Monday, November 22, 2010

Sermon - Giving Thanks, Giving Help

Giving Thanks, Giving Help

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday; it is probably my favorite holiday, probably because it centers on lots of food. But rather than talk about food while I have your attention, I want to talk about gratitude. Thanksgiving always brings up the question, what are you thankful for. I know a lot of families actually go around the table at Thanksgiving dinner and encourage everyone to name something they are thankful for this year.

So, today, I want to take some time to name a few of those things that we are thankful for, or that I am thankful for at least.

I am grateful for this community. The enthusiasm that has bubbled up here in the past year is astounding. The spirit of kindness and generosity and curiosity. Our Fellowship is on fire with enthusiasm. I am deeply thankful for this community and for the spirit that you bring to it.

And I am thankful to live here in Laguna Beach, in Southern California, in the United States. We have a vast array of opportunities here. We have access to healthcare. We have clean air. We have a pretty charmed life, and I try to be mindful of that fact. I am grateful for the bounty of my life here.

It’s good to take a little extra moment to name the things that we are grateful for. But in a way, Thanksgiving is what we do every Sunday at church. In the midst of all our differences of belief, expressing gratitude is one of the things that we do really well. We join together, not just today, but every Sunday to give thanks with our worship.
Worship is a sticky word, and I have unpacked it a few times. It’s especially important to do today as thanksgiving approaches. When we worship together in this congregation, we are not all joining together in deference to a supreme being, We are not offering supplication and praise to God for the most part. Now don’t get me wrong, for many of us God is the name of the game and very, very important.
But what we do most in worship, is simply name those things that are most important in our lives. That’s where the word worship comes from, and why I insist on calling what we do, worship. Worship is a religious activity and it comes from the Old English “worthscipe,” meaning worthiness or worth-ship. At least in its simplest form, worth-ship, or worship is to give worth to something. When we name and celebrate those things that are most meaningful in our lives, we give them worth. And that’s what we do together on Sundays. We name the sacred, we name our values, our hopes, our aspirations, and our love. We name our relationships with friends and family and the divine. All of these things we lift up, and give worth. So the practice of Thanksgiving is not so far off from what we normally do here together on Sundays.

Now some would say that we need to give thanks for material wealth. That was actually my initial reaction, we should be grateful for the material gifts of our lives. And in some ways that is true. We live in a beautiful area. We are experiencing an economic hard time, but still the material wealth that you and I have access to is tremendous in comparison with the majority of the world’s population. So yes, we have reason to be grateful for the material things that we have.

But at the end of the day, we have much more important things to be grateful for. All of those goods don’t really buy happiness… It’s true; you can’t buy happiness. What sounds like a feel-good cliché is actually now being proven with research. Princeton University researchers have found that the link between wealth and happiness is exaggerated and mostly an illusion. It’s true. Contrary to consumer culture and a constant drive for more, the researchers found that money’s role is less significant than anyone thought, and that people with higher incomes do not necessarily spend more time in more enjoyable ways. Two Princeton professors, economist Alan B. Krueger and psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, collaborated with colleagues from three other universities on the study, being published in the journal “Science.”

Not only does money not buy happiness, it can actually be a bit of a burden, especially when we get into talking about responding to gratitude. That is the point of the reading that we heard earlier, the story of Jesus and the rich young ruler. Jesus told him to give away all his possessions if he wanted to do what God required. Ouch. That’s a pretty scary request, almost cultish. Giving away everything seems extreme. But that’s sort of missing the point. The point isn’t that he had to give away everything or that people with wealth are somehow less worthy. The point was that wealth is a burden in a way. To whom much is given, much is expected. It wasn’t that big of a deal to ask some of the other folks to take on a life of service because they didn’t have that much to begin with. But for the rich young ruler, following Jesus would have been a huge burden, because it would have meant giving more.

You can’t buy happiness, and in a way, wealth is a burden. So what are we thankful for this season? It seems like naming the material things is missing the point. There is so much more than that, so much that at the very core of our beings we cherish and embrace.

As I said before, those are the things that we celebrate when we worship together at church. They are also things that we have glimpses of in our most profound individual moments.
Just this past week at Coffee Talk, we found ourselves in a conversation about white-water rafting in the Grand Canyon. It is exhilarating I am told. It offers a sense of vulnerability and centeredness that clarifies what is important in your life. Someone there compared it to sky-diving. She had done both, and she said that after sky-diving, she could hardly sleep, for three days she just felt alive, and awake. Something had been jolted in her, something was somehow clear, she knew what was important. Then another jarring adventure was shared. Not a fun one, but one that most of us can probably more readily relate to. Someone described driving on the 405 at 70 miles per hour when suddenly all lanes of traffic seemed to be coming to an abrupt stop. Cars were skidding and swerving. And in the moment of terror, a sense of call came over him, a sense of centeredness.

