I have a confession to make. Sometimes I find it a challenge to take our Sunday readings and figure out how they are relevant for us today. Jesus was after all, speaking to people of a different era, living in a different culture some 2000 years ago.
But not today. In today’s gospel it is as if Jesus is speaking directly to us, to our time and place. “Do not worry,” Jesus says. And he’s speaking to us. There’s a lot of worrying going on in our world, in our community, in our homes. So much so that one in nine of us will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point in our lives. It is the most common of all mental illnesses in Canada. We worry a lot, to the point where our worrying can overcome us. Not only, as our gospel reminds us, can worrying not add a single hour to our lives, but it actually has the opposite effect. Excessive worrying is a risk factor for heart disease, suppression of the immune system, digestive problems and short term memory loss.
What’s going on here? Why do we worry so much? It’s not because we live in a world of scarcity. Though not always distributed well, we know that food, drink, and clothing are abundantly available in Ottawa. It’s not because we’re bad people. In fact if anything it’s the opposite. We want good things in our lives, we want good things for those that we love, for our families and friends. Parents worry about their children not because they’re bad parents, but because they’re good parents. But somehow, we’re afraid that we may not get all these good things that we want in our lives and the lives of those around us, and so we worry.
Is there a solution?
What if some pharmaceutical company developed a medication that if taken daily would reduce your level of anxiety, enable you to sleep better and have more energy within three weeks? What if that same drug would also reduce your risk of depression and eating disorders? And what if it would help you to better manage stress, reduce your risk of substance abuse, boost your immune system and increase your overall health? In addition, it would increase your usual level of happiness by 25% and increase your overall vitality and life-satisfaction? And best of all, what if this little pill had absolutely no negative side effects and was available free of charge?
I think we would call that a wonder drug wouldn’t we? And I’ll bet that there would be a big line-up to get it.
Well I have some good news for you. It’s available for you right now, right here in this church this morning. Only it’s not a pill, it’s something much better. It is the practice of thanksgiving. Major scientific studies conducted in recent years at places like the Virginia Institute for Psychiatry and the University of California have empirically verified each one of the claims that I have just made for the practice of thanksgiving. If you want to check it out for yourself, there is a book called Thanks! by Robert Emmons published a number of years ago that summarizes the thankfulness research. The conclusions are quite clear: Giving thanks, practicing gratitude is one of the best things that you can do for your health and well-being. If it were a pill, we would call it a miracle drug.
Now, those of us who are people of faith shouldn’t be so surprised by this, should we? After all, medical scientists and researchers are really only playing catch-up with what our Christian tradition has been teaching us for thousands of years. Our worship is filled with thanksgiving to God. This morning our celebration is called the Eucharist, which is in fact the Greek word for giving thanks. In our opening prayers we gave thanks for the riches of creation. In our second reading we were urged to give thanks for everyone. Our scriptures are constantly reminding us that it is good and right for us to give thanks to God, and not just to give thanks with our voices but also to show it in our lives. And the final words we will say together as we leave here this morning will be “thanks be to God.”
True gratefulness is the recognition that all that we have, our lives, our wealth, our abilities, our homes, our families, the food that we eat, the clothes that we wear, all of this is a gift from God which has been entrusted to us for a purpose. And so we say thank you, and then the concrete expression of our thankfulness is to be generous and to share what we have with others. Generosity is how we walk the talk of thanksgiving. And not surprisingly, 21st century scientific research has confirmed this as well: people who practice thankfulness have been shown to provide more support to others.
So if giving thanks is so good for us, so good for those around us, and is something that our scriptures and Christian tradition urge us to do, then why don’t we do it more often? And if worrying is so bad for us, and something that Jesus tells us not to do in today’s gospel, why do we spend so much time worrying?
There’s probably much that could be said here, but I’m going to boil it down to two things this morning: Priorities and Trust.
What are your priorities in life? What do you put first, where do you spend your time and energy? Where do your priorities come from?
There are many forces in our world that try to set our priorities for us. You don’t have to watch television for very long to discover that there are people out there trying to convince us that it’s important to have cleaner clothes, or fancy cars, or another credit card or to consume a whole range of products and services that promoters are trying to sell us. All these ads are designed to create a desire in us for things that we don’t have. And it works. We buy stuff. We borrow money to buy stuff. We even buy lottery tickets. Did you know that in Canada we spend over $10 billion a year on lottery tickets. That’s roughly the same as the total amount of all charitable donations each year in Canada. It works out to about $300 per person. And why do we buy lottery tickets? Well, you’ve seen the ads on TV. It’s because if we get lucky and win, we can have all those good things that we want.
And when our priority in life becomes getting all those things that we want for ourselves that we don’t have, guess what happens? We spend a lot more time worrying than we do giving thanks.
In today’s gospel, Jesus calls on us to change our priorities. In fact the gospel that we read today is part of a much larger teaching that we usually call the Sermon on the Mount, and in it Jesus is calling for a radical re-orientation of how we set priorities and live our lives. And his teaching is summed up in one of the verses that we heard today.
“Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
We need to change our priorities. Instead of being concerned with the things we want, or even the things we need, our priority must be what Jesus calls the kingdom of God: living in relationship with God and practicing kindness and justice towards each other.
I am confident that if we were to make this our priority, we would spend a lot more time practicing thanksgiving and a lot less time worrying. Because the practice of thanksgiving is at its foundation relational. The most common way to express thanksgiving is to use two simple words: “Thank you”. And by living in relationship with God, we become aware of the “you” on whom our lives depend. We start to give up any illusions we may have about self-sufficiency and instead become aware of our relationship with God and of all the good things that we have been given in our lives. And we say thank you.
But we still need stuff, you say. We still need to eat and we still need clothes, and we still worry about the future of our children and we’re still afraid of illness or losing our jobs.
All of that is true. God knows that we have needs, food and clothing, health, relationships, a sense of security and so on. And I think that’s why, in the very same sentence that Jesus uses to re-orient our priorities, he also makes us a promise.
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
This is the promise that Jesus gives us in today’s gospel, an amazing promise, a promise that promises to put an end to all of our worrying.
There’s only one problem. We don’t believe it. We find it hard to put our trust in Jesus’ promise.
Make your priority the kingdom of God, put your trust in God, act justly and the rest will be taken care of.
Hard to believe? Don’t think it’s realistic?
Then, here’s the challenge I’m giving you this week. Give it a try. For this one week, starting today, make the things of God your priority. Put your trust in God, seek to know him, enter into relationship with him, in prayer and in action, striving to act justly in your daily life. And see how it goes. See whether you can learn to have faith in God and worry less. See whether you get more or less of the good things of life by seeking God first. See whether your understanding of what the good things are changes over the course of the week. See whether you say thank you more often. In fact, make a point of saying thank you more often.
It is the greatest promise that we’ve ever been given. Can we trust it?
You’ll never know until you give it a try.
Homily: Thanksgiving Sunday, Oct 7 2018, St. Albans
Rdgs: Joel 2:21-27;Ps 126;1 Tim 2:1-7;Mt 6:25-33
Image by Giorgio Montersino, Creative Commons