All are welcome here, worship is every Sunday at 10:00 A.M. - get directions

Gratitude – Dr. Tom Trzyna, pulpit guest

Preached:  November 24, 2013

Scriptures:  John 4:5-15

Our topic today is gratitude, but before we begin, a few words about the Advent Enrichment series to come. Cathy, Berta, Will and Kim will join me for open ended discussions of four topics: 1) Just what is coming? Or is the Kingdom of God already here; 2) What does Christianity add to Judaism? 3) What do we face in our families over the complex Christmas season? And 4) Unto us a child is born.

Cathy reminded me that at the First Thanksgiving, Native American peoples brought food and gifts.  We didn’t treat them well.  Many of you have commented on what you learned from the presence of Halima and Mohamed among us a week ago—two residents of Mary’s Place who are Sudanese Muslim refugees from Darfur.  Our scripture today is also about the importance of someone who is different: the Samaritan woman at the well has no husband and therefore no means of support other than men who use her.  She is living on the street, and yet Jesus offers her the living water of eternal life.  The more important part of her story receives fewer words. She goes back to her village, a person no one wishes to associate with, and suddenly everyone listens to what she has to say.  It is the other, the despised woman, who is commissioned to leadership.

I want to read you three prayers and comment on what is striking in each of them.  Here is the first: In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful.  Praise be to God, the cherisher and sustainer of the worlds. Most gracious, most merciful. Master of the day of judgment.  We worship you.  We ask for your help.  Show us the right way, the way of those on whom you have bestowed your grace, those whose portion is not wrath and who go not astray.

That is the Fatihah, the first chapter of the Qur’an, a prayer that good Muslims recite thirty times a day.  It is their equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer.  It focuses on two matters: Gratitude for God’s gifts and the importance of the Mosaic law.

The second prayer is the Shemaa, which is the central prayer of Judaism but also part of our tradition.  It’s found in Deuteronomy 4. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your might.  And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart, and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you. Many more verses of commentary follow.

The Shemaa makes several points about our faith.  First, God’s law is important, as for Muslims.  Second, we are in a covenant relationship. God says “I am your God and you shall be my people”.  Third, believers are invited into a continuing conversation.  Jews have no creed like the Nicene Creed or the Athanasian Creed or the Westminster Confession.  They believe that God is so complex and large that all opinions are welcome.  The point is that if you keep God at the center of your life and keep talking about God you are not likely to go too far wrong.

The third prayer, of course, is the Lord’s Prayer, and because we will recite it together shortly, I will point out just two distinctive features. First are those two initial words:   Our Father.  While all of the Abrahamic religions have mystical traditions, Christianity is more intimate in its conception of God.  My friend Robert, a Ghanaian pastor, told me to be sure to say that people call on Our Father in Australia, Africa, South America, and all around the world.  We have one father and we are one people.  Second, Jesus speaks of the importance of forgiving one another. Jesus’ ethic stands out among all the ethical systems of the world because he understands that there is no point in proliferating more laws.  We will break them.  The ten commandments is more a list of the things we will all do, directly or indirectly, rather than a list of acts we will successfully avoid.  So Jesus creates an anti-ethic.  He focuses on what we are to do with a broken world, and his answer is that we must work to forgive and reconcile.

I am grateful for the richness of the Abrahamic religions.  Their diversity helps me to understand what is unique and valuable in my Christian faith:  relationship and forgiveness.  Still, I keep in mind those emphases embedded in the other traditions:  gratitude, the moral law, an ongoing covenant, and conversation about those truths that cannot be captured in any creed or formula but that must be lived out in community.

A few words about the depths of gratitude.  I am happy when I have good fortune.  You will see me at garage sales in the neighborhood, and I am happy when I get a good deal on toys for my grandchildren.  All of us are both happy and grateful when a child is born, because mother and child have come through a difficult, exhausting and painful time.  We are grateful for a life at a memorial service.  Gratitude has an edge of sorrow, risk, danger and possible loss.  Grandparents are grateful for the opportunity to raise their grandchildren, though the work is hard and sometimes a nap is more appealing.  And of course we wonder why God permitted anyone to invent Candyland and Chutes and Ladders.

As I close, I wish to share a story about an unexpected moment of gratitude.  I do this because I would like some of you to share stories of gratitude during Prayers of the People.

About three years ago I led a delegation to the Sultanate of Oman in southeastern Arabia.  We were there to evaluate the learning resources of Sultan Qaboos University, a university of some 18,000 students that has both medical and law schools.  Forty years ago, Oman was one of the most isolated and backward nations on Earth.  The old sultan lived in a mud castle over 500 miles from his capital city, and no one could enter or leave without his personal signature on a visa.  There were six miles of paved road, one hospital with 25 beds, endemic malaria, unsafe drinking water, and virtually no education.   The sultan had kept his son under house arrest for 13 years.   Today when you fly into Seeb Airport, you enter a spotless air-conditioned facility and take a freeway into Muscat, the capital city. There is no malaria.  The water is good.  There is free medical care for everyone.  At the state university tuition is free, and by royal decree half of the students must be women.  Perhaps some of you have visited Muscat or Salalah on a cruise ship.  It is not a rich nation.  Oman has limited oil reserves, but the Sultan builds and invests carefully.

Our hostess for the visit was Her Highness Dr. Mona Fahad al-Said, the Sultan’s niece.  She has a doctorate in early childhood education from the University of London, and she is committed to women’s and children’s issues.  She is also the equivalent of vice president of the university.  At our last meeting, I decided to signal that I knew our time was coming to an end by changing the topic to something personal.  I saw a picture of a little boy on her desk who was dressed in the traditional Omani burnoose and embroidered cap, so I asked, “Your Highness, is that a picture of your son?”  She answered, “Yes, that is my son. He has a genetic disease.”  I felt as if the ground had disappeared under me.  “I’m very sorry,” I replied. She said that the city was about to sponsor a 3K/5K walk and run to fund cancer research, and that her boy wanted very much to participate, so he was trying to work up the energy to walk 3 kilometers.   Sitting together there we were no longer royalty and commoner, or Muslim and Christian, or Arab and American, or woman and man.  We were simply two parents sharing concern for a disabled child.  Her gift was to speak of what must be her deepest pain and to wipe away all the barriers of culture, faith, politics, and nationality.  She demonstrated how easy it can be for human beings to overcome their differences and communicate what is most deeply important.  I am continually grateful for that gift, which was touched with sorrow and risk.

We are entering a season of gratitude and thanks. It is a season of often thankless work when we crave rest. (Why do bears get to hibernate?)

As a community we have expressed our gratitude for our experiences with Halima and Mohamed.  We are ready to open our church to those of different faiths and no faith at all. How can we make even more opportunities to share this community’s love with others?

I will be grateful if some of you will take a risk and respond during the prayers of the people with a few stories of your gratitude.  Like the hypocrite I am, I confess that I have been reluctant to stand up and speak about my gratitude or my concerns.  You see what happens when you choose not to participate.  You have to stand up here.   May God bless our continuing work together.