us are deeply missing a loved one who has died. Some can’t remember what it used to feel like before they were depressed. Some long for reconciliation with a loved one who’s alienated himself from the rest of the family. Some of us are even dealing with fear: waiting for surgery; waiting for test results; praying for the safety of a loved one who’s in harm’s way.
What do you long for? In what ways do you feel unfulfilled?
Do you know another way to ask that question? It is to ask: What do you hope for? That’s the Advent question!
Do any of you remember when the color for Advent was purple? Purple is the color of penitence, of prayer for forgiveness of sin. That used to be the theme of Advent. Advent used to be a mini-Lent! But, about a generation ago, worship leaders came to realize that there’s a difference between the seasons of Advent and Lent (when purple is used). While Lent retains the theme of penitence, Advent is more about hope. Blue is the color of hope!
Advent reminds us to be hopeful. During Advent we are called into faith practices that hone our attentiveness, that sharpen our perception. The days of Advent are days of preparation. Advent is not to be preparation for an annual, recurring celebration of the birth of the Christ child. Instead, Advent is a reminder to be alert to the ways God is breaking into our lives. We are looking for God’s advent, for God’s coming! “Your kingdom come,” we pray. We are looking for that time to come, promised by God, when God will bring fulfillment to our hopes! “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” we say in the creed, “and his kingdom will have no end.” Does that sound like something frightening? It does to someone who’s living comfortably, and who’s living only for herself. But for those who are following Jesus the Christ and whose discipleship has brought them deeply in touch with their own longings, and with the ways that others are unfulfilled, those words in the creed announce good news! Those are hopeful words!
What do you long for? In what ways are others unfulfilled? What are you hoping for? To answer those questions, don’t you have to be aware of what you’d really rather keep pushed down under the surface of your consciousness?
Do you know what that means? It means, during these weeks of Advent, that we followers of Jesus are called to be even more odd than we usually are! “It is the hard, unwelcome responsibility of the church to be utterly out of sync with its culture, to insist on a unique season of focus and renewal, and just at the peak holiday season…for four weeks of reflections about what we mortals most desperately need,” writes Joseph Phelps. We’re called to recognize what we really already know: “that our deepest longings will not be satisfied with gifts purchased at the mall or online.” Instead, Advent brings out “the inconvenient truth that the most significant act of defiance to be mustered in the face of life’s confusion and destruction is for a people to be shaped, again, by the primal hope that there is more in this life.” 
What do you long for? How do you feel unfulfilled? “Your kingdom come,” we pray. “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” we say in the creed, “and his kingdom will have no end.”
What if there is more to this time of year than trying to replicate our annual Christmas traditions? What if God is not finished? What if there is a fullness of time, a time yet to come? Here is what Advent is about: “honing the hope of a future reshaped by the presence and potency of God.”
What are you hoping for? “Bring back my son to me.” “Bring back my sister to me.” “Exorcise the demon of addiction in my husband, in my best friend.”
The mystery of the incarnation, Jesus the Christ, the Word made flesh, is God’s presence with us in our flesh; God with us in every human experience. That has happened. Christ has been born. Advent is about what God hasn’t done yet! Advent is about what is to come. We look for the advent of God. We look in hope.
Have you ever thought about what God hopes for us?
That’s what the prophet Isaiah is expressing in the verses we read this morning. Isaiah is speaking God’s hope, and it is more far-reaching than we can even think to imagine. Isaiah is speaking God’s hope of all people dor the world desiring God, walking in the paths of peace and reconciliation that God desires for all of God’s children. We read:
In days to come the mountain of the Lords’ house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
The prophet Isaiah expresses God’s hope for the time to come when all the peoples of the earth will be desiring God and will be streaming into God’s presence. Listen to the song we all will be singing!
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
What a song to sing! But think of the many other songs that we are encouraged to sing, songs that would seduce us to turn from the ways of the Lord and to wander down other paths. Think of the songs that encourage you to think that you’ll be happy if you can get free from your commitments and responsibilities, to just escape. Think of the songs that encourage you to think you’ll be happy if you buy this thing you want, that the one who dies with the most toys wins. (That last song will be the dominant one during these next weeks.) There times when you and I are seduced to believe the song that violence will solve problems; that, if you’re not getting your way you need to force yourself a little harder. And so, for instance, in international relations, we human beings are proud to forge a fragile six-month agreement with Iran. Big deal! How puny that tentative accomplishment is, compared with what God desires! Listen again to the prophet:
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshare,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
“Your kingdom come,” we pray. “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” we say in the creed, “and his kingdom will have no end.” Won’t that be wonderful?
