The following sermon is one of many by the Rev. Foster Freed of the United Church of Canada that will be presented on this site over the next few months and years. Foster is one of best preachers I have been privileged to hear in my years of ministry. Foster is the pastor of a large and growing congregation (Knox United) located in Parksville on Vancouver Island in the Province of British Columbia.
A Sermon Preached at Knox United Church, Parksville, B.C.
on October 13th 2002 (21st after Pentecost / Thanksgiving Sunday in Canada)
by Foster Freed
Philippians 4: 4-7
"Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication
… with thanksgiving...
...let your requests be made known to God."
The headline of a recent on-line article caught my eye. It promised an in-depth look at the pop culture icon who, according to the author of the article, could be regarded as the defining figure in contemporary North American culture. Before turning to the article, I pondered who that might be. Madonna? Michael Jackson? Steven Spielberg? Oprah Winfrey? Elvis Presley? George W. Bush? No longer able to contain my curiosity, I followed the link to the web-site, opened the article in question, and discovered a very thoughtful and surprisingly in depth look at the cultural significance of...(hold on to your hats!) David Letterman!
And the aspect of David Letterman's persona that this article highlighted was his cheekiness, his edginess, in short, his "attitude". The attitude of irony, scepticism, cynicism with which Letterman comports himself: an ironic attitude which seems to have become pervasive in our culture, especially among my generation (the baby-boomers) and the generation that came after us, the so-called "Generation-X". Let me be clear that the author of the article was far too sophisticated to claim that David Letterman was somehow responsible for that "attitude"; rather, the article argues that Letterman is in many ways the representative cultural figure who most fully embodies the "attitude".
A couple of years ago, when she was covering the U.S. Presidential election, National Post writer Elizabeth Nickson, wrote an article that was headlined: "Everybody's got attitude". "Cynicism," wrote Nickson: "Cynicism, and its close cousin irony, are no longer the possession of an artsy elite; they govern the tone of the dominant discourse."
According to an American writer, Paul Auster, whom Nickson interviewed for her article: Cynicism dangerously distorts reality. "Victorian sentimentality is something we all sneer at now and find very funny," he says. "But I think people will look back at us and sneer at the way we've looked at the world, too. Because cynicism and sentimentality are just two sides of the same distortion." Another American writer she spoke to, David Foster Wallace, was especially concerned with the effect unremitting irony has on the arts. Wallace told her that irony and ridicule are "agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. Culture." And he predicted that the day will come when there will be a "resurgence of reverence and conviction" in the arts.
And, of course I don't know if any of those brave predictions will come true. I don't know if there will be a resurgence of reverence in the arts; I don't know if there will be a future generation that will find our ironic tone as odd as many of us find the reverent tone of our Victorian forebears; and frankly, I am not even certain that it is really fair to describe cynicism and sentimentality as two sides of the same distortion; I suspect that they may each be a distinctive distortion of their own! But what I do know is that we are gathered this morning, in the midst of a decidedly post-Victorian culture, to mark an occasion that is most decidedly Victorian in tone. For while it may be true that the date of the annual Canadian observance of Thanksgiving was not pegged as the second Monday of October until 1957, the fact remains that the roots of the annual Canadian observance of Thanksgiving can be found in the same decidedly reverent era that gave birth to the American thanksgiving. The Victorian era. 1863 to be precise, when that most decidedly Victorian of American presidents, Abraham Lincoln, made the annual November Thanksgiving celebration an official part of the American cultural fabric. 1879, also to be precise, when the Canadian Parliament established November 6th as the annual Canadian observance of Thanksgiving.
Which means that for many of our contemporaries--the ones who are not here this morning--and perhaps also for many of us who are here this morning, Thanksgiving involves something of a stretch, as we try to translate this quintessentially "Norman Rockwell" occasion, into the realities of a "David Letterman" world. Something of a stretch, as we place our attitude--our irony, our cynicism--to one side, if for only a day, in order to discover what thanksgiving might mean for us. What it might mean for us, not only as Canadians who have a holiday tomorrow, but as Christians, who have a scripture that enjoins us in countless places (as Paul does in this morning's reading) to offer thanksgiving to God. Thanksgiving that may very well be the most perfectly natural thing for us to offer as human beings, and yet thanksgiving which (especially in an irony drenched culture) does not always come to us as naturally as we might like. Which is why, which is why....
....which is why I want to be very practical this morning. Which is why I want to offer some very practical suggestions as to how we might cultivate a more thankful approach to our daily living. Not in order to turn us into dewy-eyed sentimentalists; simply to guide us in becoming more adept at expressing gratitude, with a little less attitude. And so permit me to take a practical turn, this morning: so practical, in fact, that I have even come up with an acronym. The word seed. S. E. E. D. At the risk of being not only reverent, but terribly earnest, I want to offer you this four-step seed, four steps that may help you to cultivate a more thankful approach to the living of this and every other day.
First letter, first step. The "s". The "s" in seed. That "s" stands for "slow". As in "slow down". As in "slow down and smell the flowers." That, or so I believe, is how we prepare for thanksgiving; how we prepare for gratitude. By slowing down. By slowing down and smelling the flowers. And, of course that is something of a cliche, although like every other cliche, this one contains a measure of the truth. As a matter of fact, I believe that there is a profound link between the frantic pace of our society, and the ironic tone that is so much a part of our culture.
