Gratitude: The Purpose of Life

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on February 26, 2023

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, 
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, 
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. 

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.

The story says the devil is asking Jesus, “are you really who you say you are?”  It’s as if he’s saying, show me – show me your power, show me your influence, show me your magic tricks.  If you’re the Son of God, show me.  And Jesus says, that’s not how it works.

Like a lot of things in the gospels, the story is presented in a way that – to the original readers – would have just reeked of authenticity.  Because of the way it’s constructed, its literary style, it’s quite likely that the earliest church put this together, like a word portrait, to portray real events in mythical language.  

This story reflects what those earliest members believed about Jesus.  They thought he was the Son of God, and so they told the story in ways that made that belief clear.  It also speaks to common accusations about Jesus in those times – some people said he was nothing but a magician, so one of the lines has him refusing to do parlor trick magic.  Some folks were still accusing him of being a rebel against Roman rule; the story thus says he had no interest in earthly power.

Today, the story can seem really bizarre.  We need to get under the words, to see what they would have meant back then, and from that see what that story means to us today.  It was a story about falling prey to the temptations of that world.  Our temptations may look different, but they have the same effect – they can still separate us from God’s love.  

Today, for most of us, the temptations are going to be about whether or not we lose ourselves in the world’s priorities – or whether we’re able to resist that pull and follow our understanding of right and loving living.

There’s no doubt that today, we who follow Christ have chosen to live with a different set of priorities than much of the world.  Around us are people for whom educational credentials are the be-all and end-all.  There are people for whom amassing possessions which show their wealth.  And we all know people for whom having and exerting power is more important than anything.  We believe that it is loving and building community which matters most.

That means that, for us, the story of these temptations speaks most clearly about the challenges of being people who are different.  It’s for us that retired Presbyterian pastor Roy Howard writes:   

I finding a renewed sense of the counter-cultural oddness of a season set apart for reflection and letting go all the ways that separate us from neighbor, self and God. How remarkable to walk – and stumble – through these days with companions on the Way, . . . aware of our mortality and yearning for the fullness of the new creation coming into being. 

There are few, if any, cultural supports for such practices that guard our hearts and guide our lives into greater mercy, compassion and love. I’m grateful for odd practices that help us walk against the grain toward a life revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

For us, today, this lesson says first off,  there are more important things than material goodies.  That’s a hard saying.  Doing God’s will, living in God’s way, is more important than life itself.

Second, easy answers don’t really solve things, and cheap miracles are just that – cheap.

Finally, there are more important,, much more important, things than being in charge.

What about being different has to do with today’s subject, with gratitude?

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sage of Concord, Massachusetts, the rabble-rouser of his era, who made is name by shocking Harvard with new ideas wrote:  

The purpose of life is not to be happy, it is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived, and lived well.  He was writing to a world where, as happens generation after generation, people had succumbed to the temptation to go for money, to work for power, to think their education made them better than others.  They were wrong, and Emerson said so in a memorable way.

Life is not about having all the creature comforts possible; it’s not about being able to make a great life for yourself, taking advantage of every benefit of privilege; it’s not about greedily grasping at power for its own sake, or to aggrandize yourself. 

Life is about being useful, good, generous, welcoming, loving.  

And surely that’s worth our gratitude.  We have purpose to our lives, and that purpose is more than just our individual circumstances.  

Whether we struggle to feed the family or are well set financially, it’s this purpose that matters in God’s eyes. 

When I was in high school, I lived on the farm my father managed in Broward County, Florida (between Fort Lauderdale and Miami) – it was a dairy farm with a 1000 cow milking herd.  It took eight straight hours to get all those cows milked, even with modern milking machines.  

I learned two things the first year I lived there…. to my surprise, I learned that the cows didn’t care when they were milked, so long as it happened twice a day, about 12 hours apart.  We milked in two shifts, one starting at noon, and the other at midnight, and the cows were happy campers.  

More seriously, I discovered that the men who worked on the farm, who lived in a little colony of farm-provided houses down the street, had had to quit school at the end of the first grade to go to work to support their families.  That’s right, first grade.  When they were seven, they were working full days picking peanuts, not far from Jimmy Carter’s part of Georgia.

They were really pleased to be milking cows, because for them it was good work.  The herdsman, the man who was my father’s chief assistant, had made it through third grade before he had to go to work.  

I learned from them then that lack of formal education had nothing to do with whether people were good.  I learned that lack of money had nothing to do with kindness.  I saw that lack of power did not mean they were worth less

We can work as hard as possible and get the world’s greatest education, so that people believe we are truly smart, but it is the way we live our lives that makes us good.

We can work as hard as possible, and make more money than anyone else in our high school class, but it is the way we live our lives that makes us good.

We can work as hard as possible to become the most powerful person in our world, but it is the way we live our lives that makes us good.

It is the goodness of our actions which gives our lives value.  Today let us be grateful for the gift God has given us, the ability to be good – no matter the circumstances of our lives.


