WITH A GRATEFUL HEART
This past week, I had the opportunity to get out for an evening and go to see the new Harry Potter movie. Many of you would probably warn me against seeing fantasy movies while I am chewing on a sermon topic, but the damage has already been done. Once again, Harry Potter has provided me with a sermon illustration.
If you have seen it or have read the book, you know that the great battle at the end pits Harry against a basilisk. That may be a new word to some of you, but it is not unique to Harry Potter. The basilisk is a mythological beast, like the dragon or the unicorn, which is written about in the folklore of many countries around the world. Some even think it is mentioned in the Bible.
While the basilisk tends to look different in different cultures, there are certain things it has in common no matter where the stories are told. The main point to remember, should you encounter a basilisk in your travels, is that its gaze will kill you. Not only that, but should you manage to avoid the eyes, its breath is poisonous and full of fire...withering anything that gets to close. If you want to avoid the basilisk, which I think is a good idea, you should stay away from the desert, because most cultures agree that's where they live. Are you taking notes?
What I find interesting, however, is that the basilisk does not choose to live in the desert. It's just that, when everything it looks at dies and everything it breathes on withers, anyplace it chooses to live ends up becoming a desert in the long run. If it should happen to look in a mirror, it will even kill itself. Believe it or not, this is the main point of the sermon this morning. Hang with me here, and I'll explain.
One of the sermon requests I received earlier in the fall requested a sermon on the passage we just read from Thessalonians which says, among other things, that we should "give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." What I want to say is that giving thanks in all circumstances is the way to avoid becoming a basilisk....a way to avoid becoming the kind of person that no one wants to look in the eye, the kind of person whose words go forth and wither anyone standing near, the kind of person who lives in the desert of their own creation because nothing truly alive wants anything to do with them. I want to say that the way to conquer the basilisk in ourselves is to take a long, hard look in the mirror and acknowledge that we need a grateful heart.
I have heard a lot of well-meaning people misinterpret this passage about giving thanks in all circumstances. They think God is directing them to give thanks FOR all circumstances. That means they end up saying ridiculous things like "Thank you, God, for my cancer." "Thank you, God, that my husband died." "Thank you, God, for the tornado that ripped my home from its foundation." First of all, I don't believe for a minute that God brings those things upon anybody, and second, I don't believe that is what this passage is saying. It is saying we are to give thanks "in" all circumstances...not "for" all circumstances. The difference, I think, is huge.
To give thanks IN all circumstances is a way of remembering that, however bad our situation may be, there are still blessings and gifts from God all around us, if we will but look for them. Seeing those things is critically important to both our mental and spiritual health. Spiritually, it is a reminder that God has not abandoned us. God may not have intervened in the way we might have wanted, but God has not packed up shop and gone on vacation without us. God is still right there with us, providing whatever gifts and help we will need to get through our particular circumstances.
When we can remember that God is still with us, even when things don't go our way, we can keep our spiritual health and can keep up our connection to God, no matter how much of life is falling down around us. We keep that connection by training ourselves to look in every possible corner for the blessings of God. The world is teeming with them.
Focusing on God's gifts and blessings also preserves our mental health. There is no room for thinking God is punishing you or that you are an unworthy, horrible human being, when you feel surrounded by blessings. If we stop and begin to focus on what is going wrong, the problem gets bigger and bigger; we get more and more negative; and before you know it, the words of our mouths are withering everything around us and people are running for their lives from our gaze. To dwell on the negative is to risk becoming a basilisk and turning the wonderful, lush gifts of God around us into a barren desert. We will be miserable, and so will everyone we know.
Paul, in his letter to the church at Thessalonika is being very practical and very pastoral. He is telling them what they need to do to stay focused on what is good, to keep both their hearts and their minds on the God of peace...to keep moving toward having the mind of Christ. What does he say? "Be at peace among yourselves. Admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all." Paul was sort of the original Norman Vincent Peale..."Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances."
What I want you to hear this morning is that these instructions are not just about care of other individuals. It is that, but it is also about care for ourselves and care for the Body of Christ as the Church. If we work with all of our energies to find what is good, that is going to color the way we look at the world. The saying is true that you get what you expect and you see what you are trying to see. Paul's lesson is...expect the good...expect blessings...look for what is good and you will find it is there, more than you ever thought possible.
It is different from looking for the silver lining. Looking for the silver lining is trying to put a positive spin on a bad situation...like, "Well, at least the family got closer through planning the funeral." Looking for the silver lining is not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes it can be carried so far that no room is left to do the natural and important work of grief in a bad situation. Sometimes those looking for the silver lining won't even allow you to see the cloud, and that's not always healthy.
The Bible does not in any way ignore or deny the black clouds of experience that visit every single one of us. There are whole books of the Bible devoted to lamentation. There are angry Psalms. There are prophets and people of God who really let God have it for things that have happened to them. The Bible is not saying to ignore the pain of your circumstances or to try to imagine that it is really something good in disguise.
However, I do believe it is saying that we should not dwell there. We should not get so stuck in what is going wrong that we can no longer see the blue of the sky or experience the love of a friend or even the care of a stranger. As the old Chinese proverb says, "You can't keep a bird from landing on your head, but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair."
Learning to approach life with a grateful heart is good for you; it's good for those around you; and it is the key to peace and harmony in any group of people...most especially the Church. But there is even more to it than that. Living with a grateful heart is also a witness to our faith and a testimony to the God we say we serve. When we take the name Christian, we tell the world that we are trying to model the life of Christ. The idea is that people should be able to learn what Jesus is like by looking at us and watching how we behave.
I tell you in all seriousness that, at least in this country, the primary reason there are not more people looking for God in churches is because of the behavior of Christians. I include myself in this. When I go around grouchy and miserable and complaining all the time, why would anybody want the faith that I have? Even a slightly positive person without faith can present a better image than that. Who is honestly going to believe us as we sing, "Joy to the World," if joy is the very last adjective anyone would use to describe us? When Christians become basilisks, we are not only deadly to ourselves and the people around us, we are deadly to the faith we say we represent.
Harry Potter and his friends take a class in school called "Defense Against the Dark Arts." The class is supposed to teach them what to do when they are confronted with evil creatures or spells. For over 2,000 years now, Christians have had their own version of Defense Against the Dark Arts. We have the Word of God, both in print as the Bible and in our hearts as the Holy Spirit to teach us how to combat evil. The witness of both of those sources is...give thanks. Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise.
You see, thanksgiving is an expression of love. It acknowledges that a gift given in love has been lovingly and gratefully received. Where there is love, there can be no death; where there is thanksgiving, there can be no basilisks. The more time we devote to looking for God's expressions of love around us and the more we recognize those gifts and receive them with thanksgiving, the less room there is for negative thoughts. When you stand and face the bright light of the love of God, the only shadow lies behind you–out of sight. Dwell on what is good. Give thanks...not FOR but IN all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. That is our defense against the dark arts of the enemy, that is how to defeat the basilisk within.
As Barb plays, there is a gift waiting for you at the front. For each of you there is a little note pad that says, "Today I am thankful for..." and gives you an opportunity to list five things. This is your homework in Defense of the Dark Arts. I invite you to come and take a notepad or raise your hand and an usher will bring you one. Use it day after day to be sure that at some point each and every day you express your thanks to God. Pray at the rail if you would like or in your seat, but take a moment to find some reason to be thankful. It could be a matter of life or death.
© 2002, Anne Robertson
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