Sermon for March 18, 2018

 

March 18, 2018
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC

 

THE WORD IS “THANKS”

I Thessalonians 5:16-18   John 6:5-13
The fifth in a series of seven.

 

There are two kinds of people in the world.  There are the people who say there are two kinds of people in the world, and there is everyone else.  I guess I’m one of the former.  I’m always saying there are two kinds of people in the world.

I said it last week.  Remember?  The takers and the givers.  Those who live with a closed fist, and those who live with an open hand.  Those who can never say “enough”, and those who are content with what they have.

This week, again there are two kinds of people in the world.  But this time, it’s people of gratitude and people of ingratitude.  People who live a life centered around the word “thanks”, and people who take life and all that comes with it for granted.

We might say the difference between grateful people and ungrateful people is what happens to them.  Grateful people have good things happen to them.  Therefore, they are grateful.  Ungrateful people have terrible things happen to them.  Therefore, they are not particularly grateful.

I think we have all noticed by now that the blessings and the hardships of life are not very evenly distributed.  Some people seem to have all the luck.  Other people seem to have a dark cloud following them wherever they go.  Here again, two kinds of people:  those who live charmed lives and those who don’t.  So of course we would expect a direct correlation between our experience of life and our level of gratitude.

But that’s not what we find.  I’ve known healthy, wealthy, successful people who have convinced themselves they deserve every bit of it.  They are smug and arrogant.  And I’ve known people who have suffered horribly, one calamity after another, who are filled with gratitude.  They appreciate every little good thing that comes their way and they are always saying thank you.

They illustrate what the Bible teaches on this subject:

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ

Jesus (I Thessalonians 5:16-18).

 

People ask what the will of God is, as if it’s some kind of a divine mystery we can never hope to figure out.  Well, here at least we are told that God’s will is really quite simple.  It is for us to “give thanks in all circumstances”.  Not just in good circumstancesIn all circumstances.

The life of Jesus illustrates this.  For example, the night before his crucifixion, he broke the bread and he “gave thanks.”  His good friend Lazarus had just died.  He is so upset that he weeps.  Then he prays, and the first words out of his mouth are, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.”

The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer illustrates this.  He was a German pastor who opposed the Nazis and participated in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  He was imprisoned for two years and was put to death just days before the Allies would have rescued him.  He was 39.  While in prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this:  “It is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”

Paul was also in prison when he wrote: “I thank my God every time I remember you” (Philippians 1:3).

There are two kinds of people in the world:  those who are thankful, no matter what happens to them and those who are not, no matter what happens to them.

I read about some backpackers who had planned a five-day adventure into the Olympic National Park.  They average 150 inches of rain a year there, so it was not much of a surprise that their hike began in a downpour.  They were soaking wet when they stopped for lunch.  They checked the weather forecast on a cell phone and saw that more of the same was coming.  They had pretty well decided to bag it, to turn around and find a nice warm motel room.

That’s when a hiker met them.  He was returning from the same long hike they had planned.  When they told him what they were going to do, he said, “You can’t turn around.  This hike is fantastic.”  They showed him the phone and the weather forecast.  He said, “That is a fantastic weather report.  The waterfalls will be full.  The valley will be green.  There are tree canopies all along the way that will keep you dry.  The rain is what brings this place to life.”

I’m reminded of a book with a great title:  Some Folks Feel the Rain, Others Just Get Wet.

Another place where Jesus gave thanks is in the story we read for today.  It’s a story told six times in the four gospels.  Four times it’s “The Feeding of the 5000.”  Twice it’s “The Feeding of the 4000.”  Most scholars think it’s different tellings of the same story.  A few details differ, but it’s pretty much the same story.

There is a huge crowd that has come to hear Jesus.  5000 or 4000.  Either way, that’s a lot of people.  There was no supermarket nearby.  Even if there was, Jesus and his disciples were not traveling with that kind of money.

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat? . . . Philip answered him, “Eight months wages would not buy enough for each one to have a bite” (John 6:5,7).

 

It’s a challenging situation they face, and Philip faces it realistically.  He points out what they lack.  He points out why the situation really is hopeless.  It’s hard to argue with that.

But there’s another disciple who sees things differently:

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up.  “Here is a boy with five barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” (6:8-9)

 

Philip sees what they lack.  Andrew sees what they have.  Philip sees the problems.  Andrew sees the possibilities.  Philip sees want.  Andrew sees wonder.

You might say Philip is the realist and Andrew is the idealist, but I don’t think that’s it.  They are both realists.  They are both seeing the reality of the situation.  They just are seeing different sides of that same reality.  Philip sees the want, which is real.  Andrew see the wonder, which is just as real.

So here’s my question for you.  Are you a Philip or are you an Andrew?  What is your default response to difficult circumstances?  Do you see the want?  Or do you see the wonder?

John gives us detail about the bread and the fish.  We are told the bread is made of barley and the fish are small.

Barley bread was the cheapest bread available.  Kind of like when I was growing up, we always got “reduced for quick sale” bread.  Poor man’s bread.  That’s what the boy had with him.

