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Giving Thanks

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MARK6:25-33: Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

There is an anthem we sang at the Thanksgiving service last year and will sing again this year called “A Simple Thanksgiving.”  It’s based on a Shaker hymn called, “Simple Gifts,” by Elder Joseph Brackett and is combined with “This is My Father’s World”.  Listen to the words penned by Elder Brackett:

“‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free, ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, And when we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

I’d like invite you to think with me about the simple gifts for which to be thankful in the season of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving today is a mild-mannered holiday full of football, hot apple pie, and family reunions even though that’s not a realistic historical picture of Thanksgiving. It’s easy during this season of holidays to get so caught up in the preparations – the shopping, cooking, cleaning, errand-running and all the rest – to miss the actual event itself. But if we choose, we can find a moment or two where we not only observe the holiday but allow it to draw us beyond the ordinary. Which is only appropriate, as the word holiday itself is a combination of words, “holy day,” a day set aside to contemplate and give thanks for the blessings of this life.

It is a paradox though. In times of plenty we often become indifferent. The smallest gifts are overlooked and unappreciated and our giving of “thanks” sometimes comes automatically and without much faith behind it. But, let hard times come and the threat that these gifts will be taken from us jolts us into sudden recognition and gratitude. Because life can be difficult for many people, one of the hardest things to do is take each day with an attitude of gratefulness. In the letter Paul wrote the Christians in the little church that he had established in the city of Thessalonica, he said:

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Give thanks in all circumstances! Whenever I mention this text someone always says, “Give thanks in all circumstances? Does that mean that we should give thanks for hunger and poverty and illness and disaster?” I remind us all that this text doesn’t ask us to give thanks for all circumstances, but in all circumstances. We should not give thanks for hunger, poverty and illness—but we can give thanks even when we are hungry, poor or ill.

You will probably remember this incident from the 16th chapter of Acts. Paul and Silas had been preaching about Christ, and had offended a local businessman who had them thrown in prison. This was the same Paul who tells us to be thankful in all circumstances. Before the jailers locked Paul and Silas in their cells, they removed their shirts and beat them severely with rods. At midnight, Paul and Silas were sitting in their cells praying and singing hymns to God, when an earthquake rocked the jail and opened the doors. I find it less amazing that the earthquake freed them than that they were praying and singing hymns. Can you imagine being beaten and thrown in prison? Would you feel like praying? Probably! Would you feel like singing? Probably not! We might pray that God would help us, but we would probably not sing hymns. Singing is a joyful enterprise! But Paul and Silas were singing hymns. Why?

  • Paul and Silas certainly were not singing hymns because they enjoyed punishment. They were not from the “Beat me; it feels so good” crowd.
  • They were singing hymns because they felt the presence and the power of God.
  • They were singing hymns because they knew that, however the game looked at that point, God had already scored the winning touchdown at the cross and the open tomb.
  • They were singing hymns because they knew that the darkness of Good Friday is followed by the sunrise of Easter.
  • They were singing hymns because they knew that, though God might permit their enemies to lash their backs, he would not permit them to win.
  • They were singing hymns because they knew that they had victory in their hands.
  • They were singing hymns because the Lord was their shepherd, and they would never want.
  • They were singing hymns because, even when they walked through the darkest valley, they need have no fear—because God was with them. His rod and staff would comfort them.
  • They were singing hymns because they knew that God would prepare a table before them in the presence of their enemies.
  • They were singing hymns because God’s goodness and mercy would follow them all the days of their lives.
  • They were singing hymns because they would dwell in the house of the Lord forevermore.

Perhaps that explains how Paul—the same Paul who had been beaten and thrown in prison—could exhort us to give thanks in all circumstances. He had not given thanks for his imprisonment, but had given thanks that God was with him even in the bowels of that jail. He does not ask us to give thanks for poverty, hunger, illness or grief. He does call us to give thanks in the midst of these circumstances, knowing that God is with us through them all.

