Gratitude: Looking in the Right Direction

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on March 19, 2023

Scripture:                                                               Romans 12:1-3, The Message Translation

 So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for [God]. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what [God] wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.

1 Samuel 13:  1-13  

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 

Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. 

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lordsaid to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lorddoes not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Years ago, I read Claudia Black’s book It Will Never Happen to Me and my life was changed.  I’d been raised in an alcoholic family.  While I knew that my father was an alcoholic, and I knew I didn’t want to live like that, I had not realized the extent to which that experience had formed, molded, even warped the way I saw the world.  I thought how I experienced things was just who I was, and formed the limitations within which I lived.

Claudia Black’s book changed that perception.  She helped me see that some of the characteristics which had formed & limited my life were not “me” but rather artefacts of my family’s challenges.  That meant, to me, that I could move beyond them, grow into new and better ways of being.

In those days, I often found myself running book displays at church meetings. and talked the book up regularly.  I’d sell maybe 10 or 20 copies at each book fair.   (There are a lot of adult children of alcoholics here in New England.)  I discovered to my astonishment, that for some people the book became for them an excuse to stay where they were instead of a get out of jail card.  

They might simply refuse to acknowledge they’d been raised in alcoholic families — sure, they’d say, everyone drank, but so what?  But mostly, they denied that growing up with one or both parents drunk much of the time had formed their lives in any way:  “Yeah, I was never sure that dad would pick me up, but what’s new about that?  Fathers are unreliable, you know.”

They were locked in a past that still held them captive.  They were terrified about what they might find if they began to really look at their lives, to discover who they might be without those habits and assumptions, and so they pretended that they’d not been affected in anyway by their parents’ drinking.

But, you know as well as I that the what we’ve been raised with can be pretty comfortable even if it is warped, kinda, sorta… and it’s not just those of us raised in alcoholic homes who prefer the familiarity of what we know to the unfamiliar feelings of a life in the light.

Looking backwards, living in yesterday, is such a human temptation.  

When Samuel the prophet went out to find a successor to King Saul, he went looking backwards, hoping to find someone who had the same kind of outward looks, the same height, the same whatever, as Saul, because Saul looked right to be a king.  He looked backwards, even tho history told him that Saul had turned out to not be a good king; he looked the part but he didn’t fill the part.  Samuel’s experience led him to look first at the tallest of Jesse’s sons, the oldest of the sons… and then to work his way down the list, in the traditional fashion, until each and every one that looked like a king had been rejected by God.  Only then did he ask about anyone else.  Only then, did he look upon David. 

Do you remember the story about Jesus healing a blind man – and all the local folks, instead of celebrating, start whining because Jesus not one of them? 

Jesus doesn’t live the right way, do the right things in the right order, doesn’t get permission.  Jesus is looking forward, trying to find answers that fit that day’s problems.  He sees the blind man, today, now, blind, and needing help.  The establishment sees a temptation — sure the guy’s blind, but can’t he wait until tomorrow, until we get the right license, until we do things the way we’ve always done them?  

Judging tomorrow’s capacities by yesterday’s standards is really our default position, and it’s hard, really hard for us to see that we have woken up in a new reality. 

Jesus points us a toward new way to live, a way that is not grounded in living just as we did yesterday, but rather in seeing the reality of the world today.  As a teacher writes:  “even our most cherished practices matter little if they do not facilitate a relationship with the living God.”[1]  Paul tells us that when we live our whole lives as one integrated experience, we can then present that life, our life, to God as a completely acceptable offering.

This is good news.

We don’t have to keep doing what didn’t work before in the vain hope that this time things will change.  

We are free to learn from our experiences – to allow the living Christ to change our lives, to move in new directions.

We are willing to be vulnerable, open to truly seeing one another and our world, and to build a community in Christ’s name that takes everyone’s gifts, skills and future seriously.

We serve a God who loves us as we are, but loves us too much to leave us locked in yesterday. 

Today, I am grateful for the call to look in a forward direction.  


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

[1] David J. Lose, In the Meantime, 3/26/17

Gratitude: It is Enough

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on March 12, 2023

Scripture: Exodus 17:1-7 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Let evening come.  
let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid.  God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

I met Jane Kenyon, the poet who wrote those words, while watching a Bill Moyers special on NPR, almost thirty years ago. It was mostly an accident; I’m a Moyers fan.  I was taken by the idea that both Kenyon and her husband, Donald Hall, were members of the local UCC church; I was not looking for poetry.

Sometimes we really find the most wonderful things by accident.   I intend to go to a poetry reading, wasn’t taking an English course, hadn’t even picked up a book… but there I was, listening to Kenyon, and hearing these words…. let evening come.

I’ve been thinking about the challenge of “enough” for a while now, and I’ve been wondering if all the losses of the past few years, combined with the terror of political life, the challenges of regular life – whatever that might have been – have not just all worked together to make it almost impossible to recognize “enough” even if we tripped over it.  In other words, stress challenges our ability to be satisfied.  Before COVID, I’d have expected that in this kind of stress, we’d yearn for something to be satisfied with, but instead, it seems to me that it’s become harder to see and acknowledge anything good.

