July 22, 2019
Author: Scott Hoezee
The Lord’s Prayer is hands down one of the most famous prayers ever. So how ironic it is to notice that in Luke’s presentation of this prayer, the narrative details are very sparse. Today if we were documenting the first-ever presentation of something that went on to become very famous and momentous, we’d want to nail it down to a specific date, place, and occasion. But in Luke 11:1, Luke very casually says that when Jesus uttered this model prayer, it happened “one day” when Jesus was praying “in a certain place.” The curious reader wants to ask, “Well, WHAT day was it? WHERE did this happen?”
But Luke gives us no such clue. Given how sizeable Luke’s narrative skills are, you have to assume there was a reason for this. And I think we can guess at the reason: the disciples saw Jesus praying so often that it was, as a matter of fact, difficult to recall the precise day and location of the time he gave them this particular model prayer to follow. Had Jesus prayed only rarely or on only certain high ceremonial occasions, then maybe it would have been both easy and important to record a few more details. But Jesus prayed so regularly that in the minds of the disciples, it all blurred together. This was not like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—a one-time, rather unusual event worthy of a very specific memorializing. When someone prayed as much as Jesus did, it really didn’t matter where this precise incident took place—the point is that Jesus prayed all the time to the extent that the disciples finally just had to know how to do that themselves.
All of which leads to an important point when it comes to preaching on Luke 11: often we think that what the disciples asked for were the words to say when praying. But in reality what the disciples wanted was not a litany of key phrases or a checklist of prayer items. What they were inquiring after was how they could, in imitation of their Master, turn the entirety of their lives into an extended act of prayer, the same as they observed was the case for Jesus himself. (And if this perspective on Luke 11 is correct, we could observe a degree of irony in the fact that subsequent generations of Christians did turn the Lord’s Prayer into a word-for-word memorized form of prayer!)
When you frame the Lord’s Prayer as a way first of all to pray without ceasing, the specifics that Jesus mentioned make more sense and take on a new meaning. Because when you think about it, each petition and phrase Jesus gives is a nearly all-encompassing reality.
What do we pray for? The hallowing of God’s very Name. That’s pretty cosmic. What do we pray for? The coming of the kingdom. Hmmm, that’s pretty big, too. What do we pray for? Daily bread and ongoing forgiveness—we pray to be forgiven by God on the basis of the fact that we are ourselves engaged in acts of forgiveness all the time. What do we pray for? That we not be led into temptation. And when is it that we don’t want to be tempted? Is it just for the next half-hour or so? The balance of this particular day? Just tomorrow? Or is temptation something we want to avoid forever and anon?
Let no one who hears us preach on this passage conclude that what the Lord’s Prayer is mostly all about is a list of certain requests. In a way, the two brief parabolic examples that Jesus gives back up this perspective on life as ongoing prayer. The “Friend at Midnight” story reminds us that prayer pops up all the time and does not wait for convenient seasons or moments. Prayer isn’t always polite. Prayer cannot be sequestered to safe corners of our lives. Life is bumpy and unpredictable. So also will be prayers that occur across the whole sweep of just such a life.
And what about the father-son analogy with which Jesus concludes? As any parent can tell you, a son or daughter who asks for a fish or an egg is unlikely to make such a request just once. Kids have this annoying need to eat all the time! And as any parent can also tell you, sometimes the sheer volume of requests from your children can, now and then anyway, tempt you to want to throw them the odd snake or scorpion. Oh, not literally, of course. But there are those times when, after being asked by your daughter for the fifteenth time in a row if she can have just one more cookie—and after your having said “no” to this request fourteen times in a row—sometimes even good, conscientious parents fairly throw the cookie at the hapless kid. “There! Eat it! You happy now?!”
Oh dear. Patience can wear thin. We repent of such things, of course. But the point here is that it’s not the nature of the request per se that can cause a person to erupt so much as it is the constancy of the requesting. Thanks be to God, Jesus tells us that our Father in heaven manages to hold things together far better than we frail, fallible human beings.
