Monday, October 2, 2017

Sermon: Don't Let the Past Steal Your Gratitude (Part 1 of 5)

"Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude: Don’t Let the Past Steal Your Gratitude"
Part 1 of 5
Exodus 17: 1-7; Philippians 3: 10-16
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 1, 2017
World Communion Sunday

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.

The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’

So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.

I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’
- Exodus 17: 1-7

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
- Philippians 3: 10-16

Where does gratitude come from? How does it begin?

For many of us gratitude stems from the simple joys in life. A gorgeous sunrise or sunset where our Creator paints one-of-a-kind majestic landscapes. Watching the children play with a carefree freedom that reminds us adults to play and be present. The realization of an answered prayer where a deep need or longing was met.

The past month we have certainly seen gratitude coming from the most trying times of life. The sparing of life in the face of losing everything from home, possessions, and livelihood. An interaction of kindness that restores hope in humanity. It is hard to find words for these examples of gratitude.

From a Christian perspective gratitude is rooted in God’s Word pointing all the way back to our spiritual ancestors. For them gratitude was anchored deep in the waters of God’s covenant love.

Moses told God’s people in Deuteronomy: “The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples of the earth to be [God’s] people, [God’s] treasured possession. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:6, 8-9).

God’s people crossed the Red Sea and saw the goodness of the Lord; they were delivered. It was so powerful that they could not help but sing and dance with tambourines (Exodus 15). They celebrated with a deep and abiding gratitude for knowing the joy of God’s deliverance.

However, the wilderness tested Israel’s ability to remember they were God’s treasured possession.

In our text today the people were complaining and quarreling with Moses. They had forgotten that joy was a growing awareness of God’s grace. They had forgotten their response of gratitude were not determined by their present circumstances. In fact Israel’s complaining was not the real problem. It was a symptom, a biproduct of what was stealing their gratitude.

You see, God’s people were spending more time and energy focusing on the past. They looked back into the past generations whom had lived in Egypt. They remembered having a place to call home – a roof over their heads, food and water to drink daily, and having children. Each day in Egypt had the same repeated rhythm.

But this memory came with a sense of complacency about the past. For Egypt had dealt shrewdly with God’s people. They were oppressed, exploited, and dreaded by Egypt (Exodus 1: 10-12). Complacency led Israel to be more comfortable in the norms of Pharaoh’s oppression than to strive to find a new normal within God’s freedom.

The past was not as good as God’s people tried to remember it to be. Whatever gains Israel had in Egypt were to be counted as loss because of God’s unconditional and covenant love.

God was working through Moses to lead the people to risk following God’s direction to the Promised Land. This would require the people to trust God in the wilderness – a very uncomfortable place.

The wilderness was a place of discontinuous change; meaning change occurs in such a way that we do not have the lived experience to know how to adapt to it.

Israel’s story is our story. We too have a hard time with our present circumstances. Yesterday and yesteryear always seem to hold a memory of a better time and place. In times of change we become nostalgic for what seemed routine and familiar.

Today we are walking through another wilderness of discontinuous change and we truly do not know how to adapt to it.

We are going through individual life changes that we do not feel equipped to handle. It seems like our children are forced to grow up faster than we adults did and at the same time it seems like their childhoods are delayed with the advent of technology. It seems like the years fly by so quickly that age brings physical challenges we are not ready to accept. It seems like life will sarcastically pull the rug out from under us when change alters our careers, marriages, and health.

We are going through societal life changes that we do not feel equipped to handle either. There seems to be more acts of violence and more natural disasters that overwhelm our hearts and our world. It seems like we live in a post-truth society as the value of researching respectable primary sources to articulate the truth have been replaced with the turning tides of personal opinion. There seems to be a new normal as our language has become yet again more dehumanizing; words become weapons to belittle and deny God-given dignity.

The church is facing changes and challenges too as denominations across the board are declining. We wonder what will happen to the church as we hold so many dear memories of the past when a house of God was the center of community.

Through all these individual and societal changes, we look back into the past and ask, “How did we get here?!?” These kinds of discontinuous change create a lot of uncertainty. Who can blame us for wanting to live in the past?

I echo Moses’ sentiments as he met his flock with reassuring words. While we all treasure what was comfortable and routine and familiar about the past, we must remember that the past also had trouble of its own just as tomorrow will certainly have it too. God is leading us through another spiritual wilderness for God sees that we are in need of being delivered once again. God sees yet another need for reforming our hearts.

If God is leading us to something new just as God was leading Israel to something new, then we must step forward into the wilderness and let go of the past. We cannot remain in the past or be trapped by nostalgia. If we stay anchored to the past then we will always feel pulled apart from what lies behind and the hope that lies ahead. Therefore, we feel afraid and frustrated and start leaning more into our will rather than God’s will. That kinda sounds like Jonah and is far from an attitude of gratitude.

It takes a lot of trust to follow God’s lead in uncertain times. Trust requires remembering that our awareness of God’s grace and our response of gratitude are not dependent upon our present circumstances.

Trust calls us to hold onto the foundation of our faith…that foundation is a head and heart knowledge that we are God’s treasured possession. Therefore, we are to press on through this spiritual wilderness because the Lord has redeemed us in a love that will never let us go.

We know God’s story of redeeming love through the cross and empty tomb. Today Christians around the world gather together for World Communion Sunday.

At God’s table Christians around the world unite to remember the only story of the past that continues to reform our faith and reshape our hearts with an attitude of gratitude.

That story is to know Christ Jesus – God’s Anointed One Who Saves. For we remember the power of Christ’s life, ministry, sufferings, death, and resurrection that brings spiritual freedom. If the sacrificial love of Christ has delivered us from the death of sin to new life, then we should trust that Christ will equip us to walk through this crazy wilderness with God leading the way and providing our every need.

Like the Apostle Paul, we press on in Christ’s example because Christ has made us his treasured possession for the sake of God’s great faithfulness.

The Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation give our faith the courage to do this one thing: forget what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. We press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ.

Don’t let the past, or the wilderness for that matter, steal your gratitude. The God we worship always provides a way when there seems like no way at all!

That is worth being grateful for.

In the name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

Sermon Series Theme "Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude: Don't Let the Past Steal Your Gratitude" adapted from "The Enemies of Gratitude: Nostalgia" theme in "A Preacher's Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, C" (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), pp. 65.

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