THE POWER OF GRATITUDE

 

SCRIPTURE: Colossians 1:11-20; Matthew 25:31-46

 

 

In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!

 

          In your mind, picture your best rendition of a Norman Rockwall Thanksgiving. What do you see? A multi-generation family? A big table? Many plates of wonderful foods, and in the center of it all a plump succulent turkey? Turkey and Thanksgiving go together.

          Of course, you know there is nothing historically traditional about what we see in the Rockwall painting. The Pilgrims at that first Thanksgiving feast perhaps had a wild turkey.  Sweet potatoes (yams) had not been introduced in New England. Cranberries might have been around, but sugar was not, so no cranberry sauce.

          And while the filling for a pumpkin pudding might have been possible, sweetened by honey or syrup, there was no crust or whipped cream topping. And of course there was no football (maybe foot races), no television, no Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with gigantic helium balloons, not even a Macy’s store for heaven’s sake!

          We tend to forget that the first Thanksgiving was an occasion of mixed blessing. Half of the Pilgrim community had died, and every person at that first thanksgiving feast had a raw and fresh sense of the fragility of life and the pain of grief in their heart.

          They had left their homeland and were seated as intruders among their new Native American friends. They had endured much, and they did not know what the future would bring. They were hopeful nonetheless.

          Thanksgiving this year also feels very much like a mixed blessing. We are in the midst of a harsh time for many families and communities. It is a season of enduring misery for many. When you read the newspapers, or watch TV, you wish you hadn’t. We are bombarded with stories of plant closures, lay-offs, salary reductions, bankruptcies, foreclosures, suicides, and school and university cutbacks.

          There are also stories of rising food and medical prices, many reductions of services, and insurance companies refusing coverage to those who most need it. Then we have the Zika epidemic caused by mosquitos that leave newborn children disfigured. On top of that we are not sure what direction our country will be going in for the next few months.

          On this Thanksgiving Sunday, we many of us preparing to be with family and friends, what is it that we are thankful for? Where is our gratitude?

          A group of moms got together and composed a list of things they are thankful for. They wrote that they were especially thankful;

               “For automatic dishwashers because they make it possible for us to get  

                out of the kitchen before the family comes back in for their after dinner

                snacks.

 

               “For husbands who attack small repair jobs around the house because

                they usually make them big enough to call in the professionals.

 

               “For children who put away their things and clean up after themselves.

                They’re such a joy you hate to see them go home to their own parents.

 

               “For teenagers because they give parents an opportunity to learn a

                 second language.

 

               And finally, “For smoke alarms because they let you know when the

                turkey is done.”

 

          Each of us would have our own list of the things for which we are thankful. Most of us are mature enough in our faith to recognize that Thanksgiving is a most dangerous holiday. When we give thanks for our good health, what does that say to people who do not have a healthy body? Does that say that we are more deserving than they, or that somehow God loves us more?

          When we thank God for our nice homes or our families or our freedom as Americans, what does this say about good, decent God-loving people around the world who do not share these blessings?

          I have no ready answers for such questions and neither does anyone else. I would prefer, however, as we give thanks this Thursday and all the rest of the year, that we do it for the right reasons.

          What are some of the things that every Christian, regardless of his or her circumstance, in every corner of the globe can be thankful for this Thanksgiving season? Our two scripture readings help us with an understanding of the power of gratitude.

          In the lesson from Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae, he begins by giving thanks for the members of this church. He prays that they might be strengthened “with all power, according to God’s glorious might, for all endurance and patience, giving thanks to the Father…”

          Our second lesson today is Jesus’ parable of the Great Judgement. Here God is pictured as a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. The sheep are those who care for those in need; the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison. The shock of the parable is when Jesus states, “When you cared for one of the least pf these, you are for me.

 The prophets, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, both prophets during the Exile reports God as saying, “If you seek me with all your heart, you will surely find me.”

Our willingness to seek the hungry and not wait for them to come to us is an expression of our gratitude for having been sought and found by God. It is how we follow God’s example for living and model God’s grace to others. Furthermore, as Jesus said, if we seek the people who live in the Babylonian captivity of hunger, sickness, or estrangement, we will find Christ. It is how we have an experience of Christ.

There are times we seek others for wrong reasons. There are times when we seek to be seen. We desire praise, honor and adulation, so we do good works just so we can be noticed. There are times when we seek so we can be sought. We are co-dependent. We have some need to be found, so we seek those in need not really to meet their needs, but to meet our own.

When we seek lost sheep and the motive is gratitude, then we open ourselves to the power of God. Christ is experienced in life. The power of gratitude opens us to the presence of God in our lives. We give thanks then, not for turkey in us, but us being in God.

In celestial navigation there is a term “Point of Aries.” This is a place in the heavens where the path of the sun intersects the celestial equator on the vernal equinox each year. Nothing exists there in the physical sense; there is no heavenly body called Aries. Yet heavenly bodies are related to it and it is because Aries exists, though invisible, the navigators are able to fix their positions.

For those times in life when we are lost, we have One, God the good shepherd, who is more reliable than the “Point of Aries”. God is seeking us to lead us to more abundant living. We may not be able to see god in the circumstances of life just now, but nevertheless God is present and seeking. This is why we give thanks.

Think back to the Pilgrims once again. It is difficult to see any reason for their having any kind of thanksgiving celebration. There life was extremely hard. Yet their celebration was not based on the circumstances of their lives. It was grounded in the character of God. Though God seemed to be invisible and absent, their sense was they were not lost but in the grace and care of God.

In the 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln, the President wrote in one paragraph of the “awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land.” In the next paragraph he wrote, “We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven.” He was basing his gratitude not on the current circumstances he and the nation faced, but on the character of God.

We often despair at the circumstances in our lives. Much happens to us that we would not choose. There are unjust conditions in the world. We grieve the loss of loved ones and mourn the inhumanity with which some people are treated.  In spite of all the painful conditions of the world today, we can give thanks because we give thanks for God.

God is the one who is with us. God helps us see the reality of life. God invites us and nudges us to be changed and to change the circumstances for the better. When we give thanks for God and act in God’s will, we experience the power of gratitude, we experience god’s presence in life.

Some week ago. I spoke of a college professor who invited one of his students to join his family at his house for dinner. The student, a football player, said that his dad was a drug dealer. In fact the student and his brother had been forced to protect their dad from a death threat just before school started. The student had told his professor he had never sat down for a family meal. He didn’t know what to do. The professor had responded, “Come anyway. We will learn together.”

Their school, like many others, had a tradition of honoring their senior football players at the last home game. The senior players were introduced at the beginning of the game and then escorted onto the field by their parents. This football player stopped at his professor’s house the Sunday afternoon before the last game and asked if the professor and his wife would escort him at the senior introduction.

It was an experience of the power of gratitude. It was an experience of the presence of Christ. It was Thanksgiving.

May each of us this year, whatever our circumstances, be able to say, “Lord, we are grateful.” Amen.

MAY THESE THOUGHTS GIVE YOU STRENGTH