Bottom line: we tend to think that the content of prayer is the key. In truth, Jesus always seemed more interested in the incessant nature of prayer and its never-ending desire to stay connected to the Father, who alone gives us all good things.
There is a slight variation in the request for bread between Matthew’s presentation of this prayer in Matthew 6 and Luke’ presentation here in Luke 11. Matthew uses the word for “today” (SEMERA) whereas in Luke 11:3 Luke uses the general phrase for day (HEMERA), giving his presentation more the sense of “day by day,” thus lending more of an ongoing feel to this particular request. It’s not just today that we need the gift of bread but day after day after day. As noted elsewhere in these sermon starters, the disciples, in asking that Jesus teach them how to pray, were doing more than seeking a litany of requests or a catalogue of key phrases. They were actually asking for Jesus to teach them how to turn the entirety of their lives into an extended form of praying even as they had seen to be the case in Jesus’ own life. Luke’s way of making the request for bread go on and on and on adds to this sense.
Some while back I heard about a video that someone made to illustrate what it might be like to be God. It runs for just over an hour and it features nothing but one person after the next making a request, asking for advice, seeking direction, requesting money, and so on. Face after face after face appears on the screen, each in a plaintive mode of asking for something. It’s curious that Jesus more than once illustrates prayer with images of exasperation. In Luke 11 we have a friend at midnight baying for bread from someone already tucked cozily into bed. A few chapters farther on in Luke we find the parable of the unjust judge who finally gives in to the persistent widow not for any noble reason but just to get her off his back.
It has always struck me as odd that Jesus would use these somewhat negative images to talk about prayer. Surely we don’t want to think of God as being exasperated but maybe just maybe Jesus, as the Son of God, knew what it was like to be barraged day and night by an endless line of people asking for advice, money, direction, or whatever. It is a credit to the almighty power of God that he is able to handle the simultaneous prayers of millions, if not billions, of people all the time.
Do you remember the opening scene to the holiday classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life? The camera careers in and around the streets of Bedford Falls and from every single house on just about every single block of the city we hear people praying for George Bailey. With voices tumbling on top of one another, you hear over and again, “Dear Lord, be with George, with George, bless George, O God, be with George, George Bailey, bless George.”
Of course, those people were all praying for the same thing but in reality exactly such a chorus of prayer takes place at every moment except that most of the time the requests and petitions are all different from one another. At the same moment you are praying for your child to recover from the flu, your neighbor next door may be praying for her son in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the folks in the house across the street are begging God to help them make ends meet even as the people in the house next to that one are praying for rain to fall over in Iowa so their brother-in-law’s corn crop won’t fail. In the wider cosmic scheme of things, prayer is a universal constant, the sheer volume of which staggers the imagination.
Author: Stan Mast
How on earth can you preach this strange and sordid text? Well, ask yourself this question.
How do you get someone to stop doing something dangerous when they simply won’t listen to you?
The other day my youngest grandson, a daring dynamo of perpetual motion, had entered a goofy phase and was riding one of those razor scooters wearing his father’s huge sandals. My son could just see one of those sandals catching on a wheel, sending his son head over heels into the pavement. So, he shouted, “Emmit, stop! Don’t do that! Stop! You’re going to hurt yourself! Stop!” But Emmit was having fun and didn’t see the danger, so he just kept doing it, no matter how often his dad yelled, “Stop!”
That’s exactly the way it was with God and his child, Israel. For centuries God had been telling Israel to stop its sin, the twin sins of idolatry and injustice. The “major prophets,” Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel, had spoken literally thousands of words yelling, “Stop! You’re going to get hurt!” Now it was the “minor prophets” turn to sound the alarm. In the last two weeks we’ve heard Amos rail against those twin engines of destruction. But Israel paid no attention and kept racing toward the precipice of destruction.