I should have known better – I knew the testimony of today’s reading, the story of the journey of the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of a new land…. and how they keep meeting one challenge after another…. and how they keep blaming Moses for everything that’s just not completely and absolutely perfect.  It’s a classic illustration of how stress affects groups, and I just didn’t see it.

In our story, the people of Israel are whining because there’s no water.  Not that they weren’t right to want water, that part made sense.  But in the previous chapter, they’d whined about food, and in the one before that, hadn’t liked the taste of the water.  In other words, the whole journey had been punctuated by the followers complaining to their leader that one thing or another wasn’t right.  Despite God’s promise to provide, they had struggled to trust that promise.  They kept harking back to the past, implying that they were better off in slavery than free and on their own.  

In other words, the enough that was before them was not enough to meet their stress-heightened needs.

Today, I want to talk a little more about enough, because when Pastor Will comes, I’m sure there’s going to be lots of high expectations about what he’ll do, and how quickly he can do it…

The first thing I want to say is that enough doesn’t have to mean enough forever.  More often than not, it’s really about enough for today.  

The second thing I want to say is that enough is not the same as all I want.  It’s not the same as achieving perfection.

And the third thing I want to say is that enough is exactly what it says it is.  Not insufficient, not too much, not overwhelming, not disappointing… but enough.  It is not a call to complacency – so, I have enough, so everything’s fine…. not that, never that.

So, let’s look a little closer at the idea that  enough doesn’t have to mean enough forever.  More often than not, it’s really about enough for today.    Do you remember the line in Matthew where Jesus is talking to folks who are worrying about what will happen next?  It’s part of the Sermon on the Mount, and ends with him saying:  “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Turn that right side up, and it says, don’t look for tomorrow’s good today; today brings good of its own.  In the Lord’s Prayer, which we recite each week, we say give us this day our daily bread.  There we’re asking not for infinite amounts of bread now and forever, all we can stuff down.  We’re asking for bread for the day.  We’re asking for enough.  Just for now, just for today, or just for tomorrow, but just enough.

Enough is not the same as “All I Want”.  I took a few vacation days early this week and made my yearly trip to the Philadelphia Flower Show – for the first time since March of 2020.  the Flower Show is next door to the Reading Terminal Market, which is the greatest public market/food hall in the US.  The Reading Terminal Market is where I finally realized how very German was the food we ate as kids… scrapple and sauerkraut, chicken and gravy, dried beef on toast… maybe not your cup of tea, but nostalgic for sure.  And the RTM is filled with food places…. African food, Moroccan food, Irish food, Mexican, Caribbean, Pennsylvania Dutch, and of course, Philly delicacies like cheese steaks, soft pretzels, hoagies, and Bassett’s Ice Cream.  

The Reading Terminal Market is a place where everyone comes face to face with the difference between “enough” and “all I want”… 

Enough is exactly what it says it is.  Not insufficient, not too much, not overwhelming, not disappointing… but enough.  But not a call to complacency – so, I have enough, so everything’s fine…. not that, never that.

Yesterday, the Daily Devotional from the UCC was about gratitude… written by Lillian Daniel, whom many of us knew when she was the pastor at Church of the Redeemer in New Haven… Lillian wants us to remember that being grateful doesn’t mean being complacent, doesn’t mean blinding ourselves to the continual call to be better, to do better.  She writes: Gratitude in the Christian tradition is not all about you or what you feel. It’s about giving thanks anyway, and keeping alert to the well-being of others.

Enough, the way we’re using it, is a call to understand the essential imperfection of human life.  Last week, a minister wrote in Reformed Journal about his journey from the Christian Reformed Church to the United Church of Christ.  

The article is a wonderful song of love for the theological principles on which we build our way of being Christian.  And when it was shared among other UCC’rs, there was always someone who thought it wasn’t enough… mostly, he wasn’t clear that we often fall short of our own vision for being church.

So, there it is – on the one hand, Lillian reminding us not to be complacent with our gratitude, and on the other hand, an essay reminding us that, however incomplete we are, we are still enough.  That’s the challenge of being grateful for what we have, what we are.  We balance between those two poles….

I think one of the clues to help us keep our balance, between being both grateful and impatient for better and more… is this:  remember that life is imperfect at best.  We will not be judged failures when we do not get everything right  in every thing we do.    Well, at least we won’t be judged failures by God and it’s God who has our deep allegiance.

Give thanks, be grateful, for the progress we’ve made towards being God’s love-based community.  Don’t beat yourself, or others, up for not being as good at this as you wish we were, or they were, or you were.  But take those gaps as guidance on where we need to grow.   Be grateful for enough for today, and even more grateful for the call to a better tomorrow.


© 2023, Virginia H. Child