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

Gratitude: Welcoming Home

A sermon preached on March 5, 2023 at First Church UCC, Middletown, CT

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 (The Message)

So, how do we fit what we know of Abraham, our first father in the faith, into this new way of looking at things? If Abraham, by what he did for God, got God to approve him, he could certainly have taken credit for it. But the story we’re given is a God-story, not an Abraham-story. What we read in Scripture is, “Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.”

If you’re a hard worker and do a good job, you deserve your pay; we don’t call your wages a gift. But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it’s something only God can do, and you trust [God] to do it—you could never do it for yourself no matter how hard and long you worked—well, that trusting-him-to-do-it is what gets you set right with God, by God. Sheer gift.

That famous promise God gave Abraham—that he and his children would possess the earth—was not given because of something Abraham did or would do. It was based on God’s decision to put everything together for him, which Abraham then entered when he believed. If those who get what God gives them only get it by doing everything they are told to do and filling out all the right forms properly signed, that eliminates personal trust completely and turns the promise into an iron-clad contract! That’s not a holy promise; that’s a business deal. A contract drawn up by a hard-nosed lawyer and with plenty of fine print only makes sure that you will never be able to collect. But if there is no contract in the first place, simply a promise—and God’s promise at that—you can’t break it.  . . . .

This is why the fulfillment of God’s promise depends entirely on trusting God and [God’s] way, and then simply embracing [God] and what [God] does. God’s promise arrives as pure gift. That’s the only way everyone can be sure to get in on it, those who keep the religious traditions and those who have never heard of them. For Abraham is father of us all. He is not our [literal] father—that’s reading the story backward. He is our faith father.   

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.

One of my favorite childhood books was “The Boxcar Children” by Gertrude Chandler Warner – the story of four children, essentially homeless, and how they first make a home for themselves, and then find a family they’d thought completely lost.  

When I was 10, it was my favorite book.  Today, many years from my delighted first reading, I’m still impressed by the book, and not just for the enduring story.  You see, over the years, I learned quite a bit about Miss Warner, including the fact that no one called her Gertie.  She lived in Putnam, up in northeast Connecticut, taught school in the public school system there, and for years was the clerk of the Congregational Church which I later pastored.  

Even today, Putnam inhabitants mostly came here from Europe.  There are some Black families, some Native families, but not many.  It’s a poorer town than it’s neighbors, a former mill town – the last mill, a Belding Corticelli thread mill closed while I was there.  Today, it’s a great place to visit if you like antiques. 

But that’s not why I’m telling you this.  Putnam, you see, was one of those places new immigrants ended up.  There were lots of French Canadians – even twenty years ago, the Roman Catholic priest had to learn a Canadian version of Breton French in order to minister to his congregants.  In that little town of maybe 6000 people, there were also Latvians, Swedes, Finns and Norwegians, along with smaller numbers of immigrants from other non-English speaking countries.

Miss Warner, seeing the struggle that immigrant children were having in her classroom, wrote The Boxcar Children with an extremely limited vocabulary so that those kids could have the experience of reading something interesting as they learned to read.  She wanted those kids to feel at home in her classroom, at home in that community.

Some years ago, I used that same book when helping to teach immigrant kids from Santo Domingo how to read and they were equally thrilled to be able to read a good story.

I’m grateful today for the way Miss Warner worked to make home for those people.

Today’s lesson, from the Letter to the Romans, talks about another kind of home.  Of course, Paul’s not talking about houses or human families.  He’s talking about the foundation on which all good home is built, something like the ideal home.  He says that the home with God that Abraham had was God’s free gift to Abraham.  Abraham didn’t earn it, didn’t get enough green stamps to buy it.  God gave him a home, and through Abraham, gave that home to all humanity.  

I’ve been a pastor for quite a while.  I know as well as any of you that not all homes are places where we feel loved, safe, and welcome, just as I know that not all families are perfect.  This story is not about the imperfections of real life.  It is about the Godly dream, the hope, the goal and aim of our humanity. 

We were called, out of our brokenness, to the work of creating a new and better home, a haven of peace and a place of blessing – not just for each one of us, but for all of us, together.  

At the end of the month, we’re hosting, sponsoring, a meeting about refugee resettlement.  You heard an invitation to help put the meeting on at the beginning of today’s service.  But did you realize that we’re not just planning a meeting, and hoping to help a refugee family…. but that we’re reaching out to extend God’s home to people who, right now, feel homeless?  

Welcoming a refugee is not just about that one (or more than one) family.  It’s also about being and becoming the sort of community which welcomes new people.  It’s about extended the warm acceptance we give our friends and fellow worshippers to people we’ve never met before.

The work of home-making to which we are called takes place primarily outside the doors of this room.  Really, if we were only good to one another, we wouldn’t be building a home, we’d be creating a club for insiders.  That’s why we have to reach out beyond who we know, who we’re comfortable with, to get to know strangers and allow the relationships you build to change you and us, so that we become a deeper and richer home for all.

In the words of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we have been given a great gift – a home for us, a home for the world… a home that welcomes all, no matter who we are, what we have done – or not done – a home that can build peace among all the world.

Today, I am grateful for the call God has given us to make the world a home for all.


© 2023, Virginia H. Child