Here, in the early chapters of Hosea, God does something new to get his child’s attention and stop its sinful behavior. Rather than simply speaking a thousand more words, God uses a picture, a shocking, lurid picture. Israel could not, would not acknowledge that it was guilty of idolatry. After all, they still believed in Yahweh. They didn’t see the harm in also putting a little faith in the gods of their pagan neighbors just to cover the bases. And they didn’t think it was a big deal that they worshipped Yahweh on the high places where their neighbors worshiped their pagan gods. What’s so bad about borrowing a bit from the culture; syncretism isn’t a bad word, is it? We still believe in Yahweh.
Because Israel didn’t grasp the seriousness of their idolatry, God showed them a different picture, not of idolatry, but of adultery. Well, not so much a picture as a play, an enacted sermon, like one of the morality plays used to instruct medieval peasants. To shock his children out of their sin and save them from certain destruction, God directed the prophet Hosea to marry an adulteress and have children with her. God uses that strange behavior to illustrate what Israel was really doing in its idolatry; they were committing spirituality adultery, “the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord.”
Can you imagine God telling you to do something like that? Neither can I. That’s why many scholars think that this is an allegory rather than actual fact. Taking such an interpretive tack on the text saves us from the endless debates about Hosea’s wife. Was she an adulterous woman before Hosea married her or did her sexual escapades begin after marriage? Was she an actual prostitute or simply a sexually promiscuous woman? Were her second and third children born of adultery after Hosea sired the first? If we take this as a story composed to make a point, we are spared the scandal and the questions that arise if we take it as actual fact.
On the other hand, if we just take it at face value, then the enactment of this scandal would be a powerful message to an adulterous Israel. That makes it more shocking, and Israel needed some shock therapy, even as we do. So, I encourage you to preach this as fact, because that sends the message in a way mere words can’t: idolatry is adultery and it will end your marriage to Yahweh and every blessing that comes with marriage.
God conveys that message of impending divorce with the names he gives to these children of an adulteress. Each name points to the inevitable result of spiritual adultery. It’s a bit complicated, so bear with me. The first son is named Jezreel, which was a fertile plane in the north of Israel, the breadbasket of the nation, and thus a desirable place to live. Jehu had settled there, and that’s where he slaughtered the royal family of Israel. So that place of abundance had become the place where a dynasty ended. Giving Gomer’s son that name signified that God was bringing an end to Israel.
The same message is tied up in the name of the daughter, Lo-Ruhamah. The second part of that name means something like compassion or pity, and “lo” means “no” or “not.” Her birth name means that God will no longer show compassion and pity to his child, Israel, because she is caught up in adultery. After all the times I have forgiven my children, I will not forgive this sin.
Indeed, the day will come, says the Lord, when they will not be my people. That’s what the name Lo-Ammi means, “not my people.”
If that sounds like God was going to break the marriage covenant between Yahweh and Israel, that’s exactly what God is saying, or rather picturing. God has been saying that through the prophets for a long, long time, but the people didn’t believe it. Maybe a picture will convince them.
Now, that sounds unthinkable, given the way God had always spoken of his covenant. It was unconditional and unbreakable. Israel had always believed that, so much so, in fact, that they took advantage of God’s faithfulness. No matter what we do, they thought, God will always love us. Thus, we can do what we want. He will simply forgive us in the end. And God did.
We have a foretaste of that in verses 10-11, where the names of the children are seemingly reversed in a future day. God’s covenant will be renewed by God, the nation will be reunited, the covenant blessings will be restored, and the names of those children will be changed to reflect God’s ongoing love. Hosea 3 shows Hosea taking his adulterous wife back, even as God will take Israel back when she repents and returns to God in faithfulness.