What do you long for? How do you feel unfulfilled? How are others in need?
It is good to begin this season of Advent with these questions that get below the surface. Then we get down to what we spend so much energy covering up. Then we can get to the question of Advent: What are you hoping for?
What joyous promise there is for us, watching for God’s advent, knowing that God is not finished yet!
In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Andy Ballentine
 Joseph Phelps, “Preaching Advent Hope” in Journal for Preachers (Advent, 2013), page 6.
 Ibid., page 10.
A King Who Is a Shepherd
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43; Psalm 72; Philippians 2:5-11
Christ the King Sunday November 24, 2013
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last day of the church year. (A new liturgical year begins next Sunday, with the first Sunday in Advent.) “Christ” in Greek, “messiah” in Hebrew; they both mean “the anointed king of God.” Christ – the risen king of the kingdom of God. Each Sunday we pray, “Your kingdom come …”
Here’s the first question: Does any of this make any difference?
Well, what does God desire in a king – or in a President or Governor or Legislator or County Supervisor? That might be one way to get at this. These days, what type of politicians use God language? Aren’t they usually like the recently-defeated nominee for Lieutenant Governor in Virginia, someone who’s pandering to “religious right” political action groups? Usually, they emphasize “religious right” social agendas that have a lot to do with sexuality. We do live in a sex-obsessed culture. But have you ever discovered, when you actually read what’s in the Bible, that there’s hardly anything in it about sexuality? Certainly, when we read what’s in the Bible about God’s desires for a ruler, there is nothing about any sexual social agenda!
Instead, here’s what we discover: God desires a king who is a shepherd of his people.
* * *
Think of a shepherd. What is a shepherd’s job? The shepherd is one who guides the sheep, isn’t he? The shepherd is concerned that the sheep have enough to eat and to drink. The shepherd’s primary job is to gather the sheep together, for their well-being, for their protection. How many political leaders do we have today who would be described in this way? Did you notice how the prophet Jeremiah spoke to this, expressing God’s anger about the national rulers of that time and place? Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.
Psalm 72 is the most succinct expression of what God desires in the leader of a nation. In that Psalm, there are the words of tribute that you would expect to offer a king. For instance: May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations…. May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust. May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.
But there are many verses that surprise us. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor…. In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more….For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight. Notice who is singled out for special protection: the poor, those who are helpless, those who are oppressed.
And there is great talk of blessing in Psalm 72! Blessing means flourishing! According to the Bible, God’s desire is for the king to bring God’s blessing, for the flourishing of the people – particularly for those who have been named: for the poor, for those who are oppressed by the powerful and the rich! Here are some representative verses: Long may he live! May gold of Sheba be given to him. May prayer be made for him continually, and blessings invoked for him all day long. May there be abundance of grain in the land; may it wave on the tops of the mountains; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field. May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun. May all nations be blessed in him; may they pronounce him happy. Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things. Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.
* * *
King Jehoiachin has not been God-pleasing in these ways. You know Jehoiachin, right? He’s the king that the prophet Jeremiah is addressing. Jeremiah speaks God’s anger! In fact, God is angry about the whole line of kings that Jehoiachin is descended from. “Shepherds” is in the plural. Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah.
God sends Jeremiah to advocate for the people against their rulers! Do you notice whose side God takes? “The sheep of my pasture,” says God! “My people!”
Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD. The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
God is going to throw out all the kin of Jehoiachin, and install another line of ancestors from David: The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch. We who are Christians see that pointing to the descendent of David named Jesus: Christ the King.
But what kind of a king? Here is the gospel passage appointed for today:
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Is this what you would expect to happen to the Christ, the anointed king of God? Wow. There’s a whole lot going on in this Christ the King thing, huh?
God desires a king who is a shepherd. Indeed, God became human flesh in Christ the King; in Jesus who says, in John’s gospel: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11) In Jesus, God became human flesh in a Palestinian peasant, one who was poor and powerless in worldly terms, one who spent all of his time not only with the poor, but also with those considered to be unclean, with those who were outcast.
* * *
In the readings for this Sunday of Christ the King, is there a political agenda for our time and place?
