Rheumatoid Arthritis, Sermons, Thanksgiving

Consider the Lilies

Oh, Jesus. So witty.

(A sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday B–November 18, 2012–Joel 2:21-27; Matthew 6:25-34)

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.”

This is not my nature. My sons have often referred me to a semi-famous headline on the Onion, “Area Mom Freaking Out For No Reason Again.” My nature is to fling myself headlong into the multitude of possibilities for the future and to worry creatively and almost aggressively about each and every one. And I’m not alone. This is the Era of Anxiety. You would think we had invented worry. We go to great lengths to soothe or medicate it. It’s almost comforting to know it’s part of the human experience, to know that on a long ago day in a faraway place, Jesus sat down to talk to people, and one of the things he talked about was worry.

“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?”

This assurance comes a long way into the Sermon on the Mount. It starts at the beginning of Matthew Chapter 5 and goes right through Chapter 7, and here at the end of Chapter 6, after much instruction about how to live faithfully, we hear these reassurances that are also cautions.

• Why do you worry about what you’re going to eat and drink? Just look at the birds.
• Why worry about what you will wear? Aren’t the flowers even prettier than even the fanciest person you know?
• God knows what you need. You’ll be okay.
• There will be worries every day, and there’s not much you can do about tomorrow while it’s still today.

In a time when natural disaster would not have brought a team from FEMA or Church World Service or the Red Cross, Jesus promised that whatever befell, God would be with us. Come what may, God will care for us.

Much like mine.

When I was a little girl, my father took a trip to the Holy Land and brought me the gift of a little Bethlehem Mother of Pearl covered New Testament, a Red-Letter King James Version. This is one of the first gospel passages I remember reading for myself:

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? (Matthew 6:28-30, KJV)

Fretting doesn’t help, but neither does a sort of mindless bliss. We’re not being called to a goofy “Don’t worry, be happy” attitude. This is not a promise that faith will make us prosperous and good-looking, sleek and well-fed. It’s a call to a deeper understanding. God is with us, come what may. Rejoice! God’s future holds, as the prophet Joel says, overflowing vats of wine and oil. God’s future holds plenty for all.

God’s future sounds great. The Hebrew people dreamed of such a time, when there would be enough for everyone and then some. Our Pilgrim forebears came to this country hoping for just such a world, a place where they could be free to worship God and make a life by that rule of seeking God first. We remember the good parts of their story when we celebrate Thanksgiving. We remember how the native people helped them. We give thanks for the freedoms we have.

I hope we do all that. I’m a little afraid the majority is looking right past Thursday to shopping instead. Why stop to thank God? Let’s get a bargain on those holiday clothes!

No. Let’s stop. Let’s breathe in thankfulness. We can do that. I said it before, and I’m saying it again, so I must mean it: God is with us, come what may.

I’m fine with that, in theory, right up until I have to face my own limitations.

I spent most of my life believing that somehow I could win love only if I did everything perfectly. If things were going wrong it was because I wasn’t “something” enough: industrious enough or kind enough or fit enough. The last of those worried me a lot, and about five years ago I undertook a campaign to become, well, perfect in that regard. Nine months into a new way of living, I was lifting weights at the gym and shoveling the driveway and wearing smaller clothes and feeling awesome…right up until the day I didn’t.

First it was a shoulder, and then a wrist, and then swollen feet and pain in my hands so severe I put down my knitting. One doctor and then another looked me over, and finally someone said, “I think you have Rheumatoid Arthritis.” By that time I was waking up in the morning with fingers so stiff I could not bend them.

The doctors assured me, there were new treatments, and I should not *worry.*

Do not fear.

I’m bad at that. I said to myself over and over again, “I’m sure God will find some way to make me useful even if I have to live with limitations.”

Which is my way of saying, “If I’m not useful, what am I?”

I don’t like being the person who needs the help. I like being the person who gives it. I hear my grandmother’s voice in my head, saying, “Make yourself useful as well as decorative.”

There were many months spent pondering, sadly, the words of this passage. I wrote at the time:

As I sit on the couch after a long day, with my hands in my lap, too stiff to type or hold a book, with knitting beyond hope for the foreseeable future, I am living my bad dream: I toil not, neither do I spin. Can I find some usefulness in this period of forced inactivity?

Ah, but there I go again. It seems the lesson is a different one. Perhaps it is enough to be, to simply be, whether decorative or not. God’s love does not increase in proportion to my good deeds or feats of strength or even my acts of compassion. God simply loves me, and you, whether or not we spin, whether or not we toil.

