Thanksgiving Reflection 2018: Princeton Community Thanksgiving Service

Rev. Jenny Smith Walz

Rev. Jenny Smith Walz gave her Thanksgiving Reflection for 2018 at the Princeton Community Thanksgiving Service held on November 22, 2018. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We know that practicing gratitude is beneficial to our health and well-being. Well documented:

● Better physical health

● Better mental health

● Less anger, more empathy

● Better sleep

● Better self-esteem

● Better emotional and mental resilience (deal with stress and recover from trauma)

● Better and more relationships

I believe there’s far more to gratitude than even this. Something beyond benefits to our own individual minds, hearts, and bodies. Something that moves us corporately, communally, into a different realm, a different way of being and of being together. Something that is even world changing. 

I think of images of gratitude from my tradition. They are full of song and dance. Running and joy. Eating and sharing. Freedom and transformation. 

● I see Miriam and all of the Hebrew women dancing and singing with timbrels on the other side of sea after leaving Egypt and Pharaoh and slavery behind.

● I hear the song of Moses after the sea closes behind him, both horse and driver having been hurled into the sea, in awe over this exodus God has accomplished.

● I see the unnamed Samaritan woman at the well leaving her water jar behind, running to the others in her village telling them how she has met one who has seen and knows her and LOVES her with compassion and hope and healing she’s never before known.

● I see Peter jumping out of a boat on the sea of Galilee after the risen Christ has appeared to him and the other disciples. After a miserable night of fishing, catching nothing, the risen Christ provides an abundant catch and then invites them to eat with him on the shore. Peter doesn’t wait for the boat to reach shore, he jumps off and swims, eager to greet his teacher.

● I see the early Christian community sharing all they have, eating together, caring for one another because God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them, adjusting their whole structure and practice to care for the widows when it came to be known they weren’t getting enough to eat. 

See, when gratitude is at work it changes not just our minds and hearts and bodies. It changes our whole society, our whole communal life together. When we practice gratitude, we are also living in the freedom and joy and abundant life of God’s realm. 

 

There are things that compete, however, for that same place in our hearts where gratitude dwells. One of the key competitors for the attention of our hearts is something none of us are immune to: consumerism. If your mailbox and inbox are anything like mine, those retailers we have relationships with have been gearing us up for the holiday shopping season for several weeks now. Today, I opened a Thanksgiving message from a Christian mom-blogger, and inside, to my dismay, were tips on saving even more money on Black Friday and throughout the season, and in a way that actually earned her MORE money. 

Friends we are so immersed in consumer culture, we hardly even know how deep in it we are. We have financial stake in it ourselves as our companies work to end the year as far ahead as possible, as we hope for the big bonuses. We have been shaped such that wish lists for Christmas are normal. And our wants are fed like starving dogs. And the messages all around tell us that we are lacking, our children need more, our households are incomplete, and our lives would be better, easier, free-er, more comfortable, more satiated if only we bought, had, acquired more, more, more. We are sure that we are not enough, and buying more will help solve this spiritual trouble. And not only this, but we are serving our country by spending, by growing the economy. 

But this, friends, runs counter to the heart of each of our faiths, each of our deeper spiritual wisdom and knowledge. God did not make us consumers. God made us receivers and givers. God made us dependent on God and one another, despite all of our behavior to the contrary. 

It’s gratitude, however, that deep gratitude that causes us to dance and sing. That causes us to run and jump out of boats. That causes us to eat and share and be generous and compassionate with one another. This kind of gratitude, it is powerful stuff. When practiced whole-heartedly, consistently, persistently, this kind of gratitude shatters the whole illusion that our consumer culture holds before our eyes and our appetites. And behind it reveals true freedom and joy – freedom from fear, from scarcity, from captivity, from envy, and greed, from avarice and illusion.

May we each discover this kind of gratitude today and the source of it as well. 

Morris West encourages us as well. He says, “At a certain age our lives simplify and we need have only three phrases left in our spiritual vocabulary: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

May we sing songs of doxology and praise. May we dance with joy and abundance. May we run toward the source of life and the giver of every good gift. May we share generously with one another and in doing so proclaim “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” to the God who gives us all we ever needed.