So, is this text an exercise in bluster, an attempt to scare Israel straight? No, this is a most serious warning about the seriousness and consequences of the sin of idolatry and its evil twin, injustice. The temporary divorce that occurred in the Exile was no small thing; it very nearly wiped Israel from the face of the earth. Grace and mercy may be the last words of God, but they are not God’s only words. Therefore, we must not presume that life will go just fine if we simply believe in God, and do what we please. Here’s a picture of what happens when God’s people depart from their God in spiritual adultery.
There are three contact points between this ancient Hebrew text and a contemporary Christian congregation. First, according to verse 1, the word of God came to Hosea during the last days of the northern kingdom, perhaps in the last 50 years of its pre-Exilic life. This was, if not “the best of times and the worst of times,” then at least a mix of prosperity within and danger from without. The reign of Jeroboam was long and stable, and political stability usually meant prosperity, at least for the upper crust. We hear about that in the prophecy of Amos. But there was also the threat of Assyrian looming off to the north and east. That threat would become a clear and present danger in a very short time. In other words, this prophecy came to a nation in circumstances much like North American countries face—internal prosperity and external threat.
Second, in such an historical setting, we are tempted like Israel to commit adultery with many of the gods of our neighbors– not Baal and Asherah, but other gods that promise us fertility and prosperity, success and victory. There is, most notably, the central god of our time, the Sovereign Self, which we must care for and cultivate, trust and worship.
And there is the god of Nation and the machinery of government that promises to fix every problem if we’ll simply vote for the right or left side. This national god occupies much of our waking time through the constant words that flow from our media. Again, there is the god Jesus called Mammon, money and all the things it will buy. Your imagination and observation will spot many more altars to the gods along our streets.
Some Christians who sincerely believe in Jesus are committing adultery with these other gods, by dividing their trust between Jesus and another god, giving of their time and talent to other gods, and centering their lives on these gods while saying, “Jesus is Lord.”
Third, we must be sure that a sermon on this powerful text doesn’t leave your people feeling guilty without taking them to the source of forgiveness. While not giving permission to “sin the more that grace may abound,” we must hold out the solid hope that this sin of spiritual adultery can be forgiven because Jesus died for this sin, too. He suffered estrangement from God on the cross, a divorce if you will, as evidenced by his cry of God-forsakenness.
A good text to use here is Ephesians 5:21-33, where our relationship with God is compared to a marriage. The good news is that Jesus gave his life for his wife, so that she could be “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Take care that this strange and sordid text finally leads your people to that lovely picture of a beautiful bride saved from sin by the unconditional love of God in Christ.
The use of the marriage analogy to highlight the seriousness of idolatry might not work in some churches, because of the variety of marriages in our culture today. Think of the TV show, “Modern Family,” with its traditional marriages, second marriages, and same sex marriage. And proponents of open marriage or polygamous marriage might not get the shock of adultery. On the other hand, you might use the condition of modern marriage as a foil to talk about the marriage between Hosea and Gomer, and by extension between Yahweh and Israel.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Psalm 138 has features shared by many psalms of praise. There are vows to praise God. There are references to the poet’s motivations for praising God. There is the ardent hope that eventually all the earth and all the kings and peoples of the earth will learn to praise Israel’s God as well. Like most psalms the specifics are not mentioned, which makes these ancient prayers capable of becoming also our own prayers yet today. We can fill in the specifics from our own lives if we wish. The Hebrew Psalter has long been the Prayerbook for Jews and for Christians alike precisely because these psalms are general enough to be adaptable to most any time, person, place, and set of circumstances.
But for this sermon starter I want to focus on verse 6. The sentiments contained in that verse are also shared by many other psalms, including Psalms 8 and 113 and others. Perhaps people in the Ancient Near East from other religious traditions had similar thoughts about their own gods and goddesses, though most of what I know of other ancient religions might indicate otherwise. In any event, a distinctive feature of Israel’s faith was not merely a celebration of God’s grandeur, power, and majesty. Most all religions believed that much about their deities. Indeed, a main thing that distinguishes deities from human beings is precisely their superpowers, their awesome—and, in most other religions, their fear-inducing—might. Few people in history have ever worshiped small and manageable gods, after all. What would be the point?
