April 30, 2017 3rd Sunday of Easter YR A The Rev. Anne Abdy
In seminary, we were told by our preaching professor that as priests we are to preach on the gospel, as in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. That was where the Good News was found. In the vows that I stated before the bishop, I said I would “proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ” and at the giving of the Bible to me, the bishop commissioned me saying, “Receive this Bible as a sign of the authority given you to preach the Word of God . . .”. Proclaiming the gospel is one of the tasks of a priest but Sewanee’s Hebrew professor every now and then would remind the class that there is a lot of good preaching material in the thirty-nine books that make up the Old Testament.
It was tempting to preach on the disciples’ epiphany at the breaking of the bread as beautifully illustrated by Mike Van on the front of your bulletin. But I am not. The words “give thanks” bubbled to the top of my thoughts this week probably spurred on by Bishop Michael’s Easter message to the diocese reflecting on his need to remember to give thanks for all that is good in life as we live in a world that can seem out-of-sorts with some days being more chaotic than others.
Feeling out-of-sorts is how I imagine the two disciples felt walking to Emmaus that day. They have heard rumors that Jesus is risen but how can that be. All they know is what they have been told. The women have said, “He is risen. He is alive.” Then out of no where, Jesus shows up and walks part of the journey with them. That experience alone can make you feel bewildered and out-of-sorts. Life can feel, as the British might say, really topsy-turvey.
I find that the psalms are always a good starting place to find hope when my world turns upside down. And that is true in the words of the psalmist today. Psalm 116 provides hope but more importantly it is also a song of thanksgiving. Unfortunately the lectionary does not permit us to read all the verses, however, verse 3 tells us that the psalmist experienced a near death experience. The scriptures do not say what happened, but we read: “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol [meaning hell] laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.” (vs. 3) In those missed verses (vs. 4-9) the psalmist expresses joy and gratefulness as heard in verse 8: “For you have delivered my soul from death.” We do know that it was serious and he survived!
I suspect that you may have experienced something similar. The times that I have been feverish just moving or putting my feet on the ground drains the energy from me. All I want to do is sleep. I have no appetite. I don’t even watch TV because I don’t have the power to concentrate. In those moments, sometimes I feel that I am at death’s door as I wait for the fever to break. Clearly the writer experienced something that brought him to his knees and close to the brink of death.
Not long ago I read a story of a man and his dog. Joe, we’ll call him that because I cannot remember his real name, was hospitalized for five weeks due to the flu and nearly did not survive. When he finally was allowed to leave the hospital and returned home, he rejoiced at being able to sleep in his own bed and eat the foods that he wanted. You know how that feels, right? Well, upon arriving home, his best friend, his beloved dog would not come near him. The dog did not recognize him because he had lost so much weight, and in the dog’s mind, he was not the same man. His human was a stranger.
For our friend this was devastating. He had survived a horrendous experience and now rather than rejoicing at his new found love for life, he is heartbroken as he sat on the bench attempting to convince the dog he hasn’t changed and is still his buddy’s human. What should he do?
This past week I had the opportunity to attend the clergy spring conference at the Oregon Garden near Silverton. Our guest speaker was Sister Simone Campbell and I think she had an answer. Among her many words of wisdom, she said, “The challenge is to let our hearts be broken open. Until we have our hearts broken open, we don’t have room for everyone.” This resonated with me and with this story. For Joe, like the psalmist, both were being challenged to break open their hearts. The psalmist with a cry to the Lord, and Joe, with hopes of reuniting with his dog.
The psalmist reminds us that not only has he suffered but somewhere in the midst of the suffering, he continues to believe. His faith never wavers, it could have, but he stay steadfast almost clinging to the knowledge that the Lord is near. Likewise Joe knows somewhere deep inside that his dog will remember him, if only the dog will step closer.
The psalmist knows that with faith comes hope. That hope that only the Lord can provide. The kind of hope that helps one survive the unimaginable and you push through the unbearable to the other side. It’s that kind of hope that you know changes everything. He writes, the Lord “inclined his ear to me” (vs. 2) and he “saved me” (vs. 6). He is grateful to be alive. To see another day. To experience the fullness of life once again. We’ve all been there when the fever breaks and we begin to feel well again.
Sister Simone also suggested that “Out of that broken heartedness new things start to happen.” From that open heart bursts forth gratefulness. An alleluia-like thanksgiving with arms up in the air and praising God kind of moment. In that moment, clarity shows who the true Deliverer is. It is those moments such as at packed Ducks or Beavers Football home games that you have prayed, “Dear God, find me a parking space near the entrance of the building in the pouring rain” and God does! Your response, “Thank you, Jesus!”
This kind of thanksgiving opens the heart to joy. The ability to experience real joy. The kind of joy that Joe and his dog felt when his dog gained his trust. All it took was one sniff. With nose to skin the dog sniffs, and instantly the tail wags and the dog becomes ecstatic and overjoyed as his whole body shakes with excitement as he reunites with his owner climbing into his lap. Followed shortly thereafter with a face full of doggie kisses and running circles around the bench always to return to his human for some pats, kisses, and the giving of wet doggie smooches. The joy is overflowing.
So how might we place thanksgiving at the center of our lives as a spiritual practice this Easter season?
Well, the psalmist gives us the magic formula.
First, be reflective (vs. 1-6). This Easter season reflect on all that is good in your life, in this parish, in this community, and in this world. Be intentional. Set some time aside to just reflect. Take note of the renewal taking hold.
Second, celebrate God’s goodness because he delivered you from suffering (vs. 7-9). For example, offer thanks for God goodness getting you through the craziness of the day and to the friend who waited for you out of the goodness of her heart knowing that you were running late. Rather than starting the apology of “I am so sorry. . .” start with “Thank you for waiting for me.” WOW! That just turns the conversation around. It feels good to be thanked and the person receiving the thanks, is affirmed. But even better, if you are doing the thanking then you are not invalidate. I wonder what would happen to our relationships if we all started our conversations with a “Thank you!”
Third, make a commitment to rededicate yourself to the devotion of God (vs. 10-14). Bring that faith and hope together. Do something that helps you draw nearer to God. Maybe it is simply waking in the morning and before climbing out of bed say: “Thank you for bringing me in safety to this new day. Direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose this day.”
Then lastly, tell someone (vs. 15-17). For it is in the retelling of the story that we connect with our community. The psalmist may have given a public sacrifice but the act of telling and doing becomes a tool for evangelism. The telling brings the community together as the stories gather and become a shared witness to the power of the risen Lord living amongst us. Story-telling is how God is made real in our lives.
So go and be reflective, celebrate God’s goodness, rededicate your devotion to God, and then go tell someone. Go and give thanks.
 BCP., 531  Ibid., 534  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS, “Discipleship Leadership”, Spring Clergy Conference, Episcopal Diocese of Oregon, (lecture, Oregon Garden, Silverton, OR, April 25, 2017).  Campbell, Ibid  Modified from the Collect found “In the Morning” from the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families, BCP. 137.