During summer vacations from seminary, a young pastor-to-be worked for a county highway department. While other students worked for the kingdom as summer camp leaders and youth group interns, he filled potholes and scooped up roadkill. A graduate school degree was unimportant to his supervisors, so he quickly found himself at the bottom of the pecking order doing tasks no one else would do. The only person lower than him was a man in his sixties named Elvin. By most standards, his life was pathetic. He never got beyond the third grade. His wife ran off with another man. His daughter was a teenage runaway. Elvin couldn’t read or write. He was the butt of all the jokes at the highway department.

He was a tragic human being, except in one regard. Every day Elvin opened his lunch box and pulled out a bologna sandwich. Shutting his eyes, he prayed, “I thank you, O Lord, for this good bounty from your good earth.” Elvin didn’t have much to make him grateful. He had a meager job and some co-workers who constantly poked fun behind his back. He had a set of work clothes, a place to sleep, and an old crusty sandwich. It wasn’t very much. But every noon, he spoke a few fragile words revealing a heart full of gratitude.

We have a God who is generous in all seasons, giving us gifts that we do not expect, inclining toward us with a grace we do not deserve. God keeps giving, for it is God’s very nature to give. And the final work of God is not merely to fill our lives with good things, but to teach us to receive them with thanks. The road to gratitude is a lifelong journey, but as far as I’m concerned it is the only trip worth taking.

There was a wonderful quote in Newsweek magazine, October 3, 1994 that I saved. It was right after American troops were sent into the desperate island nation of Haiti. A marine corporal serving in Haiti, James Applegate is quoted as saying, “The hardest part of this mission is keeping them from hugging you.”

Isn’t that a tremendous testimony? Ordinary Haitian people needed some way of saying “thank you.” And, of course, that is why you and I are here today. To say “Thank you” . . . to God for all the blessings of our life.

THAT DOESN’T MEAN THIS HAS BEEN A PERFECT YEAR. For some people in this room it has been a difficult year, but that doesn’t mean we are not thankful.

I was reading about Jean Schnelle who works on a unique crisis hotline. Jean has developed a number of skills that serve her well in her work on this hotline: quick thinking, a calm demeanor, a soothing voice, and a hefty dose of common sense. You see, Jean is the director of Butterball Turkey’s Turkey Talk-Line. For the past 17 years Jean has been fielding calls from frantic cooks who have left the giblets in the turkey, forgotten to defrost it, or accidentally locked the turkey in the oven and set it on the self-cleaning cycle. Throughout November and December, Jean and her team of 48 nutritionists and home economists answer every conceivable question about how to cook a holiday turkey to perfection.

Not all of Jean’s calls involve inexperienced or klutzy cooks, though. One caller had a unique, and heartwarming, dilemma. A woman from Florida called to ask some cooking advice. As she and Jean talked, the woman revealed that her home had recently been seriously damaged by a hurricane. As her husband tried to patch up the holes in the roof, and her children cleared litter and parts of the house out of the yard, this woman attempted to cook a turkey in her storm-battered kitchen. Jean was astonished that the woman would still put forth the effort after all the family had been through, but the woman replied that, of course, they would celebrate Thanksgiving, for they still had so much to be thankful for.

They’re not alone, are they? Some of you have been battered in one way or another this past year. Disappointments at work, at home, within your family or in the quietness of your own heart. Shallow Christians give thanks only when the sun shines, but many of us are weathered Christians. Life has not treated us gently, but even in the midst of the tempest, we give thanks.

IN FACT, SOME OF US HAVE DISCOVERED THAT THE HARD MOMENTS OF LIFE HAVE BEEN WHEN GOD HAS BEEN THE MOST REAL TO US.

Jeffrey Zaslow is an advice columnist. In his book, Tell Me All About It, he tells about a reader-participation contest which he calls, “I Owe You One,” that he conducts annually. To kick off his contest, he asked: “Who gave you such great advice that it changed your life?” In hundreds of touching letters, readers nominated relatives, coworkers, newfound friends, and long-dead mentors.

A woman who had weighed 225 pounds cited a man she met on a late-night train who advised her to dust off her dreams and quit wallowing in self-pity. In the months that followed, she lost eighty pounds.

A woman whose ex-boyfriend helped her cope with the after-effects of her childhood rape wrote: “We are no longer going out, but maybe his purpose in my life was to get me over this–and give me courage.”

And then there was Claire Metzger. She nominated author Studs Terkel, “a man who has made a career of speaking up for those whose lives have taken a bump or two.”

