Monday, November 26, 2012

Levitical Tryptophan- peace through gratitude

Levitical Tryptophan- Sermon from November 25

Scriptures: Leviticus 7:11-16,  Philippians 4:4-8

We took a break from our holiday shopping and planning this week to sit down and have Thanksgiving, at least for a few hours, before Target opened at nine, right? Thanksgiving is our stepping stone from Halloween to Christmas, barely an aisle in a store, or a nod at Hallmark. Cicero said though that gratitude is the most important virtue and the parent of all others. Gratitude is important.  UC Berkeley has developed an institute just to study gratitude, the Greater Good Science Center, because they believe gratitude to be such an important key to happiness.

I wonder how much of your Thanksgiving was filled with gratitude. Were you able to squeeze it in there between the stress about cooking, or spending time with relatives?  Maybe you were lucky enough to really relax and take time to count your blessings and be grateful.  Maybe you were too anxious though, or lonely. Maybe life is rough right now for you, and you don’t feel very grateful at all. I get that. Life is rough, it is unfair.  I think about the survivors of Hurricane Sandy. So many are still without homes, power, any semblance of their normal lives.  How was their Thanksgiving? There is sickness, death and destruction out there, and it’s hard sometimes to be thankful for anything in the midst of that. It’s hard to imagine a God worth thanking even. How could a loving, benevolent God allow that to happen?

 The truth is, there is so much wrong and unfair about the world, about life. Bad things will always happen, and quite often to good people, but there is also so much good, tremendous, unbelievable good. God set up a way for the Israelites to focus on that good too, that we see in Leviticus, and throughout scripture after that, to help us train our brains on the good, and practice gratitude. So let’s take an adventure into one of the very seldom studied, very odd books of the Bible and see what we can learn.

The laws and practices talked about in Leviticus were instructions given to the Israelites to help them have fellowship with God and reconnect with him.  The Israelites have been wondering in the desert, God freed them from Slavery, but in all of their weary travels they are forgetting that.  They are focusing on the bad and getting into trouble. Their nomadic life is hard and brings all kinds of health and hygiene issues, and they are having trouble. So laws are set forth, and practices put into place by the priests, the Levites, to help the people regain fellowship with God and be healthy and have a better quality of life. Some of these laws seem very odd today; we don’t practice most of them. Many don’t apply outside of the context when they were given, but we can still learn from them, and the practices put forth in this chunk seem to bare a great deal of similarity to our own Thanksgiving traditions.  I read this portion of Leviticus and thought it was quite remarkable, so I’m taking you along for the ride.

First you need to understand that the sacrifice and offering mentioned in this passage are very, very unusual, for several reasons. One, this was not a required sacrifice; they did not have to do this.  There was no atoning for anything with it, it wasn’t due to anything they had done, to make them clean again. Two, everyone could be a part of it.  You could actually eat what you sacrificed, not just the priest that was crazy. You could also bring friends and family to share in this meal with you.  Women and children could be a part of this. Third, it included leavened bread.  You should gasp there because that is some crazy stuff. Leaven was not allowed in the grain parts of the sacrifice.  It was symbolic of being unclean of having sinned, and was not allowed. In this sacrifice however, they were to have three types of grain offering, including fancy, leavened bread. Do you see why I was so fascinated by this passage? This is such an unusual sacrifice, and what is at the heart of this seemingly “opposite day” way of doing things, gratitude.  It was all about offering a sacrifice of praise and gratitude, and it was called the fellowship offering. This is actually the first time we see a communion meal, the word Eucharista is here, where we get Eucharist, which is communion. Mind Blown, I know. This is the first communion meal, in the midst of all of these regulations and instructions; we have a celebration of thanksgiving meal, for everyone, including sinners, because we included that leavened bread.  I LOVE this. Leviticus is exciting you guys. It shows us where we can find fellowship, unity, celebration, in gratitude.

It’s Levitical Tryptophan. You meat eaters just had your turkey; you have to be familiar with Tryptophan. It’s an amino acid and it’s found in more than turkey. It’s in chocolate too, and some other dairy and protein rich foods.  It helps the body chemistry and is part of the serotonin process. Serotonin helps make melatonin, for sleep, but it also helps with our moods. When serotonin levels are not right we can have illness like depression.  Some have used it to fight depression even.  It is not as effective as a sleep aid or depression fighter as other things, but we all seem to have this sense that it is.  There is this myth that tryptophan calms us and lulls us to sleep. So let’s go with that.  What God is giving us here in this crazy book of Leviticus is tryptophan for our souls; only it is actually really effective.

