Sermon–November 8, 2015


24 Pentecost—Proper 27-B

November 8, 2015

William Bradbury

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

Anchors can be helpful: one summer afternoon some friends and I are fishing well off the North Carolina coast when both 200HP motors conk out. We throw an anchor and wait for the Coast Guard. Anchors can also be unhelpful: Huck Finn and Jim, the runaway slave, hop on a raft hoping to find new life. If the raft had been anchored they would have missed their great adventure of going with the flow of the river.

I think of a staff member I had decades ago in North Carolina who was stuck in life because she was anchored to constant negativity. Her glass wasn’t just half empty, it was bone dry. All she could see was the negative. She wanted to be as happy as the next person but she believed the way to happiness was to remove all the negatives instead of being grateful for all the good things in her life. Get her car fix, her house in perfect repair, her kids making better grades, her political party in office, and a better boss at church, on and on, then she would be happy.

Her formula for happiness was to focus on the negatives until they go away, then she would be happy.

The actual formula is exactly the opposite: you begin by focusing on the positive and being grateful for what is, and then happiness arises out of your gratitude.

Marelisa Fabrega writes in her blog: “Two psychologists, Michael McCollough of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis, wrote an article about an experiment they conducted on gratitude and its impact on well-being. The study split several hundred people into three different groups and all of the participants were asked to keep daily diaries. The first group kept a diary of the events that occurred during the day without being told specifically to write about either good or bad things; the second group was told to record their unpleasant experiences; and the last group was instructed to make a daily list of things for which they were grateful. The results of the study indicated that daily gratitude exercises resulted in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism, and energy. In addition, those in the gratitude group experienced less depression and stress, were more likely to help others, exercised more regularly, and made greater progress toward achieving personal goals.”

So if this were a self-help lecture you’d have a formula to take home and practice and that would be a good thing. But there is a catch: my generation was taught to journal about our problems, go deep into them, and they’d go away, but it turns out that rope keeping us attached to our negativity is thick and our knife is dull, so we usually give up and add “lack of hope” to the list of things that are ruining our lives.

The people of Galilee are anchored to their negativity. By any measure their lives are filled with personal, social, economic, and political problems, yet they flock to Jesus because the Word of God he speaks and the Word of God he is are powerful enough to cut the thickest ropes. The poor find themselves filled with the hope of God’s kingdom, the downtrodden are released from their victim story, those mourning for the dead find a vision of resurrection stirring in their hearts, and those working for peace begin to believe that God is on the move and is on their side.

It is good to know that the practice of gratitude produces happiness, but it is more important to know the one who sets us free from the negativity keeping us stuck, because when we know this we finally know who to be grateful to.

I remember reading somewhere about a confirmed atheist who said that when his first child was born he experienced a profound gratitude rising in his heart—and this confused him because he felt himself wanting to thank the God he didn’t believe in.

It finally costs Jesus his life to sever the cords of sin and death. On the day of resurrection those two walking on the road to Emmaus are depressed and lost but then are utterly transformed by the risen Jesus and they run back to the disciples to bear witness to what Jesus is doing for the world and for them.

They are flooded with a vision of the abundance of God’s Kingdom as their hearts explode with gratitude, even though nothing on the ground has changed—Rome is still in power, relationships are still hard, sickness still comes, and one day they will die.

Nothing has changed, except their vision of the abundance of God.

Paul prays that we might receive this vision: To the church in Ephesus he writes:

18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:18, 19

It is even true to say that God the Father loves us every bit as much as God the Father loves Jesus. Nothing is changed, yet everything changes  for those filled with the vision of Jesus Christ.

Look what happens when we read the gospel for the day through the lens of negativity: It’s easy to judge the rich man for being rich! He probably stole his wealth from his underpaid workers or inherited it from a rich daddy and therefore has never had to work a day in his life! He’s only giving money to buy off the temple powers so they won’t regulate his business.

Through the eyes of negativity the poor widow is lost and hopeless, soon to curl up and die since she’s just given away her last penny. Life is unfair and so she’s right to see herself as hard done by.

But notice Jesus says none of these things: he does not say one negative thing about the rich man. In fact he says something good—that the rich man is not a hoarder who lives in a worldview of scarcity, but a cheerful giver, who lives in the worldview of abundance.

To Jesus the widow is not a helpless victim, but a woman also living out of a worldview of abundance—not the abundance of money but the abundance of the faithfulness of God. Out of this abundance flows a profound gratitude for God and neighbor.

Through the lens of abundance we see both people are working the formula for happiness: a vision of abundance makes them grateful which produces a happiness, in which they know it is more blessed, that is more happiness-making, to give than to receive.

Jesus invites us every day into the abundance of God’s kingdom where we live in gratitude for all God’s gifts and share those gifts with the world.

Did you see the 2011 hit movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”? In it Sonny, the young effervescent Indian owner of the hotel, repeatedly tells his troubled guests: “Everything will be all right in the end… if it’s not all right then it’s not yet the end.”

This could be seen as an empty platitude, but through the cross of Christ this is Kingdom of God thinking, thinking that trusts in the abundance of the Father, the faithfulness of the Son, and the presence of the Spirit, so that we are set free to go with the flow of the universe and happily pour out our lives for the world.