But in most other faiths it is precisely that power that sets gods apart, that introduces an existential gap between their existence and human existence. What’s more, it is the God’s majestic power that keeps people in line through fear and intimidation. Offend Zeus and the lightning bolts from Mount Olympus may get aimed in your direction. Fail to show respect to the Babylonian god Marduk and good luck with next year’s harvest. Same goes for Re the sun god of Egypt and the gods that governed the flooding of the Nile to make crops grow: honor these gods or suffer their wrath. Some people were known to throw virgins into volcanos and sacrifice their own children to appease the gods. Gods were dangerous. You would do anything to hold the unleashing of their power at bay.
Of course, the Old Testament tells us that the people of Israel also had a healthy fear of God’s power. When God thundered from Mount Sinai, the people begged Moses to be their stand-in. And the holiness of Yahweh was not be trifled with—those touching the Holy Mountain or those a bit later in Israelite history who were foolish enough to treat the Ark of the Covenant like a private trinket sometimes found themselves on the bad receiving end of God’s power.
Given that Israel’s faith shared some of those fears and characteristics with people of other religions, it is all the more remarkable to notice in the psalms—and in Psalm 138:6—that what evoked the purest wonder and joy and devotion in Israel was not God’s remoteness and the gap that existed between his kind of power and our puny human powers. No, what wrung the most ardent praises from the people of Israel was God’s remarkable ability to care for us in all our littleness. The Bible tells us that God’s original goal was to dwell closely with his imagebearers. Sin messed up that plan but God kept promising to get closer. And as small previews of all that, God regularly stooped low to take note of little old us. The orphan, the widow, the foreigner, the vulnerable: they all snagged the divine attention on a regular basis. The plight of women unable to bear children, the dangers faced by women without men to protect them in a patriarchal society: these things garnered divine love. They stirred something else that Psalm 138 notices about God in verse 2: God’s chesed, his “unfailing love.”
Sometimes translated as “lovingkindness,” that Hebrew word chesed pops up all over the place in the Psalms as the #1 reason the Israelites found to praise God. But it was never just a generic, remote sort of grace and kindness. It was up close and personal. The best expressions of God’s lovingkindness came to individuals, some of whose stories we can read in the Bible (and it very often involved women): Hagar, Hannah, Ruth. God showed his lovingkindness to David and he in turn mirrored that for hapless and vulnerable people like Mephibosheth.
The true greatness of Israel’s God was not just his almighty power but how God was able to channel that tremendous power into a lovingkindness that could get focused, laser-like, on one person at a time (one vulnerable person at a time as often as not). And when God’s power came to you in that way, it did not threaten to unmake you like some lightning bolt from Zeus. Rather that power of God filled you, warmed you, overwhelmed you, swaddled you in loving grace.
In the New Testament Paul sometimes gave us a surprising reason why God saved us: it was out of God’s “kindness.” We usually do not associate kindness with power. Kindness is soft, warm, fuzzy. Power is raw, white hot, dangerous. But somehow in Israel’s God, the soft and the warm could coalesce with the raw and the otherwise dangerous. God’s true greatness was in his ability to notice us tiny humans in all our frail, flawed, and specific lives and beam divine love to us.
As the end of verse 5 says, the glory of Yahweh is great. But that only leads to verse 6: the true greatness of that glory is that Yahweh can also be the God of small things, of small people, of needy people who get engulfed by his tremendous lovingkindness.
