Monday, December 11, 2017

“Giving Thanks and Thankful Giving” - November 19, 2017

Text: Psalm 103, Philippians 4:4-7

We live in a time of worry.  Terrorism, mass shootings, hurricanes, tornados, flooding, global warming, political polarization, rising hatred, stranger danger, road rage, identity theft, computer hackers, the cost of healthcare, financial scams.  There is plenty to worry about, and it’s certainly not limited to those big societal issues.  We may worry over relationships, health, work, school, money, aging, our children, and the Cyclones’ offense.   

Yet the Apostle Paul says, “Don’t worry about anything.”  These words are timely, because we live in an age of worry.  But this also sounds naïve.  How could a person not worry?  To not worry, you would either have to be completely detached from reality, or deliberately in denial.  “Don’t worry about a thing!”  If you are like me, when you hear someone say that, you probably translate it as: “you better worry.”

Yet in writing the church in Philippi, Paul does not ignore or deny the situation faced by those whom he was writing.  As Christians, as a small minority religion, they faced persecution in the Roman Empire.  Paul was not unaware of this.  In fact, he understood exactly what he was talking about: he was writing from a jail cell.  He was suffering for his faith.  But he also understood that there are prisons of our own making that can be just as daunting as those imposed upon us.

Paul had found that a life of joy, a conscious choice of gratitude, could transform worry into peace.  “Don’t worry about anything.  Rejoice in the Lord always.  Offer prayer and thanksgiving to God.  And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Rather than being naïve, praise even in the midst of difficult times is a far better way to live.  A conscious choice for gratitude can change our lives.

Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday per se, not in the way that Christmas and Easter are.  People of all faiths and people of no faith can certainly be thankful.  But in a deeper sense, thanksgiving is the ground of all religious feeling.  Thanksgiving is the heart of worship – we gather each week out of gratitude to God. 

The theme of Thanksgiving is found throughout the Bible, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the Psalms.  Psalm 103 is a great psalm of thanksgiving.”Bless the Lord my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.” 

This psalm, attributed to King David, begins with words of personal thanksgiving.  If you had to make a list of what you are thankful for, where would you start?  Probably with the ways in which you have personally been blessed. 

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
   and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity,
   who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live.
God blesses us with all the good things we need.  And the greatest blessings may be the ones we most take for granted.  You may remember a 60 Minutes program that featured a man in Texas who was arrested and convicted for a crime he did not commit.  Witnesses to the crime knew at the trial that this was the wrong man.  It was a case of mistaken identity, but he was convicted anyway.  The system failed him.  Appeals were denied.

This man was a professional, an engineer.  He and his wife had two young daughters.  He was a model parent, an upstanding member of the community – and he was in prison.  60 Minutes did a little bit of investigating, the kind of stuff a defense attorney or prosecutor should have done in half a day, and aired this man’s case in a program.  There was such a furor that finally the man was released from prison.

He was interviewed in a follow-up show.  “What did you miss the most?” he was asked.  He said he missed the little things that we all take for granted.  Things like fresh air.  Taking a walk.  Being with family.  American writer Cynthia Ozick says, “We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.”

Some of greatest things in life are things over which we may give little thought.   The Psalmist knows this.  “Do not forget the Lord’s benefits… God crowns you with love and mercy and satisfies you with good.”  Look around and be aware and appreciate all of the good things we enjoy in life – these are all gifts of God.

The Psalm continues by giving thanks not only for personal blessings, but for communal blessings and thanks simply for who God is.

The Lord works vindication
   and justice for all who are oppressed.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
   slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
   nor repay us according to our iniquities.
As a father has compassion for his children,
   so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him.
For those who feel downtrodden, “the Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.”  For those who are hurting or lonely, “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  For those feeling burdened by sin or guilt or shame, “God does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities... as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.”  To those who feel unloved, or those whose loss fills them with pain, we are reminded that “as a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him...the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting.”  Nothing separates us from God’s love, not our sin, not our pain, not the losses we must endure.

