When religions lobby: 11-23-11
The violence in sacred texts: 11-25-11

A Thanksgiving sermon: 11-24-11

For my Thanksgiving post this year I'm going to give you the text of a sermon I preached earlier this week at an ecumenical Thanksgiving service in Blue Springs, Mo.

Prayer_HandsObviously it is a Christian sermon. But perhaps non-Christian readers here will get a sense of what such sermons are like. And if you don't like it, you have another reason to give thanks today, which is that you didn't have to hear it in person. Thanksgiving blessings on all of you. Here's the sermon, which begins with a prayer. (By the way, the title of the sermon was "5Q Plus 5Q," a title I explained at the end.)

Please pray with me: Eternal God in Christ, out of darkness you bring light, out of sickness, health, and out of death, life. So I ask that you take these inadequate words of mine and make them your word for us in this time and place, for I pray it in the name of your very Word, Christ Jesus. Amen.

The American humorist, Finley Peter Dunne – who, like me, spent years on a newspaper trying to make people appreciate life enough to laugh at it now and then – once put these words about the Thanksgiving holiday into the mouth of his character Mr. Dooley: “’Twas founded by the Puritans to give thanks for being preserved from the Indians, and we keep it to give thanks we are preserved from the Puritans.”

Well, I’m not sure that’s very good history and I’m not sure it would pass muster today for political correctness, but it does seem to me to be said in the spirit of our New Testament reading from Philippians, which calls on us to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.“

What can the Apostle Paul possibly mean in his letter to the church at Philippi when he says rejoice always? Probably the same thing he means in his letter to the church at Thessalonica when he says we are to give thanks in all circumstances.

In his paraphrase of the Bible called The Message, Eugene Peterson puts that Thessalonians passage this way: “thank God no matter what happens."

The New King James Version says: “In everything give thanks.” That’s a reminder that we are called to be thankful “in” everything, not necessarily “for” everything. It’s the attitude that’s important. The Good News Bible carries that same meaning by using the words “Be thankful in all circumstances.

These are not just words from an individual self-help book meant to infuse us with a winning attitude. Rather, these are words of encouragement and even correction to the covenant community, to the whole body of Christ, no matter which corner of the kingdom we Christians call home. We are to rejoice always. We are to give thanks in all circumstances.

Those are the words that describe the attitude that should mark us as Christians. The Rev. Jesse Jackson no doubt would call it the attitude of gratitude. The great Scottish preacher and Bible scholar William Barclay says it plainly: “There is always something for which to give thanks.”

Our natural and quite understandable response to that is: “Oh, puh-leeze. You can’t tell me that people in Nazi concentration camps were thankful.”

As a matter of fact, I can tell you a little about that. Corrie ten Boom, whose family spent much of the war years in Holland hiding Jews from the German occupiers, was taken to prison with her family when they were found out.

The detention camp was nearly overrun with fleas, but Corrie came to give thanks for the fleas because the guards did not like them. In fact, the guards hated the fleas so much that they wouldn’t come into the cells Corrie and her family occupied. That prevented those guards from doing worse things to the prisoners than what the fleas could do. So, thought Corrie, thank God for the fleas. Imagine that.

“Thank God no matter what happens.” “In everything give thanks.” “Be thankful in all circumstances.” “Rejoice always.”

Admittedly, Corrie ten Boom’s life is not our life. Most of us never will have to face anything like Nazi death camps. Our own challenge is more often to find ways to live with gratitude when we are feeling overwhelmed by life and disconnected from God.

Our call to worship today was drawn from Psalm 100, which calls on us to make a joyful noise to the Lord and to enter into God’s gates with thanksgiving. How then do we reclaim the joy of Psalm 100? How do we find a way in all circumstances to give thanks and to praise God? How do we enter God’s courts with singing and praise? Again, let me turn to Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible. Here’s how he renders part of Psalm 100: “Enter with the password: ‘Thank you!’”

My old friend Dave in my congregation has a simple theology. Asked what it is, he’ll say, “I’m wrong. God forgives me. Thank you, God.” Hard to do better than that.

Once in a Bible study class I often attend at my church, we were talking about what we do in those times when we feel cut off from God, when we have entered an arid spiritual season, the kind that happens to all of us eventually.

My friend Jane offered this beautiful answer: “When I feel disconnected from God, what helps me is an attitude of gratitude. (Jane must know Jesse Jackson.) When the washing machine works and the daffodils come up and there’s food on the table, I give thanks for that and it helps.”

“Thank God no matter what happens.” “In everything give thanks.” “Be thankful in all circumstances.” “Rejoice always.”

So a young woman went to the doctor. He told her she had only six months to live. She was in shock.

“Isn’t there anything that can be done?” she asked. After all, she was still young and had many things left to do in life.

The doctor thought a long while and finally offered her this solution: “Go out and find the ugliest, meanest man in the county and marry him. Make sure he’ll constantly criticize you and complain about everything you say or do. Then go out and buy the most beat-up old car you can find, preferably one that won't run all of the time. Next, buy a run down old house in a bad part of town.”