In a sermon of his I heard a while back, Tom Long talked about the spiritual fruit of kindness. He noted that a key motivation for kindness is our ability to see deeply into every person we meet. We see past their outward flaws and appearance to the radiant image of God that glows inside every one of us. C.S. Lewis noted something similar in his famous sermon “The Weight of Glory.” Lewis said that if we could right now see our neighbors as they will appear when transfigured into resurrected beings in God’s eternal kingdom, we might be tempted to fall down and worship them. They might well appear THAT luminous to us. Perhaps this explains why God is able to stoop down to care for us in all our littleness: he can see past our sins and our foibles to the divine images he made us to be and that in Christ he will one day restore us to be. In the meanwhile, Long and Lewis would counsel, our ability to look for this in others can help us be a little kinder, too. Because God demonstrates that kindness is not soft and weak. It may just be one of the most powerful forces in the cosmos!
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
Author: Doug Bratt
Few phrases seem harder to learn and say than, “Thank you.” After all, few responses mature more slowly than thanksgiving. In fact, gratitude hasn’t yet fully ripened in me, even after nearly more than sixty-one years’ worth of reasons for feeling it. I, after all, naturally assume that I deserve nearly everything I have.
So Paul’s words in our text about living out our faithful relationship with Jesus Christ by overflowing with thankfulness are challenging. Most of us recognize, after all, that thanksgiving barely trickles, much less overflows out of us.
But does it really help anyone to have even the apostle Paul tell us to “overflow” with “thankfulness” (7)? I borrowed the structure of this sermon starter from Lewis Smedes. He was a thoughtful Christian moral philosopher who wrote a wonderful little book entitled, A Pretty Good Person.
In it he notes that God’s adopted sons and daughters know that we should overflow with thankfulness because every good thing we have is a loving gift from our generous God. We also understand that ingratitude easily stops the flow of gifts. It tempts to hoard the gifts we’ve received instead of letting some of them pass through our hands into the sometimes-empty hands of others.
How then might we, in Smedes’ words, prime the pump of thankfulness to God? He suggests that we learn to celebrate what sometimes seem to us like God’s imperfect gifts. We might think about it this way: a young child brings you a clay pot she’s lovingly formed with her own hands. That pot may not sit squarely on the table. It may have garish colors. The pot may be, in other words, imperfect. Yet because it’s a gift from someone you love who loves you, you’re thankful for it.
If God’s beloved people wait for God’s gifts to perfectly match what we want in order to be thankful for them, we’ll never be thankful on this side of the new creation. If we only feel thankful for perfect spouses, well-adjusted children and booming retirement accounts, we’ll never be thankful, much less overflow with thankfulness.
If God’s dear children wait until God gives us complete health, a totally satisfactory job, and a plethora of friends to thank God, we’ll never give thanks. So those who overflow with thanks to God learn to give thanks for even the flawed friends, mediocre meals and drafty houses God gives us.
Those who overflow with thankfulness to God also, however, learn to say some thanks to God. There are times when God gives God’s people gifts that we’d rather return. Yet we discipline ourselves to say, “thank you” to the Lord for them anyway.
C.S. Lewis insisted that the line between pretending to feel thankful and actually feeling thankful is “too thin for even a moral bloodhound to sniff.” So we don’t know how expressing the thanks to God that we don’t necessarily feel primes the pump for our thanksgiving to actually overflow.
However, the American humorist Garrison Keillor once said that we’d all be better off if we started each day by giving thanks for even just one thing. Those who want to overflow with thankfulness learn to start each day by sometimes swallowing hard and saying thanks to God.
Some people I know served their pastor a cup of coffee and piece of pumpkin pie. The baker, however, was too inexperienced to put in enough sugar to adequately sweeten the pie. Yet the pastor simply dumped some sugar on the pie and graciously said something like, “It tastes fine to me.” It was his way of saying, “Thank you,” even though he may not have felt fully grateful for his tart piece of pie.
Those who want to overflow with thankfulness carve time out of every day to breathe out a thank you to God for God’s good gifts. God’s adopted children make it a habit of saying, “Thank you, Lord,” trusting that the Spirit will somehow use it to deepen our gratitude to God.
Those who overflow with thankfulness to God, moreover, understand that we’re always thankful to God in spite of something else. An adult son of a congregation we served died of complications of AIDS. His aging parents deeply grieved his death, even as they failed to fully understand its cause.
