October is Volunteer Appreciation Month at Bethany and thus I ask each of you this morning to consider the reasons you volunteer, at Bethany, elsewhere, wherever you offer your labour without cost. I have spent a lifetime being around non-profits, churches, minor sports, and talking to people who offer their best selves for the organization and its mission. Often people tell me they volunteer because the goals of that organization matches their own values and they want to be part of that movement. I also run into a lot of volunteers who participate in a group because they want to meet new friends and remain engaged in community life. Volunteering serves as a great source of social stimulation and many in the health care field believe an engaged person is a healthier person, if not a happier person. And there are those who volunteer because the organization they work for has a connection to the life of a loved one, canvasing for the Heart and Stoke Association or the Canadian Cancer Society or the Canadian Diabetes Association because one’s mother or father or partner died due to complications related to that illness. Volunteering for that cause gives one a sense of honouring a loved one, if not also making a tangible contribution to eliminate the disease that led to her/his premature death.
Why do you volunteer? I hope and pray that at least part of the reason you offer your time, talent and treasure has to do with a conviction that your life is a blessing, that you experience your life as a gift and that you feel compelled to share that blessing with others in God’s name. Thinking on the great commandments; to love the Lord with all your heart, mind and soul and to love your neighbor as you love yourself we understand that recognizing God’s gifts of life and love is an understanding that said gifts are to be shared, that there is no other way to accept these gifts than to share them with others whom God has equally blessed.
I know not everyone in church feels blessed every day, much less every year. And this is no judgement upon those who do not feel such affirmations. I confess to a relatively easy life and thus I have great empathy for someone who has lived through or is living through terrible pain, whether emotional or physical. What I can say is this, if you do get to a place in your life where you feel blessed to be given life, in whatever way that makes sense to you, the likelihood of being able to share life and love with others, without condition or strings attached, improves dramatically. And I have met people who have had challenging lives who through the grace of God have experienced life as a blessing and as a result were able to offer their thanksgiving with grace-filled love for and with others.
In the text our Faith Study group has been examining this fall author Barbara Butler Bass focuses on this connection between gratitude and sharing of self with and for others. She begins her chapter on this topic with some quotes by author Robert Emmons, “When it comes to gratitude, me always leads to we…Gratitude takes us outside ourselves, where we see ourselves as part of a larger, intricate network of sustaining relationships, relationships that are mutually reciprocal.” A genuine sense of being the recipient of a freely given, unconditional, gift most often leads to a reciprocal offering of thanks in the form a corresponding act of compassion or service to the other.
As Butler Bass says “feeling like you owe someone for their kind deed can move you to respond with something that looks like gratitude, but it isn’t. Giving out of a debt we feel we owe another can produce feelings of resentment and usually carries with it strings that are attached.” One person interviewed by Butler Bass had this to say about this kind of giving, “I was a guy who kept score, which means I didn’t mind you being in my debt. I just didn’t want to be in yours.” But he learned something: Gratitude is not about repayment of debts. Gratitude is organically social, it is about presence, participation and partnership. Having been blessed one is moved to be present to others, to participate in the care for and with others, in a partnership of mutual compassion and empathy and healing. Feeling grateful causes us to reach out toward its perceived source. “Gratitude only happens when we get a real gift.”
Author, theologian, professor, Walter Brueggemann explains three Jewish festivals -Passover, Pentecost, and Booths – form a liturgical triad of celebrating God’s gifts of freedom and abundance. In ancient Israel, Jews travelled to Jerusalem for each festival, leaving behind the work and responsibilities of home and village. When they arrived scripture reminds us that they were “empty-handed” so that God might fill their hands with gifts. They learned that they relied on the power and generosity of Yahweh. Being “empty handed” is not the same as being unprepared. Obviously all of us need to be properly prepared to meet the challenges of everyday life. But there is a difference between being “ready” and being so self-sufficient that you are not open or “empty” enough to be filled with the other, with the Other. When the Israelites moved through their festivals they arrived knowing there was much to fill them when they arrived. They were ready to be blessed, ready to acknowledge the gift of life.
This reminds me of the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples as they entered a town. Luke 10: After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.
If you arrive with nothing, no expectations, only wonder and discernment, you never know the unexpected blessings you will encounter.
And then there is the story of how me turned to we within the community of disciples.
Matthew 14:15-21 Toward evening the disciples approached Jesus. “We’re out in the country and it’s getting late. Dismiss these people so they can go to the villages and get some supper.” But Jesus said, “There is no need to dismiss them. You give them supper.” “All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish,” they said. Jesus said, “Bring them here.” Then he had the people sit on the grass. He took the five loaves and two fish, lifted his face to heaven in prayer, blessed, broke, and gave the bread to the disciples. The disciples then gave the food to the congregation. They all ate their fill. They gathered twelve baskets of leftovers. About five thousand were fed.
Once these disciples experienced the blessings, the gifts, they were called to share from their resources with each other, others, strangers, who arrived in their space unexpectedly. Note how the initial reaction of the disciples to the late hour and the hunger of the crowd was to turn these unknowns away. Jesus asks what is at hand. The disciples tell Jesus that there is only enough for them. I can just hear the echoes of “charity begins at home” and “God helps those who help themselves”. Except Jesus doesn’t see amounts of fish and bread as “not enough” but rather as abundance. Jesus calls on the same disciples who entered the town with empty hands to bless these others with their empty hands, to share the blessing as the blessing has been shared with them.
People keep telling me the church is dying. If you look around and see all the church buildings closing, being sold, congregations shrinking, two Ministers reduced to one, then reduced to part-time, no more children, no more Sunday Schools, no energy or passion for social justice ventures or supporting refugee families or outreach of any kind. I get it, I see it, it is real. I am no Pollyanna, no glass half filled, no “the power of positive thinking” guy. Just ask those who know me best, I am a realist at heart. But realism is not cynicism or defeatism. I see churches with more active and passionate volunteers than most non-profits and where two or three gather in God’s name the possibilities for ministry are endless. I believe we in the church have assets beyond measure, namely you. If we pray for a vision, for a mission, I believe with all my heart such a unifying response will come. I know it! Here I do not mean nostalgia or envy, too many churches dream about the past or what that large church down the road has. God does not offer visions to satisfy our need to look back or to look good, God sees who we are, what we have and inspires and enhances our abundance.
Look at our church and what we are doing now; a Community Care Ministry, the Walk and Talk outreach, our Community Kitchen meals, our Youth Group, our after school programming on Wednesdays, Shawn’s huge and growing choir, our Thursday Meditation group, our faith studies that gather 25+ people each week, our intimate and community based Muffin Club, our partnerships with ISANS, our monthly Tuesday lunch programming to Seniors, and our annual amateur plays (and I mean amateur!). I don’t know what to say about this other than we have experienced our collective and community life as a blessing and we can do no other than offer our time, talent and treasure to others with that same spirit. Me is visibly moving to we. I hope you can feel it and I hope you want to participate in it. There is room for you and room for all. Thanks be to God. Amen.