[A sermon based on John 10:10 for Sunday, November 15, 2009; this is the third of three sermons on "Gratitude"]
Forty-six years ago next Sunday, on November 22, 1963, the nation reeled from the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. As Americans watched the story unfold on the still new medium of television, they witnessed the first shooting ever televised live when nightclub owner Jack Ruby fatally wounded accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Living as Americans were then under the perpetual threat of a nuclear exchange with Russia (the Cuban Missile Crisis had ended only thirteen months earlier) and knowing if they were paying attention that we were on the verge of a civil and social revolution in this country, hope had to be taking a beating.
Conservative columnist Cal Thomas, remembering his perspective as a then young news clerk at NBC when the assassination occurred as he reflected on the fortieth anniversary of Kennedy’s death in 2003 said, “For some, all things seemed possible with Kennedy in the White House. When he died, most things seemed impossible. There was a sense we had been robbed of hope, and hope denied produces cynicism and despair, two viruses that continue to plague our culture” [Cal Thomas, “Much that was good in life seems to have died with JFK,” The Augusta Chronicle (November 20, 2003), p. 5A].
I would not, and neither would Thomas, attribute all of our culture’s cynicism and despair to the assassination of Kennedy; indeed, human beings have always been plagued by despair. For Christians, though, it is not that way—at least it is not supposed to be that way and if it is it needn’t be.
From where do despair and hopelessness come? They come from living a life that is in fact not a life at all; they come from not really living. People try to live like sheep without a shepherd or like sheep that have shepherds who don’t really care about them or like sheep who think they can be their own shepherd.
We don’t have a lot of sheep wandering around greater metropolitan Fitzgerald; we do have a lot of wild chickens but that doesn’t work too well, either, so let me try a different image.
Despair and hopelessness come from living like a fish out of water. Take a fish out of water and what happens? Very quickly it is struggling and gasping and dying. But put it back into the water and it very quickly begins to swim and breath and, unless someone else takes it out of the water, it will soon begin to thrive and grow and multiply and generally become all that a fish is supposed to be.
Why? Because water is the proper environment for a fish. What is the proper environment for a human being? God made us to be in personal relationship with him, to be members of his family, to be citizens of his kingdom. In that environment a man or a woman can live and grow and thrive and become all that God intends for him or her to be. Separated from God, though, we are soon left gasping for breath and before long we die. But if we are in the environment in which we belong we will live and more than that; we will live abundantly, we will live more than just a regular life, we will live the life that God wills for us—indeed, we will live Christ’s life in us!
What will that life look like? At the very least it will be a grace-filled life. What does a grace-filled life look like? It will be a life filled with hope—with love—with forgiveness—with gratitude. I am grateful for an abundant life because that is the only kind of life that we are to have in our relationship with God.
The Old Testament teaches that God promised Israel a land, a land that would be their proper environment. That land would be for them the land flowing with milk and honey; it would be for them the place where they would live the abundant life. How were they to respond to this abundance? Deuteronomy 26 offered instructions. After affirming that God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt and had set them in their land, they were to affirm the abundance with which God had blessed them and then they were to respond abundantly.
The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me. You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given you and to your house (Deuteronomy 26:8-11).
That’s right—they were supposed to give and they were supposed to party! That’s how we live the abundant life—we give abundantly and we celebrate abundantly.
Sometimes it’s hard, though. Sometimes we look around and the land flowing with milk and honey looks like a land covered with rocks and dirt. We are troubled or burdened or hurt or sick or sorrowful. Then what? Can we still be grateful for an abundant life then? We can if we learn to trust in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, who said that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, and who promised that all things work together for good for those who love God and who are called according to his purpose.
A water-bearer in India had two large pots. Each hung on opposite ends of a pole that he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, while the other was perfect. The latter always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house. The cracked pot arrived only half-full. Every day for a full two years, the water-bearer delivered only one and a half pots of water.
The perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, because it fulfilled magnificently the purpose for which it had been made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection, miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.
After the second year of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, the unhappy pot spoke to the water-bearer one day by the stream.
“I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you,” the pot said.
“Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”
“I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all this work and you don’t get full value from your efforts,” the pot said.
The water-bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion, he said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” Indeed, as they went up the hill, the cracked pot took notice of the beautiful wildflowers on the side of the path, bright in the sun’s glow, and the sight cheered it up a bit.
But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad that it had leaked out half its load, and so again it apologized to the bearer for its failure.
The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, not on the other pot’s side? That is because I have always known about your flaw, and I have taken advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day, as we have walked back from the stream, you have watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have had this beauty to grace his house. [Anonymous story from India. Found in Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000), pp. 133-135]
Life in Christ is such an abundant life that even our flaws, our faults, and our failings can, by the grace of God, help make God’s kingdom more beautiful.