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Complacency, Thankfulness, and Compassion
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
October 9, 2011
Leviticus 23:33-36, 39-43 Luke 17:11-19 Psalm 118
We celebrate Thanksgiving Day this time of year because it is harvest time. In ancient Israel, the fifteenth day of the seventh month was the date of their festival called Sukkot. We translate this Hebrew word as the Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles. In ancient times, Israelites would fashion huts of branches in which they would live for a week.
This festival represented several things. One was the wandering in the wilderness that the Israelites did for forty years after their liberation from Egypt. Living in the huts was a reminder of the primitive conditions that the Israelites underwent in their wanderings. But more importantly, the Sukkot Festival was a celebration of thankfulness for the crops that had just been harvested. The very life of the Israelites depended on the harvest season. A bountiful harvest meant survival and prosperity, while a lean harvest threatened their very survival. In our urban society, we are quite removed from the harvest cycles. We go to supermarkets and Superstores whose shelves are never empty. Our only real connection with the fall harvest may be a slight annoyance at a price increase from a certain produce. Farmers do depend on the harvest in their own fields and in the fields of the global market for their livelihood. But we in the city take it for granted that there will always be food on the supermarket shelves.
It’s easy for us to get complacent about all manner of things in our lives. If we have worked hard, we may find ourselves in a comfortable retirement. If we have a good job with benefits, we feel secure in our lifestyle. So we may not realize just how much we have to be thankful for. It is holidays like this that make us pause and think, and take the time to realize that we do need to give thanks to God for all the good things we enjoy.
In our complacency, we may not realize that we need to give thanks for even the basics of life. We have food, shelter, transportation, clothing, and recreational activities and services. In our complacency we may complain that we do not have enough of these things. We may want more money, more luxurious foods, designer clothes, luxury automobiles. When we think this way we become discontent. We meditate on what we don’t have. The opposite of this discontent is humility and gratitude. When we are tempted to grumble about our lot in life, we will be well served to make a list of things we have to be grateful for. This list can be very basic. Food, a roof over our heads, transportation, clothing. When we consider these things from a grateful heart, we will find ourselves in a much more peaceful and tranquil state of mind.
All that we have is a gift from a loving and generous God. We cry out to God when we are in need. Why not give thanks to God for what we have, as well. In our New Testament reading, ten lepers cry out to Jesus when they are sick. But when they are healed only the Samaritan comes back to Jesus to give thanks. In this story, Jesus again calls attention to the hypocrisy of the Jews of His time. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews. And Jesus uses this despised race to demonstrate what genuine gratitude is, while pointing out the complacency of the Jews of His time.
Giving thanks for what we have, and living in contentment with what God gives us is a spiritual quality. Swedenborg says that those who are in heavenly innocence,
live content with what they have, whether it is little or much, because they know that they receive as much as is useful–little if little is good for them and much if much is good for them (HH 278).
The person who is in heavenly innocence doesn’t bother him or herself about tomorrow, or worry about the future. They know that God is watching over us and provides for our needs.
They have no anxiety about the future, but refer to anxiety about the future as “care for the morrow,” which they say is pain at losing or not getting things that are not needed for their life’s useful activities (HH 278).
To live this way may be hard for us. We may dwell only on what we want, but don’t have. We may be consumed with ambition to rise to the top of our business or work. Of course there is no harm in wanting to better ourselves in life. The problem comes when that is our only concern. While we are striving for a better life, we must also remain content with what we have. Only by maintaining this tension will we know true peace of mind. Living content in the present–the day, or moment–is ancient wisdom that goes back as far at least as Jesus. In Matthew 6:34, Jesus says,
Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.
Twelve Step programs use this wisdom to great effect. One day at a time. Thinkers of our day have capitalized on this wisdom. For instance, Eckhart Tolle a while back rose to great acclaim by teaching us to live in the moment.
