Being Thankful for What We Have
November 22, 2015
During one of my early years of High School, I took a course in Biology. The class met in the old school lab, which was longer than it was wide. Rather than sitting at desks, we sat at lab tables and my particular group was assigned to a spot near the back of the room. Over time, in that particular class, I recognized that whatever was written on the chalkboard was a bit blurry to me. I had experienced this in other classes before but not in quite as pronounced a way as I did in biology class since I sat much further from the front of the room.
I must honestly admit though, that despite the blurriness that I was experiencing in my eyesight, I assumed that this was simply the way everyone saw those same words on the board. I credited the issue to our distance from what we were looking at rather than to a particular problem that was unique to me. One day, however, one of my tablemates loaned me his glasses. “Try these,” he said. Though they were nothing more than a low power set of basic glasses for someone who was slightly nearsighted, I was amazed at what I saw when I put them on. In an instant, what I realized was that the issue was indeed my own particular eyesight. I was the one who had a problem, but, thankfully one that was easily corrected.
In his writings on the Ten Commandments which I have mentioned several times over the last several months, the Methodist Minister J Ellsworth Kalas says that what the tenth commandment reminds all of us of is the simple fact that almost all human beings are prone to have trouble seeing possessions clearly from a spiritual perspective. When it comes to both what others have and to what we have, the tenth command suggests that we all have impaired vision.
You see, this tenth command is more a matter of the intentions of our heart and soul than of our daily actions. If we live always wanting what others have and if we are never satisfied with what we have ourselves, we will likely never find either peace or contentment. I don’t think it is an over exaggeration at all to say that while the tenth commandment may be the most overlooked it can at the same time be one of the most debilitating in our quest to find the life in God that all of us long to have.
Kalas drills down into the idea of coveting and spiritual eyesight in two basic practical ways. First, he says that coveting is the temptation to see too narrowly the possessions of others. And second, he also says that coveting is the temptation to be completely blinded to our own gifts and resources.
First, to covet is to be tempted to see too narrowly the possessions of others. Let’s be honest, virtually all of us do it. If I only lived in the house they do. If I just had in my bank account half the money that he has. If I only had her work hours. If I just had the friends that he has. If I was the boss instead of the low person on the corporate ladder. If I had this or that then I would be happy, content and life would be good – no questions asked.
Virtually all of us have some or most of these feelings floating around in our hearts and minds on almost a daily basis. And, truth be told, our desire to accomplish big things or even to dream of a better existence are not totally wrong. Without question, the tenth command is not insinuating that we should live life without ambitions or life goals. But, at the same time, it is reminding us that when our lives become consumed with what others have, we often completely overlook how they came to have those same things and what it takes for them to take care of or be responsible for those things. In other words, our sight narrows. We see what they have but we are prevented from seeing what their achievements may have cost them. We fail to remember that having more things and more responsibility can be as much of a curse as a blessing. It rarely solves life’s problems.
Just within the last week, I was talking with a friend who recalled his days of working on his master’s degree and something that one of his professors often said. The professor would say, “now folks, I know that you all are sitting out there day dreaming of reaching the top one day and of eventually being the person in charge with lots of people who report to you and with a big title beside your name. But, let me encourage you to be careful with those dreams because one day, you might just wake up and see that they have become reality.”
What that professor was trying to help those students recognize what we have all heard it before, the more possessions we have, the more we have to take care of. The more money that we have, the more we become obsessed with how to keep it or to make more of it. And, the higher we reach on the corporate ladder, the more responsibility we have and the heavier that the job weighs on our mind. Simply stated, few people, despite their possessions, despite their success or despite their status have “got it made” as we like to say or find themselves suddenly content. Success is often won in the trenches and comes with a new set of problems, heartaches and challenges. The gospel truth is that this really never goes away.
And the same time, to covet, is also to be tempted to be completely blinded to the possessions and the resources that we do have. I want to be honest and to say that I purposefully wanted our series on the Ten Commandments to end on this Sunday, the Sunday before Thanksgiving. For, I believe that there is a deep connection between the call to be thankful and the call of the tenth commandment not to covet. Without question, in a very simple way, our ability to truly be grateful for what we have and thus to be a good steward of what we have hinges almost completely on our daily ability to resist the urge to be so consumed with wanting what others have that we fail to appreciate and recognize that which has been in front of us all along. Instead, to live content, to live in gratitude, to live in peace is to daily take stock of the blessings of God and to be able to say that this, this is enough.
To use on old phrase that has been around a long, long time, many of us are like the man who was looking for an elephant while riding on an elephant. In other words, he spent every day looking and longing for something that was already with him every step of every day.
Again, in the writing of J. Ellsworth Kalas, he calls to mind the famous story from the Baptist Minister Russell Conwell who founded Temple University. At one time, Conwell was made a trip to the Middle East. While there, he heard a story that completely changed the way that he looked at his life and the possibilities of his life.
While in the Middle East, a guide told Conwell about an interesting man in the area who had sold everything that he had – his house, possessions, livestock, property and everything else – to fund his pursuit of combing the world in a quest to discover a fortune in diamonds. Sometime after this man made this decision, the new owners of the man’s land, discovered diamonds on his very piece of property!
That which he had given his life in search of had existed all along literally right under his feet.
Thanksgiving and the tenth commandment in tandem call us to do the same. Forget the job that others have, what are the possibilities and potential with the job we do have? Stop worrying about the house someone else lives in, where is our gratitude for the gift of a roof to keep out the rain, a warm bed to sleep in and a family to gather around us already? Can we stop counting the money that others have and find a way to live in gratitude for the financial blessing that we do have that far exceed the majority of the people who live in our world?
Today, let us stop being blinded to what is all around us – instead during this week, with gratitude let us open our eyes to the sparking diamonds in our very midst. Amen.
This sermon in heavily dependent on chapter 10, “A Matter of Vision” of J Ellsworth Kalas’ book, The Ten Commandments from the Backside, Abingdon Press, 1998.