In our conversation of those moments, everyone agreed that the calm and focus were fleeting. The window of clarity is short-lived. But I want to ask you,

Have you ever had one of these moments of exhileration or terror? Do you remember what came to your consciousness? If you can, those are the things we are thankful for this season. Those are the things that fill our hearts and make our lives full.

And how are we to respond to these full lives and full hearts? How are we to respond to the gratitude that we feel? Well, the title of this sermon should be some indication of that, “Giving Thanks, Giving Help.”

I think it is appropriate that this Sunday, the Sunday before Thanksgiving we turn our focus from Fellowship to the wider world in need. This Sunday is the last Sunday we will be talking about the pledge campaign in the service. I wanted to share with you where we are in the campaign. We still have a number of members who have not yet pledged, but we are in communication with them and hope to get their pledge cards in soon. So far, we have raised around $75,000 in pledges. Hopefully in the coming months that number will rise as we collect pledges from a few remaining current members and new members to join in our community.
If you are a member of the Fellowship and you have not pledge to contribute financially in 2011, please do so soon, so that we can wrap up this campaign. It’s sort of like the NPR pledge time. We’re all tired of hearing about it, so help us wrap it up.

So in this time of Thanksgiving, we turn from our own community, to consider the needs of the wider world around us. That’s right, we are called to respond to our gratitude by giving something back to our world. In the next month, our congregation will offer an array of different ways for you to give back to the world in a financial way. Starting in December we will help support the Heifer Project. We have already dedicated one thousand dollars from the church for this years campaign. We’ll learn more about that from Riva and Mark in December. Another tradition for this congregation is to adopt a family. We will adopt one or two local families and provide needed gifts for Christmas for them. Helen Scholfield will be handling that project. And a brand new opportunity to help the church and spread some cheer is the new UUFLB music CD that will be available for purchase in December.

Of course this Sunday, we begin the Guest At Your Table project. The Guest At Your Table program is a wonderful concept. It’s a simple reminder to us to act as if there were someone joining us at our own dining table. It’s an opportunity to offer hospitality as you would if someone were in you own home. But if you scratch the surface a little deeper, it can be a reminder that, in a way, there is always a guest at our table. Not in the offering of hospitality sense, but in the sense that the food that we eat, and the way that we eat it is deeply related to other people in the world.
There are probably a few of you who grow some of your own vegetables. I am still nursing one tiny tomato that hopefully might be edible for thanksgiving. That was my crop for the year. Perhaps you have had better luck than I. Even if you have grown much of your own produce the majority of your food comes from super-markets. It comes from fields, owned by companies and staffed by workers. Your food is grown in the ground, which is the home of someone. Your food was driven to the store, and put neatly on the shelf. Your food was sold to you by a friendly person at the checkout line.
In a way, each of these people is a guest at your table, every time you sit down to a meal. The food that we eat connects us to each other, in a physical very sense. So let the box at your table be a reminder not just of hospitality, but that our basic physical comfort, the food that we eat, the resources that we consume, depend on other people and impact other people. Whether we realize it or not, there is always a guest at our table. For the coming month, these boxes will help us to be more mindful of that fact.

There are tons of ways to give help this season, and I encourage everyone to find some small way to participate in these financial activities. But writing a check or tying a bow on a gift is just icing on the cake as far as I am concerned.

You cannot buy a handshake or a hug. You cannot buy those things that fill our hearts and make us grateful. It’s just like the hymn that we sang earlier. There’s really no fancy style at the welcome table, because that’s not what it’s about. The real giving that I hope we all have the courage to engage in, this season comes from the heart.

I want to leave you with a gift idea that has been an incredible inspiration to me this year. It has taken a while for the value of this gift to sink in, but I think it is amazing. But this gem of a Christmas gift embodies the key of giving thanks, and giving help.

Rather than gift certificates or goodies, a couple of members of our congregation simply wrote letters to their love ones. I know that sounds easy, but this was no ordinary letter. This was a letter that described in detail why and how they loved their family members. They were letters written through tears, they were letters that changed some lives. The kind of letter that takes courage to write. That why I said I hope we all have the courage to engage in the sort of giving that comes from the heart this season. It’s not easy.

So as we go our ways into the world, as we experience gratitude for all that is our lives, I invite you to give something back. Give a little help, not just from your wallet, but from your heart. It takes courage, but you are generous people. I know you can do it.


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