ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OCTOBER 11, 2015 THANKSGIVING SUNDAY
“TRADITION OR TRUST?”
Psalm 126; Matthew 6: 25 – 33; Mark 10: 17 – 22
Today is a special celebration – a day of thanks for all God has given us. What is the quality of your thanks? Theologian Richard Foster writes, “It’s important to avoid the kind of celebrations that celebrate nothing. Worse yet is to pretend to celebrate when the spirit of celebration is not in us. Being forced to be grateful when we are not grateful is destructive; if we pretend our inner spirit is put in contradiction.” Once while visiting friends they asked their son to say grace. The boy bowed his head and said, “God, this food is disgusting!” I was shocked by his honesty. Is there any point in giving thanks when we are not thankful? God isn’t fooled because we say the expected things. When thanksgiving lacks true gratitude it is reduced to empty tradition. Anthony Bloom tells this story from his teen years: “A friend and I were going to a place. We calculated the journey so we’d arrive at lunch time thinking the people would feel obliged to give us something to eat. But our train was late and we arrived after lunch, ravenously hungry. Too hungry to go on, we asked if there was anything they could give us. They said, “We have half a cucumber.” I looked at this cucumber and thought, ‘Is that all God can provide?’ Then my friend, a more saintly believer than I, said, ‘Let us say grace.’ I thought “for half a cucumber!’ He led us in a number of prayers from a book, then we read the blessing of the food and all the time I had difficulty detaching myself from the half cucumber, of which a quarter would be mine.” Anthony and my friend’s son held the same attitude, except Anthony was foolish enough to pretend. He acted out the ritual without meaning it. He kept the tradition.
Another person who kept tradition was the wealthy young man who asked Jesus, “What can I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). All his life he had lived morally, keeping the 10 commandments with devout zeal. He had done all the right things required by the 10 Commandments. Outwardly he had a pious façade. His question to Jesus indicated his interest in pleasing God with spiritual virtue so he was completely unprepared for Jesus response, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the moneyto the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (vs. 21). We know his reaction, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (vs. 22) This man had accumulated a lot of wealth in his short life. He’d built for himself a stable world where he felt safe. He had freedom from financial stress. He could buy anything he wanted. The future looked solid. There would always be enough. So when Jesus told him to let go of his wealth, he couldn’t. The anxiety it raised was too much. Even though his righteous life-style looked like he was devoted to God, when push came to shove, it lacked substance. He kept the traditions of his elders. He thought about God. He just didn’t trust God. His security lay in his wealth.
Jesus had a lot to say about anxiety. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear… can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? …Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ …do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. ” (Matthew 6: 25, 27, 31 & 34) Why was Jesus so concerned with our anxiety?
The theologian Paul Tillich said, “Anxiety may consist of the loss of psychological or spiritual meaning which is identified with one’s existence as a self, i.e. the threat of meaninglessness.” In other words, anxiety is both an emotional state and a state of spiritual meaninglessness in which a person fears losing their sense of self. It goes to the heart of what defines us and what we rely on to give ourselves security and meaning. Anxiety is a spiritual issue. It’s an issue of where we place our trust.
Anxiety causes us to miss out on abundant life in Christ and on the eternal life that is our hope. Anxiety keeps us in turmoil. Anxious people have difficulty settling into the present moment where they might find a quiet calm. They can’t “consider the birds of the air or the flowers of the field”; they can’t allow themselves to simply be. Anxiety and inner peace cannot exist together. Trust gives us serenity.
Anxiety is “the illness that steals our dreams”. Anxiety paralyses us, keeping us from doing the things we deeply want to do. It’s no fluke that when the wealthy young man rejected Jesus’ invitation he “was shocked and went away grieving”(vs. 22) Deep inside he wanted to move beyond tradition; he wanted eternal life; he wanted to follow Jesus and live in “God’s world, God’s way”. He was so busy keeping the traditions and being safe that he lost the opportunity to have the adventure of traipsing around Israel with this itinerant preacher and becoming one of his followers. Anxiety leads to grief and despair. Trust gives us joy.
Anxiety entraps us. Whether it’s Anthony Bloom obsessing about a meager cucumber or the rich young man clinging to his wealth, the things we hold on to, hold onto us; the things we own, own us. The story goes that African hunters wanting to capture monkeys unharmed would use as a trap a bottle with a long narrow neck, just large enough so a monkey could put its hand in it. In the evening the bottle would be tied to a tree, and in the bottom of the bottle they would place several good-smelling nuts. In the morning they would find a monkey with its hand clutching the nuts, held securely in the bottle. At any time, the monkey could have released itself simply by opening its hand and letting go of the nuts. The anxious monkey could not let go of what he thought of as a sure thing. To be rich in human ways always means impoverishment on another level. As soon as we possess something and close our hand around it, we’ve lost a hand. If we close our souls around riches, we become miserly. If we close our hearts to keep them safe, we can never know love. Trust sets us free.
Perhaps more than anything else anxiety causes us to miss out on God’s love for us. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (vs. 26 – 30) Jesus is telling us everything is God’s and God delights in giving it all to us. Behind clinging to our things and our wealth to keep us secure is the nagging doubt that maybe God doesn’t really love us; maybe God won’t provide for us tomorrow; maybe we can only rely on ourselves. Are we able to put ourselves in God’s hands? Have we yet to discover the fullness of God’s love for us? Is it possible to believe that we are of “more value” to God?
With 18% of the population experiencing extreme anxiety it is the top mental health concern in North America today. An anxiety disorder is a severe affliction which may have physical roots and needs to be treated like any other illness. However most anxious people don’t have a disorder, we’re just anxious. You’ve heard about the therapist who was asked to give a talk on the relation between anxiety and insomnia – he was up all night worrying about it. The further we remove ourselves from God, the more power anxiety gains over us. Like the wealthy young man we’ve walked away from Jesus and have no sense of the depth of God’s love for us. We cannot know the embrace of God’s love and be anxious. We cannot trust God and be anxious. We cannot be thankful to God and be anxious.
As Christians we desire our thanksgiving celebrations to be rooted in trust, not empty tradition. In response to God’s reckless generosity, we long to offer heartfelt expressions of gratitude. This requires us to let go of what we have and what we don’t have to see what we truly lack – a spirit that trusts in God. Our focus changes when we open ourselves to God. Bloom continues his story of the cucumber, “Then we broke the cucumber and ate it. In all my life I haven’t been so grateful to God for any amount of food. I ate as one would eat sacred food. I ate it carefully, not to miss any moment of this rich delight of fresh cucumber, and after we had finished I said, ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord’ and we prayed again in gratitude.” All the food of the world is divine love made edible. We are extraordinarily rich because God loves us and gives to us freely and continuously. God desires us to be carefree. God’s love alone forms the foundation of our security. Security gives birth to trust. Trust results in freedom. Freedom is the root of true celebration. When we feast on God’s love we transcend tradition, grow in trust and offer a celebration of thanks.