And while it may be true that we live in Parksville, not downtown Toronto, most of us import the frantic pace of city life and city culture into our living rooms, through the films we watch, the television series we follow, and the computer links we trace. The point being that we are in such a hurry to get from here to there, that we rarely slow down long enough to notice the people, places and things that we pass along the way. But unless we slow down and take due note of the wonders that surround us, we are unlikely to take time to express our gratitude for those wonders. And so, surely, that is the first step, the first step in this tiny thanksgiving seed I am planting this morning. Slow down. Slow down and take a good long look at this remarkable world we are privileged to call home.
Second letter, second step. The first "e". The first "e" in the word seed. It stands for "express". As in: express your gratitude by offering thanks for the blessings that abound. Having slowed down long enough to notice the wonders of this wondrous world, give thanks. It doesn't need to be noisy, although at times it might be. Nor do you need to call attention to yourself in any other way. But when blessings arrive, having first taken the time to notice them, a simple nod to God is a really good habit to cultivate. For the blessing of life itself. For the blessings and abundance of nature! For the guidance and support of those people who have made a difference in our lives through their generosity and self-sacrifice. As a matter of fact, focusing just on that last category: let me assign a little homework for those who have time after the turkey has been digested. Take out a piece of blank paper, and begin to write down the names of those individuals who have been a blessing to you over the years. I suspect most of you will eventually need a second sheet, if not more. And, of course, don't simply compile that list. Slow down, look at it closely, and then take a moment to give thanks for each name on that list. That, you see, would be a fitting way to express--that's what the first "e" in seed stands for this morning--that would be a wonderful way to express your gratitude.
Third letter, third step. The second "e". The second "e" in the word seed. It stands for "enflesh". (This one will need a bit of explaining!) It stands for the process of "enfleshing" your gratitude. How? By rolling up your sleeves and addressing at least some of the things that are not right with our world. You see: expressing gratitude, offering thanks, is not a game of make-believe. It doesn't mean pretending that the world is the way we want it to be. And the fact is: if you do slow down and begin to take the time to see the world anew, in addition to the many blessings you will discover, you will also discover much pain, much sorrow, much that is simply wrong. Have you received your copy of the October Observer, with its cover story on AIDS in Africa? You needn't go any further than that one article, to realize that it isn't enough to express gratitude. We also need to enflesh our gratitude: first by noticing, and then by offering our prayer, our gifts, and our lives for a world that is less than perfect. A world of wonder that is also, at the same time, a broken world. A world that needs not only our expressions of gratitude, but our willingness to live our gratitude, to enflesh our gratitude in our daily living. That's such a key step, isn't it! Other wise, it's all just talk. Learning to enflesh our gratitude.
Fourth and final letter. Fourth and final step. The letter "d", the final letter in the word seed. It stands for deepen. As in, deepen your gratitude. Deepen your gratitude, by bringing it to the foot of the Cross. And I know, I know: at least some of you will now be thinking, "super-bummer". "Why does he need to spoil a perfectly lovely Thanksgiving Sunday by schleping in the Cross. Couldn't that wait for Lent?!!" And the fact is, were we not celebrating Thanksgiving feast inside of this sanctuary, it most certainly could wait for Lent, and well beyond Lent for that matter. Let's be clear on this: Thanksgiving is not a specifically Christian occasion; we are called to give thanks in our humanity. In our identity as human beings. Every human being, without exception, has the capacity, and therefore the vocation, to slow down and smell the flowers. Every human being, without exception, has the capacity, and therefore the vocation, to express gratitude for the bounty and the wonder of this world. Every human being, without exception, has the capacity, and therefore the vocation, to enflesh gratitude by offering to shoulder a share of the responsibility for that which is wrong with the world.
But none of that changes, none of that changes the fact that we, as Christians, have the further responsibility of deepening our gratitude by bringing it to the Cross. In part, as a way of reminding ourselves of the specific gift that we Christians alone can name (the gift of Jesus Christ); also, as a way of reminding ourselves that a thankful heart, a heart filled with gratitude, can be ours in times of trouble and travail no less than in times of safety and comfort. Indeed, that the life of gratitude--the life of Christian gratitude--can take root even in a prison cell, like the one from which Paul wrote to the Philippians. That the life of gratitude can not only take root in a prison cell but can take wings and take flight from that same dark, dank cell, inviting others to rejoice: and again I say rejoice! Above all, that the way of gratitude--the way of Christian gratitude--cherishes the blessings of this life not only in their own right, but also cherishes each and every blessing as a token, a reminder, a sign:
...as a sign of the God who is the giver of each gift. Sign of a journey with God that has only just begun: a journey that embraces not only this world, but the life of the world to come.
Our United Church creed puts it well.
In life, in death, in life beyond death: God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God!
copyright - Sermon by Rev. Foster Freed 2002 - 2006 page by Richard J. Fairchild - Spirit Networks, 2006 please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.
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