May it be so today and in all the days to come. 

Amen. 

 

 

Sunday July 17. Rev. Catherine Williams “Vacation Tweets: #this is the Life”

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This is the Life! Now this is what I call living! How many of us can remember the last time we said or thought something like that? Can you give me a word or a phrase that describes a moment or scenario that would elicit that kind of response?

Some of the descriptions others have given about the good life include: Being financially independent and secure; winning the lottery and/or not having to work; being able to just pick up and go – travel to anywhere, anytime; pleasure and satisfaction 24/7; and similar states of euphoria and perfection. One of my millennial friends said she thought a good life was different than the good life, where the former was all about quality, and the latter was more concerned with quantity. So I asked her if that meant it was possible to be poor and have a good life. That set her thinking. What do you think?

th-6Our society is mired in materialistic values. Thanks to the capitalist foundation, upon which the hypothetical American Dream is built, our culture makes it seem only natural for us to think of the good life as something we deserve. Our commercials and advertisements faithfully and feverishly indoctrinate us in this kind of entitlement. Small wonder then that we spend so much of our lives, our time, energy, and resources in pursuit of those moments when we can look around and say – yep, this is the life! This entitlement ideology is what theologian, Walter Brueggemann, might call the dominant consciousness. That prevailing way of being, where we are numbed and satiated by consumerism. Brueggemann challenges preachers to counter this dominant consciousness with what he calls an alternative consciousness.

One of the many reasons we gather weekly as people of God is to remind ourselves that even as we function day by day within this dominant consciousness of materialism, we are a community with alternative values, grounded in the heart of God.  God, whose intention for all of creation from the very beginning has been good. But God, who is good, gets to define good. And thanks to Jesus and his teachings we have several illustrations of this good life. He called it the Kingdom/Realm/Reign of God.

10-beatitudesThat parable of the two builders, that was read for us this morning, summarized a lengthy set of teachings Jesus gave to his disciples on what life in this kingdom or realm was like. If you have read Matthew 5, 6, and 7 you have either struggled bravely to keep up with its demands, or else you have rationalized it away – far away. Christians have asked, Are we really supposed to live like this? Well let’s take a quick look, since these are the sayings, which, according to Jesus, the wise builder heard and did. It begins with the beatitudes – the blessing statements. That word blessed conveys the idea of being fortunate or happy, so happy as to be envied actually. But the blessings that make us enviable are different – there’s nothing in there about beaches or cruises; no talk in these beatitudes about wealth, fame or fortune. Instead Jesus calls blessed those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, the pure in heart, and so on – When we look up the word good or happy in God’s dictionary, this is the stuff we find. That’s pretty radical.

images-8I mean, these sayings, or teachings of Jesus talk about some rather difficult things: keeping all of the commandments, what counts as murder or adultery, grounds for divorce, and loving our enemies. What’s so good about this, many have asked, and, finding no answer, they have closed their Bible and put it on a shelf, right next to their volume of Shakespeare’s works. But wait, what about the instructions for how to give to the needy, how to pray, how to forgive, and how to fast? What about the teaching on worry, and not judging others? Yes, I’ll be among the first to acknowledge that, taken as a whole, these teachings set an impossibly high ethical bar. But may I share with you something I learned as a young Christian? I think it may have been my own Dad who shared this with me as a teenager. “Catherine,” he’d say, “there’s enough of what God has said in God’s word for you to spend your entire lifetime working on. Some of it you’ll take to naturally, some of it you’ll need a little extra courage and faith to follow, and some of it you may never understand; but there’s enough for you to at least begin. Work on the parts you understand and trust God to help you grow into the rest.” I can say with gratitude today this has proven to be some of the best advice I’ve listened to, because like any rationally developing adult, there are some things only growth in the faith can help us fully understand. Like God’s goodness in the midst of an evil world. (Don Brash is really good at explaining this by the way…)

