(Preached at Alma United Church, October 8, 2017)
(A short note to my non-Canadian readers: Thanksgiving for Canadians is the second Monday in October, and we celebrate today as Thanksgiving Sunday)
This is the point in the sermon where I generally put a joke, but I’ve been reading the news lately, and I’m just not up to it.
Yesterday’s news headlines:
Hurricane Nate death toll rises, Florida asks Trump to declare state of emergency pre-landfall.
Ontario teens killed in crash during police chase in Hamilton.
Missing head and legs of Swedish journalist have been found, police say.
Trump says “only one thing will work” with nuclear-armed North Korea.
2 BC seniors live in a van and struggle to make ends meet.
There may be a ticking climate bomb right under your feet.
Friday 13 Apocalypse warning: Asteroid flyby will “mark the return of Mother Mary.”
And perhaps worst of all, at least for red-blooded Canadian males:
Watching hockey could affect fans with cardiovascular disease.
Would you pray with me and for me, please…
It’s so easy to get caught up in the bad news, isn’t it. It’s so prevalent these days, and it’s hard not to believe that the world is worse off than it was fifty or even ten years ago.
What we used to find once a day, in print on our doorstep is now constantly streamed to our phones. All I had to do to find depressing headlines from around the globe was to open up Google, and there they are, just below the search bar.
New ones every hour, from all over Canada and the world.
Those headlines, though, often cause more harm than good. We actually don’t need to know most of the stuff they tell us, and knowing all of that bad news detracts us from something really, really important.
And that is that life is much, much, much, much better than it was fifty years ago.
How many people here believe that?
I may be in the minority this morning, but before you make your final decision, let me give you some other headlines I read, along with some startling and not-so-startling facts.
First, the headlines and news stories:
Thanks to an online campaign created by comedian and talk show host Stephen Colbert, social media was flooded with awkward photos of celebrities in their teen years – and the pictures managed to raise $1 million.
Lost pet found years later, thanks to Hurricane Irma.
4 US states show decline in obesity for the first time in ten years
Ohio State to make college tuition-free for low and moderate income students
Fierce competition to be the kindest woman inside a women’s prison
Obama invites civic leaders to a summit for solving the world’s most common problems
Underage and binge drinking in the US is drying up
At 111, oldest surviving WWII veteran still enjoys whiskey and cigars
Cancer survivor becomes nurse at hospital that treated her
Danni Schultz might be legally blind, but she doesn’t let that stop her from playing golf, cheerleading, and being in the marching band.
Former MMA fighter befriends teen with Downs Syndrome
For micro-preemie quads, reaching kindergarten is a major achievement
Physicians have told the family that the children are going to be pretty normal, though there isn’t much data on such quads. Just 10 to 15 years ago, micro-preemies rarely survived, and it was extremely unusual for all four to live.
Cops took $60 from a hot dog vendor, so the internet gave him $87,000 back
When Beto Matias headed onto the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, earlier this month with a cart full of hot dogs and fixings, he just hoped to make a little money off hungry college football fans. Instead, his day ended in a now viral confrontation with university police, in which he received a ticket for operating without a license. The officer took $60 from Matias’ wallet and said a judge would decide whether he got the money back.
Campus officials confirmed that other vendors were warned, but Matias was the only vendor fined.
In the two weeks since the Sept. 9 incident, strangers on the internet have helped to turn Matias’ loss into an opportunity, donating more than $87,000 to a GoFundMe campaign launched by Martin Flores, the bystander who recorded the incident. Flores hopes to eventually raise enough money to buy Matias a fully-licensed hot dog cart.
“What was important on Saturday was to show the public the support that was there,” said Flores, a Berkeley alumnus who works in the Los Angeles County Superior Court system. “The community came together not knowing this man, and the majority of these donations were humble donations of five, ten dollars. It’s almost like they bought an online hot dog that they’re never going to eat just to show solidarity.”
Strangers give teen with special needs a birthday to remember:
Aubree Rosenblum has already received what she wanted for her 16th birthday on Sept. 23: keychains — more 200 of them, in fact, with some arriving from as far away as Bali, Germany and Venezuela.