It was Thanksgiving of the same year that our food processor broke with a batch of squash soup still inside it. A crack in the lid made it nearly impossible to open. We poured the soup out through the food chute, but we still needed it, for pie dough and cranberry relish. We took the risk, but I had to let other hands wrassle the thing to liberate them. I had to let other hands chop and grate and mash and truss.

Consider the lilies. They toil not, neither do they spin. They don’t produce anything at all. I’m better now, four years later, but I still have days when I have to just stop. I still don’t like it. But I don’t think I’m less loved because of it.

We’re pretty sure the lilies Jesus meant were not anything like the fabulous lilies we bring into the church at Easter. More likely he meant wildflowers, pretty today, tomorrow thrown on the fire – finally useful. And yet God makes them decorative, in their moment, for their moment.

“Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things!” (Joel 2:21, NRSV)

Wait, did that really say soil? Are you sure that didn’t say soul or something else?

Yeah. No. The assurance of God’s attention and love stretches to the lilies, even the soil, the earth itself. Nothing is too small. No one is too unimportant in the world’s eyes. God cares for all.

The pelicans in their temporary shelter.

Yesterday we started selling calendars to support our Pet Pantry. Standing nearby, I was delighted to watch people’s faces as they flipped through the pages for the first time and recognized their beloved pets, dogs, cats and even the Strawbridge goats.

And did you see the story about the pelicans pushed northward to Rhode Island by Hurricane Sandy? They’re being returned home to Florida. The first two made the journey by private plane, riding in containers similar to dog crates. Wildlife specialists, commercial fishermen and regular people who care came together to feed and care for the birds and to make sure they get home again. Their $2000 flight was paid for by donations from the public.

Even the birds of the air fall within God’s circle of care. So, “Do not fear, O soil.” Do not fear, dear souls. Be glad and rejoice. God is doing great things. Look at the pelicans of the air. Consider the lilies. In the name of the Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. Amen.

2 Cor 9:6-15, Sermons, Thanksgiving

Community

(A sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday — November 20, 2011 — 2 Corinthians 9:6-15)

It’s possible my hair is sparkling today. You see, one of the first things that happened when I arrived for the Fair yesterday is that Gail S asked if I would like to be sprinkled with pixie dust.  She spread the pixie dust indiscriminately, as if sowing seeds for a crop of joy. And when I woke up this morning and looked in the mirror, I could still see it glimmering.

You may not want pixie dust in your hair. You may not even have much hair that would hold it! Or you may be sitting there wishing you had been here to get some. It takes all kinds of people to make a community, from pixie-dust lovers to the ones who vacuum it up later to the ones who forgo washing their hair to enjoy it another day.

In a letter to a young community of faith, the apostle Paul wrote,

What I mean is this: the one who sows a small number of seeds will also reap a small crop, and the one who sows a generous amount of seeds will also reap a generous crop. (2 Corinthians 9:6, CEB)

We don’t get community without sowing the seeds of love and the pixie dust of joy.

I grew up in Virginia, where one of the community norms was Smithfield ham was on the table right alongside turkey, and another was that every Thanksgiving you could be sure to see a beautiful little crystal dish filled with watermelon pickles. My mother and my father’s mother worked together to make those meals happen, and it’s only with the perspective of adulthood that I realize how unusual their cooperation was, especially considering how little either of them enjoyed cooking for a crowd. Every year felt like the ultimate banquet, everyone gathered and thankful not just for the food, but for each other.

My first turkey, 1988

When I grew up and moved away, I spent holidays with my new in-laws, learning their traditions and recipes, becoming part of their community. There is a photo in an album of the first turkey I roasted myself, but I can assure you I stepped aside and let my father-in-law make the gravy.

Later, there was a Thanksgiving when despite being the mother of three children, I felt like a waif, an orphan, a displaced person. That year I got divorced, sold the family home and moved with my children to a rental. A few months after that, my very supportive father died suddenly. Even though I had been a member of the same church for a long time, I wasn’t sure how to fit in there among all the married people I had known for ten years. Life included adjusting to a custody agreement that said I had the children on Christmas Eve, but not on Thanksgiving. It seemed like I had nowhere to go.

It felt like I didn’t have a community anymore.

And then Georgia, a fellow member of the church choir, asked me what I was doing for Thanksgiving, and invited me to join her family for dinner.

I understood the part about sowing the seeds, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I might be the one reaping them someday, a bountiful, generous crop of kindness and hospitality.

