When I was growing up, I think my Dad would save his longest prayer of the year for Thanksgiving Dinner. We would sit there silently with our hands folded, one eye squinting to see the rows and rows and piles and piles of food, the smell of roasted turkey hanging heavy in the air. I think my Dad may have been trying to teach us something about gratitude and patience, or more likely he was just torturing us. Either way, it didn’t matter. We’d be gobbling all that good food up soon enough.
But I was a rather finicky young eater. Sure, I was hungry like everyone else, but not for everything on the table. So in the millisecond after the prayer ended I had to move quickly to fill my plate with the things I liked. I could live without most of the stuff in the vegetable family, same was true of the canned beats and the gelatin-ized glob of cranberry. I loved the drumstick, and I would eat some corn, and I liked a baked potato with butter and sour cream, but there was no way, under no circumstances, would I eat peas.
So I had to move quickly to fill my plate with the good stuff and leave no room for the pea stuff. But there was a strategic problem with my plan. It was an issue of logistics. Every year I ended up sitting next to my 4 ft. 9 in. Scottish grandmother who could at any moment exhibit Herculean strength and speed whenever it came to getting peas on my plate. No sooner had I filled my plate, than my grandmother would reach over and start piling on what she called “little blessings.” It didn’t matter if there wasn’t any room, those little round green blessings got spooned out on top of whatever was already on my plate.
Oh yeah, that was my other problem — I didn’t like the food on my plate to touch. (Can I get an “Amen” from my fellow obsessive compulsives?)
But once those dreaded peas were on my plate, the family policy kicked in: you had to eat whatever was on your plate; food was never to be wasted. So I’d be stuck there eating around those little blessings until there was nothing left on my plate except those little blessings. This was the late 60’s so of course my smart aleck older sister had to chime in and tell me, “C’mon Jeff! Give peas a chance.”
So I would sit there long after everyone else was finished trying to force those peas down with milk, bread, or whatever I could find. Occasionally, a spoonful would accidently fall on the floor and my trusty dog McKeaver would do away with the evidence. But sitting there alone with my little green blessings, I realized that, apart from the peas, there was a lot of love and good humor around that dinner table. Which makes me think my 4 ft. 9 in. Scottish grandmother and her “little blessings”may just have been on to something because what happened next is straight out of a Normal Rockwell painting.
My grandmother organized the family, rallied the troops, and had everyone come into the dining room to cheer me on. They started chanting my name, “Jeff, Jeff, Jeff, Jeff!” And it got louder with every spoonful of peas I was able to shovel into my mouth. And before I knew it, I was done! The peas were gone! But the joy, the blessing of my family, remained.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “Dear Dick, I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated the exegesis and the sermon for today. I even used part of your sermon. What I wanted to pass on was the reaction from the congregation. Many people said that thinking of love as actions instead of feelings made things much clearer for them. I told them about agape and hina… Anyway, I always enjoy your exegesis. Usually won’t read your sermons until I am well on my way with my own. This time I did and it was a real help.”
A thousand sparks to inspire you — and your congregation!
It seems to me that this is true for a lot of our blessings. It may be simplistic, but I think it’s fair to say we all have our share of unwanted peas piled on to our plates. But it’s also true to say that it takes time for us to recognize the blessings that come in the midst of our difficulties. Things like hardship, tragedy, catastrophe are not in any way, shape, or form blessings. That’s not what we’re saying. I think what Jesus is trying to say is that perseverance in the midst of disaster, crisis, tragedy is the blessing. The faithful coming together in a time of trial, that’s the blessing. Because it’s true — God can and does create blessing, create goodness within the chaos.
Take something like Hurricane Sandy. It’s been most refreshing to see the media reporting good news stories. Stories of neighbor helping neighbor, stories of people sharing what little food they have, stories of people even opening their homes to strangers. Sure, you’ve got looters, and price gougers, and con-men, but they’ll always be someone out there trying to make a quick buck.
Jesus calls us to beware of such people. Jesus tells the disciples, and us, to beware and not follow the false Messiahs who will come in His name. And don’t be alarmed by wars and rumors of wars; and don’t be frightened by nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and don’t panic when you hear about earthquakes and famines. Jesus presents these catastrophes as we know them to be — part of our world. “But,” says Jesus, “these catastrophes are not signs of the end, but are instead the beginning of birth pangs.” Especially when our response is faithful help, from one neighbor to another.
It seems to me that what Jesus wants us to focus on is the present and the promise of a new beginning, a new creation. Jesus does not want us to get caught up and side-tracked by the human search for “signs of the end.” What Jesus wants us to be mindful of are the blessings that God works even and especially within the chaos, within the catastrophes of life. It’s not about the end, it’s about the promise of a new beginning!
God speaks through the prophet Isaiah and provides us an image of this new creation. “There is joy ahead” could well be the title of the 65th chapter of Isaiah. Joy ahead and an end to distress, an end to death itself. All accompanied by a reordering of nature free from natural disasters, where the wolf and lamb will feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and no one will ever again hurt or destroy anywhere in God’s new creation.
Elsewhere Paul says, “The whole creation groans” in labor pains. (Romans 8:22). In other words, whether we recognize it or not, we are part of God’s new creation. A new creation that is being birthed even now, among us. Nevertheless, we have to be on our toes. There are still many out there who say they come in Jesus’ name, who want us to be scared and frightened of the future.
These phonies and charlatans use fear to make themselves rich by telling us the end is near and the way to get right with God is to give them money. But the “signs of the end” these phonies point us to, as bad as they may be, are simply a part of our existence. Until the new creation is born in fullness, we will have wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines.
But the good news is that there is a Divine plan for our salvation, not for our destruction. The good news is that there is a plan for the salvation of the whole world, “For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him” (John 3:17).
The question for us becomes: How are we to be vessels of new creation? How are we to be ambassadors of Good News? How are we blessed to be a blessing?
Rallying a family to encourage a kid to eat his peas may sound like a simple thing, but in many ways it can serve as a model of communal grace for all of us. There are distasteful parts of life that call us to endure and persevere. But there is always blessing within, blessing that is good and nourishing.
And we don’t face hardship alone. Whatever trial or tribulation we experience, we are not alone. God and God’s people are with us. We who are here today are testimony to that truth. For we who gather at this table, we who have been baptized at this font, we know, we believe, there is joy ahead. That is why we refuse to be disillusioned, that is why we refuse to be overcome by fear.
Joy is a big part of our present as we seek to be a blessing to others; and there is joy in our future as we look not for signs of the end, but for the blessings of the new creation.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2012, Jeffrey K. London. Used by permission.