A Thanks A Day

1 Samuel 2:1-10                Rev. Tyler Amundson               November 18, 2012
     Today is our recap and celebration of our series on Spiritual Practices for Growing Disciples. These pieces of paper up here are the outpouring of commitments we have made to engage in spiritual practices in new ways.  Each of these pieces of paper represents a commitment, or statement about where we are in our spiritual practices at this point in our lives.  This Sunday I want to share with you a final spiritual practice that we didn’t originally include: gratitude.  The spiritual practice of gratitude is a powerful tool as we seek to connect with God.  Gratitude is the skill that helps us to recognize God’s love in the world.
     Today let us begin with a story about a strangely grateful people:
The garment buyer of a large department store was on a buying trip in another country.
All interested sellers and manufacturers had gathered and gave a banquet at which the buyer was the honored guest. He was asked to give a speech that, of course, had to be translated.
In the course of the speech he told a long complicated funny story with some complex puns. After which he alone laughed and then he waited for the translation.
The translator spoke two sentences and the audience erupted in gales of laughter with clapping, foot stomping, and even cheering.
The buyer was gratified but puzzled. Finally, after a bit of arm-twisting, someone told him what the translator had said. “The fat man with big checkbook told funny story. Do what you think is appropriate.” 
     Can you imagine if God was the man in this story?  A man with a checkbook and we are all willing to laugh appropriately if God would just be willing to open that checkbook for us.  A God that doles out blessing if we pray, give, or do what is right.  This further gets worse if we call God a father, because then really a relationship with God is all about asking dad for money. 
     This idea of God as the one who doles out the currency of the Universe is one that is shared by many.   However, this image of God is one that many people struggle with.  A God who says, “Blessings for this one, but eh not that one.”  This seems like a poor, if not abusive relationship to have with the divine.  I say abusive, because God really aims to control us like one with power over another.  The story of the “man with checkbook” is funny because of the strange relationship between the sellers and the buyer.  It is not an honest and caring one, but a relationship based solely the hope of gaining an advantage in life. 
     I have to be honest.  There are times in my life when I have imagined God to be some kind of a being that shares blessings if I prayed right.  Then I remember that I need a God who is with me each step of the way, not just when I need a blessing.  A God that has been present all along and is there to help me see the opportunity and blessings around me.
     The scripture of the day comes from 1 Samuel.  It is the prayer of Hannah to God, thanking God.  Hannah is the mother of Samuel the prophet.  Samuel is important in the Hebrew Bible because he is the one who anoints Saul and David, the first two kings of Israel.  We tend to remember Samuel because he is the one who is called in the night and is confused that it is God calling him.  This Samuel is why we sing the hymn “Here I Am Lord.” 
     Hannah is sharing her prayer in elation to God.  She does this because she has been blessed with a baby boy, Samuel.  Many mothers know the excitement of being blessed with a child, but Hannah is particularly excited.  Hannah was not expecting to ever be able to have children.  This disappointment was one, which Hannah struggled with; because she felt part of her purpose was to have children.  Her joyous thanksgiving recognizes her elation at the birth of her son. 
     I invite us to hear the words of Hannah:
1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hannah’s Prayer
Hannah prayed and said,
‘My heart exults in the Lord;
   my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
   because I rejoice in my victory.
‘There is no Holy One like the Lord,
   no one besides you;
   there is no Rock like our God. 
Talk no more so very proudly,
   let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
   and by him actions are weighed. 
The bows of the mighty are broken,
   but the feeble gird on strength. 
 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
   but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
   but she who has many children is forlorn. 
 The Lord kills and brings to life;
   he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 
 The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
   he brings low, he also exalts. 
 He raises up the poor from the dust;
   he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
   and inherit a seat of honour.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
   and on them he has set the world.
 ‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
   but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
   for not by might does one prevail. 
 The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
   the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
   he will give strength to his king,
   and exalt the power of his anointed.’ [2]
     When reading this passage I cannot avoid squirming at the notion of God violently removing the unfaithful.  I nearly walk away at the thought of the faithful receiving vast rewards at the loss of others.  The questions arise from this prayer, “Does God bless those who laugh, pray, worship, or serve correctly?  Blessing them more than those who do not?”  If we choose to leave this story out of its historical context and take it for face value we will continue to struggle with these questions.  To give the story context we need to consider two things: The placement of this prayer in the story of Samuel.  Secondly, we should consider context from which Hannah comes. 
     The prayer Hannah shares is mimicked in context one other place in our Bible, Mary’s Magnificat.  The Magnificat is the song or prayer Mary sings in the Gospel of Luke celebrating the anticipation and awe of her coming child, the Christ child.  This prayer of thanksgiving, shared by a new mother, is clearly a literary way of sharing an awe of what God is doing in the world.  For Hannah’s song, it is the awe of the prophet who will guide the Hebrew people, blessing the first two major kings of Israel.  The kings who would be the first to rule over a united and stable kingdom.  Hannah’s prayer, like Mary’s, is a song of thanksgiving and hope about a coming era of stability, peace, and blessing.
     From the context of the book of 1st Samuel we know that Hannah is praying this prayer because she is extremely thankful that she is able to have children.  We know based on the time period that women were objectified as child bearers.  With child bearing as her primary mode of societal success Hannah had been unable to accomplish this.  Unlike many husbands of the day, Hannah’s has been extremely kind to Hannah and has not reinforced this cultural expectation.  However, Hannah has felt pressure from many other places.  This prayer marks her thankfulness at finding accomplishing what she has been conditioned to know as her purpose.  We value a world where women and men are given more value than their ability to pro-create.  This prayer placed in context is about a sense of thankfulness from Hannah at her sense of achieving a major goal of her life. 