Paul picks up on this in Philippians.  He calls us to not be anxious about anything, but to rejoice, and when we are anxious to pray, and then give thanks.  We present the things we are worried about, with thanksgiving, and then what, the peace of God will settle in our hearts.  Let’s look at the message version of this scripture.
Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon.Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.
And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.
Don’t worry about anything we are told, rejoice, and pray. Give thanks, and think about the good things. That isn’t always easy to do. That is hard, especially when life is tough.  We are being told though to take a new direction when we are experiencing life, don’t dwell on the negative, accentuate the positive as the old song goes. In that we will find peace.

Uc Berkeley’s institute backs this up with science.  Thankfulness really does cause us to be happier people. In fact those that kept a daily gratitude journal were 25% happier. They find it helps in three main ways to focus on being grateful. The first is, it gives us value. By recognizing that we are grateful to someone, we are recognizing that they incurred a cost for us, so we could benefit. That realization says that they must value us to incur a cost. Second it helps us socially; there is that fellowship part of the offering. We are connecting to and acknowledging people around us.  Third it can shape our thinking and make us more positive, sounds just like that last part of Philippians. When we are seeking out things to be grateful for, everyday, we start seeing things everywhere to be grateful for.  There was a study of Tetris players, that video game where you fit the blocks into the spaces. They had people play Tetris for hours upon hours, and when they quit playing and walked around they started seeing Tetris shapes everywhere, in everything.  When we get into the habit of being grateful, we will find so much more to be grateful for. We will see the good. We will find more happiness there.

My mom really lived this out for me this past summer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer after a lumpectomy was performed on some odd looking cells. It scared us all a lot, but she just kept telling us all to be grateful.  She focused on the fact that the cancer was caught very early. She had to endure weeks of radiation that caused painful burns but in regards to the cancer she remained relatively positive, and helped us all do the same. She chose to be grateful.  That’s not to say she didn’t have bad days, she didn’t get frustrated, because she did. Overall though, she got us through and got through because she chose to give God and offering of thanksgiving rather than wallow in the negatives.

We come to this place to worship a God we can be grateful for and give or thanks to. We may not understand why he doesn’t always intervene on our behalf in the ways we want him to.  We may get angry when he allows bad things to happen to good people.  We have to have faith though, and see the good that he has done. He gave us Jesus. He sacrificed himself for us.  Jesus knows what it is like to go through the lowest of lows. He lost friends, he lost his own life.  He cried out to God in fear and frustration, but he could see the bigger picture.  He knew how it was all going to work out and he focused on the positive.  He came to bring light and life to the world, and we will celebrate that in the advent season, these next few weeks. Our gratitude comes not just from the blessings in our life, but from the source of that life, the source of love, God.  He is trying to tell us in Leviticus, through Paul in Philippians and most of all through the life of Jesus, that he loves us, and if we come to him we can find joy and peace.  If we focus on him, he will be right there to show us the good, the great. He doesn’t promise it will be instantaneous though, and he doesn’t promise a life free from the bad things in the world.  We have to have faith in his promises of peace and grace.  We have to have faith that we will find it.  He may allow trouble to come our way, but he doesn’t make us walk through it alone and he promises us that.

Can we find gratitude in the midst of our struggles?  It’s easy to be grateful on a good day, for things right in front of us that scream good, and fun, like dogs or kids, or sporting events when our teams win, but can we do it in our struggles? So often we can accept the bad parts of something, if we can easily see the good.  We have a four-month-old Great Dane puppy, Theo. His brain and bladder aren’t well connected yet, and often on his way to go outside he leaves a trail down every one of our carpeted steps. He is a 50lb toddler and leaves a big trail, yet we love him and enjoy him, and accept the challenges that come with him, because God made him so adorable, and so silly. We take the good with the bad all the time in sports too. Your team may lose nearly every game in a season, but you continue to watch, having faith and waiting for that day when they win, and when they win, you rejoice, don’t you? Why can’t we take the good with the bad in life too, and focus on that good? When illness hits can we be grateful for the healthy days, for the doctors, for the people who are there for us. Can we find gratitude for life itself? Can you find something besides your paycheck to be grateful about the job that you hate?

