Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | November 22, 2020
Deuteronomy 8:7-18, 1 Thessalonians 5: 12-18
Today is the last Sunday before Advent. In the Revised Common Lectionary the theme is Christ the King Sunday and that is the direction I had planned to take for this sermon and service. But it’s also the last Sunday before Thanksgiving and there is no ecumenical Thanksgiving service this year. And in the midst of this pandemic I thought it was worth looking once again at the subject of “Giving Thanks in All Circumstances.”
What is your favorite holiday? Most people answer “Christmas.” And when I was a kid, that was mine as well. But as an adult, my favorite holiday, in fact, my favorite day of the year BY FAR is Thanksgiving. I love everything about it: the swooning at the smells emanating from the kitchen beforehand, the turkey and gravy and pies and especially the stuffing, the utterly stuffed stupor after the meal, the traditional football games on TV, the fact that I don’t have to work on Thanksgiving, unlike Christmas and Easter. But most of all, for me and I’m sure for you all, it’s being with family and friends on Thanksgiving.
Not this year. We have plotted and schemed, but there’s not a safe way for us to do it. And that stinks!
Life is hard. Even without a pandemic, life is hard. If it isn’t hard for you today, it was last month or will be next month. That’s just a fact of life this side of heaven. You or your someone in your household may be facing health issues, financial struggles, relationship challenges, mental health concerns, employment difficulties…you may be grieving the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a dream or …who knows?
And yet scripture calls us to “give thanks in all circumstances.”
That powerful line comes from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonika, chapter five. He concludes his letter this way: …we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13 esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.
And then the crescendo: 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
I admit that Paul is not my favorite theologian. There are parts of Paul’s letters that make me squirm, but I believe this passage is truly inspired.
Listen again. In fact, repeat these last few lines back to me. I Thessalonians 5:16-18: Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Now that might seem like an insensitive platitude to some of you. How can I give thanks when this is the first Thanksgiving without my mother? How can I give thanks when my child has just been diagnosed with something very scary? How can I give thanks when I don’t have a job? How can I give thanks when my lifelong dream is slipping away? How can I give thanks when my family is a mess? How can I give thanks when the world is such a mess?
Giving thanks in all circumstances is not an invitation to engage in mindless positive thinking.
Giving thanks in all circumstances is not a call to ignore or suppress grief. In fact, isn’t grieving a form of gratitude? We are grateful for the person we are now missing.“Give thanks in all circumstances.” This is one of those cases where the precise wording is crucial. Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Paul is NOT saying, “Give thanks FOR all circumstances.” Heavens! How can one be thankful for the devastating occurrences in life? No, Paul is saying, “Give thanks IN all circumstances.” The difference in preposition is huge.
Now, my friends, Paul is well acquainted with challenges in life. Remember that he is not living some cushy life writing books in some luxurious office protected from the vicissitudes of life. In II Corinthians he writes of some of his struggles in life thus far: “Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. (He’s not talking about weed; he’s talking about rocks.) Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters;27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” II Corinthians 11:25-27
And yet he says, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Do you know what a boll weevil is, besides a crossword answer? A boll weevil is an insect that kills cotton. And yet, in the little town of Enterprise, Alabama, is a statue, a monument to the boll weevil. In the early 20th century Enterprise was a thriving little town whose economy was entirely dependent on the surrounding cotton fields. In 1915 came an infestation of boll weevils. The crop was destroyed. The next years’ crop also destroyed. In desperations, the farmers turned to a new crop: peanuts. Peanut farming was immediately so profitable it paid off the debts of the previous few seasons. So, in 1919 the town built a monument to the boll weevil.
In the midst of this pandemic, which has cost so many lives and so much economic devastation and so much social disruption, are there any silver linings? Obviously, we’ve all had a little attitude re-adjustment about what is truly important in our lives.
In our family, we have a couple of specific things for which I am grateful. The pandemic forced our son Andy, who was already living with us for the time being, to work from home. He set up a card table in our porch and spends his days working about eight feet away from where I work at the desk in the corner of the porch. Andy and I talk sports and stock market and share jokes throughout the day. We both overlook our tree-filled backyard and Andy has gotten interested in the birds at the feeder for the first time in his life. It’s been really fun for both of us. Would never have happened without the pandemic.
Our daughter Anji was a few classes short of graduation from Lake Forest College near Chicago when she took a break to work for a couple of years. Now she is able to attend college online through her school, thanks to the pandemic. With luck and hard work, she will graduate next month. Without the pandemic she wouldn’t have been able to take classes online from her school, and she really is grateful to graduate from that college.
Are there pandemic-related things you can think of, for which you are thankful?
This week I read Michael J. Fox’s latest book, No Time Like the Future. Fox is the acclaimed TV and movie actor, starring in Family Ties, Spin City, the Back to the Future movies. Most of you know that he has struggled with Parkinson’s Disease for thirty years. What I didn’t know is that in 2018 he underwent an excruciatingly difficult surgery to remove a tumor from his spinal cord. After months of rehab learning to walk again, he fell while home alone and shattered his left arm in a spiral fracture, requiring 19 pins to repair. This trifecta seriously challenged his usual optimism. The book is a tremendous read, lots of humor and much inspiration and love. And life lessons for dealing with challenging circumstances. Again, the title is No Time Like the Future.
