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Psalm 136, as rendered by Nan C. Merrill
1 Thessalonians 5:16-21, from the Common English Bible
I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time imagining a much better run-up to Thanksgiving Sunday than the Cranberry Fair.
The Fair is, after all, a manifestation of so much of what we love about First Church:
—Working together for a purpose much greater than ourselves
—Providing a project that everyone can contribute to and and know that they made a difference
—Enjoying one another while working hard
—Sharing our treasures, our talents, and the things we no longer need
—Bringing together all kinds of people from all over the area
—Greeting friends and neighbors and growing children we haven’t seen since last year’s fair
—Watching people snag great bargains and walk out of the building with box-loads of freebies
—Standing humbly and listening as strangers thank us for what we do for the community
—Growing in love for one another and what this church makes possible
—Watching in awe as the clean-up crew moves in at a quarter of three and quickly disassembles a fair and reassembles a church
—Marveling at yet another loaves-and-fishes-type miracle when sales of a dollar for this and five dollars for that somehow add up to thousands of dollars for our ministries
—Discovering at the after-party that we can’t stop smiling despite being dead tired from the day’s work because, gosh, we really love these people, and what a lot of fun we had while doing good
—And going to bed exhausted but feeling so blessed and so thankful, whether for how well the Fair went or that it’s over for another year—or both
Let’s face it: It’s pretty easy to feel grateful the day after the Fair. It’s pretty easy to feel grateful about who we are as a church. It’s pretty easy to feel grateful for people we don’t really know that well or who sometimes really annoy us. It’s pretty easy to feel thankful for a heart filled with warm, fuzzy feelings. It’s pretty easy to feel thankful for having something to feel thankful for.
There is a lot to be said for “opening our hearts to the constant flow of receiving and responding that happens all around us all the time.” 1 There is a lot to be said for how the awareness of all that we have been given, coupled with the discovery of all we have to give, makes of us generous people who are happier and still more grateful.
But what about all those other days of the year? What about the times when things are not going our way? When we don’t feel connected to anything or anyone? When we worry that we don’t, or won’t, have enough? What about the times when our health begins to fail? When we lose a dear loved one? When the person who is the center of our world changes for the worse and we fear they will never be the same again? When we still can’t find a job? When our government tears children from their parents and sends soldiers to guard our protect our borders from the desperately poor and persecuted? When so much in the world seems to be moving in the wrong direction? When we worry about the earth our children and grandchildren will inherit? When everything we own has gone up in flames and it’s hard to even breathe? When one day is just like every other day and every day is hard?
What does it mean to be thankful in those times? Does Paul—does God—really expect us to give thanks in every situation? To rejoice always? How do we do that? How can we live authentically, recognizing and acknowledging the brokenness of the world or the simple rottenness of a particular day, and still be grateful? How can we bear loss after loss after loss and trust that new life will come? How can we let love break our hearts again and again and again, and still feel joy? How can we gather ‘round our Thanksgiving tables with people who voted for him, with people who don’t accept us for who we are, and give thanks? How can we give thanks when we don’t have family or friends or even a table with whom to spend the holiday? How do we practice gratitude in a world of hurt?
I’m not going to pretend that there are easy answers to those questions. I’m not going to offer a three-point program for gratefulness. I have no desire to make us feel guilty for not feeling grateful. I am fully aware of how impossible it can feel to rejoice, and how hard it can feel to be thankful.
But I believe with all my heart that God loves us beyond our imagining. I believe that that same God who walks with us through our pain wants nothing more than our healing and wholeness, that the same God who weeps over the violence we do to one another has given us all we need to do justice and make peace for the welfare of all. I know without a doubt that life can be hard, and I believe and have experienced that every step of the way is paved with grace. I know what it is to have a hard time getting out of bed to face another day, and everything I have seen and experienced tells me that gratefulness is a key ingredient in the making of a fulfilling and happy life.
One of the many great gifts of worship is that is that it directs our focus to the Source of Life and Love, the very Ground of Our Being—which is to say, beyond ourselves. One of the many great gifts of church—and yes, even of the Fair—is the opportunities it gives us to do for others with others, the ways it takes us beyond ourselves and encourages us to give of ourselves. One of the many great gifts of opening ourselves to the injustices of the world and the pain of others is a wider door for the receiving of love and joy.
One of the great gifts of our scriptures is the path they reveal to the fullness of life, the map they draw to a life of gratitude.
Whenever the ancient Hebrews found themselves wandering in the wilderness—again—whenever they found themselves exiled—again—when they found themselves defeated—again—when they found themselves persecuted—again—they gathered together in worship and they began reciting their history. They reminded each other of all the hard times they’d come through before. They lifted their eyes to the Spirit and saw all over again the countless ways God had cared for them. They recited God’s wonders and miracles one by one by one: the beauties of creation, the amazing process by which delicious food grows out of the dirt, that time God made a way out of no way, that other time God provided water in the desert, that time when God’s people showed up with food and hugs and prayers and whatever was needed, that time when God surprised us with joy, that time when God all but showed off her goodness, that time when we understood how much God loved us and that made all the difference.
That time when we could know and say together all the ways God’s love had provided for us and sustained us and even saved us. All those times when we could know and see that even this day, that very moment, was a gift of grace. That time when we realized Paul had said to give thanks in all situations, not for all situations. That time when we looked around and realized how lucky we were to be alive right then and there. That time when, despite everything, we chose—and chose again—to be grateful. That time when gratitude opened the door to still more blessing.
That time when Paul told the church in Ephesus, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you.” That time when he told the church in Philippi, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” That time he told the church in Thessalonia, “We must always give thanks to God for you, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.”
That time I told the church in Amherst, “I do not cease to give thanks for you because I have seen you live out God’s love for the world and for one another. I have seen you open your hearts to one another and open your doors to the stranger. I have seen you give of your selves of your belongings for love’s sake. I have seen you following the hard ways of Jesus. I have seen your own lives transformed by God’s love, and I see God’s love working through you to love and heal others.”
Thanks be to God, whose love sustains us!