Sermon of the Week
Be Thou My Vision: Heart of My Heart.
Keywords: See What’s in Front of You, Thanksgiving, Reign of God, Be Thou My Vision, Heart of My Heart.
I’m always amazed when I have been doing something routine, for years,
and then I see something that was always right there in front of me,
but something that went unnoticed.
This happens every now and then,
but the most recent occurrence was this morning.
I get into the church rather early on Sundays.
I revise a draft of my sermon,
work on notes for the worship service,
sometimes we have a meeting.
I’m not a morning person.
My Sunday morning schedule isn’t natural for me.
I’m almost never the first one awake in our house,
the one who has to keep quiet so that everyone else can hopefully stay asleep.
It works just fine, most of the time.
Often I’m awake just enough to make the drive into the church.
I’ve had my morning tea,
my shower, snuck out so as to not wake up Brook or the kids,
or our dog Annie, hopefully—
all that helps wake you up a bit too.
It’s always really quiet on the roads on Sunday morning at 6am.
I can count the number of cars I pass on one hand,
and I often wonder:
they’re all heading off to church this morning too, right?
Surely that’s who my fellow morning commuters are this fine Lord’s day…
It is almost like auto-pilot, that Sunday morning drive.
Brook, who gets up early almost every other day of the week,
tells me her drives that early to go work out are like this too…auto pilot.
You just kinda zoom off to where you’re going.
For me, the route may vary a bit, but there’s not much going on on the roads,
and there’s nothing much good on the radio that time of day on Sunday, either.
Did you know that a lot of the local music stations
feature some odd mix of self-help or community programming on Sunday mornings?
I think they think no one is listening, either….
This morning I was making the drive into the church
and was more than half way here,
driving over on Mission road just south of 103rd street
when a DEER crossed the road in front of me.
It was a good way up there—
no danger to me, had I not been awake enough, you know,
or not paying attention
because I was engrossed in the Rocket and Teresa discussion
of local animal shelters over on Mix 93.3 FM.
Now, I know that it’s not that bizarre for a deer to live in the area.
I shouldn’t have been startled.
We have all sorts of wildlife beyond the normal city fare:
I’ve heard reports of foxes, for instance, the occasional possum.
But in all the years of getting up early and driving into the church,
I’ve never had a deer cross in front of me on a sleepy Sunday morning drive.
This wasn’t all that far, just one major street over, from the intersection
where I had a major accident last December,
when someone else crossed in front of me,
a Chevy instead of a deer, and one that I couldn’t avoid.
That accident was what I first thought of, when I saw the deer
already off the road and hopping the fence to get on with her morning.
So, even though I was probably a good football field away
from that deer when it crossed
it certainly got my attention.
The kicker, though, was this:
as I continued my drive to the church,
I noticed not one, but two of those yellow ‘deer crossing’ road signs,
one on Mission Road and the other on College Boulevard.
They’d been there this whole time,
warning drivers like me that, hey, you know:
keep a look out for crossing deer.
They might be there, so you might want to pay attention.
The rest of the drive in, I reflected on all of this,
enough to make a few changes to the sermon this morning—
how sometimes we miss things that are right in front of us,
how thankful I was to be safe, yet again, for another so-called routine morning,
how grateful I felt for another opportunity to rise and meet a new day
and to get to share it with people I love and care about.
It has me thinking a lot about gratitude,
and how we spark thinking about it, seeing it, enacting it, in our daily lives.
Today is the last Sunday of the church year.
Next Sunday is the start of Advent, of waiting and watching for the birth of Jesus.
We’ll have more opportunity to talk a bit about keeping alert,
staying awake at the wheel,
looking for the true signs of the season…all that next week.
For now, we’re talking Thanksgiving,
and the Reign of Christ Sunday that is always the last Sunday of the church year.