Do you know when it was that Thanksgiving became an official US holiday? What year? 1863. What was going on then? The Civil War, in which more Americans would die than any other war in history, including WW II. Yet Abraham Lincoln called for a national day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. At the height of the Civil War, Lincoln called Americans to remember that “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies . . . are the gracious gifts of the Most High God.” Although the country was mired in deep conflict, Lincoln recognized both God’s provision and mercy, exhorting Americans to give thanks to God and to intercede on behalf of their country and its citizens who were suffering.
Now let me be clear: I don’t believe that God sends us terrible things. Yes, terrible things happen, but I don’t believe God sends them; not to test us, not to make us better people, not to teach us what we need to know. As one victim of a horrible car crash noted, “Don’t confuse God with life.” Some horrible things happen because people act stupidly—driving drunk, living unhealthfully, etc. Some horrible things happen because people act horribly, violently. But a whole lot of horrible things happen for no discernible reason at all, simply because the universe is a largely random place.
So, my point is to recognize the wisdom of Paul’s words of encouragement: “Give thanks in all circumstances.” To illustrate: We don’t say “Thank you, God, that Mom has cancer.” But in the face of Mom’s cancer, can we say something like: “Thank you, God, that we’re not facing this alone. Thanks for our friends and for our church. Thanks for the medical team. Thanks for the chemotherapy drugs, and for the pain medications. Thanks for the love that we share that makes this so scary, for how dear Mom is to us. And thanks, God, for your presence in these trying times.”
Even in the circumstance of death there are things for which we can be thankful. Thanks for the deep love and affection we shared, that makes this time so painful. Thank you, Gracious and Eternal God, for your love that never ends, for the promise of resurrection and joyous heavenly reunion.”
“The sufferings we now endure,” writes Paul in Romans 8:18, “cannot compare to the glory that awaits us.” Are you suffering? Are you tired? Are you scared? Breathe. Breathe deeply. Remember that promise: The sufferings we now endure cannot compare to the glory that awaits us.”
I’m sure I’ve shared this with you a few times already. Often within a few seconds of waking I am pretty tense, as I remember the hard things going on in my life right now, or all the things I have to do today. So, each morning I write in my gratitude journal. It’s the first thing I do in my daily quiet time. I write down all the things for which I am thankful. And I take a few deep breaths and get my day off to a better start.
I invite you to take a moment right now. Think of the situation in your life that is troubling you the most. For what in these circumstances can you give thanks? I give you the opportunity to do so now in silent meditation.
One more story. Do you know the name Martin Rinkart? Rinkart was a pastor in Eilenburg, Saxony (today Germany) in the early 17th century. That town was besieged several times during the Thirty Years War. Rinkart’s home became a small refugee camp, even though there was barely enough food for his own family. Then the plague swept through the town. One of the town’s four pastors fled. Two others died. Rinkart was left as the sole pastor. At the height of the plague, in 1637, Rinkart performed sometimes 40 or 50 funerals a day. All told that year he officiated at almost 5000 funerals, including that of his wife.
Rinkart was a poet and wrote the words to many hymns, including a table grace that was later set to music. We know it as the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God.” In the midst of circumstance beyond our imagining, Rinkart was thanking God. Hymn #643.
God, our Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer and Friend, we thank you for all your gifts to us in this life—for amazing grace and saving face, for a relaxing pace in front of the fireplace. We praise you for gravy without lumps, for kids without mumps, for camels with humps, for a heart that pumps and thumps with love and delight.
We thank you for the scent of a just ripe pear, for steaming French fries at the state fair, for when we win on a dare and for compassionate care. We are grateful for clear, cool waters with frolicking otters, for the cry of a loon in the summer’s full moon, for snow-jewels sparkling on a bright winter’s noon.
Thanks for our little ones with their footie pajamas, with their sticky hugs, and refrigerator art. And thanks for our old ones, with their delightful stories, their time-tested faith and compassionate hearts.
God, we thank you for our First Nation neighbors. We thank you for second chances. We are grateful for third acts and fourth-quarter comebacks. We praise you for Fifth Steps, sixth sense and for seventh day rest.
We praise you for our heritage within this faith family, the amazing courage of Abram and Sarai, in old age leaving their hometown for lands unknown. We thank you for Moses, plucked from obscurity to lead his stiff-necked people through the wilderness. We thank you for the assistance of Rahab. We celebrate the bravery of Nathan, who dared confront a king with his sin. We thank you for King David, with his great gifts for leadership and music, and for his sincere repentance. We thank you for the prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and the others—who had the gift of perceiving how far the leaders and the people had strayed from your will, and who were fearless in speaking the truth. We praise you for the faithful love of Ruth, the courageous preaching of John the Baptist.
And above all, where our words fall infinitely short of your gift, we thank you for Jesus. We thank you for his eternal faithfulness to You. For his compassion for the poor and powerless and his call to us to follow in paths of justice. For dandling children on his knee and telling stuffy grown-ups that we must become like children to enter the kingdom; for his expanding our ideas on who is included in the party and loved by you. For his forgiving our sins. For his demanding that we must love our enemies and give up the way of violence. For his courage in the face of opposition, and when, in the garden, courage was lacking, his willingness still to be faithful. We praise you, Eternal God, for your faithfulness to Jesus, raising him from the dead, and filling the world with the promise that life in you is stronger than death, and that love never ends. Amen and amen!