The real spiritual meaning of living in the moment, and of being content with what we have, is a profound realization. It means that we are content with the way God is leading us. God is always looking toward our spiritual welfare. We can often see only our state in this world. But God is always looking at our spiritual condition. And God will always give us what is good for our spiritual condition. So trust that God is taking care of our spiritual needs is what gives us the power to rest content with what we have in the world. When our consciousness is on eternity, as is God’s, then the affairs of this world become less important. God knows what is good for our souls; we don’t always see what we need. So, once again, those in heavenly innocence say that, “they do not know what is best for themselves–only the Lord knows; and in His sight everything He supplies is eternal” (HH 278). Trusting that God is leading us ever toward Himself and ever into heavenly happiness will give us a contentment and a happiness even in this world. Our happiness may indeed be darkened somewhat by our worldly needs, but it is there nevertheless. Swedenborg discusses this issue.
As regards the happiness of eternal life, the person who is in affection for good and truth cannot perceive it when he is living in the world, but a certain enjoyment instead. The reason is, that in the body he is in worldly cares and in anxieties thence which prevent the happiness of eternal life, which is inwardly in him, from being manifested in any other way at that time. For when this happiness flows in from the interior into the cares and anxieties that are with the person outwardly, it sinks down among the cares and anxieties there, and becomes a kind of obscure enjoyment; but still it is an enjoyment in which there is a blessedness and in this a happiness. Such is the happiness of being content in God (AC 3938).
Everything we have in this world is a gift from God, and everything we receive leads us toward greater heavenly bliss. When our hearts rest secure in God’s leading, then we see that what we have in this world is enough. I keep coming back to a line from Walt Whitman’s poem “The Sleepers.” In that poem Whitman writes,
It seems to me that everything in the light and air ought to be happy;
Whoever is not in his coffin and in the dark grave, let him know he has enough.
But our contentment in God’s providence should not make us indifferent to the world around us. Once again, we can become complacent in the gifts we have in this country or in the lives we live in Edmonton. We have food; many do not. In some developing nations starvation and thirst are common. In some nations the water from nature is so polluted that people have to buy bottled water. And if you are poor, as many are in these nations, this means that water is unavailable to you. Here in Canada, the bad economy has caused many to struggle for the basic necessities in life. And here in Edmonton, there are those who line up for sustenance in food pantries and soup kitchens through no fault of their own. In the light of these issues, we can be very thankful for the food we have. But our thankfulness means nothing unless it is colored by compassion for those who don’t have.
Compassion is a noble feeling that signals a solidarity with our brothers and sisters in need. Those who hunger; those who thirst are fellow humans with lives just as important to them as our lives are to us. In Buddhism, there is a class of worshippers who take a vow to postpone their final entry into bliss until the whole world is relieved of suffering. There are two cardinal virtues in Buddhism: wisdom and compassion. Some make compassion to be the core virtue of the whole Buddhist religion. I think that Jesus calls us to a similar compassion. The suffering of others is our suffering. We cannot be complacent while others hunger and thirst.
We are not all in a position to give to charities. Some of us can barely make our own ends meet. We don’t have the fortune of Bill Gates. But when we are able, we need to be ready to respond with compassion to the world around us. We can support humane legislation when our government proposes it. We can respond with humanity when we see those less fortunate than we are. Some are in difficult straits through no fault of their own. I heard an inspiring story about a friend of mine who had been homeless a year and a half ago. This friend now has a union job. With a heart overflowing with compassion, and in an effort to give back from all the help that she had received, she offered a ride to two people in need. One ride took her 2 hours out of her way to bring an acquaintance to a job he needed to get to. The other ride was for a down and out girl seemingly abandoned by society. She also gave this girl personal counsel about overcoming addiction. There are all around us ways for us to make our feeling of compassion tangible. We don’t need to be a Bill Gates to do a good turn in the world around us. If we keep open eyes, we will see opportunities to act on our compassion.
Well this sermon has turned out rather preachy. But please know that I am talking as much to myself as I am to you. I care deeply about these issues. And what I am saying, I believe, is what Jesus asks us to do. I am proud of all that this church does to help those in need. Food Bank Day today is just one such example. In this holiday season, let us all just take a few moments and give thanks for the good things we have, trust that God is giving us everything that our souls need for eternal happiness, and let us keep a compassionate heart and continually seek opportunities to show our compassion in loving deeds.