A pastor friend of mine tweeted earlier this week:
“I always feel a little sorry for
‘Reign of Christ/Christ the King/Last Sunday of Ordinary Time’…
Despite its plethora of names, it really is the Sunday
you just want to get through
so you can finally start Advent…”
And maybe that’s true.
Christmas lights are already beginning to be seen around town.
The holiday Starbucks cups are out.
If my unscientific poll from my time hanging out there this week is any indicator,
Peppermint Mocha has begun to edge out Pumpkin Spice Lattes
maybe two to one…
And with Thanksgiving so late this year, maybe we’re ready to turn the page
and get on with it.
But we’re going to spend one more Sunday before we get there,
lingering on these themes of Thanksgiving and Gratitude.
We’ll kick Advent off with a bang, for sure…
advent hymns starting next week,
lighting of the advent candle,
a fantastic all church Christmas party, all of that.
For now, let’s not rush ourselves too quickly ahead,
lest we miss some obvious things that are right there in front of us,
maybe some things that have been there the whole time,
right under our noses.
This passage from the Letter to the Philippians might be my favorite passage
in my favorite letter from the Apostle Paul.
I’m always being reminded of something I need to hear,
when I read Philippians.
And this reading is no different:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
The Lord is near.
Ok, God. I get it.
Take time to smell the roses, be thankful, acknowledge goodness all around me.
Rejoice in the Lord always?
That seems to be a lot.
And do I have to let my gentleness be known?
Can’t I keep a bit of rugged secrecy about it,
keep people guessing a little bit?
Maybe not, if the Lord is near.
Do not worry about anything
but in everything, by prayer and supplication
let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God,
which passes all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds, in Christ Jesus…
This is classic Paul: telling his friends at Philippi,
and now telling us,
that there’s always space for thanksgiving,
for appreciation for those things in our lives that give us joy, or hope, or happiness.
Include those in your prayers too, says Paul.
Do not worry, but lift your concerns, and your acknowledgement of your blessings,
to the one who cares for you,
and God’s peace will guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus the Christ.
David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University
and a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership.
He wrote an article in the New York Times this weekend
in which he argues that Gratitude is Wasted on Thanksgiving.[i]
He doesn’t mean that your uncle,
that uncle, won’t appreciate everything you’ve done
to get the turkey cooked or the cranberries made just right.
DeSteno isn’t saying that, by Friday, everyone will be thinking about
Black Friday deals and Cyber Monday specials. Though they will. We all know that.
Instead, DeSteno notes that he has spent his entire professional career
studying how gratitude shapes people’s lives.
Research, including his, shows that feeling grateful has positive effects on us:
it makes us more honest,
increases our self-control,
enhances our productivity at work and our relationships at home.
It is no secret that gratitude is good for you.
But, DeSteno writes, quote,
“the very things that make [the] Thanksgiving [holiday] so wonderful—
the presence of family and friends,
the time off from work,
indulging in that extra serving of turkey—
also make gratitude unnecessary.”
What he means is that these very things are the stuff of thankfulness.
Gratitude is meant to bond us together…often to new people, in new relationships.
But we don’t ordinarily spend Thanksgiving with new people.
We spend it with family, or with friends.
Friendsgiving is now as popular as family gatherings are, say the polls.
Gratitude keeps us honest. And helps us become more generous.
Good news on this Pledge Dedication Sunday!
There are all sorts of fascinating psychological experiments that demonstrate
the impact of gratitude on honesty and generosity.
But on Thanksgiving,
cheating and stinginess aren’t usually sins we’re tempted to commit,
unless we plan to nab too big a slice of Aunt Donna’s famous pumpkin pie
when no one is looking….
Gratitude helps us cultivate self-control….
not a virtue associated with Thanksgiving meals, now, is it?
And it promotes productivity and helps reduce materialism…
again, not typically associated with tryptophan induced naps and good Friday prep.
DeSteno’s point is that Thanksgiving, as a holiday, is wonderful for many people,
but the feeling of gratitude underneath it needs to be a year-round sport.
