Psalm 150, Luke 12:22-31
The Rev. Tom Herbek
November 26, 2017
In today’s world, there is so much for us to worry about that it is sometimes hard to feel like giving thanks. In order to truly give thanks, we must look at life in a different way. Everyone feels thankful when all is well, when good stuff is happening all around us. But Thanksgiving is not just a holiday for people who are blessed in every conceivable way. It is also a holiday for those of us who know that our lives are a mixture of good stuff and bad stuff. It is a holiday to recognize what is going for us, even in the midst of all that is going against us.
Because most of us are much more acutely attuned to what is going against us, it means that we must pause for a moment and acknowledge that, even with all that is going against us, there are some things going for us. And then, we find some unexpected reasons to give thanks.
In Budapest, a man goes to the rabbi and complains, “Life is unbearable. There are nine of us living in one room. What can I do?”
The rabbi answers, “Take your goat into the room with you.” The man is incredulous, but the rabbi insists. “Do as I say and come back in a week.”
A week later the man comes back looking more distraught than before. “We cannot stand it,” he tells the rabbi. “The goat is filthy.” The rabbi then tells him, “Go home and let the goat out. And come back in a week.”
A radiant man returns to the rabbi a week later, exclaiming, “Life is beautiful. We enjoy every minute of it now that there’s no goat — only the nine of us.”
Sometimes we can give thanks that the goat is gone. It is not just the power of positive thinking. It is not a denial that pain and hardship are a part of our life. But sometimes experiences cause us to look at what we have and who we are in a whole new light, and we experience a moment of gratitude. So let us give thanks that the goat is gone.
When we feel like life is just too crazy, too busy, too overwhelming, Jesus suggested that we notice the lilies around us, that we take the time to listen to the music in life. Sometimes there is music in our life, and we just don’t even notice it.
At a Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007, the man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approximately two thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After three minutes a middle-aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.
After four minutes the violinist received his first dollar; a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk. After six minutes a young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.
After ten minutes a three-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.
The musician played continuously. Only six people stopped and listened for a short while. About twenty gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.
After one hour, he finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition. No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most gifted musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before this, Joshua Bell played at a sold out theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.
This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities. This raised some important questions: In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?
One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this: if we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made…how many other things are we missing?
I am very guilty of missing the lilies and the music around me sometimes. We will be in a store at the mall or Wegmans, or even in an elevator, and Joan will start humming a tune and ask me if I know it. “Where did you get that?” I’ll say. “It’s playing in the store,” she replies. And I did not even notice.
I would be one of those who would probably completely miss Joshua Bell in the Metro station. But there was one time when I was paying attention. Joan and I went to a little restaurant called The Buttery in Niagara-on-the-Lake for an early dinner. As we sat down, we saw a guitarist come in and set up for the evening. He began to play while we waited for our order, and we stopped talking and really paid attention to this extraordinary classical guitarist. We clapped when he was done, although the few other guests ignored him.
And we started asking him about himself. He had left Russia and come to Canada the year before. In Russia, he had played as the featured classical guitar soloist on several occasions with major symphonies, including the St. Petersburg Symphony. His music moved us both, and we bought one of his CDs.
How lucky that we were actually paying attention that night. How much of the music of life do we miss because we are not paying attention? How much of what is most important in life do we miss?
How often do we miss the lilies? Miss the music?
Part of our problem may be that we worry about things which takes up so much energy that we miss what is going on around us. I was amazed to read something Rabbi Harold Kushner once said about a dream he often has, one that I also often have: “On those infrequent occasions when I have a bad dream, it is always the same one. I am trying to get somewhere where people are expecting me, and I can’t get there. The dream speaks to my sense of helplessness in the face of forces I can’t control and my fear of disappointing people who are counting on me.”
He goes on to say: “I also worry about losing those things that give meaning and pleasure to my life, the ability to read and to write, to give birth to another book or craft a meaningful sermon, the ability to follow the news and crack a joke about contemporary politics, the ability to recognize people I care about and remember where I know them from.” And certainly these worries also echo many of my own worries. But if we know what matters, and really try to fill our minds and our hearts and our souls with what matters, then perhaps we will see life differently and worry a little less.
And at another time, Rabbi Kushner wrote: “It matters if we are true to ourselves, to our innate human nature, that requires things like honesty and kindness and grows flabby and distorted if we neglect them. It matters if we learn how to share our lives with others, making them and their world different. It matters if we learn to recognize the pleasures of every day, food and work and love and friendship, as encounters with the divine, encounters that teach us not only that God is real but that we are real too. Those things make all the difference.”
Part of what we must learn is how to relax, realizing that it is not all up to us, and that sometimes our hard work to find God actually keeps us from finding God. Marcus Borg quotes poet Denise Levertov, in his novel, Putting Away Childish Things:
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them;
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into God’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.
Sometimes the key to finding God – and to finding our true selves – is simply to relax enough to let it happen. As Jesus once said: “The kingdom of God is within you.” So perhaps we have kept the goat long enough inside of our house, our heart, or our mind. And when it is gone, we will experience life differently.
So let us do our best to hear with our ears and listen with our eyes to the people around us – family, friends, and strangers- and to the music of life. And let us be aware that the lilies of the field are telling the glory of God. Let us look at the lake and the hills and the trees, and all of those places where God proclaims that God’s presence is all around us.
For the next few crazy, hectic weeks let us not forget to listen to the music, to look at the lilies (even if they may be at Wegmans), and to look at the lake. And in doing so, perhaps we will not miss the presence of God in our lives and in our world.