The presence of the man some of us later learned was their son’s partner cast a kind of shadow over the proceedings. It was one of the grimmest funeral processions I’ve ever led.
And yet it happened on one of those fall days when you could almost see God’s fingerprints all over what God had created. The leaves were turning golden and blazing red. The sky was so blue it almost made your eyes hurt to look at it. I found that I could be at least a bit grateful for all that beauty even though people I loved were in so much pain.
Smedes writes, “The world is too bent for unshadowed joy.” So if Jesus’ followers wait for all hungry children to be fed before we thank God for our daily bread, we’ll never give thanks. If we wait for every homeless person to have a roof over her head before we thank God for our homes, we’ll never be thankful.
Finally, those who overflow with thankfulness to God realize that gratitude often comes in the wake of anxiety. Psalm 107 is a litany of thanksgiving of those whom God delivered from some kind of trouble. In verses 23 and following, for example, the poet describes those “who went out to the sea in ships … [and] saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep. For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves … in their peril their courage melted … they were at their wits’ end … then … the Lord brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper.”
The most appropriate response to such salvation? In Psalm 107:31 the poet writes, “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds among men. Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people and praise him in the council of the elders.”
Many of us who proclaim Colossians 2 and as well as hear it live in a culture that anxiety deeply plagues. Most of our contemporaries will do anything to escape that anxiety. Yet we’ll never know full release from that anxiety until we experience its pain first.
Then once God has healed that pain, we have room and reason to express our thankfulness. In fact, gratitude can seem to almost burst out of us after God rescues us from some kind of trauma.
God has graciously given God’s beloved people countless reasons to overflow with gratitude to the Lord. So we give thanks to the Lord. We also teach children to say thanks to God. Through the Holy Spirit’s work, some of that thanks may even spill over onto the lives of the people who are among God’s gifts to us.
In A Pretty Good Person Smedes tells of growing up in a materially very poor home. One year his single mother told his family that they couldn’t afford a chicken for their Thanksgiving dinner. So, she announced, they’d have a nice pot roast instead.
Smedes, however, didn’t take the news of a Thanksgiving pot roast very well. He knew, after all, that his buddies would boast about how much chicken they’d eaten on Thanksgiving. Smedes also knew that when they’d ask him about how much chicken he’d eaten, he’d have to admit that he’d eaten pot roast.
“Pot roast? On Thanksgiving Day?” Smedes imagined his buddies howling. “What kind of nutty family have you got?” In one of the book’s most memorable lines, Smedes wrote, “In our neighborhood, if a kid’s mother was too poor to buy a holiday chicken, his status was under a cloud.”
So how did Smedes react to the prospect of having pot roast instead of chicken for Thanksgiving dinner? Did he thank God for something to eat when so many others had little or none? No, Smedes whimpered. He whined. Smedes says he did everything he could to make his poor mom feel sorry for him.
So on the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving his mom trudged the half-mile to the local butcher shop. There she bought what was among the store’s very last fat hens.
Smedes’ mom brought the chicken home, laid it on the kitchen table and announced, “There, we’re going to have chicken tomorrow.”
This prompted Smedes’ serious-minded older sister to turn on him. “See what you went and made her do?” she stormed. “I hope you’re grateful.” By which, Smedes adds, she meant, “I hope you feel rotten.” Smedes says he did feel rotten … but not grateful. What he felt was guilt for twisting his mom around his ingratitude. It did Smedes no good to know that he should be thankful.
And yet we basically understand why Paul invites his letter’s hearers and readers to overflow with thankfulness. We recognize that ingratitude warps our thoughts and attention. Smedes says it bends them away from God and each other and back in on ourselves. Ingratitude pays far more attention to what we assume we should have than to what we do have. It focuses our thoughts on what we’ve not received rather than on what we have received.