Giving It Away: Gratitude and Attitude.
Yesterday I was up in Liberty for a meeting of Heartland Presbytery
That’s the regional gathering of Presbyterian Churches in our denomination
All of the pastors and commissioners from congregations were there.
We have members who live in Liberty.
One of our new members joining today, Steven, is from Liberty, as is Eryn.
Landon, who preached last Sunday, lives in Liberty.
It’s good for me to make that drive now and then
So that I don’t forget what its like to do it
And I can remember to thank Eryn constantly for that generosity she extends
Week after week.
On the way home from Presbytery, I noticed I was crying.
It wasn’t from the meeting, or the drive
But from the story on the radio, which was poignant and sweet and moving.
They weren’t tears of sadness, not really, though the story wasn’t free of sadness.
There is ample sadness here.
This was a story about losing an infant child,
and I have many friends who have lost a child like that. With many tears, healing tears.
But there was beauty to it, though my tears weren’t happy tears either, not quite.
More tears of joy, tears of amazement.
The radio program and podcast is called Radiolab
It’s on our local NPR station, or you can get it on the internet.
They were recounting the experience of Ross and Sarah Gray.[i]
Maybe I found it more personally impactful than most, because
Ross and Sarah got married and were pregnant with twins.
And their story made me think of our twin daughters.
Sarah and Ross found, sometime during the first trimester of their pregnancy
That one of the twins, Thomas, wouldn’t survive much past birth.
He had anencephaly, a condition where the child’s head doesn’t form correctly.
On the program,
Ross and Sarah described this weird experience of planning for one child
While carrying two children to term, weird for a whole bunch of complicated reasons.
They welcomed Thomas and Caleb, and when Thomas died,
They said goodbye, and donated some of his organs for research
Eyes, liver, cord blood.
A year or two later, they wanted to know what became of those donations.
They had made inquiries, and got some basic responses
about which labs were doing what, generic answers.
But they wanted to know, you know.
One day Sarah found herself in Boston, working a convention at the Hynes center.
She googled one of the labs, the one in Boston doing some eye research,
And she called them.
This startled the switchboard operator, who,
in her more than 20 years with the company
never ever had fielded THAT phone call before.
Sarah wondered if she could come by, you know,
Have a tour. See what they did. Maybe speak to the people doing the research.
The radiolab people paused here, noting how tenuous this sort of request was
Research is research. Sometimes things pan out, and sometimes they don’t.
It wasn’t clear that she would find anything satisfactory.
That’s how research goes.
But the operator connected her to someone in donor relations
Now, that’s donor relations as in financial donations, development.
The lab didn’t really have someone on staff to connect with families
of the donor organs
But development people are the ones who work with the public, give tours
That sort of thing
So they made the arrangements and Sarah went down over her lunch break
And she got to look around.
She saw the offices and the labs and
They walked by the researcher working on the particular project.
He was at his desk, eating lunch
A Professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School.
He invited her to sit down, and he explained who he was
And he said thank you for the donation
And he asked if Sarah had any questions.
Sarah had a thousand questions.
Were the eyes useful?
Do they get a lot of eyes, or just a couple?
Do they sit up in a box, collecting dust?
The researcher put down his lunch.
And he said to her: most of the eyes they got were from people who were older
Because most people are older when they die
But infant eyes are worth their weight in gold.
They have these regenerative qualities, you see
That make them extremely valuable to scientists.
And, in fact, they were still using Thomas’ cells, due to this.
Sarah cried. That’s when I started to cry.
This led her to track down other donation sites.
A lab in North Carolina, where the liver went
Wasn’t able to use Thomas’ liver for their principal experiment,
But they did use it to help determine the optimum temperature
to freeze infant liver donations, negative 150 degrees.
The cord blood, from both Thomas and Caleb
Went to another lab, where they are doing comparisons
To try to find out how genetically identical siblings can nonetheless
Develop these sorts of medical conditions in utero
And the donation helped isolate thousands of epigenetic differences
That one day may explain anencephaly.