It is simplistic and dangerous simply to apply the Bible directly to our social and political issues, because the stories in the Bible come out of an entirely different time and place. Would Jeremiah disparage our leaders in the same way he takes off after King Jehoiachin and his kin? I leave this to your judgment as citizens of our democracy. We can say one thing for sure: Christ the King provides a model of how you and I are called to act, since, after all, we are citizens of the kingdom of God, and are called to imitate Jesus’ gutsy and undaunted humility in action and speech, imitating his love and grace, gathering people together and not dividing them, caring for the poor and the oppressed in particular.
In her book, Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor writes this: “If Jesus meant for his followers to rule the world, then why did he teach them to wash feet? As difficult as it is to accept, I believe that his death on the cross reveals the God who suffers for love instead of punishing the unloving, the God who lays down his life for his friends.”
There’s a theology of the cross for this Sunday of Christ the King.
In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Andy Ballentine
Thank God for the Poor
Luke 21:5-19 Time After Pentecost Lectionary 33
Here’s a verse from Second Corinthians: For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you, through his poverty, might become rich. (Second Corinthians 8:9)
In this morning’s Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus’ disciples are admiring the magnificence of the Temple in Jerusalem, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God. Could it be they had never traveled to Jerusalem before and this was their first sight of the Temple? They were overwhelmed! It was over four football fields long, constructed of stones some of which weighed tons! The disciples were awed by it, akin perhaps to one’s first visit to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (although the Temple was about twice the size of St. Peter’s).
The disciples’ stupor didn’t last long. Jesus punched a big hole in their admiration of this huge structure. “As for this temple,” Jesus told them, “the day will come when it will be totally destroyed, not one stone will be left upon another.” What? They were incredulous! Impossible, they thought!
They didn’t get it. The disciples didn’t get what the faith was really all about. Oh, they would, but not yet. At that time and place, they were awed by what was splendid and mighty and the closest they had ever come to God, which made Jesus’ words all the more enigmatic. For them, that was what the faith was all about: the sovereignty and power of God who would free them from the dominance of an oppressive Roman regime. They didn’t realize they were standing right next to the One who would show them what the faith was really all about, but in a way none of them could possibly have anticipated!
And, if I were to ask you what the faith is all about, what would you say? Of course, we would not say the faith was about a building, however magnificent. I suppose some of us would recite the Apostles’ Creed to define our faith. Others, perhaps, would talk about Baptism. Eucharist. Fellowship. The cross. Belief in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, of course! Oh, and Grace, don’t forget Grace. And coffee! Definitely coffee!
All those answers are right to one degree or another (well, I’m not sure about the coffee); but, I would submit to you this morning that the faith isn’t first about any of those things. If it is the true faith we seek, we must turn first to the poor of this world just as Jesus did.
Why? Because the poor connect us to our own poverty. The poor connect us to our own poverty. We are all poor in some ways and it is in those ways that we are truly connected to Jesus who became poor for our sake. If you want to know Jesus, you have to become poor. There is no other way. To know Jesus, you have to know your own poverty. So, the question is not “What is the faith about?” The question is “How am I poor?” What is my poverty? How can I own my own poverty and thereby be connected to the One who became poor for my sake? To do so, you must learn to know the poor whom Jesus loves; and, in so doing, you will learn to know your own poverty and how much Jesus loves you.
Huh? What is he talkin’ about? Stay with me.
I travel to Africa once or twice each year. Ostensibly, I go there because we interview each of our students annually. We want to know how are they are doing? We look at their grades and exam results. We counsel with those who are struggling. We query them about their family situations. A lot of our kids live far in the bush where there is no electricity and they must walk miles to school each day. We try to understand their family situation and how that has an impact on their school performance. Some of our kids are being raised by their grandparents because their parents died of AIDs. We often travel to their homes to understand their situations. I tell you, some of these kids and their families live in dreadful conditions. You would not let your dog live in these places that pass as their houses with dirt floors, mud and cow dung smeared over sticks for walls and a thatch roof that leaks in the rainy season, Many of our kids are the poorest of the poor.
Now, I say I go there “ostensibly” to do student interviews. But, there is another reason I go there and that is to be reminded of, reconnected to, my own poverty. When I am there and I see the kind of poverty in which some of our students live, it really motivates me to want to do whatever I can do to make life better for them. But, after about a month of that, I confess to you, I’m ready to come home to my nice house in a nice neighborhood, to clean water that flows from the tap whenever I wish, to the flick of a switch that brings light to every room in the house, to my sparkling clean bathroom (!), to the grocery store over-flowing with food just a mile from my house, and all the rest that makes up the relatively affluent lifestyle that most of us live.
