An Attitude of Gratitude (May 10, 2015)

Valentine's DayA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Text: Deuteronomy 15:7-11; 1 Timothy 6:6-12, 17-19

Now wait a minute. Something’s wrong here. It’s only the middle of May. Why are we talking about stewardship? Isn’t the pitch for stewardship supposed to be reserved for November? Every year, as we approach the time of thanksgiving, Jane Chin asks me about the Sunday I plan to deliver the stewardship sermon. The truth is, I don’t try to limit our consideration of stewardship to just one Sunday or just one season of the year. Perhaps you’ve picked that up by now.

For whatever reasons, in our journey with Brian McLaren, this is the Sunday he’s selected to focus on stewardship. I don’t think it will do us any harm to stay with him on this phase of our walk together. Of the many biblical passages that consider money and resources, he chooses three, two of which we have as texts today. The ancient word from Deuteronomy addresses how we handle resources in the context of Sabbath. The letter to Timothy seeks to establish in the young man a proper appreciation for the place of money in the economy of God and in the development of his own sense of godliness.

Among other things, McLaren says stewardship is “love in action.” I like that idea but maybe it needs a little unpacking. What would love in action look like to you? How would it shape a practice of stewardship? What I like about this notion is it grounds giving, sharing, caring in an attitude of gratitude.

In his commentary on Deuteronomy, Mark Biddle argues that “The economic aspect of Deuteronomy’s understanding of the Sabbath principle – release from slavery, release from debt, release from need – underscores the Old Testament’s very this-worldly viewpoint.” He argues that “Deuteronomy does not speak of a ‘spiritual freedom’ only, or of merely emotional responses to God’s Grace. One freed from the very real hardships of slavery in Egypt will find it difficult to enslave another! Can gratitude and greed co-exist?” he asks. “To begrudge the needy, among whom one was formerly numbered, is to hardheartedly and tightfistedly deny YHWH’s redemption and blessing…Deuteronomy understands Sabbath as a principle of liberation from oppression and need. In order fully to participate in the Sabbath, then, it is not enough to be freed. One must extend liberty!” (Mark E. Biddle, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, p. 270.)

Have you ever seen someone freed from some form of bondage, let off from promised punishment, given a second chance, then turn on another seeking similar freedom and possibility? Remember the parable Jesus tells in which a debtor, released from a great debt by playing on the pity of the ruler, then cruelly demands that another who cannot repay a small debt to him be thrown in prison? In the end he meets a worse fate when the ruler finds out about his lack of mercy (Matthew 18:21-35).

The whole Sabbath tradition is centered in good stewardship. It insists on learning to care for creation which, of course, means caring for our sisters and brothers. It calls is to work and play and rest in the joy of our relationship to God who made us and loves of us with unending love. The writers of Deuteronomy, as does Jesus, insist that stewardship is grounded in attitude of gratitude – gratitude to God for the wonders of creation, for the invitation to share with God responsibility for creation and, above all, for God’s grace and mercy when we manage to mess things up. In her wonderful book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells us that the two best prayers are “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” In an interview, she expands: “The full prayer, in its entirety, is: Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you. But for reasons of brevity, I just refer to it as Thanks.”

First Timothy, too, expands on the attitude of gratitude. The early church developed within the rule of the Roman empire. In this context, Christian Eberhart writes that “For the most part, riches could only be acquired through continuous cooperation with the Roman administration. Those who were rich, therefore, usually supported a system that oppressed the vast majority of the population for the benefit of only few at the center of the Empire” Christian A. Eberhart, “Commentary on 1 Timothy 6:6-19, September 29, 2013”, workingpreacher.org).

While the early church was largely counter-cultural, they didn’t exactly eschew wealth. People of means helped to fund the enterprise and keep it viable. In some cases those with resources pooled what they had with those who had little or nothing so that everyone had enough. Remember the passage from Acts we read a couple of weeks ago? “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (Acts 2:44-47). Remember I said that one of the things that stood out for me in this passage was that they ate their food with glad and generous hearts”? Talk about an attitude of gratitude. And the result, they had the “goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

The problem is not wealth per se. It is people’s attitude toward it. The writer tells the young Timothy that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” It’s the attitude that matters. It’s not money itself that’s the root of so much evil, as we have often heard it misquoted. It’s the love of money, the lust for wealth, that gets people into all kinds of trouble, but we don’t know anything about that, do we? Bill Leonard reports that “In the May 3 Times Nicholas Kristof noted, ‘Just the annual bonuses for just the sliver of Americans who work just in finance just in New York City dwarfed the combined year-round earnings of all Americans earning the federal minimum wage’ (Bill Leonard, “Sifting the Conscience,” May 6, 2015, baptistnews.com).