Claire told of the day she was fired from her secretarial job and, in tears, was walking across a bridge over the Chicago River. She happened upon Studs.

“Why the tears, kid?” he asked. She told him her story, and he responded, “Do you like the theater?” Claire nodded.

“I can’t give you a job,” he said, “but I’ll leave a couple of tickets for a show I’m in at the Goodman. Bring a friend, have a laugh or two, and things will brighten up.”

This incident took place about thirty years ago, and things did work out for Claire. Her encounter with Studs gave her a new motto: “No matter how bad life seems, there’s always the theater.” Ever since, she has passed Studs’s advice–and a free ticket if she can–to others getting a low blow in life.

It is amazing how often in life a low moment becomes a “grow moment.” We thought it was the worst thing that could happen to us. We thought we would die, but we didn’t. We hung in there. We fought the good fight and today we look back and that was a turning point in our life – a turning point that made us what we are today. It doesn’t always happen, of course. But it is more apt to happen if along the way, we hold onto our faith in God. Faith helps us get through the flood waters until our feet touch solid ground again.

Consider our lesson from the Gospels. Jesus says, “Look at the birds of the air. They do not sow, neither do they gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?”

Does that mean that birds never have to worry about anything? Not at all. Now I don’t know if birds have the mental capacity to worry after all, it takes a reasonable amount of intelligence to worry. If birds could worry, though, they would have a great deal to worry about. Jet engines, oil slicks, plate glass windows, neighborhood cats. Of course, none of these existed in Jesus’ time. But there were other dangers. From predators, for example. Still, the truth of the matter is that God has created a bountiful world that is sufficient to the needs of all. And God is involved in that world. God sees even the smallest sparrow fall from the sky. And we are the crown jewel of God’s creation. Jesus assures us that God will meet our needs. We are never beyond God’s love and God’s care.

Maybe you’ve seen this list of blessings that circulate about this time last year: I am thankful . . . For the husband who is complaining about doing dishes because that means he is still at home and not in the nursing home. For the mess to clean after a party, because it means that I have been surrounded by friends. For the clothes that fit a little too snug, because it means I have enough to eat. For my shadow that watches me work, because it means I am out in the sunshine. For a lawn that needs mowing, windows that need cleaning, and gutters that need fixing, because it means I have a home. For all the complaining I hear about the government, because it means that we have freedom of speech. For the parking spot I find at the far end of the parking lot, because it means I am capable of walking and that I have been blessed with transportation. For everyone in church who sings off key or on key, because it means that I can hear. For the pile of laundry, because it means I have clothes to wear. For weariness and aching muscles at the end of the day, because it means I have been productive. For the cat that climbs on my pillow and purrs loudly enough to wake me up in the morning, because it means that I am alive.

There are so many gifts to be thankful for.  The gift of a smile, for example, can light up your life and make an otherwise dreary day brighter and more cheerful.  Have you ever been down in the dumps and a total stranger gave you a big smile and said hello?  It washes over you like a summer breeze.

There’s no end to the simple gifts for which we have to be thankful, but, before we close, let me add to the list the gifts of faith, hope and love.  Make no mistake about it – they’re gifts, pure and simple.  They can only be received freely – as gifts – and not obtained by any other means.

And finally, I am thankful for Jesus who taught us that we have a loving Heavenly Father who is mindful of our every need and who will see us through every dark hour.

As you sit down with your family and friends this Thursday to celebrate Thanksgiving, be thankful for the simple gifts of life.  The fact that you can taste the turkey is no small thing.  Nor is the fact that the people sitting at the table love you dearly.  Invite Christ to bless you with his presence, and praise God from whom all blessings flow.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Stephanie Harris-Smith called me Wednesday and asked if I would comment on an article she was writing for the Hope Star.  Her question was, “What are you most thankful for?”  I thought of the usual things such as friends and family and good health.  But, after we hung up, it occurred to me that this is just the tip of the iceberg.  So, I made a list of all the things I have to be thankful for.  To my surprise, what came to mind were not the big ticket items, but the simple gifts of life we often take for granted.

I’d like to share my list with you in the sermon this morning with the hope that it’ll inspire you to make a list of your own and so, give you that much more reason to be thankful.

