October 7, 2012
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
Next week is Stewardship Sunday. We will bring our pledge card for next year, and we will dedicate our giving to God’s purposes. So here goes the obligatory stewardship sermon.
I will not be talking percentages, or increases, or dollar amounts, or things like that, for two important reasons. One, I am bad at math, and two, those are not the point. As Jesus said of the Pharisees, it is possible to become holy accountants and spend our timing sorting out a tenth of the mint and tenth of the dill and a tenth of the cumin, instead of focusing on what is important: justice and mercy and faithfulness.
So let us focus instead on thankfulness.
While it is always good to give thanks, there are different levels of thankfulness. There is thankfulness for stuff, for things. And it is good to be thankful for our things.
But better is thankfulness for experiences, those moments of life that take our breath away, those moments when we learn or grow or are forced to stretch and live a new way. And it is good to be thankful for our experiences.
Better yet is thankfulness for people: those who have mentored us, or taught us, or helped us, or challenged us; and especially for those who love us, and forgive us, and greet us and welcome us. It is good to be thankful for people.
Above all, there is thanks to God. Not just thankfulness for stuff or experiences or people, only bigger. Giving thanks to God means giving thanks for all of these things and that they can even happen, that they even appear in our lives. Giving thanks to God is celebrating our lives and the lives of those around us. Giving thanks to God is giving thanks for new life.
In Matthew, Jesus warns about being too in love with stuff. Stuff wears out, gets old, and pretty soon we want the new stuff. Stuff gets envied and stolen. Stuff gets fought over. Stuff too often is about being noticed for having it, being able to show it off.
Jesus tells us that being seen and noticed and showing off are not where the magic happens. Prayer, fasting, piety, charity, loving neighbor as ourselves, these are the important things, and they are best done privately, without fanfare.
Psalm 50 takes it a step further. In the midst of a society and religion grounded in sacrifice, Psalm 50 reminds us what it is really about. The psalmist imagines God saying, “Why do you sacrifice as though you were serving me dinner? If I needed food, the whole world is mine. What could you add to that?” God then challenges us to think differently. Not that sacrifices are bad, but God doesn’t need us in order to be God.
Verse 9 tells us: “I will accept no bull from your house.” The original was talking about the animal, but the modern idiom works just as well.
What then is the appropriate sacrifice? How should we planning our giving? What measure are we to use? What honors God?
A sacrifice of thanksgiving is what God asks.
What are we thankful for, and how will we express our thanks? For a small gift, a card is appropriate. For a person who makes our life better, telling them “thank you” is good. But for the gift of life itself, and the gifts of life that God gives beyond our ability to ask or to earn, what is our response?
We are to live our lives as sacrifices of thanksgiving. To love our neighbor, to pray for our enemy, to do the wonderful and difficult and beautiful and impossible things Jesus asks of us, not simply from duty or obligation, but because we give thanks, even for the opportunity to do these things.
Strangely, people who have suffered the most can sometimes be the most thankful. It seems to follow Brueggemann’s proposal that a people who cannot weep cannot hope. I believe that the more difficult life is, the more important giving thanks becomes.
I remember our time in Children’s Hospital, nearly a year ago now, when nurses came and told us that Mira was on by-pass, and then when they told us she was off by-pass. And then when they said the surgeon want to see us and we could see Mira.
That day, and the long, difficult days that followed, we gave thanks. Mary and I held on to each other, and we constantly gave thanks for the support that we had, from family, from Tom and Kate, from Maria, from all the prayers lifted up here in this congregation and around the world, from Facebook posts and emails. We gave thanks for the small kindnesses given by some church members, a deck of cards, a book of puzzles, snacks, things to help the days go by as we sat and waited. We gave thanks for the big blessings, a surgeon and a team whose care for Mira improved her life.
And in those quiet moments, after the tears had dried up, and I was alone in my prayers, I simply gave thanks, because I was out of words and out of energy, but we had made it through another day. Giving thanks helped us make it through.
What amazes me is how easy it is to forget. When I have changed my shirt three times in one morning because she is sick and spitting up, and then I find her trying to draw with a pen on the sofa, it is possible to forget the surgery and the hospitals and the meds six times a day, and just be frustrated with her being a toddler.
You know what? I give thanks for that, too.
This stewardship season, I am not going to ask us to check our percentages. I am simply going to ask each of us to think about what it is we are thankful for: the people, the experiences, the possibilities, the purpose that we have, the ways in which we have known life, and new life, and faith and hope and love.
And then I will ask each of us to prayerfully consider what our sacrifice of thanksgiving will be. As our psalm says, “Those who make thanksgiving their sacrifice honor God.”
Thanks be to God.