Saturday, December 15, 2018

“Abounding in Thanksgiving” - November 18, 2018

Text: Psalm 148, Colossians 2:6-7

On May 15, 1918, the U.S. Postal Service began regular airmail service, with flights between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City.  The Post Office set a controversial rate of 24 cents for the service, much higher than the 3 cents for first-class mail, and decided to issue a new stamp just for this rate, printed in red and blue and depicting a Curtiss Jenny, the biplane chosen to shuttle the mail.

The two-color stamp meant that the sheets of stamps had to go through the printing press twice.  When this happened, there was always the possibility of a sheet being sent through upside down, and one such misfed sheet of stamps was not caught at the printer.  It was sent on to a post office in Washington, DC.  A clerk in the DC post office did not realize the plane was printed upside down because he had never seen an airplane and didn’t really know what it was supposed to look like, and he sold these stamps.

Called the Inverted Jenny, this is one of the rarest and most valuable of all U.S. stamps.  A block of four sold in 2005 for $2.97 million.  In 2016, a single stamp sold for $1. 3 million, which isn’t bad for an initial 24 cent purchase.

Broward County, Florida has been in the news a lot lately with election recount issues.  But there is another story involving Broward County elections I want to share with you this morning.  A few years back, an absentee ballot was mailed in Broward County with several very old stamps used for postage.  Someone in the elections office happened to be a stamp collector and recognized the Inverted Jenny on the envelope.  Now remember, a single Inverted Jenny recently sold for 1.3 million. 

What is really interesting about all of this is that the absentee ballot was not counted.  The person who mailed it in failed to give any kind of identification.

Here is someone who was sitting on a million dollars but didn’t even know it. 

This week we will celebrate Thanksgiving.  This is a time for giving thanks to God for all the ways that we have been blessed.  But when it comes to counting our blessings, we may have something in common with that anonymous person in Broward County, Florida.  So often, we fail to recognize the blessings all around us.  We may be sitting on a great treasure without even realizing it.

In this morning’s scripture, Paul reminds his readers that as they are grounded in Christ and continue to grow in faith, they will find in their lives a surplus of gratitude – their lives will abound in thanksgiving. 

Well, that sounds very nice and all, but to be really honest, many of us might not necessarily describe our lives as “abounding in thanksgiving.”  We might be moderately thankful, sure, but to have a surplus of gratitude that is just overflowing might be a bit much to ask.

Let’s face it: being thankful does not come easily to everybody.  Peter Gomes was the Dean of the Chapel at Harvard University.  He was named one of America’s best preachers and died a few years ago.

Gomes grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  He said that he had old Pilgrim friends in town – that is, people who were directly descended from the Pilgrims – who went into hiding around this time of year.  They were not big fans of Thanksgiving.  “I hate the Pilgrims,” said one of them.  “Just because they were always cheerful in tough times, and thankful, and worked hard, and all of that, everybody thinks we should do the same.  It was an ill wind that blew the Mayflower into Plymouth harbor.” 

It can be hard to be thankful sometimes.  The calendar can roll around and tell us it is time for giving thanks, but that does not always fit the trajectory of our lives. 

There are reasons we have trouble cutting loose with thankfulness.  But part of our problem may be a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving is not simply a response to good fortune or happy circumstances.  It is deeper than that.  Real thanksgiving is a basic attitude we have toward life.  It is not that we are simply thankful when everything is going great; a life of thanksgiving sees and understands the blessings that surround us even when times are not easy.

Samuel Johnson was author of the first major English dictionary.  He was a renowned wit and man about town as well as a person of deep faith.  When after years of labor he finally completed his dictionary, he sent the finals pages to the publisher, Andrew Millar.   Millar exclaimed to the messenger who delivered the manuscript, “Thank God I am done with that man!” When this was reported to Dr. Johnson, he smiled and said, “I am glad he thanks God for anything.”

The Psalms are filled with the theme of thanksgiving, maybe more than anything else.  And the Psalmist sees all of creation as joining in a chorus of praise to God, the creator and the sustainer of all life and all things.

When we have an attitude of praise and thanksgiving to God, we are not alone.  We join with the sun and stars and oceans and mountains and trees and fields.  When we see the beautiful fall leaves, it is hard to argue that they are not offering praise to God.  When we hear birds singing, or a cat curled up and purring, or look out on the beauty of fields at harvest time or the power of a rushing river or the beauty of newly fallen snow, the Psalmist would say that these are all giving praise to God.

So a cynic might argue, well yeah, but we know too much to be thankful.  We understand how bad things really are.  But I think it is just the opposite.  If we really knew, if we really understood the greatness and goodness of God and the enormity of our blessings, we could not help but be thankful.

To some extent, being thankful is an art form.  It is something that we cultivate.  It is something that we work on.  I know people who are doing a gratitude journal or gratitude blog, particularly in this month of November – listing every day one thing for which they are thankful.  The more we do that, the more we make the conscious choice for gratitude, the more easily we are able to recognize all that we have to give thanks for.