And the fish were small.  When I was growing up, we took fish with us on our mountain adventures.  Sardines.  Kipper snacks, which I guess technically are herring.  They were tiny, oily, and a little bit disgusting.   But they didn’t take up much room in our packs and they didn’t cost much money.  That’s the kind of fish this boy had with him.

The point is, this isn’t a feast.  It isn’t much food, and it also isn’t good food.  It is a poor man’s meal.  But still it catches Andrew’s attention and it fills him with wonder.

Here’s the lesson for us.  Does it take something big and impressive to make you feel grateful?  Or can it be something as small and mundane as day-old bread and kipper snacks?

I think we’ve all known people who reaize their time on this earth is limited, but who turn this negative into a positive.  Instead of complaining about the unfairness of it all, they savor every moment of every day they still have.  They see the wonder of their situation, not the want.

Here is a woman living with an aggressive form of breast cancer.  It’s been treated just as aggressively, but the cancer seems to be winning.  So she posts a picture of herself with her five-year-old son along with these words:  “In the past two days, I’ve gone to a birthday party, a wedding, church, and on a walk.  Not to brag or anything, but my life is amazing with a side of awesome.”

Did I say her cancer is winning?  With an attitude like that, I don’t think so.

So did you get to go on a walk in the last few days?  I know you got to go to church.  Are you filled with wonder that you were able to?  Are you as grateful for every day of your life as she is for hers?

The rain can bring our world to life.  Or the rain can just make us wet.

I love G.K. Chesterton.  He’s one of the most original thinkers ever.  Look him up on the internet.  Just do the Google search: “sayings of G.K. Chesterton”.  You’ll see what I mean.  Our Silent Preparation for today is something he said about gratitude.  Here is something he said about wonder:  “The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.”

In other words, the world we live in is “amazing with a side of awesome”.  It’s a wonderful world out there.  The problem is, a lot of us fail to notice.  And be impressed.  And be moved.  And be filled with wonder.

So I thought this was a sermon about the word “thanks”. . . When we lose our sense of wonder, we lose also our capacity to be thankful.  It shrivels.  The world shrivels.  We shrivel.  All we can see is all Philip could see.  What we lack.  What we can’t do.  Why it’s impossible.

As you go through your week, be aware of whether you are more a Philip or more an Andrew.  Do you find yourself more frustrated by what is missing?  Or do you find yourself more awed by what is?

The story continues, as we come at last to the “word of the day.”

Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted.  He did the same with the fish.  When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over.  Let nothing be wasted.”  So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten (6:11-13).

 

Jesus takes the very basic, very modest meal this boy was willing to share, and he gives thanks for it.

Had I been Jesus, I think I might have waited to say “thanks” until the miracle happened.  Until everyone had enough and there was food left over.  Then I could safely, without fear of embarrassment say, “Thanks, God!”  I might have waited until the cancer is cured, until the world is fed, until the school shootings have ended, until the rain has stopped.

So here we have yet another example of Jesus saying thanks at an unexpected time.  He gives thanks first, and then he feeds the crowd.  The hungry crowd watches in wonder.  The food is not running out.  Just the opposite.  The more who take, the more there is.  It is almost as if they are being fed by gratitude.

So what is the lesson here?  God’s nature is to give.  To give and give and give.  There is no end to what God gives.  The generosity of God can never be outdone by human need.  So Jesus thanks God in advance.  Because Jesus knows God.  And Jesus also knows us.  That we need to be more grateful.  That gratitude is the key that opens the floodgates of heaven.

Skip ahead to the end of the chapter.  John 6:51.

[Jesus said,] “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  If a man eats of this bread, he will live forever.  This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

 

And so we see that the story of feeding the multitude is connected to something bigger.  This is about more than the daily bread that keeps us alive physically.  It is also about the living bread that keeps us alive spiritually.

Jesus gives bread and Jesus is bread.  His flesh is bread.  Remember what he will say at the Last Supper.  “This is my body, broken for you.”  And that’s what happened the very next day as he was nailed to a Roman cross.  “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”  He gave his life so that we could have life.

Bread keeps these bodies of ours alive physically, but there will come a time when our physical bodies break down.  It’s part of life.  Whether we live to be 33, as Jesus did, or 103. eventually our bodies break.

It happened to E. Stanley Jones.  He was 87 when he suffered a massive stroke.  He lived another 14 months.  During that time, he wrote a book.  His mind was about the only part of him that was not incapacitated.  And his spirit.  And his faith.  He called the book, The Divine Yes.  He wrote, “Since I can no longer preach a sermon, I must be a sermon.”

It’s a great book, and all the greater because it was written by one whose life circumstances by all rights should have turned him into a bitter, defeated, miserable human being.  But that didn’t happen.  The book is a testament to one who truly did “give thanks

in all circumstances.”

There are two kinds of people.  Those who are thankful, no matter what happens to them and those who are not, no matter what happens to them.  Which kind will you be?  Will you be one who sees the want?  Or will you be one who sees the wonder?

 

It is your will, O God, that we be grateful people.  Because it is your will, revealed in Jesus, that we have life and have it more abundantly.   Grant us, God, a renewed sense of wonder in life.  This week may we find great joy in small things, in unexpected places, even in frustrating things, and may that wonder lead us back to you – to all you have to give to us, and through us to others.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.