In one of the labs, when she went to the break room
She saw a picture on the bulletin board of her son Thomas
With a little sign: Thomas Grey was a donor here, March 29th, 2010.
The retina went to a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania
Who was working on a cancer of the eye that almost exclusively affects children
And she, the researcher, had been struggling herself
With the knowledge that these healthy infant retinas are so valuable
They’re essential to her work,
And they are so rare,
and every time she gets to work on a new healthy retina donation
That these are bittersweet things, so valuable, so important
But that there is a story of grief behind each one.
That grief was impacting her spirit, the researcher.
But then the researcher got an email from Sarah to arrange a visit
And she wasn’t so sure she could do it. Could she meet with her?
But they met, and she got to sit with Sarah
And that moment was so meaningful, for both of them.
Sitting with Sarah helped the researcher understand
The indescribable gift she is given, each time she receives a donation
And Sarah was able to see how valuable Thomas had been to her
Maybe even priceless.
This journey Sarah and Ross were on.
It opened their eyes.
What had been such a difficult experience for them
Shifted, in their heart and in their mind and in their spirit.
It helped them to see the world in such a different way:
“Something shifted in me…” Sarah said later.
“That there are really amazing, kind people in the world…
I felt an even more fundamental shift,
I had felt like I was a boat
on an ocean that was rocky, and choppy with waves,
and I had this feeling that I’m not the boat.
I’m the ocean.
That the decisions that I make are changing other people,
rather than I’m a boat, being slapped with waves all the time.
It has made me feel powerful.
Well, maybe you get a sense of why that radio program undid me a little bit
Driving home from a Presbytery meeting on a Saturday afternoon.
I’m struck by how powerful we are
The power of our generosity.
How sometimes we don’t even know it
How our acts have these ripple effect to them
That can radiate outward in a thousand different directions
That can make such a difference, great or small.
How these little moments of goodness can happen
even in the midst of tragedy, even surrounded by pain
And how they often do, actually.
If the Grays hadn’t made all those inquiries
Their son Thomas still would have made a huge difference
Even if Sarah and Ross didn’t know about it.
But its not just this:
The kind word you share to someone at the coffee house tomorrow morning
Might be the right thing that someone needs to hear after an awful night
The visit to a friend who is convalescing might come at just the right time
To remind them that they are not alone.
That choice to forgive might keep you from years of agony and anger
And most of the time we don’t have the insight or the ability
To track all of it down like the Grays were able to have,
to see how these things can contain
Moments of good in a world where the hurt sometimes feels more prevalent.
And seeing that, acknowledging that
Knowing that, in your heart,
Having that attitude that good is all around you
And that you can do something to share it:
That can be such a powerful feeling.
It makes a difference, how you look at the world
Whether you see the world as a world of scarcity, or a world of abundance.
Don’t you think?
There’s no coincidence that our Stewardship and pledging seasons overlap
With Thanksgiving, that moment where we pause and
Gather with family and friends over turkey and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.
Cranberries too, Brook would want me to say.
We people of faith see God at the heart of these moments of goodness
The way that hope can spring forth out of the most difficult things.
The way that God is the giver that keeps on giving
And that, when we pause and cultivate grateful hearts
We see the world differently, we experience the world differently
We’re able to do things we didn’t think we could do:
Like love more fully or share more abundantly or have compassion more truly.
And these things give us JOY:
Thanksgiving to God for God’s indescribable gifts.
To do this, we have try to see the world as God sees it.
That’s not always easy.
It takes a concerted effort to practice gratitude,
and a commitment to have an attitude of thanksgiving.
Matthew’s sermon on the mount encourages us to see the world
Through this lens: that God will provide, always, God will provide
…maybe not in the way we are expecting
But in a way that is full of compassion and love.
Ask, and it will be given you;
Search, and you will find;
Knock, and the door will be opened for you…
How much more will God in heaven give good things
To those who ask…
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Sometime we misread this
And we think that anything we pray for will be given, if we’re just faithful enough.
Please, God, help the Royals sign Moustakas and Cain and Hosmer this offseason …
What, am I the only one that has been praying that prayer?