A fire broke out and destroyed an entire city block of businesses.  A baker looked at the charred remains of his bakery.  He said, “Well, at least my competitor was burned down as well.”  To find humor and ongoing life even in the midst of suffering is at the heart of it a response of thankfulness.

Now, worry is easy.  A lot easier than thankfulness.  And we certainly have a lot to worry over, if we are so inclined.  Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life.  Do not worry about what you will eat or drink or wear.  Consider the way God provides for the birds of the air.  Look at the way God clothes the lilies of the field.  If God cares for the birds and the flowers, how much more does God care for you.”

But it’s hard not to worry.  And this is directly related to thanksgiving.  The sum of worry and thanksgiving is close to a fixed amount.  It’s like we have this tank that only holds so much, and if we fill it with worry, there’s no room left for thanksgiving.  The more we fill our life with worry, the less our capacity for Thanksgiving.

Related to worry is fear.  Just as thanksgiving needs to be cultivated, it seems to me that our culture is cultivating fear among us.  Fear is big business.  It drives a lot of our politics.  I am glad that we are done, for now at least, with all of the advertising of the election season.  We were told again and again and again how dangerous all of these candidates were.  We heard a lot less about vision for the future or lifting people up or how we can tackle challenges with hopefulness or building a better future for everyone.  Instead, there was a whole lot of fear.

The use of fear by politicians and media and, yes, even by religious folks is so common because it works: we are all subject to feeling afraid, and nobody wants to be afraid.

This is not to say there is nothing out there that we should worry about or be fearful of.  A certain amount of fear can focus our attention and drive us to action.  But when our lives focus on worry and fear, it is hard to be grateful. 

Paul says that when our lives are rooted in Christ, then we are able to abound in Thanksgiving.  When God’s care for us is the bottom line, then we can live lives of thanksgiving.  And thankfulness changes things.  It doesn’t simply change us, it changes situations.  It creates possibilities.  When we are surrounded by people who are grateful, who are thankful, who observe blessings, who look for beauty and goodness and hope in others and in situations, it makes a big difference in our lives.  And when we live lives of gratitude, it makes a difference not only for us but for others.

There is another drag on gratitude that can be especially prevalent this time of year.  Do you remember the TV show Frasier?  There is an episode where Frasier and his brother Niles are in the coffee shop when Niles says to Frasier, “Are you happy?”  Frasier turns the question back to Niles: “Why do you ask?”

Niles responds, “It’s just that I saw an orphan receive a pair of cheap shoes.  And there was such an expression of gratitude on his face.  He was so happy.  Why was he so happy?  Here I am wearing a pair of $400 shoes.  I look at them and wonder if I even really like them.  Do you like them?  They have tassels.  I don’t really like tassels.  What do you think?”

And this sets it up for Frasier to spend the rest of the show deciding if he is happy and what makes him happy.

The point is, it is possible to have a pair of cheap shoes and be thankful, and it is possible to have pair of $400 shoes and wish you had different or better ones.  Spending our lives accumulating bigger and nicer and newer and cooler and more expensive things does not guarantee happiness, and it can keep us from being thankful for what we do have.  Consumerism and constantly striving for more turns our attention away from our blessings. 

Focusing on what we don’t have keeps us from being grateful for the way God has blessed us, and this is true for spiritual as well as material blessings. 

Researchers have confirmed that negative emotions – things like fear, envy, greed, entitlement, resentment, anger and regret – block gratitude, causing self-alienation, broken relationships, and profound unhappiness.  But we really didn’t need psychological researchers to tell us that.  We know it to be true – sometimes, unfortunately, from experience.

Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor, writer, and Nobel Peace Prize winner.  He was interviewed once by Oprah Winfrey, who said that there might be no person better than him to speak about living with gratitude.  Given all the tragedy he had experienced, she asked him whether he still had room for gratitude.  He said,

Absolutely.  Right after the war, I went around telling people, “Thank you just for living, for being human.”  And to this day, the words that come most frequently from my lips are, “Thank you.”  When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity.  A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.

He went on to say, “For me, every hour is grace.  And I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.”

“When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity.” According to Paul, growth and maturity in Christ results in thankfulness.  Choosing to focus on the way God has blessed us and the way God provides for us, choosing to “count our blessings,” in the word of the old hymn, can change our lives and actually help see us through difficult times.

Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopal theologian and preacher.  She said, “As the life of thanksgiving deepens, we discover that the more mature prayers of thanksgiving are not those offered for the obvious blessings, but for those spoken in gratitude for obstacles overcome, for insights gained, for lessons learned, for increased humility, for help received in time of need, for strength to persevere, for opportunities to serve others.”

Thanksgiving is not just a response, it is also a choice.  It is an attitude, a stance toward life.  Scripture says, “In all things give thanks.” Not for all things, but in every circumstance have an outlook of gratitude.  The more we are thankful, the more we grow in Christ - which in turn helps us to be still more thankful.  And we begin to understand the great treasure that we truly have.

In Paul’s words, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives rooted and built up in him, established in the faith, abounding in Thanksgiving.”  May it be so.  Amen.

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