Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Colossians 3: 12-17, Psalm 100)
Last Sunday morning, right around the time that some of you were making your way down the mountain after a wonderful Montreat weekend, I was here in the middle of my sermon – a Stewardship sermon, as it was the next-to-last Sunday of our fall Stewardship season. A number of you who heard it were kind enough to share some positive feedback – which I always appreciate, positive or otherwise, because it lets me know you’re listening.
One of you even suggested the crazy idea of preaching the same sermon again today. Now I do not make a habit of repeating sermons in the same church, much less the very next week. But truth be told, I was actually thinking the same myself! In the end I decided on more of an extended recap than an actual repeat; and so for those of you who heard the sermon last week I hope you’ll pick up on something you missed before.
The passage I was preaching on was Jesus’ parable of the rich fool, found in the gospel of Luke. And what’s notable about it is not only the parable itself but what caused Jesus to tell it. Jesus is in a crowd doing the meet and greet; and at some point someone in the crowd calls out to him with a request: and that is that Jesus himself intervene in this guy’s personal family matters and convince his older brother to split the family inheritance 50-50. And while this sounds reasonable to us, the laws and customs of the day only required a third to go to the younger brother, not half. Which means this guy is asking for more than was his to ask for.
And so in answer, Jesus tells a parable. In it, a man is faced with the dilemma of what to do with a harvest that far exceeds his storage capacity. An important detail here: Jesus highlights the fact that the land produced the abundance, not the man. We’ll come back to that later. Anyway, the man decides to tear down his storage barns and build bigger ones to hold it all, this abundance that is not really his. And in his self-dialogue chopped full of “I’s” and “me’s” and “my’s,” it’s painfully obvious that he’s gone all-in on the myth of scarcity – a myth that insists there is never going to be enough, that we must fight to protect what is supposedly ours, and that ultimately we are forever defined by that which we can lose.
And for this, God calls the man a fool – and not because of his unabashed greed, as we might think. This man is a fool because he has lost the capacity to see other human beings. He can only see himself. That is what the myth of scarcity has reduced him to. That is why he is, in God’s eyes, a fool.
That myth of scarcity – of never having enough – undergirds so much of how we function in our society. Our families, our places of work, our communities. Even the church. And countering that myth is so much more than simply putting on a brave face and just telling ourselves that there’s more there. Rather, it involves radically changing our perception of things so we come to see that we really do have enough – in fact, we have more than enough.
At the end of the sermon last week I told a story about ice cream. And because it’s a great story, and because, hey, who doesn’t like ice cream, I want to tell it again. Because at its heart it is a story about unseeing the myth of scarcity and instead witnessing the overwhelming abundance. No smoke and mirrors here. No magic tricks. Just radically changing our perception of things.
This story, a true story, talks about a man named Shane Claiborne working with Mother Teresa serving the impoverished in Calcutta. One of his regular duties was helping the sisters prepare meals for the children there. One day it comes to Shane’s attention that a little boy in the group has a birthday, so wanting to do something special for him, he buys him an ice cream cone. But Shane is cautious about when and how he’s going to give it to him, because he doesn’t want to draw the attention of all the other kids who, in Shane’s thinking, will be crushed when they don’t have one of their own.
Midway through the dinner, Shane pulls the birthday boy aside and, fully embodying the myth of scarcity, whispers in his ear, “Happy birthday, kid, here’s an ice cream cone. But please keep this quiet because I don’t have enough for everyone else.”
Next thing Shane knows, birthday boy turns to the rest of the group, raises the cone high in the air and yells out, “We have ice cream! We have ice cream!” The kids rush over and the boy says, “Listen, everyone, we have only one cone. So we all get one lick.” The kids form a line, at which point birthday boy proceeds to share his cone with everyone else, one lick at time, and letting his own lick be the very last.
Now I like this story because it has a happy ending. I love this story because of the way it draws a stark contrast between, on one hand, the myth of scarcity, and on the other hand what I’ll call the truth of abundance. But I really love this story because of who it is that embodies each. Think about it: the myth of scarcity is embodied in this white upper-class American male whose life lacked for very little, while the truth of abundance is embodied in a young kid in Calcutta whose entire life had been fully immersed in some of the world’s worst poverty.
It is not at all what we would expect, is it? I think that’s trying to tell us something. At the very least it compels us to ask the question, how. How is it that this boy is able to both see and grab hold of the truth of abundance, while the upper class American does not? What does the boy have that the man doesn’t? What does he have?
Our scriptures today on this final Sunday of Stewardship are the same scriptures used in worship five weeks ago, which happened to be the first Sunday of Stewardship. If you are thinking this is not by accident, you would be correct. Psalm 100 implores us to “make a joyful noise to the Lord” and “come into God’s presence with singing.” Music is an expression of that which lies deep within us; that which words alone cannot fully express.
And Paul’s letter to the Colossian church brings to light a number of things, as we talked about five weeks ago, that serve as the foundation of that joyous song: As God’s chosen ones, Paul writes, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love. Those six things lie at the foundation of the song in our hearts.
But there’s another thing Paul mentions, one we didn’t touch on five weeks ago, but may in fact be the most important of them all – the glue, the grout that holds the very foundation together. It is not complicated; in fact, it is unassuming in its simplicity:
Paul tells the Colossian church – and is still telling us today – that the key to making a joyful noise to God is to be thankful.