     The literary and cultural context of Hannah’s prayer makes the message all the more amazing.  Hannah is thankful and her story of her thankfulness continues in her willingness to give her first born son, Samuel, to the temple to be trained as a spiritual leader.  Hannah’s song is a praise from a fiercely strong woman who has found her goal in life and been willing to share that child.  As a parent I can only imagine the strength necessary to share this precious child.  Hannah’s gratitude and thankfulness to a God that she believes to be good is what makes her ability to share her precious child a possibility.
     We have all heard the term “An apple a day, keeps the doctor away.”  I wonder how many of us have heard the term “A thanks a day, lets us see God each day.”  Thankfulness or gratitude is that which helps us to see God.  By finding something to be thankful for each day we are able to see God’s love in the world around us.  Gratitude is like spiritual glasses taking the fuzzy letters on a page and bringing them into focus.  Thankfulness let’s us focus on the God happening around us each day.
     For many this idea is challenging.  We live in a world that constantly says, “There is not enough to share, be selfish.”  We are surrounded by human systems that seem to find a way to victimize someone or target others unfairly.  There are constantly ways to find a reason not to be thankful.  In fact the very notion of survival is that we should be less than thankful, we should just work hard to live life and give little thankfulness to the world itself.  “What did the world, the universe, God do for us?” 
     The real question is, “What didn’t the world, the universe, God do for us?”  We have been given opportunity.  Yes there are strange systems of humanity that can oppress, but we can choose to surpass and usurp these.  Sure there is every reason to be selfish, but we know that by sharing and collaborating more can be accomplished.  There is crime, violence, and suffering.  These are the horrible realities of life.  Most of these are the dark imaginings of humanity, but others are the horrible natural consequences of a world that sustains us.  Despite our best efforts to imagine our own human demise and the challenges of living in a natural world, we are here.  Our opportunity is now or never and in that opportunity is a chance to be thankful. 
     The reality is most of us have at least one reason to be thankful.  Many of us can barely count a day when we have gone without food.  We have known more opportunity than road-blocks in our lives.  Our church has every reason to be thankful, we have a building, classes, a great staff, awesomely committed members and attenders, and a spirit that life is opportunity.  Our community is extremely safe and a place we can feel comfortable going out into.  We work hard as a community to support one another as neighbors. 
     If none of those reasons help us to feel thankful we can be thankful for things like our vision or our hearing, or any of our senses.  They allow us to see the beauty of the world around us.  A filmmaker, Louie Schwartzberg, recently gave a TED talk about a new movie he is making on gratitude.  If you are unfamiliar with TED talks, go online and search of it.  These are great talks about ideas on almost any topic, ideas that push us to imagine a better world.  One of the basic premises of Schwartzberg’s film on gratitude is the idea that our senses give us the very chance to experience the beauty of our world.  The very creation we rest in is an artwork.  This is a line from his film as a man talks about the gift of a day.  “If you do nothing else, but to cultivate that response to the great gift that this day is, if you learn to respond as if each day is the first and last day of your life.  Then you will have learned to live this day very well.” [3]  Check out some of Schwartzberg’s works and you will get the idea, it is all film of the nature and landscapes reflecting the beauty happening around us. 
     Our faith speaks of a God of love that walks with us.  Christ was a reflection of that love.  A love that asks us to be thankful for the life we are given.  Christ then shared that the greatest command from this love is that we treat our neighbor as we are to be treated.  What easier way to do this than thankfulness?  For if we are thankful for the simple things, we can be every more gracious for everything else in our world. 
     God is not a man with a checkbook.  God is our guide, companion, friend, and mentor along our life’s path.  We have share these last weeks about the spiritual practices of our faith: service, generosity, witness, worship (gathering), bible reading, and prayer.  Each of these will help us to find the thankfulness for the life we have.  Look at this basket, how can we not be thankful for the opportunity we have to see God’s love in our world.  There are tough struggles in this life, but there is opportunity.  May we find in Hannah’s amazing prayer that thankfulness is a way to see God in the everyday.  Thankfulness is the lens of to see God more clearly and God’s love all around us.  
As we leave our time together today, I invite us to listen to this parable.  My prayer is that it is a guide to you about how to find thankfulness, to invite God’s justice and kingdom, and be a people of God on this earth.
A pilgrim from earth was having a conversation with God one day. The pilgrim said, “God, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.
God led the pilgrim to two doors. The pilgrim looked in the first door. In the middle of the room was a large round table. In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew, which smelled delicious and made the pilgrim’s mouth water.
But the people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles that were strapped to their arms and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful. But because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths. The pilgrim shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering.
“That is Hell,” said God.
They went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the pilgrim’s mouth water. The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking.
“I don’t understand,” said the pilgrim.
“It’s simple,” said God. “In this room, they have learned to feed each other.” [4]

[1]  Adapted from a story found at: http://ralphmiltonsrumors.blogspot.com/2009/11/preaching-materials-for-november-15.html
[2]  1 Samuel 2:1-10, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Retrieved from www.bible.oremus.org, November 11, 2012.
[3]   Schwartzberg, Louie. (Filmaker). (2011). Louie Schwartzberg: Gratitude [Web Video]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/louie_schwartzberg_nature_beauty_gratitude.html

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