Here’s how he puts it:
“So as you and your loved ones gather for Thanksgiving this year,
consider that the joys of the day —
the delicious food, the family and friends, the sense of peace —
come relatively easily.
We’re supposed to gather,
support one another and relax on that fourth Thursday of November.
Yet on the other 364 days of the year —
the ones when you might feel lonely,
stressed at work,
tempted to dishonesty or stinginess —
pausing to cultivate a sense of gratitude can make a big difference.
Gratitude may not be needed on Thanksgiving,
but giving thanks on other days can help ensure that in the future,
you’ll have many things to be grateful for.”
The Apostle Paul is suggesting that the things for which we can be grateful
are all around us,
but sometimes we don’t notice them,
until we do,
and when we do, we see that they’ve been there the whole time,
like that “watch for crossing deer” sign
you might have passed hundreds of times without ever noticing
but now, now that a deer actually crossed in front of you,
you’ll never miss again.
There are always things for which we can be thankful,
always thanksgiving we can lift up to God in prayer,
along with our worries and our anxieties and our stress.
What are those things?
Well, whatever is honorable,
whatever is true,
whatever is just, pure, pleasing, commendable,
excellent, worthy of praise…
Paul isn’t going to spell it out for you, exactly.
These things may vary, for you, in your life.
For me, that means thankfulness for life itself,
a relatively pliable body to move around in,
for people, like all of you, to share it with.
It means having a meaningful vocation,
opportunity to work for a better life for others.
What are those things that are honorable, true, just, pure, pleasing, commendable,
that you are grateful for. Not just this week. Every ordinary day?
This upcoming holiday season can be tough on a lot of us:
too many things on the calendar,
too many difficult memories,
sometimes we don’t have places to go or people to share it with,
a reminder of how long and cold the winter is going to be.
Our non-holiday days can be tough on us, too,
for the same reasons,
A hallmark life we do not live.
Cancer. Heartache. Politics. Job. You name it.
But the peace of God will be with you,
the presence of the living God will sustain you, and keep you,
and shower you with love, even so.
Gratitude is the practice of nurturing this practice of giving thanks
through all things,
and at all times,
because there is always something to be thankful for:
the warmth of the Sun even on a cold winter’s day
the gentle kindness of someone holding open a door for you
when you’re stumbling around with too much stuff in your arms
the hand on your shoulder when you’re sobbing
the food shared with friends and loved ones with football muted on the television
another day, breathing in possibility and breathing out life.
We might pause to give thanks for thanksgiving this week,
but gratitude is a 365 day a year possibility,
and if we can capture that, with God’s help,
we can see the world as something new, something brimming with potential.
We live in God’s world,
that world of possibility,
that world of hope.
We call this the realm of God, or the Kingdom of God.
That very reality that Jesus was born to proclaim.
Christ the King Sunday gives voice to our affirmation
that Jesus is Lord,
that we see things differently because Jesus is Lord.
Here’s the fourth verse of Be Thou My Vision,
our theme for the month:
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
still be my vision, O Ruler of All…
It was almost as if the poem author was writing this for today:
heart of my own heart, whatever befall…
good times, or bad,
struggling, or satisfied,
God our vision. God our focus. God our hope.
On This Pledge Dedication Sunday,
this Thanksgiving Sunday
this Christ the King Sunday,
let us remember that God is a fount of Blessing
an inexhaustible source of compassion
the one in whom we place our confidence for our future.
May we turn to God in trust to lead us
and Christ to rule in our lives and in our world,
as we cultivate gratitude for the ability to be The Kirk together,
and may we love one another
and serve one another
that we might reach heaven’s joys
where they’re meant to reached,
right here on earth.
May it be so.
[i] David DeSteno, “Why Gratitude is Wasted on Thanksgiving,” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/23/opinion/sunday/thanksgiving-gratitude.html