The young woman looked at the doctor in disbelief and asked, “Doc, are you sure that this will help me to live longer?”

“Oh, not at all,” he replied. “But it sure will make six months seem like a lifetime!"

Look, life throws us curveballs. Our best laid plans go astray. Like Jesus himself, sometimes we are people of sorrow, acquainted with grief. It’s in those times that we must remember our gratitude for what God has already done for us. We must live lives of gratitude not to earn God’s favor but because we are thankful that God first loved us – loved us enough to die for us.

It’s not easy sometimes to be grateful in all things. I can tell you that for more than a decade now I’ve been angry at the terrorists of Sept. 11, 2001, who murdered my nephew. As many of you know, Karleton was a passenger on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. Why in God’s name would I give thanks for that? I don’t. I won’t.

But that doesn’t stop me from being grateful for the 31 years we had with Karleton. It doesn’t stop me from giving God thanks for the strength that his widow, Haven, and his mother, my sister Barbara, have found to allow her to carry on without him. It doesn’t prevent me from praising God for Karleton’s and Haven’s two sons, one of whom was born eight months after Karleton died, and one of whom was only a year and a half years old on 9-11 and, thus, will never remember his daddy.

My call is to find God’s blessings in the midst of this pain, to find God’s comfort and rest in the middle of anger and sorrow and to give thanks. And because of the incarnation, Christians know we have a God who has suffered human pain and understands it, a God who loves us through the worst parts.

Just before Thanksgiving some years ago, it was raining one morning, and the colossal pile of leaves I’d raked in the back yard the day before was getting increasingly sodden.

TG-candlesBy early afternoon, however, the rain vaporized to a mere mist, and I decided to get the wet, messy leaf-bagging job done. Under normal conditions, I'd have waited a day or two for better weather, but all these leaves were stacked in the yard of a home I was selling — a home, in fact, I was to turn over to the new owners within 36 hours. So I couldn't wait.

As I stuffed what seemed like billions of slimy leaves into yellow trash bags, I was tempted to curse my fate. What an awful job. My work gloves were soaked and cold and it got worse from there.

But for reasons I still can't explain, I began to think about Thanksgiving. And when I did, I felt a little embarrassed and even slightly ashamed to be griping about the soggy work I was doing. The work, after all, meant that I was blessed enough to own a home (in fact, for a few days, my wife and I owned two homes). It meant I was healthy enough to do the work. It meant I had a job that allowed me to take some vacation time to take care of moving from one house to another. It meant I owned a rake and some bags. And that I lived in a place where public and private arrangements can be made to haul away trash and yard waste (left over even after I had stuffed tons into our compost bin).

In a culture that by historical standards is hugely affluent, we often find ourselves complaining without taking time to understand that our temporary troubles are really indications of our fortune, our wealth, our luck, our blessings. When we change the reeking diapers of our babies or grandbabies, do we see just the annoying mess or, rather, the profoundly promising bundle of biology and spirit who needs our help?

The Thanksgiving season is a good time to teach ourselves anew to discern blessings in the midst of what may seem like curses. All we have to do to find a model for being grateful like that is look to Jesus: Just hours before his own death, he gave thanks for something as simple and mundane as a meal.

“Thank God no matter what happens.” “In everything give thanks.” “Be thankful in all circumstances.” “Rejoice always.”

By being Thanksgiving people, we demonstrate that we don't take our gifts for granted. We also show that we also don't take the Giver for granted. And I can tell you that humans and God both appreciate that.

Indeed, God asks us for our thanksgiving, even when we don’t feel like offering it so that we might experience the blessings that gratitude brings. God often hides in the ordinary routine of our lives, in our waking, our sleeping, our working, our playing. Our practice of thanksgiving will bring God to our sight – or at least to the sight of our heart.

In his great poem, "Musee des Beaux Arts," W.H. Auden spoke of the Old Masters painters: “About suffering,” he wrote, “they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well, they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

Well, not just suffering takes place while someone is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along – that is, in the routine of our lives. God also is present in those times and places. And it takes a heart full of gratitude, a heart full of thanksgiving to recognize the divine presence in our midst.

When we practice gratitude, when we give thanks in all circumstances, we will make a joyful noise to the Lord, we will worship the Lord with gladness and come into his presence with singing, we will rejoice always. We will know that the Lord is God, that God made us and we belong to God. We will know that we are God’s people, the sheep of God’s pasture. Every day we will want to enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. We will want to give thanks to God and bless his name, for the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

Before I close, let me answer your question about why I called this sermon 5Q plus 5Q. When we were little, my three sisters and I used to tell each other this riddle: What is 5Q plus 5Q. The answer? 10Q, to which we would say, “You’re welcome.” So now that we’re scattered coast to coast, we stay in touch mostly by e-mail, and when we want to express our gratitude for something, we simply type either 5Q plus 5Q or 10Q. You’re free to steal this silly idea. 10Q to God. Amen.

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Some faith communities seem to be joining the Occupy Wall Street movement by withdrawing money from Wall Street banks in protest. Why would it not surprise us to find the banks charging a fee for that?


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