And, therein lays my own poverty. My poverty is not like that of these African children who lack for clean water and food. In fact, it’s more like those disciples of Jesus who were enamored with wealth and privilege. My poverty is that I really like all the comforts of home. I enjoy the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed. I say herein lies my poverty because, after I get home, I soon begin to forget that poverty in which our students live. I soon begin to take all my wealth and privilege for granted. That, I suppose, is a coping mechanism of sorts because it’s hard to live so comfortably when you are so well acquainted with families who live so desperately. I soon begin to forget them and so I soon get disconnected from the terribly poor people I’m supposed to be caring about and then I am disconnected from my own poverty and then I am disconnected from the One who was made poor for my sake.
Wealth and privilege are insidious because they make us forget our poverty and our poverty is what connects us at the most intimate level, not only to poor people but to the One who became poor for us. To forget the poor and thereby the One who became poor for us, that’s a faith killer!
If you really want to know Jesus, you have to know the poor. If you want to become friends with Jesus, you have to become friends with the poor. Because it is among the poor that Jesus lives. That is the place where you will find Him. You look into the beautiful eyes of some of these children and you see Jesus looking back at you. Of course, you don’t need to travel to Africa to find those who are poor in one way or another. Look into the eyes of the lonely, the elderly, the abused, the imprisoned, the hungry, the victims of storms and floods and fires, the unemployed; it is among these people that Jesus reveals himself. This is where He lives. This is where He waits to welcome you and me.
Here’s the proof of what I’m saying. People who travel with us to Tanzania, particularly if they have worshipped on a Sunday morning in a Lutheran church there, almost invariably come away scratching their heads and saying, “It’s so amazing how these people live in such poverty and yet they are so happy, so joyful, so loving, so welcoming.” You know why? Because they, in their poverty, have met the One who became poor for them. I say, “Thank God for the poor I have been privileged to know and who have shown Jesus to me.” And forgive me when I choose to forget them. And give me the opportunity to go back and see them again before I stray too far away.
On my first visit to Tanzania in 1995 I met a young pastor named Johnson Lyimo. His parish was huge. It consisted of a main central church and seven sub-parishes scattered over 100 square kilometers. As we were driving in our Land Cruiser (mine, not his) from sub-parish to sub-parish, I asked him how he managed such a large parish. He replied with a big smile, “Oh, I used to walk, but now I have a motorbike!” I said, well, that must be so much faster than walking and probably safer too.” “Faster, yes, but not always safer,” he said shaking his head. “One day I was out at a far away parish. And, on my way home, a lion heard my motorbike and started following me. When I went faster on my motorbike, the lion went faster. I was going as fast as I dared over the rough road. And, I could only think about one thing.” Now, Johnson is a very humble and devout man; so, I knew he was going to say something like, “I could only think Dear Jesus, save me from this lion.” That’s not what he said. He said, “I could only think about one thing: Did I put gas in this motorbike this morning?”
Okay, that doesn’t have anything to do with this sermon. I just like to tell that story.
But Johnson did say something that day that has stuck with me all these years. It took a very long day to make a very short visit to each of the seven sub-parishes. And, at each church, we were greeted by a choir who sang for us and were so happy to see us, shaking hands, saying ‘Karibu sana’ (“You are very welcome”). At the end of the day, I said to Johnson, “It’s so amazing to see people who have so little and yet seem to be so happy. In my country people have so much more and yet many still are not happy.” Johnson thought for a moment and said, “In my country the people have nothing, so they know they need God for everything. And, He is with them every day in their fields and in their houses at night, when there is sickness and when there is hunger. They know and believe that Jesus is with them because He is all they have and He makes them happy. Maybe in your country the people have everything; so, they think they don’t need God for anything.”
This is how being in touch with our own poverty through the poor whom we come to love leads us to know the Jesus who became poor for our sake.
Pastor Dwayne J. Westermann
President, Godparents for Tanzania
Thankfulness and Generosity (The Sermon You Wrote!)
Preaching Text: The Great Thanksgiving
Here’s what one person wrote to me. “I wake up every morning with thankfulness for being 78 and still knowing who I am and where I am! I’m also thankful for the almost 56 years Ray and I had together. He was a good husband.” That was one response I received to an e-mail I sent out this past week (that some of you actually received!). I asked you to tell me reasons why you’re thankful. Here’s another response: “I am thankful for the opportunity to receive a quality education.” Here’s another: “I am thankful for many things – good health, good friends, having had good parents that provided a nurturing and loving home, having a roof over my head to protect me from the cold and heat, my morning cup of coffee, my kitties that give me unconditional love, not being married to a man that has now remarried and gone through the new wife’s money and is now filing [for] bankruptcy (thank you God for protecting me from this disaster), having a stable job that I enjoy, knowing that God is with me every day, the list goes on and on.”