You know, sometimes the action has to come first and the attitude will follow.  Sometimes they will talk about “fake it till you make it.”  This does not mean ignoring reality, but when we are not feeling very thankful about life in general and can yet find it within ourselves to give thanks anyway, we may be surprised at how expressing gratitude can change our perspective.  Ellen Degeneres described gratitude as “looking on the brighter side of the life, even if it means hurting your eyes.”

In Costa Rica, I was very limited language-wise.  But one of my go-to words was, “Gracias.”  It is amazing how far gratitude will get you.

In my interactions with Spanish-speakers, I could not complain, I could not gripe, I could not whine, I could not express worry.  But I could express gratitude.  And if you had to choose one thing to express, I think gratitude would be it.  Going through the day with an attitude of thankfulness makes a difference.  Going through life with an attitude of gratitude can make all the difference in the world. 

What all of this is all getting at is that Thanksgiving is an attitude that does not simply depend on our circumstances in life.  A number of years ago, on spring break working at a church in New York City, I sat in a circle during a Bible study.  We were going around the circle telling something we were thankful for.  Franco was a homeless person.  He lived down the street from the church in a little shack he had put together out of cardboard in a vacant lot.

He said he was thankful he had made it through a cold winter--some people he knew had not made it.  He was thankful for this church that cared about people and made him feel welcome.  He was thankful for his health.  Here was a person with few of the things we think of as basic necessities of life -- yet he had a sincere gratitude that far surpasses that of an awful lot of people with big houses and nice cars and good jobs and healthy bank accounts and loving families.  Thanksgiving is an attitude that does not depend on the circumstances we find ourselves in.  This Psalm of Thanksgiving could be said by Franco on the street as well as it could be said by a millionaire living a few blocks away.

One writer put it this way (anonymous writer):

Be thankful that you don’t already have everything you desire.  If you did, what would there be to look forward to?

Be thankful when you don’t know something, for it gives you the opportunity to learn.

Be thankful for the difficult times.  During those times you grow.

Be thankful for your limitations because they give you opportunities for improvement.

Be thankful for each new challenge because it will build your strength and character.

Be thankful for your mistakes.  They will teach you valuable lessons.

Be thankful when you’re tired and weary because it means you’ve made a difference.

It is easy to be thankful for the good things.  A life of rich fulfillment comes to those who are also thankful for the setbacks.
This does not mean that we would prefer the difficulties and setbacks, but we can maintain an attitude of gratitude even in the midst of hard times.  As Paul puts it, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say, rejoice!”

The third portion of Psalm 103 is a call to praise.  In light of God’s blessings and in light of who God is, praise to God is to come from every living thing.  All of creation joins in praise to God.

The highest act of praise is worship.  It is in gathering together in worship that we, as a family of believers, give thanks to God.  We can surely give praise to God when we are alone, but there is a uniqueness and power in corporate worship as an act of Thanksgiving.  In our gathering, in greeting one another, as the candles are lit, in the music, in our singing, in the reading of God’s word and in the proclamation of God’s word, there can be an attitude of thanksgiving and gratefulness.  Every act of worship can be an act of praise to God.

One of the ways we give thanks and offer worship to God is in our offerings.  In Old Testament times there was an offering called a Thanks-offering.  To express gratitude to God, the people would bring an offering of thanks.  When we give our tithes and our offerings, we are expressing our thanks to God.  We give thanks through thankful giving.

In this season of thanksgiving, we have the opportunity to express our thanks to God as we commit to support God’s work through this church.  In recent weeks we have been hearing from members about how this church makes a difference in their lives and in the lives of others.  This morning we will be making pledges both to support the ongoing work of First Baptist and to fund capital improvements as part of our 150th anniversary year.

As an act of worship and as an expression of thanksgiving, we would invite you to present your financial commitments as we receive our offering this morning.  It is a commitment to support God’s work through this church and to our ongoing ministry together.  It is a commitment to bless the past and continue to work with God in building the future.  And this is an expression of thanksgiving to God, a way to “praise God, from whom all blessings flow.”

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.”  Amen.

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