Cross of Grace

A community of grace sharing God's love with no strings attached.

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Filtering by Category: Gospel of Matthew

Seeking the Sacred – Blessing Each Moment

Matthew 6:31-33

Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.


In a nutshell, for me, the practice of blessing each moment, which we’re called to engage this evening – and I hope, for some number of days to come – is just what it sounds like: it’s about finding a way, daily and often, to be mindful for each moment in our lives and to bless them; to consecrate them; to revere them; to honor them; to see each moment as holy, somehow, and useful to the big picture of our lives.

In practice, it could mean taking a breath before beginning a new task. It could mean saying a prayer as a task or chore is completed. It could mean minding the clock and pausing on the hour or at even hours or every three hours at 6 o’clock, 9 o’clock, Noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m. or 9 p.m., and so on.

Blessing each moment is about being mindfully and spiritually present – not just physically in the room – for whatever we’re up to, whether that’s doing the dishes or doing our homework or doing our job.

For me, then, this practice of blessing each moment is very much about practicing gratitude.

Now, I decided – in thinking and praying and planning for tonight – that I had to come to terms with a new way of understanding gratitude in this context. And I decided, at the risk of making all of this too much like some kind of standardized test, that “gratitude is to thanksgiving as joy is to happiness.”

GRATITUDE : THANKSGIVING : : JOY : HAPPINESS

Please bear with me here. I think this is going to make sense in a minute.

Maybe you’ve considered the difference between joy and happiness before. I think I’ve even preached about it in the past, but I’m not sure when or just exactly why. The notion is that we sometimes confuse or dumb-down the definition of “joy” so that it just means happiness – nothing more or deeper than the simple emotion of something that brings a smile to your face or laughter to your lips. (As in “happy, happy, joy, joy.” Or that old camp song, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart – hey; down in my heart to stay.”) It’s cute and fun and like an ear-worm you can’t get out of your head even after a few decades – so I’m sorry for that. And that simple understanding of joy – as nothing more than happy – is shallow and unsatisfying and incomplete once a fuller understanding is offered up.

I think a fuller, deeper, wiser, more valuable understanding of joy is that it abides even in the face of and in the presence of – in the midst of and in spite of – sadness and struggle and even suffering. In other words, we can be joyful even when we’re not happy, in any given moment. And I believe this because I’ve seen this kind of joy in people of great faith in moments of sadness and struggle – on their death beds, even – when illness or hardship or despair might crush someone with less wisdom or self-awareness or faith.

For example, I have a friend whose family was in the midst of more struggle and bad luck than seemed fair for a season. There was a son struggling with addiction, a daughter hospitalized with cancer, a niece who died by suicide, a brother who died from some crazy combination of addiction, sickness, and mental illness – all three. And in the midst of her very real, justified grief and anxiety, stress and fear, she said to me, “I’m so grateful for my own struggle with addiction and work through recovery and the 12-steps because I’m able to know what I can control in all of this and what I can’t; where I need to step away and where I’m able to help; And I know when I need to leave things up to my higher power so that I can be at peace.”

My friend wasn’t smiling, for sure. She wasn’t happy, by any stretch. And she isn’t naïve, either. But she had a mindful joy about her, in the midst of more struggle than I ever hope to deal with at a clip. She had a peaceful kind of joy within her that was abiding and sustaining and hopeful and life-giving, when so much around her was the opposite of those things.

And this is how I want to consider the Celtic Christian practice of blessing each moment – finding, experiencing, expressing a joyful kind of gratitude – in all things, I mean. And remember, I’m suggesting, for the sake of our purposes here that “gratitude is to thankfulness as joy is to happiness.”

And what I mean is gratitude is not merely… simply… just… “being thankful.” I wonder if we can give to “gratitude” a deeper, fuller, more mindful understanding. I wonder if we can be grateful – like my friend – even when we’re not so thankful for what’s going on in our lives. I wonder if we can be grateful with our hearts, even when our heads tell us we have plenty of reasons not to be. I wonder if we can learn to bless each moment – even when each moment may not lend itself, at first blush, to thanksgiving and happiness.