Among the several perspectives of life in God’s kingdom or realm, there is one bedrock aspect of this good life I’d like us to stay with just a bit this morning. Nothing you haven’t heard before, but maybe you didn’t know when you heard it that this was the life! Remember in the creation story there was one thing God said was not good? God had said let there be light – God saw that the light was good. God made the dry land and the waters, and saw that it was good. God set the lights in the sky to give light upon the earth – and God saw that it was good. God filled the air, the waters and the land with living creatures of every kind – I like this,” God said, “this is the life! Finally God stepped back and surveyed everything and said, “Awesome – this is VERY good!” But then over in Genesis 2, we hear God saying, “Uh-oh, this is NOT good. It is not good that the man is alone, I will make a helper suitable for him.What’s so bad about being alone? I hear my introvert friends asking. Because the God in whose image we were made is a God of community. A God who, according to our understanding, is represented by a community of three, which has opened up to include all of creation. Believe me, this matter of community and relationships is huge when it comes to the good life.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development has tracked the lives of 724 men, their wives and their children over the course of 75 years. Last year Robert Waldinger, the current director of this study gave a TED talk where he shared the most significant discoveries they made about human happiness over these decades. The most conclusive finding, says Waldinger, is that “social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills.” Sounds to me like evidence that we are designed by God to thrive in community. We understand who we are in community; we learn social and survival skills in community; we discover our abilities and passions in community; little wonder then that so many of Jesus’ teachings have to do with how we relate to God, and how we relate to one another.

So now here’s this parable of the two builders, which Matthew uses to close out this lengthy, weighty discourse on life in the kingdom of God, aka the good life. These two men are engaged in the same occupation; one would think the foolish builder would know better. But Jesus is making a point here by having the foolish man build his fine mansion on a foundation of sand, while the wise builder puts up his mansion on a foundation of rock. Two great looking homes. You can hardly tell the difference in value – that is, until the weather changes. And here is Jesus’ point #1 – the good life does not preclude bad things happening to us. Rain is rain, it falls wherever, storms will forever behave like storms, and flood waters are no respecter of houses. “Really?” someone may ask. “So while following Jesus my investment portfolio may take a dive, my health may take a turn for the worse, my children may develop chemical dependencies, and I may fail all the prerequisite classes in my college major?” Umm – yes. God’s definition of good does not preclude bad things happening to us. Which leads to Jesus’ point #2 – the good life teaches us how to weather the storms.

One of the major resources for weathering storms is the communities we are part of: families, churches, fraternities or sororities, professional associations and so on. But what excites me about this good life is the presence of The Life himself within each one of us who has professed our faith in him. For each of us born by the Spirit of God from above has access to a divine resilience Jesus was good enough to demonstrate for us at the end of his earthly life. Remember now, he is the one who said, I have come that you may have life more abundantly.” The one who said of himself I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  The one who said to his friend Martha, I am the resurrection and the life. What does that mean for us? What difference does that make when the pain medicine doesn’t work, or when after months of rehab that son or daughter is back on drugs, or when a routine visit to the doctor changes the rest of our lives? What does Jesus statement mean in our current, fearful national context of death by politics, or death by racism? Maybe these are some of the times the Resilience factor can kick in.  It is kind of ironic that after saying that he was the life Jesus died and was buried in a tomb that was sealed and guarded.  But I have to tell you – resurrection and life together make for a powerful combination.  In just a matter of days that divine life flexed itself and exploded right out of that tomb in full resurrection power.  That’s how THE GOOD LIFE behaves!  

images-5That’s what gives me hope for the rebound when I find myself in situations that close me in, that back me into a corner, that knock the wind out of my sails as I take a hit from one of life’s deadly punches.  It’s the properties of resurrection life that keep us persevering – not the promises of well-intentioned politicians; not the security of a tenured job; not the forecasts of the economic analysts; no – we, who arepeople of the Resurrection, believe that because we have the life of Christ we can face the storms, the winds, the raging floods with the blessed assurance that with us in this storm is an Emmanuel kind of God who is GOOD and who is LIFE. So we can sing with utmost sincerity, when peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say it is well, it is well with my soul.It is well because we have built our lives on the solid foundation of Christ, his example, and his word.  And in the end my sisters and brothers, we may tremble as we stand on that Rock, but the Rock will never tremble under us. This is the life! Thanks be to God. Amen.