Now we have another word for this: gratitude. Gratitude is what the birthday boy in our ice cream story had in spades, right? It’s what enabled him to both see and embody the truth of abundance; it’s what shielded him from the clutches of the myth of scarcity, even when his life circumstances would seem to make that the obvious choice. What he had, what all of us long to have, is a deep sense of gratitude.
New York Times author A.J. Jacobs, best known for his 2007 work, The Year of Living Biblically, was having dinner some years ago with his wife and two sons. And partly due to his experience of trying to follow the Bible literally for a year, which is what the book was about, A.J. had learned the value of saying thanks. Which is why he’d adopted a regular practice at dinnertime of thanking those who played a role in helping put food on the plate before him. And because A.J. is a stickler for detail and tends to carry things to the nth degree, it wasn’t just the farmers who grew the food that he routinely thanked. It was the truckers who brought the food to the grocery store, the cashier at the grocery who rang up his order, the bagger who put the groceries in his bag….
On this night at dinner, in the middle of his extended thanking ritual, one of A.J.’s sons interrupted, “Dad – you know these people can’t hear you, right?”
It seemed to A.J. in the moment nothing more than the musings of an obnoxious pre-teenager. But later he got to thinking – you know, he’s right. They can’t hear me. I’m only doing this thanking for myself. And so the wheels in A.J.’s head started spinning and he wondered: what would it be like to personally thank everyone who played a part in bringing him his treasured morning cup of coffee? That morning coffee was a pretty integral part of the day, as most of us can relate. What would it be like to thank everyone who made it possible?
So A.J. embarked on a journey, what he would come to call “a gratitude journey;” where he would strive to personally connect with as many people as possible and thank them for his coffee. He began at the most logical place, the coffee shop itself – called Joe’s Coffee, a few short blocks from his Manhattan flat. There, he began his gratitude journey by thanking Chung Lee, the young barista who took his order and poured his cup on most days. He also thanked Ed Kaufmann, owner of Joe’s Coffee.
He could’ve stopped there. But he kept on going.
A.J. flew to Columbia – the country, not the city – to thank the farmers who grew the coffee beans. He traveled to the roasting company in New York to thank them for, as he put it, “taking the heat.” He tracked down and thanked the truck drivers who transported the beans on the way to the roastery, along with the company that paved the roads that the trucks drove on, and the company that created light bulbs for the traffic lights. He thanked the Environmental Protection Agency for providing clean water for his coffee. He made a stop at the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to thank them for making sure his coffee was safe. He visited the company that makes the paper cups to hold his coffee, and the company that creates the plastic lids for the cups, and the company that makes the sleeves so your hands don’t get burned – and he thanked them all. He even sought out and thanked the parents of Chung Lee, his beloved barista, for having their daughter. On and on and on this went, 1000 thanks in all – thus, the name of the book that chronicles this gratitude journey, Thanks A Thousand.
Now some of the people he thanked simply said “You’re welcome.” Some hung up on him, assuming it was a prank (I mean, when do pallet makers – the wooden pallets that hold boxes and boxes of coffee during shipping – when do pallet makes ever get thanked for making pallets?) Most of the people A.J. connected with, though, were sincerely touched by the gesture and eagerly shared their stories with him. A.J. learned about their passions. He asked questions about their jobs and why they do what they do. He learned a lot about the coffee business, city infrastructure, international trade, and even the physics of what goes into a plastic coffee cup lid design.
But hands-down, the thing A.J. learned most from his little endeavor was the immense power of gratitude. Of how saying thank you actually makes you feel more thankful. Of how gratitude can lift depression, help you sleep, improve your diet, and make you more likely to exercise. How heart patients recover more quickly when they keep a gratitude journal. How gratitude causes people to be more generous and kinder to people they do not know. And how, as one person put it, “Gratitude has a lot to do with holding on to a moment as strongly as possible.” Holding on to a moment as strongly as possible.
What moment are you holding on to, friends? Is it a moment from our past, of what you hold most dear about this place and its people? Is it a moment that hasn’t happened yet, the promise and hope of things yet to come? Or is the moment you’re holding on to the moment of now, right now, siblings in Christ here and elsewhere, the treasure that this very moment is?
I want to invite you on this Response Sunday, and every day, to hold on to that moment, whatever it is, and keep holding; because that is where gratitude begins. And gratitude is what enables us to let go of the myth of scarcity and embrace the truth of abundance. The truth of abundance!
It is gratitude that reminds us that supporting Gods’ church is not a duty, not something we’re “supposed” to do, but something we do because we are grateful, so grateful for what God is doing in our lives, in the lives of each other, and in the life of this very church.
It is gratitude we hold on to even when so much around us is in flux, even as we’re trying to figure out what it means to be church in the midst of all of that, because we are blessed with each other and blessed to get to figure it out with each other and with God.
It is gratitude that compels us to go all-in with God on the building project that is God’s kingdom here on earth, a kingdom where hearts are mended and wounds are healed and the brokenness is made whole, because we know that this kingdom makes a difference and that this kingdom matters.
It is gratitude that opens our eyes to see the overwhelming abundance in this moment, forever being defined not by what we can lose but all we have to gain
It is gratitude that makes us sing a joyful noise to the Lord, this moment and always. And for that, in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.