This may be the first sermon that I’ve given that is not based on one of the readings from Scripture appointed for the day. It is important that we take a Sunday during the fall to highlight the need for you to give money in support of our congregation’s ministries for next year, to distribute pledge materials for 2014, and to ask for you to return them in a couple of weeks. On the calendar, today works well for that emphasis. But the appointed readings for this morning are not about the spiritual fruit of generosity. What to do, then, in preparing the sermon?
I thought about this. I thought about the cultural holiday of this month: Thanksgiving! Well, the spiritual fruit of generosity grows out of an attitude of thanksgiving, right? The more thankful we are, the more generous we are. As I thought about that, an obvious text came to mind. It’s one that we use each week in our worship liturgy. I’m talking about words from the Holy Communion portion of the liturgy, from what is called the Great Thanksgiving.
Listen to how often the word, “thanks” is spoken, in the Great Thanksgiving. In the Proper Preface: “It is indeed right, our duty and our joy, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks and praise to you…” In the Prayer of Thanksgiving: “You so loved the world that you gave your only Son,…We give you thanks for his coming into the world…” “In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread, and gave thanks;…” “Again, after supper, he took the cup, gave thanks,…” “[W]e give thanks to you, O Lord God Almighty, not as we ought but as we are able; we ask you mercifully to accept our praise and thanksgiving…” And then, in the prayer after communion: “We give you thanks, almighty God, that you have refreshed us through the healing power of this gift of life….”
The Holy Communion is the high point of the liturgy each Sunday. Do you know the Greek word that’s often used for the Holy Communion? It is Eucharist. Do you know what it means? “Thanksgiving.” A chief purpose for gathering for worship, then, is to give thanks to God for God’s blessings! And so, I decided that you should write this morning’s sermon! I decided to send you an e-mail, asking you why you’re thankful. I received some thoughtful, heart-felt, wonderful responses – some that I’ll use this morning, and others during our Thanksgiving worship in a couple of weeks.
A graduate student wrote: “My climb into bed at night is one of my most favorite, peaceful moments of every day. It means for the next eight or so hours my body will refuel me for another day, and that for those eight hours I have absolutely no worries (unless I have a scary dream of course)! So that always reminds me how thankful I am for my bed and for a good night’s sleep. Also, when I first moved here I slept on a mattress on the floor for a few weeks, until my family visited and got me my current bed. So that definitely made me extra thankful for my family and for my bed. Family is great.”
Another respondent wrote about sleep. “As you are aware, I went from having to sleep in the church a short few years ago to having a place I can call home now. So I am always thankful that God provided me a path to follow. I am thankful that I am given a new day each and every day to prove my trust in the Lord. He gave me many challenges along the way and continues to give me challenges now. If not for the love from Him and the church, I would have gone down a different path.”
Speaking of church, another one of you wrote: “I am thankful for the congregation of St Stephen – for the support, smiling faces, and spiritual reinvigoration I feel during and after worship there.”
Many of you gave thanks not only for this community, the church, but also for other wider communities of people that we depend on. You spoke of your thankfulness for those in the military who protect us. (Since my son became a police officer and I know more intimately what an officer’s work is, I am thankful in the same way for all who we call “first responders.”) Many of you lifted up the communities of family and friends. Here are several responses.
“I am thankful beyond measure…for [my daughter and my wife]. I see Christ in them every day. In many ways they have saved my life. What an incredible gift!”
“Each day begins with me thanking God for waking up and that I am going to see my girls and husband. Those three people are what I am most thankful for.”
“I am thankful for a special friend who can accept me for who I am. With just a smile and a twinkle in the eye, she can let me know she understands what is happening in my life and is right there beside me. Such a calming feeling for me.”
“I’m thankful that my recent c-t scan showed no signs of bladder cancer and I’m thankful that friends had kept me in their prayers during the wait for the test results.”
Here is a most moving response, from a young woman who experienced the death of her baby, in utero, about six weeks ago. She wrote: “Probably not what you had in mind but it’s honest: Just a few months ago I bought a Thanksgiving maternity shirt with the note ‘this is what I’m thankful for’ on the belly. Now, I’m just sincerely grateful that I have survived the day before and it makes me thankful for the amazing husband, family and friends that I have. Not to mention the strength that I never knew I had and hoped never to have to need.”