And it’s what I think Jesus is getting at in this little ditty from Matthew’s Gospel. Instead of worrying about “what we will eat, or what we will drink, or what we will wear;” instead of worrying about our next test or about those lab results or about whatever it is that gives us plenty of really good reason to doubt or stress or despair; instead of letting our troubles and trials win the day, Jesus tells us to strive first for the stuff of the Kingdom; to strive first for the stuff of righteousness – to find joy and gratitude in spite of, or in the midst, of our worries.

In the book, The Soul’s Slow Ripening, that’s inspiring so much of what we’re up to on these Wednesday nights, John Valters Paintner says it this way: “I sometimes complain so much about the rain that I miss the rainbow.” That sounded a little simple and cheesy to me at first, like something you may have seen on a refrigerator magnet or on a poster in a church nursery.

But remember… God’s rainbow stands for hope in the midst of great despair. God’s rainbow is a sign of promise in the face of great reason for doubt. God’s rainbow is a shining light in midst of supreme darkness. So, sometimes we do complain so much about the rain that we miss the rainbow, right?

Which is why I like that we’re calling this a “practice” – this “blessing each moment” – because that’s what it takes for most of us to be good at it, if we’re honest – to make this kind of gratitude a lifestyle; a discipline; a way of life, I mean. We aren’t wired this way, frankly. And the world doesn’t encourage it, either. It’s hard for some of us to pay attention to the rainbow when we’re stuck in traffic or get behind some knucklehead with 11 items in the express lane, let alone find ways to bless the moments of our lives when the real stress and bad news and hard days come.

I know someone else who had a come-to-Jesus moment, once; a reality-check; when a friend of his lost his wife to cancer. They were all too young – my age, and this was three or four years ago: This wife and mother who lost her battle with cancer… There was a nine-year-old son in the mix… an only child.

Anyway, this guy attended the funeral for his friend’s wife, saw all of that grief, and decided on the way home from the funeral service that he needed to be more grateful for his own wife and kids. So, starting the next day – and for each day of the year that followed – he wrote down one thing about his own wife for which he was grateful. He wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but it was a discipline and a faith-practice, I think. It became a daily, year-long exercise of “blessing each moment” – or at least searching each day – some days searching harder than others – for some nugget of gratitude, to put into words… to record… to reflect upon… and ultimately, to share with his wife, as a gift on her birthday the following year. He says it changed the way he understood his relationship with his wife over the course of those 365 days of counting his blessings – of blessing each moment.

And that’s something like what I believe God can do – for us and through us – if we make “blessing each moment” a regular, if not daily, practice in our lives of faith. We will grow to see opportunities for gratitude more often – and in spite of all the reasons we have to complain or despair.

We will grow to count the rainbows around us – God’s everlasting promises of presence and love and covenant – not just in spite of our struggles, but as more powerful and more steadfast than whatever irritates, or worries, or even threatens us, most.

And we’ll grow to be blessings ourselves, in the process – blessings of that abiding kind of peace and joy, that patient kind of love and mercy which surpasses all understanding… which guards our hearts and our minds and our lives, when we let it… and which each of us longs for, it seems to me, and what the world needs, in Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Amen

The Wise Men Epiphany and Apollo

Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for from you shall come a ruler

    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.


Because this past Christmas Eve, a couple of weeks ago, marked the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission, back in 1968, there was some news and lots of chatter about this famous picture we’ve been staring at all morning, which was taken on that mission.

This picture has come to be called “Earthrise,” which some of you remember and know more about than I do. It was taken by the Apollo 8 crew – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders, three wise men, if you will, whose names deserve to be remembered – because they were the first humans ever to leave earth’s orbit and enter the orbit of the moon. And when they did, they captured this picture of the earth; the first from the perspective of the dark side of the moon’s horizon; the way our planet appears from deep space.

