Sermon: Pollyanna

October 11, 2020
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Philippians 4:1-9

by Eric Anderson

On the mountainside lived a pessimistic pueo.

Most pueo are, I think, basically optimistic. They tend to have a sunny view of life, in contrast to some of their owl cousins elsewhere in the world, who tend to have a more moonlit view of life.

That’s because owls in other places hunt at night, and pueo hunt during the day, and explaining that pun didn’t make it any better, did it?

Even without hearing that pun, this was a pessimistic pueo. He expected bad things to happen, and by and large if you expect bad things to happen, you’ll notice them when they do. So he did. It was dry. He noticed. It was wet. He noticed. It was hot. He noticed. It was cold. He noticed.

Flying around the grasslands, he would softly sing, “Who who who who who who who,” and discover, as he’d expected, that there were no mice in sight. Any other pueo could have told him – and a few of them did – that singing owl songs while hunting would scare everything into hiding. “No,” he said grimly. “It’s just the bad way of a bad world.”

One of his friends settled by him one day, determined to change his attitude. It was a cold night, with some rain. “This is dreadful,” said the pessimistic pueo. His friend said, “it will grow the grasses and bring out the mice.” The pessimist said, “And they’ll be too hard to spot in the long grass.” “Nonsense. Tall grass moves more, showing there’s something beneath.” “Unless there’s a high wind – and there will be,” said the pessimistic pueo.

In the morning, the clouds vanished and the sun shone down. “Too hot,” said the pessimist. “I like the way it dries my feathers,” said his friend. “And the wind is blowing,” said the pessimist. “It will make flying easier,” said his friend. “The grasses will hide the mice,” said the pessimist. “But they won’t hear us coming,” said the friend.

It went on, but that’s probably enough to give you more of a sample than you like. As far as I know, it’s still going on. One pueo sees the world and it pains him. The other pueo sees the world and it feeds his spirit.

The question, of course, is which way you would prefer to live?

I do not remember having seen the movie Pollyanna, or rather the 1960 Walt Disney film which was, to my surprise, the second of no less than five movies made from the 1913 novel by Eleanor H. Porter. I know I haven’t read the book. The chances are pretty good that I have seen the movie, as I was a regular viewer of The Wonderful World of Disney as a child and the film was broadcast in that series. Like many of you, however, I knew of the story through the word that entered the common English language. From the Urban Dictionary, pollyanna: “an excessively or blindly optimistic person.”

A little research on Wikipedia, however, had me wondering if I shouldn’t see the actual film or read the actual book. In Eleanor Porter’s novel, Pollyanna Whittler was the daughter of a missionary family, who taught her to play “the Glad Game” – finding something to be glad about in any situation. When Pollyanna went to live with her aunt in Vermont, she found that this practice improved the lives and spirits of many in her small town.

What intrigues me about this is that Pollyanna Whittler did not have a glad or sunny life. She had to live with her aunt because her parents had died. Her aunt attempted to discourage “the Glad Game” with isolation and deprivation. The game received its ultimate test – well, the ultimate test in the first of what became fourteen books by six authors – when Pollyanna was injured by a car and struggled to find something to be glad about.

The Apostle Paul, I’m sure, would have recognized some of his circumstances reflected centuries later. When he wrote to the church in Philippi, a group of people whom he knew and loved deeply, he wrote from imprisonment. We don’t actually know where he was because he didn’t say, most likely because the Philippians already knew. But as Kathryn Matthews writes at ucc.org, “Eugene Peterson calls Philippians ‘Paul’s happiest letter. And the happiness is infectious.’ But here’s the irony underneath that claim: Paul is writing this letter from prison, as he faces death for preaching the gospel, for disrupting the empire and its values.

“He’s not writing it on an especially good day, when things are going well and he’s surrounded by friends. No, he writes from an even deeper joy, springing from his knowledge of, and relationship with, Jesus Christ.”

The same was true of the character Pollyanna. The Glad Game’s power was not on the days when everything was sweet and light. The Glad Game came into its own on the days of disappointments, losses, and sorrows. The Glad Game did not transform the struggles of the world. The Glad Game summoned additional resources with which to confront those struggles. The Glad Game built resilience for living through bad times into better times.

Christians have long practiced ways to encourage, if not the Glad Game, at least the discipline of spiritual resource and soul resilience. One is called the Ignatian Examen, and my favorite description of it comes from the Rev. Molly Baskette, who serves a UCC church in Berkeley, California. Writing at ucc.org, she says, “I learned a new twist on an age-old spiritual practice called the Ignatian Examen at youth group the other day. It’s called Pow Wow How.

“The kids use it to check in with each other and with God. Pow! reveals a recent struggle. Wow! tells of something they are grateful about. And How? tells the group how the speaker saw God at work in their life that week.

“The efficacy of both practicing gratitude and cultivating ‘emodiversity’ (including acknowledging negative emotions) has been widely documented by researchers in positive psychology. That is, doing both these things makes us happier.”

Note the steps. Pow! Consider a recent struggle. Wow! Identify something you are grateful about. How? Where have you seen God in your life?

Pow, said Paul. I am here in confinement, and I miss you terribly. Wow, said Paul. I am feeling the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. How? said Paul. Well, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, I will think about these things.

In this oh-it-seems-endless year of 2020, I entirely understand if you end each day by asking, “What new hellscape will greet us tomorrow?” I’m sure people have done that countless times over the years facing famines, disasters, and wars, living through economic collapses and pandemics. There is a realism to that, and a utility to that. Ignoring hard truths does not help us change them. Ignoring hard truths does not help us endure them. Ignoring hard truths does not help us transform them. Ignoring hard truths gets you sick, or injured, or worse.

But that weary rise to a bleak day lacks something essential, and that is the energy of hope. A friend of mine named Cynthia Geno described a day’s activity on Facebook this week, “Escaping the horror by fermenting vegetables, planting rhizomes, bulbs, and flowering sweet peas, and nurturing along orange fuzz rockets. They are all small investments of hope.”

Small investments in hope. That’s brilliant. That’s wise. That’s essential. That’s commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. Think about those things.

Susan Eastman writes at Working Preacher, “Yes, there is the immediate reality of a world in which human beings are constantly at war somewhere, betraying one another, brutally suppressing each other in order to get ahead, and so forth. This was true of the Roman Empire, and it is true today. Every day we hear and see a culture that focuses on what is false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, and shameful. We begin to think that to act hopefully in such a world is unrealistic.

“But Paul also sees another reality, and it is the reality that holds the future. That is the reality of God’s redemption, already here and still drawing near. Training our minds to think of this reality, and thereby to act with hope, is a daily mental discipline.”

Like the Glad Game. Like Pow! Wow! How! Like any one of countless ways to invite appreciation into your spirit.

Like: “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

And I promise you that the God of peace has been, is, and will always be with you.

Amen.

Watch the Recorded Sermon

The video above includes the entire worship service of October 11, 2020. Clicking the “Play” button will begin playback at the beginning of the sermon.

Sometimes things get added to a sermon, like appreciation for a lovely surprise. That is the case today.

Photo of a mosaic depicting the Apostle Paul by Dat doris – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57218779.

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on October 11, 2020

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