First, I’m thankful for the five senses: The sense of sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste.  Of course, not everyone has all five.  There are those who are blind and those who are deaf; plus, few of us have a full dose of any of them.  For example, I have to wear reading glasses, and my hearing isn’t what it used to be.  And yet, what a blessing it is to be able to see the world around you reasonably well, and hear the sounds of nature, and savor the rich aroma of food on the stove, and feel the texture of crushed velvet and taste the goodness of homemade apple pie.

Riding a motorcycle makes me conscious of how little we smell the countryside around us when we travel.  For example, in the fall there’s the smell of burning leaves; in the spring, fresh-cut hay.  Riding by a chicken house at any time of the year will just about knock you over.

So, my list of things to be thankful for begins with the five senses.  They’re just a few of the simple gifts we take for granted.

Take the human body, in general, with all of its complexity of moving parts.  It’s amazing.  For example, if you didn’t have toes, you wouldn’t be able to keep your balance.  If you didn’t have joints, you wouldn’t be able to bend and turn.  The psalmist said it best when he wrote that we are, “…fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

In one of my favorite episodes of Mash, Hawkeye Pierce, aka, Alan Alda, waxes eloquent on the benefits of the opposable thumb.  I bet you never took time to give thanks for that!  Yet, it’s true: The fact that you even have a thumb, and that it’s constructed the way it is, gives you the ability to grip a hammer, open a jar, and hold a pencil or a knife, fork and spoon.  The opposable thumb is an incredible piece of work, and that’s just one more simple gift to be thankful for.

Then there’s the gift of imagination.  I use it all the time.  I’m a visionary at heart.  One of my favorite sayings is that of George Bernard Shaw who said, “You see things as they are and ask why; I see things that never were and ask, why not?”  That speaks to me – to look beyond the mundane realities of everyday life and imagine how God would have it to be.  And isn’t that what Jesus wanted his disciples to do when he taught them about the Kingdom of God?  For example, he said,

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast,
which a woman took, and hid in  three measures of meal,
until it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33)

The gift of imagination allows you to see the possibilities.  It’s like the gift of wonder, which is yet another simple gift to be thankful for.  Wonder comes naturally to children, as they listen wide-eyed to a well-told story, or when they play with imaginary friends, or as they gaze into a kaleidoscope.  Can you remember, as a child, looking up at the stars on a crisp, cold night and saying the little nursery rhyme?

“Star Light Star bright,
The first star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.”

A close cousin to wonder is the gift of creativity.  Everyone has it, to some degree.  To be created in the image of God is to be, well, creative.  Obviously, some get a bigger share than others.  For example, whoever created the Internet – and no, it was not Al Gore – got a double dose, as did Georges de Mestral, the inventor of Velcro.

There are so many gifts to be thankful for.  The gift of a smile, for example, can light up your life and make an otherwise dreary day brighter and more cheerful.  Have you ever been down in the dumps and a total stranger gave you a big smile and said hello?  It washes over you like a summer breeze.

A genuine smile is one of the simplest gifts we have to share.  Mother Teresa said it best.  She said, “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”  I like this: “If you see a friend without a smile, give him one of yours.”

Add to smiling the gift of laughter.  Mary Waldrip says, “A laugh is a smile that bursts.”  I like what Victor Borge said, “Laughter is the closest distance between two people.”  And so it is – laughter is one of the purest forms of intimacy.  It refreshes us, clears out the toxins and brings us together, as one.  A Yiddish proverb says, “What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul.”  A good belly laugh is one of the best ways I know to relieve stress.

Of course, we all know the old adage, “Laughter is the best medicine,” but there’s more to it than a catch phrase.  Researchers link laughter to all sorts of medical benefits.  You can read the studies on line; better still, rent the movie, Patch Adams, starring Robin Williams.  It’s based on a true story of a doctor in Virginia, who used the gifts of humor and laughter in unconventional ways to help his patients get well.

So, let’s see … where are we?  We’ve talked about the five senses, the body, the gifts of imagination and wonder and creativity; the gifts of smiling and laughing together.  Let’s add to these the simple gift of a caring presence and, with it, the gift of a listening ear.

