A sermon: Blessing or Burden


The sermon I preached this morning, August 5, 2007 based upon Luke 12: 13 – 21.

When I step back and look at my life, I realize I have a great deal for which to be thankful. I have a wife and children and friends and a church that love me. I am in relatively good health as are the people nearest to me. My family has a roof over our heads (and air conditioning) and food to eat and clean water to drink and a car to drive. I’ve got it pretty good. There are plenty of people in this world who don’t have these things I have.

When I think about it, I should be walking around in a perpetual state of gratitude, radiating an awareness of how deeply I am greatly blessed, but most of the time I don’t.

Oftentimes I experience my life as less of a blessing and more of a burden. Much of the time I’m in something of a hurry, aware of the mental “to do” list I’m carrying around in my head — the things that I believe I need to get done — the things that if I don’t get done, well, somehow it seems as though the future will be in jeopardy. My attention gets focused on unsolved problems, unfinished work, the disorganization, the chaos my life will seemingly descend into if I don’t keep perpetually after it.

And through it all, I miss the simple fact that I am blessed.

On some level, we are all blessed, although there are some people who do seem to have gotten a pretty raw deal in life — people who live with disease and starvation and war from the very beginning of their lives.

If you consider all those trillions and trillions of sperm cells and eggs that never hooked up, you realize that each one of us is the product of an exceedingly rare connection.

We are alive. There was no necessity for us to be alive — we weren’t owed life — life came to us as a gift from God.

I think we got this on some level when we were little children. The beauty and wonder of it all left us dumbstruck with awe and wonder. But overtime we began to take it all for granted.

Here is a peculiar thing: it’s mighty hard to predict who in this world where gratitude will show up. There are those who would seem to have so much for which to feel grateful, but don’t. This is part of the reason that Jesus so frequently warned his disciples about the dangers of wealth. Having a lot of money seems to have a curious way of leading people into the illusion of self-reliance.

Consider the farmer in Jesus’ parable. He’s doing very well. His land has had a particularly bountiful harvest. Now you might think that the natural response to experiencing such abundance would be to express thanksgiving. But instead, the farmer experiences his abundance as a problem. What’s he going to do with his great harvest? He becomes preoccupied with the future. Sure he’s got what he needs for now, but what about tomorrow? How can he guarantee that tomorrow he will have what he needs? So instead of giving thanks, he comes up with a plan of action: Tear down his old barns, and build bigger barns.

It is at this moment that the man is confronted with the reality that he is going to die. “Fool, this night your soul is demanded of you, and whose will your barns be then?”

It is a strange this knowledge we humans have — this knowledge that we will one day die. This knowledge separates us from the animals. Much of the time we flee from this knowledge: we look for things to keep us busy, to distract us from the fact of our death. Our to-do lists come in handy here.

But although the knowledge of our death is most often experienced as burden, it is, in fact, blessing as well. It reminds us that life is precious — that now is the only moment we truly have. And if we spend all our days living for the future, and one day reach our deaths without ever having really lived in the present, well, that is a most unfortunate thing in deed.

As I said before, oftentimes people gratitude is missing from people, who, like myself, would seem to have every reason in the world to feel gratitude. And then gratitude shows up in the hearts of people who would seem to have really serious burdens.

Etty Hillesum was a young Dutch Jewish woman who died in a Nazi concentration camp. She kept a extraordinary journal as her world was falling apart around her.

“Am I expected to put on a sad face? I am not really sad, am I? I would like to fold my hands and say, ‘Friends, I am happy and grateful and I find life very beautiful and meaningful… I am grateful for everything.”

She had some remarkably wise words to share:

“All that we can manage these days and also all that really matters (is) that we safeguard a little piece of You, God, in ourselves… There are some who, even in this late stage are putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safe keeping instead of guarding You, dear God. And there are those who want to put their bodies in safe keeping but who are nothing more now than a shelter for a thousand fears and bitter feelings. And they say, ‘I shan’t let them get me into their clutches.’ But they forget that no one is in their clutches who is in Your arms.”

A read an account of a Cambodian man who survived one of Pol Pot’s concentration camps. He writes,

“Even more than deprivation of food, even more than the torture, I resented having no time to meet with God. Always guards were yelling at us, forcing us to work, work, work.”

He noticed that the guards had a vary hard time finding people willing to clean up the cesspits. Neither the prisoners, nor the guards, wanted to take on the cesspits as a work assignment. Recognizing an unappreciated opportunity provided by this work detail, the man volunteered.

“No one ever interrupted me, and I could do my work at a leisurely pace. Even in those stinking depths, I could look up and see blue sky. I could praise God that I survived another day. I could commune with God undisturbed, and pray for my friends and relatives all around me. That became a glorious time of meeting with God.”

We are about to share in Holy Communion — Jesus’ last supper. Keep in mind that Jesus shared this meal with the knowledge that this night he himself would die. And he is grateful.

Jesus can help us with this peculiar sickness of the heart whereby we miss the gratitude that is our natural state in life. Eat the bread, drink the cup. He will heal you of your soul sickness.

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