(a sermon for November 22, 2015, Thanksgiving Sunday, based on 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Lamentations 3:19-26 and Joel 2:21-27)
And so it’s Thanksgiving.
But after all is said and done with turkey dinners, family gatherings and the threat of “Black Friday” meltdowns, I would suggest that the real challenge before us this week comes courtesy of our reading this morning from the 1st Epistle to Timothy: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone… so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.”
Actually, I’m reminded here of an old Peanuts comic strip in which Lucy asks Charlie Brown to help her with her homework, promising, “If you do, I’ll be eternally grateful.” Fair enough, Charlie Brown replies. After all, he thinks, I’ve never had anyone be eternally grateful before! So the two of them sit down to look at Lucy’s homework, and Charlie Brown says, “Oh… just subtract 4 from 10 to see how many apples the farmer had left.”
Hearing the answer, Lucy’s eyes open wide. “That’s it?” she says. “That’s it?! I have to be eternally grateful for this?? It was too easy!” But then of course, Charlie Brown – being the good ol’ wishy-washy Charlie Brown that he always is – says in reply, “Well, then… whatever you think is fair.” And to this, Lucy says, “How about if I just say, ‘Thanks, bro?’” Then, as Charlie Brown leaves to go outside, he meets Linus, who asks, “Where’ve you been, Charlie Brown?” “Oh, helping Lucy with her homework,” Charlie answers. “Did she appreciate it?” Linus asks. And Charlie answers, “At greatly reduced rates!”
Well, friends, may I say to you this morning, lovingly, that this is exactly what’s wrong with our thanksgiving celebrations? What with a culture actively trying to commandeer the day as merely a gateway to the Christmas season (don’t even get me started on these stores that have been relentless in moving “Black Friday” to Thursday evening or earlier!), to say nothing of our own sad propensity to take far more credit for our many blessings than we ought; we also are often at risk of giving thanks at “greatly reduced rates!” The sad truth is that as persons and as a people, we have often tended toward exchanging humility for avarice, worship for self-congratulation, and faithfulness for forgetfulness; which is bad enough on the face of it, but particularly tragic for those of us who would claim an identity as God’s people, for it is, in fact, a spirit of true thanksgiving that drives the life of faith. As followers of God, you see, we are called to an “attitude of gratitude,” as it were, making “supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings” for everyone… and everything!
Let me unpack that just a little bit: if we look at that which is central to what we believe as Christians; if we take, for instance, the entirety of the biblical message and boil it down to its most essential truths, you’re going to find a pattern emerging and that pattern always begins with praise and thanksgiving. The words of the Psalmist, which are amongst my very favorite: “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.” (Psalm 103:1-2) There is inherent in everything we believe this profound awareness that God has acted for us; that everything we have, everything we know, everything we can ever hope to be comes to us from God. This is a theme that runs all through our readings for this morning: from Lamentations, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;” from Joel, “Do not fear, O Soil… do not fear, you animals of the field… children of Zion, be glad,” for “the LORD has done great things;” as well as in literally hundreds of other places we could name in scripture, what we have here is a God who seeks to bless his creation in a multitude of ways; and who is deserving of our thankfulness and praise!
And that’s central to everything we understand to be true about our faith; but the other piece of that “core value,” if you will, is our embracing a true sense of gratitude for all that God has done and continues to do; and how that, in turn, serves as our motivation to live our lives faithfully, or as it’s expressed in 1st Timothy, to live “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” To put it another way, it’s a “cycle of thanksgiving;” in which faith leads to gratitude, gratitude leads to action, action nurtures faith, and that faith inspires more gratitude! Ultimately, you see, it is a spirit of thanksgiving (or, conversely, the lack of it) that affects most of what we do or what we envision for our lives and for the world; and it has a way of very quietly, but most certainly, reshaping who we are as people. It’s a prayerful attitude in which true gratitude for all that the Lord has given us becomes the tool by which we are empowered to show God’s love to others. And that all starts, as the Epistle succinctly puts it, by having “thanksgivings be made for everyone” around us; up to and including, interestingly enough, “kings and all who are in high positions.” A challenging proposition, to be sure, especially in these times; but then, how are we as people of faith ever to change the world for the sake of God’s kingdom if we can’t first prayerfully express our true thanksgiving for all those things – and all those people – that God has placed on our pathways?
There’s an old story about an elderly couple – married 60 years – and one evening, they’re sitting out on their front porch swing, rocking together in the quiet and watching a beautiful sunset. And as they sit there, the old man begins to ponder as to just how much this woman who is sitting beside him has meant to him in his life. And so, filled up with gratitude in that moment, the old man reaches out his hand to hers, takes her hand in his own and finally, after another long and deep moment of quiet, he says to her, “You know, deah… you’ve been such a wonderful wife for all these years that there are times I can hardly keep from telling you.”
That’s how it goes, you know; most of the time, it’s not that we don’t know we’re blessed. The very fact that we have “gathered together” here in this sanctuary this morning acknowledges that we do know how much we owe to God for our lives, our health, our food… that we are aware of how God has blessed us by our families, through our friends, in our work and by our play… that we are indeed the recipients of a great harvest of blessing that comes to us by faith and in infinite and redeeming love. But like the old man in that story, so often we hold our gratitude inside: we never say it aloud and certainly we never say it to God, and thus true thanksgiving is never wholly expressed; which is not only our first mistake as people of faith, but it’s also what breaks this all important cycle of thanksgiving, this simple “attitude of gratitude” on which everything else we say and do as God’s people – and might I add, as the church – proceeds.
In the end, you see, this has less to do with the fourth Thursday in November and the “official” beginning of the holiday season than it does with you and I seeking to be the persons and people God has called us to be. This week, and always, we need to be cultivating within us and around us a prayerful spirit of thanksgiving; and that begins with actually using words say thank you, and then following that up with lives that say we mean it. For when we do, things change, for us, and by extension, for the world; beginning with this Thursday becoming a true festival of God’s surpassing grace that will last far beyond the holidays.
After all, beloved, we are a blessed people: “the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven,” as Abraham Lincoln famously put it in his Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863; led by “the gracious hand which [has] preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us.” Moreover, as God’s own people, we are loved beyond measure and without limit; in that love we are given life that is both abundant in this world and eternal in the next; and we are gathered as a community of faith that makes us, both individually and collectively, more than we could ever dream of being.
Whatever our difficulties this day; whatever challenges are ours as we go out into the world, at the very heart of it all remains this truth that in more ways than we can begin to imagine, God has blessed us.
So how else can we respond to this but with true thanksgiving, and then, with acts of love?
Happy Thanksgiving, my dear friends at East Church; and may our thanks, yours and mine, be unto God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry