Thankfulness

August 16, 2015

Bible Text: Ephesians 5:15-20 |

I want to begin today by telling you about a couple people.

The first is a woman named Rhoda.  I met her last January when I went to Houston for a friend’s ordination to the priesthood.  Rhoda is about my age, and she is outspoken, impossibly stylish, wise, and funny.  I liked her instantly.  She is also a priest—she serves in the Diocese of Texas where her myriad gifts are greatly appreciated.  She and I became Facebook friends shortly after we met and it was on Facebook I first found out about her cancer diagnosis.  Rhoda has the unfortunate distinction of having not one, but two different types of liver cancer.  She has been undergoing chemotherapy for months now, and has been as vulnerable, transparent, and honest about the experience as one is likely to be on social media.  She posts about the vomiting, fevers, trips to the emergency room; about her inability to work, her weakness, and her periodic moments of ‘un-priestly behavior’.  And, every Friday, she posts a YouTube link to some great dance music, and invites everyone to join her for her ‘liver cancer dance party’.  Most recently, Tina Turner belted out, “You Better be Good to me,” as Rhoda shared how her insurance company had turned down her oncologist’s appeal for oral chemotherapy.

The second is a man named Alex.  He was one of the guides on our tour of the Salvation Army’s shelters in Tijuana.  Alex is engaging, funny, and honest.  He has a great smile and an intimidating appearance.  He grew up in Orange County, California where he got tangled up with a gang and made some unfortunate life choices.  He was ultimately deported to Tijuana where he knew no one, and had no connections.  He eventually found the Salvation Army’s men’s shelter where his immediate needs of food and a safe bed were met; he also found community and people who were living in service to others.  He encountered acceptance, and grace, and gratitude at the shelter, and little by little, over the course of nine years, Alex is being redeemed.

Today’s lesson from Ephesians is brief, but loaded with import.  In it, we are told that our days are evil, that we should pay attention to the time granted us, to not waste our days numbing ourselves, but to live wisely.  We are exhorted to worship together, to sing, to pray, AND, most importantly, to give thanks…in all things.It seems oxymoronic to, on one hand, speak of the evil of our times and in the same paragraph call us to gratitude for every single moment.  But Paul does just that.  Because you see, strung between the reality of our wicked world and our response to it, exists the infinite possibility of God.  And it is this possibility, this steadfast working in our lives that allows Rhoda to ‘dance’ on Fridays, and keeps Alex in Tijuana helping those frightened, lost, desperate deportees find sanctuary.  When we live wisely into this possibility, we are able to detect the tracings of the Holy One in our lives and in our communities.  We are able to make sound decisions based upon the steadfastness of God, the knowledge that somehow, God continues to reconcile us to God’s own self and to one another, even as all we were ever meant to be as individuals is revealed ever more completely.  We live wisely be being present.  By continuing to worship, “…sing psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs among yourselves” Paul tells us today; by giving the minutes of our lives our full attention, and by remaining open to the movement of the Spirit within each and every day.  It is easy, when we are in the midst of life’s complications, to forget that God is ever working, ever loving, ever drawing us closer and using our gifts for God’s purpose.  It is difficult, when faced with budgets and limited resources to remember the limitless potential in God.  It is difficult when encountering borders, and walls, and policies that separate us to remember the inclusivity that marks the reality of God’s kingdom.  It is tempting, when we encounter the unknown, to retreat into ourselves, or old behaviors or what seems safe.

 

But forgetting and retreating are not acts of wisdom.  They are instead, marks of fear-based thinking that will ultimately only lead to a wretched faith, and a half-lived existence.

God calls us to more.

According to Paul, we are called to understand what the will of the Lord is and, it would seem, act on it.  We can only begin to understand; we can only begin to discern what God would have us do when we are fully engaged in our lives, in our world, in our work.  Only when we eat of the bread of life, only when we join with one another in praising and worshiping our God; only when we relax our death grip of control on our lives and trust that the same One who called us into being will never desert us, only when we can whole heartedly thank the Lord our God for the richness of our lives: the heartache, the challenges, the joys, the privilege of being alive, of our next breath …only then can we begin to get an inkling of what we are being called to.  Those of us who went on the mission trip surrendered control of our schedules, our beds, our patterns of eating and sleeping.  To a person, our youth relinquished their electronic devices.  They were all in.  Whether working on someone’s home, clearing a wild area, or immersing themselves into the reality of someone from a different place and language, and culture, our youth were present to the task or the person in front of them.  And when I asked about their favorite memory from our week in San Diego, not one of them brought up the hours clearing tumbleweeds or painting, or hammering.  Rather, for each, their favorite moments revolved around people.  Friendships made, stories told, worshipping, dancing, and singing in community.  Paul, I think, would be pleased with their priorities.

I have been humbled and awed by Rhoda’s outlook in the midst of her cancer diagnosis.  She has been thankful for the kindnesses shown her by medical staff, her ever-faithful husband, her friends.  She is living fully into her days not denying the real possibility that she won’t survive this illness, but knowing that whatever happens, God is with her.  As she says, “I have a mortal body and mortal bodies get ill.  It will be a blessing if I am able to be healed, and if I’m not, I will be with Jesus.”  Meanwhile, she is thankful.  The Diocese of Texas has stepped in and is paying for the treatment, which had been previously denied by her insurance company, thereby ensuring Rhoda continues with her Friday dances of gratitude.

Alex could have already returned to the United States but he is waiting.  He has seen what sort of changes generosity and kindness can make in the lives of people and he is practicing opening up his heart and hands to the frightened, angry, lost men he encounters daily.  He is discerning his next steps—not just what he wants to do, but what God would have him do.  His is a cautionary tale and he shares his story with openness and humility and grace and gratitude for what he has found.

We never know what God is likely to do with the raw material of our lives, but one thing is certain, once we decide to trust that the One who loved us into being can redeem even our worst failings, heal our deepest wounds, and call forth the very best of ourselves, we can’t help but cry out our thankfulness—even in the most evil of days.

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