When I settled into a new home of my own, the house where we still live, I did all I could to fill the house with people on the holidays. Two years after Georgia opened her home to me, I was preparing to cook Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people. It sounded great until Lucy came home the Sunday before running a fever that only got higher. By Monday she had a diagnosis of scarlet fever, and I had strep throat. We both started taking antibiotics right away, but I still felt weak on Wednesday, and I couldn’t have made Thanksgiving happen without community. My friend Amy circled the grocery store with me, pulling things off the shelves while I leaned on the cart. And even on Thursday morning, if my boys hadn’t been there, I never would have gotten the 24 pound turkey into the sink to rinse off, much less into the oven.

Thanksgiving 2010

Twelve years and many turkeys later, I’ve mastered such fine points as trussing the bird. I make my own gravy now, and I even have secret ingredients! But when the lid on the food processor cracked a few years ago, I couldn’t handle the problem by myself. It took both my sons to open that thing and liberate the cranberry relish. Thanksgiving is ever and always an exercise in working together. It takes a community to bring in the harvest.

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. (2 Corinthians 9:6, NRSV)

Here’s something I love about this this church: we actually care about other people. This community of faith works to help those in need, not just in the church but in the wider community of the town. Last Sunday the Deacons met and talked about where we help this Thanksgiving. Clark commented that you used to just be able to ask the town for information about people in need, but in these days of increased privacy rules, it’s more complicated. Still, it was amazing, the ease with which we made a list, because our Deacons are paying attention to friends and neighbors. The Deacons can do this because of the generosity of the congregation. When you put a donation into the envelopes that say Deacons Fund, that money goes directly to helping people in the local community. We give away Hannaford gift cards, and gift certificates for gas, and help with heating oil. That’s one way the church helps. People in need also come to our Missions committee for assistance. The money you pledge to our church’s wider mission goes in part to the seeds of caring they sow.

If you came to the Fair yesterday, and especially if you worked on it, you know that this huge creative effort goes on all year to raise money used by the Women’s Fellowship to help other non-profits, local people in need, and even this church when special needs arise. The Men’s Club does much the same with the money earned at the Cumberland Fair, at a food booth staffed by many church members. Working together, each using our different gifts, makes us cheerful givers, happy to sow and joyful at reaping when the event comes off or the gift is given.

Today, we’ll be dedicating our pledges for the coming year. Our giving makes everything we do possible, from worship to education to fellowship to outreach. Supporting the ministry of our church is a mutual effort, like a potluck Thanksgiving dinner. Someone brings the turkey, and someone else the pie, and someone else the cranberry sauce, and someone else that watermelon pickle. We may not all partake of everything that is offered, but we hope everyone gets something he likes, or something she needs. Together, we can lay a table that feeds everyone; we can keep giving thanks together, all year long.

You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. (2 Corinthians 9:11-12, NRSV)

Paul wrote letters to the churches he had planted to guide them in their growth as faith communities. Members of the church in Corinth had only a small experience of being a Christian community, and few examples to consult because they were among the first. Paul addressed the issues he heard about from a distance, and he made suggestions that he believed would create faithful people and faithful churches. Paul was trying to guide the community of faith in Corinth to authentic, heartfelt generosity. Part of making a healthy community was caring for others when they needed it most, right there in Corinth and also in Jerusalem, where following Christ was still a dangerous thing to do. He urged them to give, but he also urged them to give freely, to act on a generosity that came from the heart.

Remember: A stingy planter gets a stingy crop; a lavish planter gets a lavish crop.  (2 Corinthians 9:6, The Message)

It’s a changeless truth. We may not always see a bumper crop in the end, even when we’ve worked hard and done everything right. But if we don’t plant the seeds, we can be sure there will be no harvest in the end. It’s true in work, and it’s true in families. It’s true in relationships, and it’s true in churches. It’s true wherever we hope to have a deeper sense of community. It’s true in our spiritual lives, too. God does God’s part; God loves lavishly. But we have to show up and have the relationship if we want to know God’s lavish, bountiful, extravagant love.

The part that’s hard to believe, the angle that makes our relationship with God completely unlike most human ones, is that God will always be there. God will *always* be there. God never stops working on the relationship with us, never gives up on the human community or any of the people in it. We are assured of this by the many ways that God shows up in our lives: in the fruit of all creation, in the saving love of Jesus Christ, in the unending companionship of the Holy Spirit.

Today we gather to thank God for gifts so great that our words can’t quite describe them, not in their fullness. We give thanks for feelings of warmth, of relief, of satisfaction or pride in a child, of a sudden “aha!” that we are not alone. We give thanks for pixie dust, still sparkling. We give thanks for human relationships, found in our families, with our friends and in our church. We give thanks for this community of Christ’s people, sharing and giving, committed to God and to one another. Thanks be to God, for God’s indescribable gifts. Amen.