And since it happened on Christmas Eve… And since they were told they should come up with something to say that would surely be heard by the largest audience ever to engage a single broadcast of any kind… And since they didn’t want to trouble themselves with preparing just the right words for such a momentous occasion, some of you will remember, this is what they came up with:

Since all of this happened on Christmas Eve 50 years ago, I get the impression something about all of it was the subject of many a Christmas Eve sermon this year. And I was tempted in that direction, too. But, for one thing, it seemed too predictable from a preacher’s perspective. (I try really hard to know that you all won’t come here and get the same sermon you could have gotten down the street.) For another thing, when I saw this picture and watched and read a little about it all, I couldn’t help but think about the other proverbial “three wisemen” as we’ve come to know them; the ones I knew were on the way to Herod for today’s worship – our celebration of what we call the “Epiphany of Our Lord” every January 6th.

See, these wisemen – the ones in Matthew’s Gospel – show up to worship and honor this Jesus the stars seem to have announced to them, which is why we believe them to have been astrologers or astronomers in their own right. Bearing gifts like they do, we can assume they were men of some status and means and maybe even some measure of wealth. And they weren’t dopes, either, these three, knowing a thing or two about how to find a needle in a haystack – or a baby in a manger, as the case may be – by mapping the skies or following a star or whatever it was they were up to.

And Matthew’s gospel tells us they came “from the East” so – again, thanks as much to Christian tradition as to anything we can know for sure from what Scripture tells us – the wisemen, “these three kings of Orient are,” representative for us, of the Gentile world; of the world beyond the Jews; people of the world beyond Herod’s reign, or Rome’s rule, or anywhere Jesus, Mary and Joseph may have hoped to flee, even. These magi have come to symbolize the whole wide world, then, recognizing and showing up to worship the “King of the Jews” as something more than just that – more than just the “King of the Jews,” I mean. They came to worship the king of the nations, really; the king of the universe, even.

So in Jesus, in this human being, in this child of and for all of humanity, these wise men turned their gaze from the skies to the soil beneath their feet. They stopped looking up and they bowed their heads, instead. They stopped staring at the stars and began looking amongst and around themselves. They stopped looking to the heavens and began looking to earth for a change – to this boy who would be king; to this savior of the nations; to this messiah of all creation.

So all of this is to say that something about the experience of the three wise, brave astronauts back in 1968, resonates for me with this story of the three wise, brave magi, back in the days of Jesus. Bill Anders, one of those astronauts once said, “Here we came all this way to the moon and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own home planet.” Their mission was to photograph the lunar surface from the moon’s dark side – something they were the first people in all of history to behold – and all three men found themselves most focused on, fascinated with, and moved by the earth, itself, from whence they had come.

And that’s why all of this inspires me on the Sunday of Christ’s Epiphany – the Sunday where we celebrate God’s being made known to the world, in the flesh and blood of Jesus. We’re meant to recognize and remember, now, that he has come and that things are supposed to be different because of it. We’re meant to see, in the world around us, evidence of Jesus born for the sake of the world.

We’re meant to stop pretending that God is always and only up there and out there in some heaven light years away.

We’re meant to look among us now, in our midst and at ourselves, for the Christ within us and for the Christ within our neighbors, too.

We’re meant to pray that little bit of the Lord’s Prayer with a bit more faith and fervor than maybe we’re inclined, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

And we’re meant to see that God’s light has come, in Jesus, not just for you or for me or us, but that God’s light, in Jesus, has come for “them,” to … for the sake of world.

Bill Anders, one of the three wise men from 1968 – one of those modern-day magi – said, “All of the views of the earth from the moon have let the human race and its political leaders and its environmental leaders and its citizenry realize that we’re all jammed together on this dinky little planet and we better treat it and ourselves better, or we’re not going to be here for long.”

And I would add and ask: “Not only won’t we be here for long, but will whatever time we have left be well-spent, or faithful, or full of the joy with which God means for us to live?”

So let’s get about the business of doing God’s work… of answering Christ’s call… of doing the bidding of this King who has come for the sake of the world. Let’s heal the sick, let’s comfort the lonely, let’s forgive the sinner, let’s hope for and with the despairing.

Let us be wise men and wise women, bearing the light of this epiphany; light that has shined on each of us in so many ways already; and light meant to shine, through us, on all of God’s creation, just the same.

Amen. Merry Christmas.

All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.