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​Reflection January 26, 2020

"Worry & the Art of Giving Thanks" -  by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth

      As I’ve often mentioned in sermons and in our Bible Study, each of the four gospel writers are anonymous. They authors are never mentioned by name in the Gospels. From the 2nd Century, the Gospel spoken of as Matthew was attributed to the apostle of that name. Matthew was the tax collector called by Jesus in Matthew 9:9: “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” Matthew is the final apostle called.

     But imagine this scene: a religious teacher comes to where you’re working or maybe your home and says: “Follow me!” and you get up follow this teacher without any other word being spoken! Pretty impressive! Jesus must certainly have been enormously charismatic!

     Whoever the author of this gospel was, we can be pretty sure he was a Jewish-Christian. He was very concerned with showing how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. We’re grateful for this author known to us as Matthew.

     We know that Matthew had Mark’s Gospel in hand while he wrote because 612 verses of Mark’s 662 verses show up in Matthew, often word for word. We, Christians, give thanks for Matthew and Mark, whoever they may have been. We also give thanks for Luke, John, Peter, Paul, James, and Jude - the entire eight New Testament authors!

     Lately, as most know, I’ve been challenged by a number of health concerns. This is why I bring up Matthew in this week’s Advance. I’m always comforted by the words of Jesus from his well-known Sermon on the Mount, particularly Matthew 6:25 and following: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life … look at the birds of the air … consider the lilies of the field … Therefore do not worry.”

     I’m a worrier. It’s probably deep wired in my DNA. My mother worried a lot. I’m not sure if my two brothers inherited this gene or not but I inherited it in spades. I worry about everyone entrusted to my pastoral care. I worry especially about those who are facing significant medical challenges, including myself.

     Can one ever be free of all worry? I imagine it’s possible but I don’t know how such a feat might be accomplished. While I truly appreciate Jesus’ teachings about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, I still worry!

     The Greek word used in Matthew, translated as “worry” and “anxious” implies being preoccupied with something. So Jesus is teaching us not to be preoccupied with what we are to eat or drink or wear. I don’t see how we can escape all worry. We all, at times, fall prey to the incessant voice of worry.

     Our brother Paul in Philippians 4:4–7 also touches on how to approach worry and anxiety. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

     In other words, we’re to place everything in the hands of our Creator and be at peace. Easy to say. Hard to do. But another dimension of placing everything in God’s hands, according to Paul, is that we’re to do so in the context of thanksgiving.

     The 14th Century German theologian and Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, taught: “If the only prayer you said in life was ‘thank you’ – that would suffice.” This is, I believe, what Paul has in mind for us. We’re to bring our needs to God wrapped in thanksgiving.

     A few years ago, my New Year resolution was to write a “Thank You” card each day of that year. I only made it through roughly one month before I abandoned that resolution. But it was a good resolution nonetheless! I am sure I don’t offer thanksgiving enough.

     We know that Jesus did not come just to tell us about God. Jesus came to lead us more fully into the presence of God, to tear away the barriers keeping us apart from God, apart from the goodness and grace of God.

     As we know, the Jewish people at the time of Jesus could not enter into the inner part of the Jerusalem Temple: the Holy of Holies, the place where God supposedly lived. Only the high priest on the Feast of Yom Kippur could enter that sacred space. Any ordinary person attempting to enter the Holy of Holies would be killed by those protecting access to the Holy of Holies. Access to God was severely limited

     But because of Jesus, each of us, all of us, are allowed unlimited access to the goodness and grace of God. As Wilkie Au, notes in The Enduring Heart: Spirituality for the Long Haul: “His (Jesus) listeners were, like us, accustomed to the many barriers and restrictions on God’s abundance. Being a foreigner, a tax collector, a woman, a sinner – all these severely jeopardized one’s access to God’s grace.

     “Religious institutions, then as now, made it their business to control and limit the believer’s access to grace. But Jesus insisted that grace was everywhere, overflowing the official channels, available in astonishing abundance … Jesus consistently proclaimed that God’s gracious generosity always gives us more than we dare ask.”

     Grace is God’s love in action. And the more we allow God’s love into our hearts and into our lives, the more gratitude wells up within us. The Italian psychotherapist, Piero Ferrucci, in The Power of Kindness, writes: “To be grateful is to let ourselves be known … When we are grateful, all our defenses drop and we show ourselves for who we are.”

     Being grateful allows us to stop hiding behind the defenses we inevitably erect because our world is often harsh and unloving. We hide the parts of ourselves that are sweet and caring, the parts that are kind and innocent, the parts that are fragile and easily frightened. We don’t believe the world will accept us in all our delicate humanness, so we play a perpetual game of hide and seek.

     Many of us come to know early on that the world is prone to reject us rather than accept us. And yet in Christ Jesus, we’ve been fully accepted by our Maker. We no longer need fear rejection from God. But we still need be concerned about rejection from the world. 

     As the Episcopalian pastor, Arthur Vogel, asserts in Radical Christianity and the Flesh of Jesus: “The difficulties we have in the world can be described, in summary fashion, as the world not accepting us for who we (really) are.” (I’d suggest re-reading this quote!)

     In Christ, everything we experience in our world has been transformed, turned upside down. We’re fully accepted by the One Who Made Us. Real acceptance always leads to gratitude. When we’re fully accepted by someone, our hearts, our souls, resonate, vibrate, with a joy that fuels gratitude. I don’t believe gratitude, the art of giving thanks, can easily occur without there first being the sacred act of acceptance.

     I’m far from perfect. This will not startle anyone. I’m light years away from perfection. And, yet, even with the certain knowledge of my imperfection, I know that I’m accepted. I know that I’m loved more than I could possibly deserve.

     I’m not certain of many things in life but I’m certain of this: I am loved. I’m certain God loves me. I’m certain my dearest friends and family love me. I’m certain that many members of our beloved family of faith love me.

     When we fully accept each other in Christ Jesus, we become capable of gratitude. I’m profoundly grateful to the members of our beloved Morgan Park American Baptist Church who called me to our church many years ago.

     We’ve faced many challenges in the almost 12 years that I’ve had the privilege of serving as pastor. We’ll, undoubtedly, face more challenges in the future. Yet, together, we can try to worry less and give thanks more! A good New Year’s Resolution for each of us!

Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor

Morgan Park

 Baptist Church