In the midst of the day-to-day pressures and craziness of our lives, it’s good sometimes to step back and really notice how richly we’ve been blessed – actively call to mind what God has given us. I’ve been struck by this recently in my own prayer life, both how God has blessed me and my need to live that blessing out loud. So if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share with you some of what’s been on my heart.
This year, Ann and I are celebrating our 25th anniversary, a milestone that, for the past 14 years of her illness, I seriously doubted we’d ever reach. Our daughter, Kathryn, is safely in London, starting a graduate program. Our son, Dan, is working, living on his own, and happy – more consistently happy than I’ve ever known him to be. I get to serve an amazing parish, some of the most gifted and faithful people I’ve ever known. I get to serve with richly talented clergy and staff who deeply love God and the people around them. I get to write a book – I have a contract with Church Publishing for a book based on my sabbatical project last year. I get to live in a country where, in a single election, we’re free to entertain the possibility of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as candidates for the highest office in the land. And on Friday, I got to be here with Janet Smith and Lynn Kellen, and many of you, as we blessed their civil marriage using the same rite we’d use for anyone else.
I am deeply, richly, astoundingly blessed. And you know what? I don’t always feel it. I sometimes find myself back there with the people of Israel in the wilderness, as we heard in the first reading today. They’ve been wandering in the wilderness for what seems like forever. God has given them manna, divine sustenance, the “bread of angels” (Psalm 78:25) come down from heaven every day just for them. But by this point, they’re sick of it. They want meat. “Hey, Moses,” they complain, “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. … Now … there’s nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11:5-6)
I had lunch recently with my old boss from the American Academy of Family Physicians, where I used to be managing editor of their practice-management journal. That was the job I left when God nudged harder than we could resist and we moved off to Texas for seminary. I was telling my old boss about all the cool things going on here at church. And at the same time, I found myself remembering work life as I’d known it then. I went to work every day at 8:30. I took a lunch break. I left at 5. I had a nice little cubicle where I edited articles about running physician practices. I had a couple of meetings a week, never at night. Frankly, I had almost no stress coming from my work life. And as I talked with my old boss, those melons and leeks and onions in Egypt were sounding pretty good in my memory of working at the Academy. What was it, God, that was so wrong with that life? I mean, yeah, sure, there’s manna raining down for me here every morning – mortals eating the bread of angels, blah, blah, blah.
You know, sometimes even astonishing blessing becomes run of the mill – or, worse, it feels like one burden after another.
In the story, it isn’t just the people of Israel who are feeling resentful; it’s Moses, too. He’s had enough of everybody’s complaints about all this manna they have to eat. And more troubling, he feels like God doesn’t really care about the burden he’s been carrying. In the stress of that moment, even Moses forgets his own story: saved from death as an infant … raised as royalty in Pharaoh’s palace … given a prophet’s eye and heart to see his people’s need for freedom … commissioned by God’s fiery Spirit to lead them … trumping the power of Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt … delivered by God to walk through the Red Sea as on dry land … and now fed with the bread of angels in the wilderness, on the way to the land of promise. All that’s true, but the pressure gets to Moses anyway. And he forgets his own story.
God’s answer to Moses is this: Look for the story’s next chapter. You know how I’ve been with you, God says; trust that I’m with you now. Look around you: You’ve got 70 people right here who will help you bear your burden. Look for my next gift to come from this fountain of blessing, God says, and honor me for it. See and know that all that you have, and all that you are, and all that you will be comes not by your own might or power but by the Spirit of God (Zechariah 4:6). And then, stop whining and say thank you for the gift.
And Moses does. He sees this exercise in collaborative leadership paying off, with scores of his people speaking as God’s own agents; and he exclaims, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29). Though he’d just been railing against a God who didn’t seem to care, Moses now remembers God’s M.O.: Even in the darkness, the next blessing is just around the corner.
So when we receive a gift, especially a gift we can never really repay – when we eat the bread of angels – what’s our response? I think about my relationship with my parents. They blessed me with life, and raised me in love, and taught me to love, and have been there through my ups and downs for 50 years. How on earth do I pay that back? Well, we talk on the phone each week, which is a good outward and visible way to live gratitude. But the love they gave me also makes me want to love – to be the best husband I can be, and the best father I can be, and the best priest I can be. And the same is true of the love I know from Ann, and from Kathryn and Dan, and from you. Those gifts of love make me remember, deep in my bones, how incredibly blessed I am. And those gifts of love make me want to love in return. Like the song says, you want to pass it on. You want to pay it forward.
In a couple of weeks, we’ll begin a season of gratitude. In those four weeks, we’ll be asking you to remember, specifically, what you’re grateful for; and we’ll be asking you to name what it is that you’ve done, or are doing, or will do in gratitude for the gifts you’ve received. In the Narthex, we’ll have a couple of trees on the wall (don’t worry, they’re vinyl, and they’ll come right off again). On those four Sundays and through the fall, we’ll ask you to name your gratitude – to write down on one leaf a gift you’re grateful for, and then to write on another leaf the response of gratitude that comes from that gift.
What do those responses of gratitude look like? The short answer is this: They look like your whole life. In just a few minutes, there at Jesus’ altar, we will offer not just gifts of bread and wine; we will “offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies” (BCP 342). One essential part of that offering, which we also bring to God’s table every week, is the outward and visible sign of all we have: the sacrament of money.
Our offering of money is our relationship with God in a nutshell. It’s not about the amount; it’s about the place of that offering in your life. Now, for those of you who are having a Moses moment right now, noticing some resentment slithering around in the shadowy corners of your heart, let me tell you: I’ve been there. I remember – maybe 20 years ago now, before seminary – I remember coming out of church one night after a meeting, sitting in my car, and fuming. Someone had said something similar to what I’m saying to you; and I heard it, at best, as a rationalization and, at worst, as a scam. They’d been talking about tithing, about giving back to God 10 percent of the income God has given us, and I heard it as simply a regressive tax. I thought it was deeply unfair, and maybe a little disingenuous, for the Church to tell me that poor people and rich people need to give at the same rate (and, of course, I saw myself as one of the poor people in that scenario). I worked up a nice little internal tirade against God – how I didn’t have enough anyway, and now you want me to have less?
But in the end, I turned in a pledge card and began letting God go to work on me. Long story short: Today, I tithe from “my” salary because I’ve come to see that it’s not actually my salary. Yes, I work hard. But what I receive – from every breath I take, to every relationship I live, to every dollar I earn – all that I receive is God’s, on loan to me in the present moment, given from a well of love I cannot fathom and into which God asks me to toss back the coin of one-tenth – not because the well will run dry without it but because I need to remember whose well it is.
I may not be the only one who finds himself walking in Moses’ sandals from time to time, resentful of life’s challenges rather than grateful to live the story of one amazing blessing after another. If that sounds familiar to you, I hope you’ll join me in cataloging the cascade of blessings that have come your way. Bring some to mind, write them down, and then ask yourself: “How do I pay this forward?”
And let me offer one more concrete practice, an ancient and efficacious antivenin to the snakebite of resentment. It’s simply a prayer – an amazing prayer, actually. Those of us who grew up in the Episcopal Church before the 1979 Prayer Book might still have this prayer ringing around in our hearts, the way we sometimes remember snippets of bedtime stories. Please turn to page 101 in the Prayer Book, to the end of the service of Morning Prayer, and find “The General Thanksgiving.” We’ll offer it now, and I would commend it to your daily use to keep that snake of resentment at bay. Let us pray:
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.