It’s been a crazy-busy two weeks in my new hometown of Napa, California. (I always loved hearing Garrison Keillor tell a story about his hometown of Lake Woebegone, Minnesota. When I heard him say, “It’s been a quiet week in my hometown…” he had me in the palm of his hand.) I love to hear a story. We are people of a story… a story that began with the book of Genesis and has never ended… as God’s story continues to be told in humanity. Jesus was a storyteller and when He said words like, ““Imagine what would happen if you were to go to one of your friends in the middle of the night and pound on their door…” He had crowds of people who followed Him in the palm of His hand.
This has been a month of One Thousand Gifts… our finance campaign, yes, and also a counting of one thousand things we’re thankful for. Ward Thompson created a thanksgiving tree on a wall in Fellowship Hall, and we’ve been covering it with leaves of blessings… naming the things and people we’re thankful for. Yesterday Joan Feury and Katherine Proctor and I took down the leaves and put them in the basket on the altar to dedicate them to God… as offer our thanksgiving to God in response to all God’s gifts.
These last two weeks, as I said, have been crazy-busy. Last Sunday we hosted the Vineyard Circuit churches at our yearly Charge Conference, and Dianne Mahler and I just about worked our fingers to the bones getting ready for it, and interestingly… neither of us were crabby or resentful about the amount of work this annual meeting required. This past week the office staff had only Monday and Tuesday to do all the week’s work, so that we could all take off Wednesday to prepare for Thanksgiving, and interestingly… none of us were grouchy or short-tempered as we crammed a week of work into two days. And yesterday a crew of us were at church all day long working on our “float” for the Napa Christmas parade. When I left about 6:30 last night people were still in our parking lot taking down the decorations, and interestingly… all day there had only been smiles and creative fingers working. Now I haven’t actually seen anyone take out their Gratitude Journal and write in it but I believe that because we are practicing thanks-giving as a congregation, that gratitude is working in us, and it’s changing us. Today is the last day of our Finance Campaign, One Thousand Gifts, but it doesn’t have to be the end of our counting blessings or keeping gratitude journals. Ann Voskamp, the author of the book One Thousand Gifts, began because of a dare, to make a list of a thousand things she was thankful for… and she kept going beyond the first thousand.
Gratitude changes us. Being thankful is a spiritual practice, and something that identifies us as followers of Jesus. There’s a cartoon I saw recently of a Middle East-looking Jesus and a “buff” Buddha sitting together in heaven, and the Buddha says, “I should have made one of those ‘nobody-can-depict-me’ rules; they always make me fat.” And Jesus says, “Tell me about it. I’ve been a blonde, white dude for like, 2,000 years.” I have a new friend from Viet Nam who’s a Buddhist, and our language differences are a bit of a barrier between us talking about our faith traditions. I’m always curious about the things that identify a faith tradition…. And I’m curious about what identifies us as followers of Jesus. In the past, identifying someone as not being Christian was an insult, as if to say they were not a good or kind person. Now it can mean someone of another faith tradition, someone who follows a different path to God, and has different spiritual practices. Years ago, when I taught in a Nazarene preschool we taught the children this song: “God said it, and I believe it, and that settles it for me. God said it, and I believe it, and that settles it for me. Now some may doubt that His word is true; I’ve chosen to believe it now how ‘bout you? God said it, and I believe it, and that settles it for me.” But… I can probably find a bible verse to back up any position I want, and you probably can too. Because the bible is literature and law and poetry and prophecy… what is the gospel-truth? (And by the way did you know that it’s not considered good manners to ask a question you know the answer to? I ask because I know the answer to the question, what is gospel-truth… but I’ll come back to that.) Anyway, I’m curious about what identifies you and me as followers of Jesus.
Rabbi David Horowitz, one of my new mentors, and a faculty members at the Academy for Spiritual Formation that I attended earlier this month, told us that the only thing wrong with the Lord’s Prayer is that it’s called the Lord’s Prayer (because Jews don’t say the name “Lord”.) Otherwise, Rabbi David said, it’s a perfect Jewish prayer (because Jesus was a perfect Jew. My words, not Rabbi David’s.)
I feel the need to take a detour here. We are a diverse congregation, as probably all congregations are although some are in the closet about their differences. When I talk about Jesus as God, and about the loving and healing relationship I have with Him, I recognize that not everyone shares this theology, or this experience, or this understanding. I don’t want to alienate anyone, and I want to speak openly about my spirituality, and who Jesus is to me. I believe in the triune God: God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sustaining Spirit, but Jesus is the face of God for me… the God who’s shared this human life, who intimately understands our suffering, and our vulnerability, and our soul-wounds, and He’s the God who came to share this life in order to heal and restore us. That’s what I’ve experienced about Jesus.