Mayme Porter says, “We live in a world of hit-and-run communications.”  She’s right.  Too often we fail to take the time to sit down with others and listen carefully to what’s on their minds.

A lot of it has to do with television.  It’s so fast-paced.  We’re expected to think on our feet and express ourselves quickly in sound bites; rather than have the leisure to think reflectively and explore thoughtfully how we think and feel about things.  What a gift it is for someone to sit with you without looking at the clock and take the time to hear you out – to listen interactively – to ask questions and probe and invite you to say more – as if there wasn’t anything more important going on in the world today than being there for you.

When you have a lot of things on your mind and need someone to talk to – someone who’ll take the time to listen and respond and be there for you – who do you call?  Well, as you put together your list of simple gifts, be sure to put their names close to the top, for the gifts of a caring presence and a listening ear are two of the most valuable gifts you’ll ever received.  Leo Buscaglia says,

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile,
a kind word, a listening ear,
an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring,
all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

There’s no end to the simple gifts for which we have to be thankful, but, before we close, let me add to the list the gifts of faith, hope and love.  Make no mistake about it – they’re gifts, pure and simple.  They can only be received freely – as gifts – and not obtained by any other means.

That’s always been a mystery for me: Why it is that, say, in a healthy Christian family one child comes to believe in God and live by faith, while another doesn’t have a clue?  The sad truth is some get it, and some don’t, and I’ve never been able to explain why.  I’ve heard any number of anxious parents fret and stew over a child who refused to acknowledge God in any spiritual sense, but I’ve never known what to tell them, except to say things like, “Don’t blame yourself.  You did the best you could.  Faith is a gift.  Trust God to bestow it in time, if God so chooses.”

In the meantime, if you’ve been given even a mustard-seed size faith and are able to believe in God and know in your heart that God loves you and cares for you and that God’s will for your life is good and perfect in every way, be thankful.  It’s a simple gift, but it makes all the difference in how you yourself in relation to the whole of God’s creation.  Nowhere is this stated more beautifully than in the song, I Believe.  It goes like this:

“I believe for every drop of rain that falls
A flower grows.
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night
A candle glows.
I believe for everyone who goes astray,
Someone will come to show the way.
I believe, I believe.

I believe above the storm a smallest prayer
Will still be heard.
I believe that someone in the great somewhere
Hears every word.
Every time I hear a newborn baby cry,
Or touch a leaf, or see the sky,
Then I know why, I believe.”

To have faith is to be optimistic and be hopeful, whatever the situation or circumstance you’re facing.  The writer of Hebrews put it this way:

“Now faith is assurance of things hoped for,
proof of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

So, we have faith and hope, but what makes it all worthwhile is the gift of love.

When Kathy and I first started getting to know each other, we found that we had a lot in common.  We shared similar values and views.  We enjoyed doing the same things.  We were compatible in every way.  But would we ever grow to love each other?  That was the question.  You can work together and play together and pray together and help each other in every possible way, but it only counts in the long run if you love one another.  Paul put it this way:

“If I speak with the languages of men and of angels,
but don’t have love,
I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal…
If I dole out all my goods to feed the poor,
and if I give my body to be burned,
but don’t have love, it profits me nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Love is the basis of every good and perfect gift; it’s the root of life abundant and eternal.  And the greatest expression of love there ever has been or ever will be is found in the person of Jesus Christ.  John 3:16 sums it up nicely:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him should not perish,
but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Jesus lived and died for the forgiveness of our sins, and he rose from the dead that we might share in the promise of eternal life.  Paul makes it clear – we did nothing to deserve it.  He says,

“But God commends his own love toward us,
in that while we were yet sinners,
Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Love is a gift, pure and simple.  You can’t earn it, manufacture it, manipulate it or coerce it in any way.  All you can do is receive it humbly and graciously when it’s offered … and be thankful.

As you sit down with your family and friends this Thursday to celebrate Thanksgiving, be thankful for the simple gifts of life.  The fact that you can taste the turkey is no small thing.  Nor is the fact that the people sitting at the table love you dearly.  Invite Christ to bless you with his presence, and praise God from whom all blessings flow.  Happy Thanksgiving!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen

 

 
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