Aubree’s mother, Marla, put out the call on social media because she knew that her daughter, who has special needs, wouldn’t be getting a driver’s license or any of the other typical presents that come with that big birthday. So she asked for people to send her daughter her favorite obsession: a keychain.
The world responded.
In one day, she received 107 keychains. One person sent his entire collection of 38 keychains.
Cambridge, Ontario groom jumps into river to save drowning boy
Guelph, Ontario man buys all-terrain vehicle and goes to Houston, rescues dozens from flood waters
The last one was interesting to me because I know members of the man’s extended family. This particular man is so self-effacing that his brother and sister-in-law found out about it by reading the news. And it was the buddy that went with him, not the man himself, who told the papers.
I think we would all agree that these stories spotlight the best of human nature. But human nature has always been good, hasn’t it?
I deeply believe that most human beings, in most circumstances, are good at heart. We are social beings, and social animals of all types find it more advantageous to help one another than to harm one another.
So why aren’t these good news stories more prominent?
I think one reason they’re not more prominent is that they’re so ordinary. I encounter dozens of people on an average day, and most of them are pleasant to me. Many times in my life I’ve been the recipient of generous acts of kindness from acquaintances and strangers.
Little and big acts of heroism happen every single day, in every country of the world in which human beings reside. It’s how we are.
In other good news, scientific advances have made what was extraordinary only a few decades ago commonplace.
In 1935, the year before my mother was born, the life expectancy at birth for men was 59.9, for women 63.9. In 1960, the year I was born, the life expectancy at birth for men was 66.6 years, for women 73.1. How many of you here have exceeded those expectations? How many of you expect to exceed those expectations?
In 2010, the life expectancy at birth for men was 76.2, for women 81.1. How many of you have exceeded those expectations?
Death rates from infectious disease, heart attack and stroke, and many types of cancer have fallen.
It isn’t just death rates that have fallen. Life expectancy is closely tied to income, and the rate of extreme poverty in the world has fallen, both in total numbers of people and in the percentage of the world’s population. In 1990, the percentage of the global population living in extreme poverty, which as of 2015 is defined as living on $1.90 per day or less, was 43%. In 2011 that percentage was 21%.
As human understanding of science improves, things become possible that could not even have been imagined in 1960.
Babies born at 32 weeks gestation, often weighing less than two pounds, are now more likely to survive than not. Specialized wheelchairs and other technology allow for more involvement in daily life than ever before for those with physical impairments. That marvel of modern life, the internet, allows us to connect with people around the world and support them in their struggles, whether they need keychains or money or the recognition that a genocide is happening.
War and peace loom big on our minds right now, and it’s easy to forget that what we’re experiencing now is actually unprecedented in human history. There are fewer total wars going on in the world right now than there have ever been in recorded history, with the number of wars annually falling steadily since about 1700.
Our understanding that our shared humanity is more important than any differences between us has grown by leaps and bounds in the last half century. I remember that when I was growing up children with physical and developmental disabilities were ostracized, with fewer opportunities for education and socialization than their more gifted peers. They were seen as defective, not worthy of full integration. They were called names. People who didn’t happen to be white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants also had a harder time of it in the first half of this century, at least in North America. And what our First Nations people endured was beyond excusable.
The world is far from perfect, because human beings are not and will never be perfect, at least not in this life.
But it’s easy to forget, in the press of daily life and in the barrage of bad news from the media, that life as a human being is better now than it has ever been before in human history.
We are too often like the nine lepers in our gospel story today, hurrying on to see the priests and get on with our lives post-leprosy, than the one who turned back. We are too often like the Israelites, who almost as soon as they escaped from slavery, started complaining about the rations and worshipping a golden idol.
Let us, on this Thanksgiving Sunday, to take the time to be truly grateful for everything we have. Let us, like the Samaritan leper, turn back to our God and give thanks for those gifts. And let us keep in mind the admonishment of our scripture from Deuteronomy. Let us not become so full of ourselves and our things that we forget the God who leads us all out of bondage.