The doctor also told me, “Don’t wear your glasses unless you have to. You wear them all day long and your eyes will get lazy.” His recommendation was, “Exercise your eyes. Focus on things in your environment. Fix your gaze on something out there. Concentrate on what is around you. That will improve your vision.”
I don’t know how good that advice is in ophthalmology, but it is excellent advice in theology. And it is exactly what Jesus recommends in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount. “Look at the birds of the air.” Focus on them. “They neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. And how much more value are you than they? Look at the lilies of the field. Focus your eyes on them. “They neither toil nor spin, and yet I tell you, Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
Eye exercises. That is what he is prescribing. Look at the world about you. Consider nature; the birds of the air, the lilies of the field. It will improve your vision, and your improved vision will improve your soul. Just before this, in the same chapter, Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body, so if your eye is sound your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness.” It is an amazing insight. The way you see the world out there affects the way you feel in here.
I invite you to look at the holiday of Thanksgiving in that light. The first Thanksgiving occurred a year after the Pilgrim’s arrival to start a colony in America. It was a harvest feast shared with the Wampanoag Indians who virtually saved the colony from starvation by teaching them how to grow corn and other vegetables. That fall, 1621, they gathered with the Pilgrims for a thanksgiving. That was the first Thanksgiving for the Pilgrims, and probably the only one.
The Thanksgiving holiday as we know it began in 1864 with Lincoln’s proclamation calling the nation to be conscious that all history is guided by the providence of God. That was Lincoln’s faith, and also Pilgrim faith. So by setting aside a national day of thanksgiving, Lincoln made the Pilgrim story the nation’s origin story. He wanted the nation to see its beginning grounded in Pilgrim piety, namely belief in the providence of God.
The hymn we sang as the opening hymn this morning is called Old 100 because it is an interpretation of the 100th psalm. It was first published in the 16th century in the Geneva Psalter. The Geneva Psalter was used by the followers of John Calvin, so there is no doubt the Pilgrims, who were also followers of Calvin, knew the hymn and sang it as part of their piety.
In the hymn is the phrase, “Without our aid he did us make.” That too is a religious instinct that leads to thanksgiving. We are not self-creators. Nor are we products of blind chemical processes. We are created. Without our aid he did us make. Which prompts the response,
So enter then his gates with praise,Notice the word “seemly.” You don’t hear that any more. It’s the language of good manners, which might explain why you don’t hear it anymore. “Seemly” means saying thanks to a host who has housed you in gracious quarters, fed you lavishly in abundance, and surrounded you with beauty. It is seemly for you to give thanks to the host. That is the origin of thanksgiving; God has done all this for us.
Approach with joy his courts unto,
Praise, laud, and bless his name always
For it is seemly so to do.”
That is also the lesson in the Genesis creation story. God, like an artist painting a landscape, after each day, stepped back from the canvas to observe what he had created that day and said, “It is good.” But I think a better way to describe God’s response is to say that after each day God delighted in what he created. It brought God joy. And after everything was completed, when God finished the creation of the heavens and the earth, God created us. And as a “birthday” present, he gave the world to us, so that we would delight in it as God does.
So enter than his gates with praise
Approach with joy his courts unto
Praise, laud, and bless his name always
For it is seemly so to do.
Delight in the birds of the air, the lilies of the field.
The eye is the lamp of the body. If you eye is sound, your whole life will be filled with light.
That was Pilgrim piety.
Then something happened. They were not only called Pilgrims, they were also Puritans, and as Puritans they had a theology that emphasized not only the providence of God, but also the depravity of human beings. After awhile they turned their attention from God’s providence to human sin. Which means they did the exact opposite of what Jesus told us to do. They turned their gaze from the outside to the inside, and in the wonderfully descriptive phrase from the historian Henry Steele Commager, “Puritanism curdled into censoriousness.” Instead of seeing the beauty of nature all around us, they could see only the darkness inside us.
And ever since then there has been a strain of glom in American religion, just beneath the surface. And it pops up all the time, if not in religion then in the secular. It is a focusing on the self, on my problems, on Me! Because if your eye is not sound your whole body will be full of darkness. I tell you, it is very hard to be thankful if all you can see is your misery, and not God’s mystery.
Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in the 19th century in New England, several hundred years after the Puritans, but he still lived in the wake of Puritan introspection and rebelled against it. He took the New Testament reading, “Pray without ceasing,” and revised it to read, “Observe without ceasing.” Which is what our text is saying. Observe with out ceasing. Consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, without ceasing. Even make your prayer a focusing on God providence over your life, rather than the problems in your life. Pray with your eyes open. If closing your eyes turns you inward, open your eyes so you an see how God takes care of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and how much more precious are you to God.
You know, in Emerson’s day, joy and happiness and gratitude and praise were considered insufficiently religious, or at the least, a superfluous emotion not essential to serious religion. Religion had to do with more serious matters, like me, my sin, my problems, my salvation. In Emerson’s day, not only was Thanksgiving not observed, but Christmas was observed by fasting.
Emily Dickinson lived during that same period in New England. She refused to have anything to do with the church. Up in Amherst they kept trying to get her to go to church to confess her sins and be converted. She refused. She wrote, “Consider the lilies is the only commandment I always obeyed.”
Introspection is good. I don’t want to be quoted as being against introspection. And the doctrine of sin is important. I almost said, “I am all for sin.” The biblical understanding of sin is important for understanding why we screw up all the time; what is wrong with us. But the point of religion is not only to understand yourself. The primary reason for religion is to know God. Or better, to know yourself as a child of God. And the only way that can happen is to get outside yourself to see what God has given you.
You all know the platitude, “Seeing is believing..” it expresses the common belief that all I need to do is observe what is out there to find the truth of it. But the fact of the matter is, we see what we believe. Our beliefs will in large part determine what we see. Which is another way of saying we see what we expect to see.
The belief that science can find the truth of all things is deeply embedded in the western world. That has been the case ever since the Enlightenment. Then Einstein came along, a hundred years ago, and said, “Theory shapes the observation.” You will see what you want to see. Better put, you won’t see what you are not prepared to see. If you believe the world is devoid of mystery, you wont see it. If you believe in God, creation of heaven and earth, chances are you will see it. And the chance of seeing will improve with eye exercises. Here is one.
Thanksgiving was set this time of year so you could see the harvest. But it is hard to fix your gaze on the harvest in San Diego. We can’t se the harvest; we live in the city, we are separated from the land. We are like Dorothy Parker who, when asked, “What is your favorite animal?” replied, “steak.”
We can’t see the harvest, but you can see autumn. In fact in California you may not see autumn, but you can feel autumn; the gentle days, the crisp nights, the soft light of the afternoon. The glorious colors of the rising and setting of the sun.
It must have been autumn when Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “I can fasten on a beautiful day as a bee fixes on a sunflower. It feeds me, rests me, restores me, as nothing else does. This is a holiness. This will go on after I am dead.”
Holiness; those with the eyes to see can see it.
I envy you Episcopalians because you practice a liturgical exercise in which you expect to encounter holiness. It is called the Eucharist. Eucharist is translated, “thanksgiving.” If you practice the eucharist seriously as an exercise, a spiritual discipline, then Virginia Woolf’s words about nature could apply: the Eucharist feeds me, rests me, restores me, as nothing else does.
The Eucharist opens with The Great Thanksgiving. “It is right and a good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” The Eucharist is an exercise that improves your vision so your whole life will be full of light.
The Rev Mark Trotter