Another person wrote: “My first thoughts were about how really thankful I am to be blessed with good health and the physical and mental ability to do just about anything I care to do. However, after thinking more I really am most grateful for the ability to know love both as the recipient and a giver. The warm feeling of caring about others and knowing that you are also cared about is really special.”
Another: “Most of my thankfulness comes in the forms of non-tangible ‘things’: I am so thankful that I have friends and relatives who care about me and are always there when I need someone to talk to, help me out with things that may be too difficult to do alone and who demonstrate sincere gratefulness when I am able to help them. Further, I am thankful that I have grandchildren who feel that grandma is all that they could possibly get in a grandparent, even though I know that I’m not that perfect person. As I look back, I am thankful that I had parents who had the foresight to prepare me to be the person that I’ve grown to be (open, honest caring, non- judgmental, accepting of differences in people, educated, with a strong work ethic…still after retirement).”
Another: “Today I am thankful for the privilege of playing ball with my 2 year- old grandchild and the good health to do it. And on this November 4th, we can see a blooming dahlia, deep purple Iris, zinnias, vinca, hydrangeas, a yellow gerbera daisy, a cone flower and a mountain of marigolds, as we chase the ball. Thanks God!”
Here’s a response, from a teacher. It’s a list of 15 items:
- Students who come prepared for class, who make meaningful contributions to class discussions, and who listen respectfully to each other.
- Classroom technology assistants who come to the rescue of techno-phobic faculty who can’t seem to make anything work right the first time, and don’t visibly express impatience or condescension when doing so…
- Ferry deckhands who wave and smile when they see us in the morning, and at least look apologetic when they have to route us to the outside lane; and the ferry captains who manage to stay mostly on schedule to make sure we make it to work and school on time each morning.
- The neighbor who picks [my daughter] up at school on Monday afternoons and drops her at the law school to wait for me to get out of class (so she doesn’t have to walk with a huge sack of books in all weather).
- Co-workers who regularly bring in cookies, cakes, brownies, bagels, and other goodies to nosh on at work.
- Electrical outlets in the halls at Berkeley Middle School, so I can work on my laptop while I wait for [my daughter] to finish her orchestra rehearsal on Monday nights.
- Microwave ovens.
- The other election officers at the my voting precinct who make a long election day a real pleasure by their upbeat attitudes and genuine commitment to fair elections.
- Newspaper columnists (especially Leonard Pitts, David Brooks, Frank Bruni, Ross Douthat) who regularly challenge my assumptions and prejudices. (They don’t necessarily change my mind, but they make me think a lot harder).
10. The deli staff at Farm Fresh who put up with me ordering sliced ham and salami early on Friday mornings when they’re busy trying to get the deli counter set up for the day.
11. Local pick-your-own farms that make me appreciate the hard work involved in bringing food to the table.
12. Homemade chili and beer.
13. Experienced beekeepers who are always available to help figure out why our bees aren’t behaving like the books say they should behave.
14. Puppies that sleep through the night!
15. Comfortable shoes.
“I could go on, but I need to turn to grading papers.”
I wish I had time to include all of your responses! (More to come, during Thanksgiving worship.) Here’s one more. This respondent begins with himself and works outward. “For me: Thank you God for my life and for this day; usually in the plural: thank you for our lives. Next looking out over the kitchen table: thank you for this place, the garden, the trees, the flowers. Next circle outward: Thank you for our children and grandchildren. Thank you for our communities: our neighbors, our congregation. Sometimes gratitude takes the version of thanking for love, God’s love for us, our love for each other, for being loved by friends. Well, that’s a start.”
My assumption is that, when we are thankful, we respond with great generosity. If that is true, then you have preached most of this year’s stewardship sermon! “It is indeed right, our duty and our joy, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks and praise to you…”
What a congregation of people we are – faithful, attentive to God’s presence, articulate about our faith, thankful for care we receive from each other, turned outward to serve those who are poor! Is there anything more that needs to be said about how important it is to give our money to support our congregation in the year 2014 – to keep our congregation’s community and ministries vibrant, and our support of the wider church strong?
(Oh, yeah: the Stewardship Committee asks that you return your pledge response during Sunday morning worship on November 24!)
In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Andy Ballentine
 I’ve had problems with my e-mail. I’m cautiously optimistic that it’s fixed now!
(If you would like a copy of an earlier sermon, e-mail Pastor Ballentine and he’ll send you a copy!)