The clearly counter-cultural words of the writer of First Timothy hold a different perspective for those with wealth. “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” Enjoyment? Doing good? Generosity? Sharing? Sounds like an attitude of gratitude to me. What if we were to cultivate just such an attitude, not only for stewardship season, when the whole culture suddenly rediscovers thanksgiving, but all the time, every day, every moment? Thank you, thank you, thank you. Wouldn’t this be liberating, the very freedom that the Gospel offers so freely? An attitude of gratitude – I think it’s worth a try.

Spirit of Sabbath

Dalai LamaIt takes a bit of time and effort, after spending three weeks “on the mountain top,” to adjust to life in the lowlands. While it’s not actually a mountain top, San Francisco Theological Seminary does sit atop a high hill in San Anselmo, with sweeping views of Mt. Tamalpais to the south. It is a blessing to be able to take this sabbatical time for study and refreshment. One of the wonderful books we read for this year’s course on “The Art of Discernment” was the classic, Sabbath, by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel’s insight, wisdom and eloquence help us to understand Sabbath as spiritual discipline rather than time off to play or just be lazy. Of course, play and rest can be integral to Sabbath, but it is so much more.

In her introduction to the book, Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, describes Sabbath in their household as a re‐membering of ancient Jewish rites. There was ritual and reading, discussing and sharing with family and friends. There was worship and reflection and practice of the presence of God. There was a blessed ordering of life, both familiar and sacred.

On the seventh day God did not just settle down for a nice nap. On that day, God reveled in creation, loving what had come to be, calling it good and blessing it. It was a time for taking stock. It was a time of replenishment. It was a time for beauty, for reflection, for blessing. And so God, recognizing its importance, gave Sabbath to creation, inviting humanity to share in that sacred time.

After six days of creative work (or any other kind, for that matter,) even God Almighty chose to change the tempo, to slow down, to contemplate. When we treat time with this sort of care and respect, we may find ourselves face to face with questions about the meaning of life, about the nature of things, about the creative process, about God and our relationship to the Holy One. Heschel insists that this is good and right – to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, to bring oneself with purpose and devotion, with joy and humility into the presence of God. In fact, Heschel argues that we were created for the experience of Sabbath, for communion with the Holy, for giving ourselves over to the grace of God.

Jesus uses this same argument when his disciples are chastised for plucking grain on the Sabbath. In the spirit over the letter of the law, he reminds his critics that “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath…” (Mark 2:27). It is not some rote repetition of rules or ritual that makes the Sabbath sacred. It is the opportunity to enter deeply into the holy presence – which may be quite difficult on an empty stomach! Of course, the ancient rules and rituals do have their place in helping to develop the discipline needed to enter fully into Sabbath.

Sabbath is not a practice we fall into easily in our frenetic culture. Give me a weekend so I can “veg’ out,” napping in my easy chair in front of the football game. I need time to do my laundry, clean the kitchen, shop for groceries, visit family and friends, hang out with my spouse and kids. There is so much pulling at me, screaming at me, coming at me that I sometimes feel I can barely tread water until the weekend comes. I need “me” time! And this says nothing of those who work multiple jobs just to make ends meet with no time left over or those whose time is disordered by homelessness, hunger, refugee status, imprisonment, oppression, abuse.

The spiritual discipline of Sabbath is as challenging for most of us as it is rewarding when we discover its true meaning and value. To take time or make time to draw just a little nearer to the heart of God, in whatever form that may take, is sacred exercise. There is always the possibility that seeking to dwell in the presence of the Most High will have inevitable ramifications for the living of our lives over all. I don’t mean that we will win the lottery or every trouble will disappear, but somehow committing oneself to living closer to God, to embracing God’s way and God’s will, can’t help but bring shalom to us – some deeper sense of peace and fulfillment.

Well, this is what you get for allowing me to spend time on the mountain top. Perhaps, you can see why it’s not so easy to re‐enter the routines of daily life. Don’t get me wrong. I love living here and working here and sharing life with each of you. It is a blessing in itself for which I am deeply grateful. But one of the things that I think about up there in San Anselmo is how I can share with you some of that Sabbath experience. As I said in last Sunday’s sermon, a significant goal I have for us as pastor and people is that we might find ways together to deepen our spiritual life. How can we cultivate Sabbath and celebrate it as a people? What will bring us closer to living in a constant awareness of God’s presence in us and around us? And how will that sense shape our living? This is the challenge, the work and the promise of spiritual formation. It is a joy to walk this way with you. Thanks for the time away and thanks for the home to which I may return.

God bless and keep us on the way.
Pastor Rick