Preached for Ascension on Harvest Home Sunday, November 18,2018.
In today’s second lesson we hear Paul admonishing the Philippians to "Rejoice in the Lord always."
It’s easy to rejoice when you get that job promotion. Or you pass your final exam. Or you find out that lump that was biopsied isn’t cancer. Yes, rejoice!
But what happens when you lose your job? Or you fail you exam? Or you find out that the lump is cancer? Rejoice in the Lord, always? Seriously?
Is this just some Pollyanna advice that encourages us to bury our head in the sand and ignore reality when our lives are ready to be flushed down the toilet? Or does it mean that we have good reason to rejoice in the Lord, even when it looks like our lives are ready to be flushed down the toilet?
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. For several reasons. First of all, there’s the opportunity to be with people I care about. And then, there’s the food. I love the turkey and the stuffing and the gravy.
But the older I get, the more uncomfortable I feel when I sit down to a huge feast surrounded with people I love. Although, it’s easy to give thanks for blessings like that, I’m increasingly aware of the fact that life isn’t all about me. And it’s hard for me not to think about people who aren’t sitting down to a huge feast surrounded with people they love. Where is the blessing for them?
I came across a Thanksgiving message from another Lutheran pastor that listed some of the reasons we may have to be thankful. It goes like this…
· If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are more blessed than the million who will not survive the week.
· If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the
· agony of torture or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of 500 million people around the world.
· If you have food in your refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of this world.
· If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace, you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.
And the list goes on…
Is this the way God blesses us, by giving us stuff that other people don’t have? Do we thank God because we don’t have to live the wretched lives some people do? That sort of list doesn’t make it for me. God isn’t just my God. God doesn’t exist to give me all the stuff I want at the expense of others. How can I give thanks that I’ve been spared when others suffer?
In the play, Angels in America, Prior, a character living with AIDS, tells a story on his sickbed about one of his ancestors, a ship captain who made his living bringing whale oil to the Old World and immigrants to the New World.
When his ship sank off the coast of Nova Scotia in a winter storm, Prior’s ancestor, the captain, went down with the ship. But the crew escaped and took 70 women and children with them in a big, open rowboat. As the weather got rougher, the crew started to look around at the overcrowded boat. In an effort to stay afloat, they picked up survivors and tossed them into the icy sea. The boat was leaking, and as it sank lower, more people were sacrificed. By the time the crew arrived in Halifax, only nine people remained on board.
As Prior tells the story, he’s a throwaway person suffering from AIDS and, of course, he identifies with those being thrown into the sea.
But, I’m not a throwaway person. And my mind goes to those nine people who are in the boat and make it to shore. I wonder… did those nine survivors give thanks to God for delivering them?
Sometimes, when I look at the way I live as a middle-class American, and I consider the way other people live, I feel a lot like the nine men who made it to shore in that boat. And that’s nothing for me to celebrate.
And yet, the story from Angels in America reminds me that I do have reason to rejoice in the Lord always because it brings to mind another story that I heard.
It’s about a man named Michael Plant, who set off on a solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1992. He was an expert yachtsman and had made the trip several times before. His brand-new sailboat, The Coyote, was very high tech; there were few like it in the world.
Plant’s support team monitored his trip by satellite and radio. Everything was smooth sailing. Even when a storm disrupted the communications, no one worried about it. After all, this guy was one of the best sailors in the world. His boat was equipped with state-of-the-art navigational equipment. They figured Plant would resume radio contact when everything settled down.
When they didn’t hear from him, they tried repeatedly to reach him by radio. Still nothing. So they sent out Coast Guard helicopters to search for him.
They found The Coyote floating upside down. Its captain and sole passenger was never found.
People wondered how this could have happened. Everyone knows that sailboats are very hard to turn over. Their deep keels and massive rudders right themselves. But as the boat was examined, the cause of the tragedy became clear.
For all its beauty and technological advances, The Coyote didn’t have enough weight beneath the surface to outweigh the fancy gadgetry above. And so, it flipped over as it lost its ability to balance in the water.
The more fancy stuff we have in our lives and the better they look on the surface, the more we believe we’ve been blessed. But God’s blessing is found beneath the surface. The relationship we have with God is what blesses us.
We’d do well in our lives to work at developing that so more weight is given to our lives below the surface and less above the surface. For when we find ourselves in a time when we’re struggling to stay afloat in a storm, it will become apparent to us how blessed we are. We’ll understand that being blessed is not about having everything go our way, but being blessed is experiencing and knowing that no matter what happens in this life, God will see us through it.
Our blessings are not measured by the piles of food we display on our tables, or by the number of friends who surround us for the feasting. Our blessings are measured by the depth and weight of the relationship we have with God.
There’s an old Celtic fisherman’s prayer that says: “Dear God, be good to me; the sea is so wide and my boat is so small.” It’s so true. The sea is so wide and our boats are so small. And our boats are blessed, not because of what they carry inside them or how they look above the surface, compared to other people’s boats. They’re blessed because of what’s happening below the surface, the part no one can see. It’s the relationship we have with our God that blesses us. And so, yes. We can rejoice in the Lord… always.