Asking that ask, seeking that possibility, knock knock knocking on that door?
We know that’s not what Jesus is saying here.
Nor, really, is it what Jesus is saying about our more serious, life-on-the-line prayers.
Even Jesus prayed, in the Garden before being led off to his death,
“if it is thy will, God, take this cup away from me.”
Instead, Jesus is trying to help us pray for what God is trying to do in the world
To help us see moments of Goodness and love and possibility all around us.
Jesus is saying that God is there, in and through our prayers
Making all things new, sewing good together in ways that are seen,
and sometimes unseen
Even if the answers to what we are asking for aren’t what we expect or ask
How the answer to our prayers may be no, might be maybe, could be yes
But in EVERY answer, God is there to comfort and provide for us.
Can you see it, says Jesus?
Can you live your life with that attitude of thanksgiving, that trust?
If you can, how much better, bolder, happier your life will be
How much more will God be able to use you for good.
There is something counterintuitive in this
The notion that we give ourselves away so that we might find ourselves
That through selflessness we gain everything that matters.
Paul tries to help explain it, in this reading from Second Corinthians.
Paul talks to an agrarian people about things they would understand:
Seeds and farming techniques and the crop yields they would provide.
You might sow a little, and get a little.
You might sow a lot, and get a big crop back in return.
And you might think this is due to your labor, dear farmer,
how you formed irrigation trenches
How you kept the bugs from eating the leaves
Even your choice about how much to plant.
But, Paul says, there is SOMEONE who supplies the seed to the sower
And, he implies, SOMEONE who gives the water for the irrigation
And SUN for the growth.
And the more you recognize that God is behind all of our gifts
The more that you want to plant
The more that you are willing to trust that God will be with you along the way
And the more joy you will reap.
The more we recognize that God is behind all of our gifts
The more we will want to give it away,
to use the crop, so that others will have good things to eat
So that the fruit of your labor will help heal the world.
Paul says that this is a “blessing in abundance”
The ability to share in good work.
To be part of God’s amazing plan for good in this world.
Which brings us back to stewardship
And the work of This Kirk.
We are here to build a community that loves and serves the community around us
To be Christ’s hands and feet in the world
To nurture our faith so that we can be the kind of people who grow
in gratitude and an attitude of thanksgiving.
This is possible, even in the environment we’re currently living through
With a summer of scandal and hurricanes and public misconduct.
I’d contend, actually, that churches like ours are vitally important
Precisely because of times such as these
Where we need people who can see goodness and truth in the world
Even through days like these
People who choose the values of a faith
that tells them to go out in peace and to hold fast to the good.
A church like ours produces ripples of goodness out there
In ways that we can see, and maybe in ways that go unnoticed to us
If we continue to be faithful to the one who empowers us,
the one in whose name we live.
Today we dedicate our pledges for 2018
Grateful for every gift,
–financial gifts so we can keep the lights on and pay a staff and fund important mission
–spiritual gifts, so that we hold each other in prayer and serve the community
by seeking justice and reconciliation and healing in the world
–and other more intangible gifts:
gifts of friendship, gifts of time, gifts of patience, gifts of love.
Thank you for what you do to build this church.
Thank you for what you give to others because of the love you have for God in Jesus.
Thank you for the compassion you share with each other
As we welcome new people into our community, pledging to be part of their lives
And inviting them to become part of ours,
for each time we welcome new members
We become something new, this church becomes something new, for God’s sake.
Thank you for claiming YOUR power to see this world not simply as full of tragedy
But full of hope and possibility and goodness
Because you know that God is there
With God’s indescribable gift
Ready for you to receive it, and to give thanks for it, and then to give it away…
That is so powerfully good.
It’s a way to be fully alive.
What a wonderful gift from God.
Thanks be to God.
[i] Podcast can be found at the Radiolab website: http://www.radiolab.org/story/donation-and-mutation/. You can also see a TED talk Sarah Gray shared at https://www.ted.com/talks/sarah_gray_how_my_son_s_short_life_made_a_lasting_difference