Rev. Ron Patterson
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
This morning, I want to share a memory with you, a personal memory from my childhood and invite you to think about a similar story from your own life. This is one of those sermons where I’m going to tell a story, not because it is the be-all and end all of stories, it’s probably not even a very good story, but I’m going to tell it because it’s a part of my story about gratitude, that I hope will get you to thinking about a grateful part of your story.
My great-grandmother was born shortly after the Civil War. Her father had been in the Union Army in an Ohio Regiment, and she spent her girlhood in a small Ohio town. She married my great-grandfather and moved to his family’s farm. When I came along, she was a woman in her ninety’s with glasses as thick as coke bottles and skin as tough as leather and hands gnarled from milking too many cows for too many years. She was a brilliant farm manager, a tough business woman and a sharp tongued judge of morality. She had no patience for most lesser mortals and would, I am told, pronounce her opinions on almost any topic. She was far from a perfect person. She had flaws which made some of the family dislike her intensely—particularly her six daughters-in-law, other family members fear her, and more than a few of her seven children and dozens of grandchildren uncomfortable in her presence. But I knew none of that at the time.
I only knew that she loved little children and I was a child, just one of her seventy or eighty great-grand children and despite learning later in life of her imperfections, I loved her and thought she was amazing. My clearest memory of her was from when I was about six or seven and she would sit in her rocking chair clutching her worn leather Bible in one hand and her oversized magnifying glass in the other. She would sit for hours rocking and reading that book. And I remember pulling out a kitchen chair from the table to over near where she rocked and sitting down next to her. And if you did that, she would read out loud with a strong voice as clear to me now as my own: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters….” or “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help, my help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” And she would keep reading as long as one of the little ones sat beside her, and then after a time, she would take our hand and tell us how important it was to pray and to thank God and be grateful. And then, she would pray with us. And that’s what she did. That’s what she did, day in and day out until her eyesight failed and her cataracts brought her reading to an end.
And the doctor said that her heart could not stand cataract surgery, which at that time—over sixty years ago, was a terrible ordeal, but she insisted. She told that doctor that unless she could read her Bible, it didn’t matter if she survived or not. So she had that surgery and for the next several years, she kept on rocking and reading that Bible and praying and giving thanks because that was how she had decided to spend the remainder of the days God gave her.
Now somewhere in your life there is, I hope, a story like that one. A story about a person who refused to lose heart. A story about a person whose faith was the center of their life. A story of gratitude. It could be a story about a person who gave you some extraordinary gift or who you saw giving to another. It might be the memory of someone who appeared in your life in a special way at a time of crisis and who helped you make it through. What I am asking you to do is to think about someone you loved or who you respected who taught you what it meant to live the words of Jesus about giving or about praying always and never losing heart.
That’s thought I want to share today. Be grateful and don’t lose heart. There are so many things we can loose and so many of us have lost so much, but if you don’t lose heart and if you are grateful, I believe everything that looks like an end is only a beginning.
But that’s not easy, is it? We do lose heart; we do lose heart, don’t we? We get worried about some thing, or someone says something that upsets us or we get wound up about something that is happening in the news or in the neighborhood or to someone we love. Sometimes, we lose heart when our jobs get us down.
For me it sometimes doesn’t take too much and I get down on myself and start doubting and twisting in the wind of my own fears. And forget all about being grateful for my blessings. Does that ever happen to you?
Well, I think Jesus knew that about us, he knew that we have this chronic tendency to lose heart and so he told the story we heard this morning of the unjust judge and the persistent widow who kept pestering that judge with her complaints, day and night, until finally the unjust judge gave the woman what she wanted. And then Jesus says, think about it, if a dishonest judge can finally do the right thing, what about God who loves everyone of us as if we are the only one in the universe to love, won’t God listen to our prayers and take care of us? Be grateful and don’t lose heart!
Several years ago, I started a little activity based on absolute frustration. Part of my job when I served in New York City was to take phone calls that the switchboard at Marble Collegiate Church didn’t know what to do with. Often they were calls from people with problems that were so severe that I found myself just sitting there with my mouth open wondering what on earth I could possibly do to help.
Well I learned a long time ago, painfully and slowly, that advice is cheap and that giving advice, giving your answers to your problems to another person for their problems rarely works. That advice is often not the best thing you can give another person. Think about the ministry of Jesus. What did he do when someone came to him with a problem? What did he do? Did he give advice? Did he have a quick and ready answer? Not usually. Not usually.
He almost never told people what do to. What he did was offer himself. What he did was listen and invite the person looking for help to see themselves as a child of God. What he did was to invite people into a relationship with him and with God. Because he knew that if we were in relationship, if we were connected to the source of power, to the source of life, then we would find the strength to face the problem and never lose heart.
So after a very long learning curve, before I took one of those phone calls, I would take a moment and offer a simple prayer: “Lord, help me listen, help me understand, and help me accept whatever it is I am about to hear and then give it to you. And then I would listen to the person and then I would listen some more and I remember one day I was listening to a woman who had called from England. It was very late at night there and I could tell she was exhausted and at the end of her rope. She had some tremendous family problems, she was going through a divorce, she had a son who was an absolute nightmare to her and her mother was dying and I was three thousand miles away from her pain and tempted all the while to start giving her advice, but I just kept listening and suddenly, something prompted me to pick up a post-it note—you know, one of those little yellow slips of gummed paper and I wrote her first name on that piece of paper for some reason.
Then I said to her, you know, your problems are so immense, but my faith says to me that they are not larger than God’s love for you. I can’t make your problems go away, but I want to ask your permission to do something. I have written your first name on a slip of paper. Chances are we are never going to meet in this life, but I am going to tape that slip of paper onto the screen of my computer terminal and every time I look at my computer, dozens of time every day, I am going to repeat your name and ask God to give you the strength you need not to lose heart and to be grateful.
To this day, I don’t know where that idea came from, but every time I run into a situation which pushes me to the edge or which exhausts the possibilities of the gifts God has given me and I feel like losing heart myself or am with someone else in that same fix, I reach for a post-it note and put that name somewhere I can see it as a reminder that I need to keep praying and never lose heart and be grateful for God’s love.
Now, somewhere in your life there is the story of someone who touched your life and tried to teach you the power of never giving up and never losing heart. Cherish that memory and take their story as your marching orders for the days you have left. As I see it, there is no better way and no deeper purpose for your life and mine than to live those memories and to share them.
One other thing: somewhere there is someone who needs to learn that same message from us. Perhaps it’s the person sitting next to you this morning or one of your neighbors or someone you have not met. Maybe it’s this troubled world of ours and some of the hate blinded and hurt burdened individuals running around spreading discord or killing people. You may never meet a person like that face to face, but they need your prayers. Maybe it’s some of those folks so convinced that their opinions are right that they figure there’s not enough room on this good earth for the rest of us. Well, they need our prayers too, and whether they know it or not, a group of good people, people of faith and courage in this nation and in our faith tradition and in every nation and every faith tradition, may be the ones who will keep this good earth of ours from self-destructing.
Our reading for this morning ends on that note. It talks about that day when Jesus will come again. It ends with the question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” And the answer is a resounding “yes,” if we keep praying, if we keep being grateful, and never, never, never lose heart!