Can we find unity and fellowship in the things we are thankful for?  We see churches split all the time; we see our political system split, because we focus on the negative, on our disagreements. Can we as followers of Christ come together here at MPC and bring and offering or praise? Can we sacrifice our own opinions on certain issues, or interpretations on things, our need to be right? Can we lay those things at the alter of God’s grace and love and celebrate together that which we are grateful for. We have a loving God; we have a loving church family, bursting with wonderful people.

I wondered a lot this week about those people in the path of hurricane Sandy. I sought out news articles on how they were spending their thanksgivings, and I found a wonderful piece for a blog on the Huffington Post by a priest who was leading a church in Breezy Point, in the borough of Queens in New York. We heard a lot about Breezy Point. It was wiped out. The whole town was flooded, and large portions of its homes were destroyed by fire.  These people had already been through so much with 9/11 as many of them were police and fire fighters and now this.  One of the places that did not flood was Father Sean Sukeil’s church, Saint Thomas Moore. People fled to the church for safety that night, but in the aftermath they also gathered there to give thanks. Here is what the Father had to say about thanksgiving. “After the hurricane passed, the worst was not yet over. The following day, residents who did evacuate started to return to the neighborhood to survey their homes. For me, as a newly ordained priest of only four months, it was a paralyzing experience. This was not something I was prepared for. It will be something that I can never forget. I felt helpless, and there were no words that could be of comfort to the people in the midst of this destruction. Many people were thankful to God that no life was taken the night of the storm and that everyone in the community was safe and accounted for. Thanksgiving came a little early this year for all of us in Breezy Point. The Sunday after the storm, residents packed St. Thomas More Church, filling up the pews, the side aisles and out the main door, giving thanksgiving to God. Some families' homes were burnt to the ground. Every person, in one-way or another, had damages and lost property. Yet, everyone made time to attend Mass on Sunday. It was a candlelight Mass because there was no power. It was a very moving experience for the entire community. It was vital to this community. We needed to come together and pray. This Mass was a turning point for us because the worst was now over. People's hearts were filled with deeper faith and a renewed sense of hope as we now begin to rebuild Breezy Point. Our hearts are broken, our homes are destroyed, but our faith is strong. As one of the pastors of the community, I encourage the people to not lose faith, to not lose hope. This tight-knit community's foundation is built on faith. Breezy Point is now a community of hope, and the symbol of this hope is the statue of Mary, which did not burn down in the midst of the devastation. Many people have asked, is it possible to be thankful in the midst of crisis and adversity? Our human nature screams "No!" yet God whispers "Yes." This year, Thanksgiving takes on a new meaning for all of us. We have so much to be thankful for: the gift of human life, the first responders, the volunteers, the different faith traditions, all of those who have donated food and clothing, families who have taken others in during this time of great need… We are thankful this year because of the differences people have made in our lives after Hurricane Sandy. For us in Breezy Point, thanksgiving takes on a new meaning and a new dimension. For us, it is now not only a holiday weekend, but also it is an attitude to live by. We now live in Thanksgiving!” (The Blog Huffington Post, 11/21/2012 “Thanksgiving in Breezy Point after Hurricane Sandy”)
They live in thanksgiving. It couldn’t have been easy for them.  There were so many things vying for their time and attention in those moments, so many needs.  They could have been fighting over scarce resources too. Instead they gave a sacrifice of their fears, their worries, their anxieties and frustrations.  They laid them aside and gave an offering of thanks.
I encourage you to find some levitical tryptophan of your own. To listen to these words of Paul and to make them part of your life. Give your worries over to god and rejoice with thanksgiving. Berkeley’s center has a gratitude project where you can sign up to journal on gratitude everyday. Do that on your own, or sign up for the study.  But don’t just be thankful for puppies and touchdowns, dig in deep and find things to be thankful for in that which you struggle with the most. Challenge yourself to think differently as you fix your gaze not on the awful, but on the wonderful.  We are coming into advent next week, a time where we are supposed to practice joy as we reflect on the awesome gift of Christ. So reflect with gratitude.
Colossians 3:15-17 says this, 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

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