Back to the story Jesus told, to illustrate God’s goodness, and God’s limitless openheartedness towards us, after His closest friends asked Jesus to give them a formula for prayer, as John the Baptizer had given His disciples. And so Jesus taught them these words. (This is from the Message Translation) “When you pray, say, ‘Abba-God, Reveal who You are. Set the world right. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with You and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.’” And then Jesus told them a story about how inexhaustible God’s generous love is for us, in the parable of the nighttime visit. I don’t believe there’s a formula for prayer, whether or not you learned in youth group or church camp that ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication) was a prayer-formula designed to catch God’s attention. Jesus’ prayer was simple. Give us. Forgive us. Lead us. Deliver us. And His prayer begins as we are reminded of who we are, as we pray “Our Abba-God.” Abba is Aramaic for papa, and it’s the word Jesus used to describe His relationship with the Creator-God. We are God’s children, and when we pray, “Our Abba-God” or “Our Father” we remember that we are intimately connected to the Creator of the universe, who also knows us as beloved children. “Reveal who You are” is from the Message Translation, but the words many of us memorized as children are “Hallowed be Thy name.” We recognize the holiness of God… the otherness of God, the One who holds the world as it is, and who holds the world as God dreams for it to be. And so we pray for, we look forward to, we yearn for God’s kingdom to come, to bring justice and peace, to bring shalom, and to set the world right.
Jesus told a story of a friend who was tucked in for the night, comfortable and sleepy, and reluctant to get out of bed to help a friend in need except for… the persistence of the friend who was in need. Jesus said God is so much more ready to help than any friend; God is more generous than any parent who’s child asks for something they need. So ask, Jesus said. Seek. Knock. These are persistence-words. I think the trouble we can wade into is thinking that we can wear God out by persistently telling God what to do. The danger is believing that if we have enough faith we can persistently pest God into doing what we want God to do. And the dark side of that belief is the fear or the judgment that we don’t have enough faith to persistently ask, and seek, and knock, and that our faith is lacking, or a sham.
I think the persistence we need, as one of the spiritual practices that identifies us as followers of Jesus, is found in thanks and giving. That’s what the Lord’s Prayer is about: thanks and giving. “Thanks” is evidenced in us recognizing that we are God’s children, and in seeing the holiness of God in this world, and in ourselves. When we pray, “Our Abba-God” we acknowledge the connection we have with God and with all creation. That’s an awesome, wondrous thing, and it seems that the only response to that is an amazed, “Thank You, God!” Giving is evidenced in the Lord’s Prayer as we give forgiveness because we know ourselves to be forgiven. Again, the only response seems to be an amazed “Thank You, God!” So what if one of the identifying things about us as followers of Jesus is our thanks-giving, and that we are persistently grateful… if not in every situation… then for the opportunity to look for God, or to be the hands and heart of God in every situation? What if we allow gratitude, that is noticing, naming, and counting God’s gifts, to change us… to make us faith-full, mind-full, and grate-full?
I said earlier that I know the answer to what is gospel-truth. Gospel is a word that means “good news.” The Apostle Paul wrote to the first century church at Galatia reminding them of what identified them as followers of Jesus. He called these identifying characteristics “fruit” – the evidence of a transformed life. This “fruit” that identifies us as followers of Jesus is seen, Paul wrote, in the ways we practice love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Well, welcome to the 21st century, Paul, because thanks-giving is yet another identifying practice of a transformed life. Gratitude is the new fruit or evidence of a follower of Jesus.
This morning instead of passing the offering plates, we’re invited to come to the altar with our pledge cards, our Gratitude Journals, and our regular Sunday gifts. There are baskets here to receive the pledge cards and our tithes and gifts (that basket says “Grateful!”) The other basket holds the leaves from the thanks-giving tree in Fellowship Hall, and it’s for our Gratitude Journals. Be sure your name is on your journal if you put it in the basket, so you can get it back after worship.
Diana Butler Bass, the author of the book, Grateful, wrote a Thanksgiving prayer, and it’s a good prayer for us on this Thanks-and-Giving Sunday. “God, there are days we do not feel grateful. When we are anxious or angry. When we feel alone. When we do not understand what is happening in the world or with our neighbors. When the news is bleak, confusing. God, we struggle to feel grateful. But this Thanksgiving, we choose gratitude. We choose to accept life as a gift from You, and as a gift from the unfolding work of all creation. We choose to be grateful for the earth from which our food comes; for the water that gives life; and for the air we all breathe. We choose to thank our ancestors, those who came before us, grateful for their stories and struggles, and we receive their wisdom as a continuing gift for today. We choose to see our families and friends with new eyes, appreciating and accepting them for who they are. We are thankful for our homes, whether humble or grand. We will be grateful for our neighbors, no matter how they voted, whatever our differences, or how much we feel hurt or misunderstood by them. We choose to see the whole planet as our shared commons, the stage of the future of humankind and creation. God, this Thanksgiving, we do not give thanks. We choose it. We will make this choice of thanks with courageous hearts, knowing that it is humbling to say “thank you.” We choose to see Your sacred generosity, aware that we live in an infinite circle of gratitude. That we all are guests at a hospitable table around which gifts are passed and received. We will not let anything opposed to love take over this table. Instead, we choose grace, free and unmerited love, the giftedness of life everywhere. In this choosing, and in the making, we will pass gratitude onto the world. Thus, with You, and with all those gathered at this table, we pledge to make thanks. We ask You to strengthen us in this resolve. Here, now, and into the future. Around our family table. Around the table of our nation. Around the table of the earth. We choose thanks. Amen.”