Thankfulness – a life stance
I Thessalonians 5: 1-18
In my first parish on the west side of Chicago, I experienced, with Peg, our one and only home invasion. It was early in the afternoon when we returned with our infant son, Andrew, in arms and found the front door of our parsonage ajar. After retreating a few steps, and checking the property, we set foot inside.
On the first floor most everything looked OK. Then we spotted the empty space where our radio should have been. This little handmade AM-FM radio, made from a kit by my brother John for our wedding, had disappeared. There was no TV and no other technological gadgets to be had. Upstairs the bedrooms had been rifled, drawers pulled open, clothes and jewelry strewn about, but nothing of value missing. How would the thieves know that we had no valuables at this stage in our lives!
This break-in was totally unexpected, like a thief in the night, only this was broad daylight! St. Paul tells his fellow followers of Jesus that the day of the Lord will be like that. It will come with no warning at all.
As we approach the end of the Church year looking to Advent and Christmas, the Scripture readings last week, this week and next point to the end time, the Alpha and Omega, the Son of man coming in glory, the eschaton, “the last things.” In the early Church after Pentecost, Jesus’ followers, including Paul, expected his coming in their lifetime. Each reading is a pastoral word alerting the faithful to be ready.
I pondered these passages seeking to discern the pastoral word we need to hear today.
Clearly we live in frightening times – extreme weather somewhere almost every day, the latest version of horrific terrorism, uncontrolled gun violence on our streets and campuses, endless strife in the land of Jesus, cancer striking loved ones, including three in my extended family, and now Ebola.
Paul reminds his fellow Christians in Thessalonica and in Ravenswood, Chicago, that these times and seasons, distressing and fear-filled as they may be, are nothing new, that we know Jesus will come at any time regardless of season or sin or any other condition in all the universe. Paul warns: get ready!”
Well, you ask, how can we get ready? In the very next verses, beyond the lection, Paul offers a simple preparation we can make for Jesus’ coming.
Take a listen: Encourage one another, be at peace, help the weak, do not repay evil with evil but seek to do good to one another and to all, pray without ceasing, and then these unusual words: Give thanks in all circumstances. Or in the NEB: “Give thanks, whatever happens!” What! Impossible!
Martin Luther wrote that the entire life of a Christian is one of thankfulness. Thankfulness is a life stance, an eschatological stance. Give thanks, whatever happens! That is the pastoral word for this season; the word for our upcoming Thanksgiving holiday; the perfect attitude for responding to the All Saints pledge campaign – gratitude for this astonishing community of faith. It is the precise mood and motivation for these touching tributes above us on paper triangles. The mood of thanksgiving is the feeling of a human being in touch with life. It is not a one-day-a-year matter. It is a total attitude and stance!
To feel thankful is the best preparation we can make to be ready for the coming of the Holy One.
Many years ago a little 5 year old girl ran into the living room one bright morning and exclaimed, "Daddy, don't you just love the world!" Daddy was so amazed and thankful for this precious child, and still is! God would have us hold on to this 5 year-old gratitude every day of our lives.
'Give thanks, whatever happens,’ was certainly the attitude of the Pilgrims, those early immigrants to our shores. They were undocumented by the way! You recall they lost half of their numbers that first winter of 1620. Every other person died of disease, cold, starvation. In spite of this calamity they gathered together to give thanks, joined by their local Native American neighbors. “Give thanks, whatever happens.”
Many years later, 1863, in the midst of a devastating civil war, President Abraham Lincoln called all citizens to "observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens." Isn't that incredible. Abe knew that even in the midst of barbarity and insanity, the human being needs to be thankful.
Thankfulness as a life stance brings to mind a story told by a colleague of mine years ago. Rev. Ross Calame taught his two young girls to always say, "Thank you, Jesus," for even the simple things, for a glass of milk, for someone holding a door open, or helping them put on a winter coat!
One day Ross was walking home from church. As he approached their house, one of the girls saw him and turned her tricycle around and drove toward him as fast as she could go. Just before reaching her Dad, she fell off the bike and skinned both knees! As she stood up and was about to burst into tears, she quickly regained control and declared, "Thank you, Jesus!"
Our Hebrew sisters and brothers offered thanks by giving the first fruit of the harvest back to God. The Psalms resonate with ‘thankfulness and praise.’
I ask you to contemplate your stance to life, your readiness for the coming of Christ. Through the thick and thin, the joys and the hurts, the temptations and the mistakes, the celebrations and the achievements, the losses, surprises, the broken ankles and the home invasions – are you ready? Are you thankful?
It will not be easy for someone laid off last week. For someone diagnosed with a brain tumor. For someone deported back to Latin America, separated suddenly from family, for our friends from Renk, South Sudan, living in terror and uncertainty. And yet the pastoral word to them and to us is the same: “Give thanks in all circumstances.”
Strange as it may seem, there are those who have received much, the very privileged among us, who, I’ve observed, do not feel it necessary to be thankful, or to express thanks, because they have come to assume that they are just entitled to these material comforts and pleasures.
I hunch it may be even harder for our pampered and over-programmed progeny to recognize the incredible gifts given them and the sacrifices made for them, than it was for us. And that is a challenge, at least to me, to demonstrate in my own live what gratitude I feel, to remind my loved ones that I thank God for every single day, ever since that first open heart surgery 31 years ago. Each day has been a gift and I want to impart that attitude, that stance, to all whose lives I touch.
Give thanks, whatever happens! I will never forget an experience during my Fulbright year in Germany. On a trip to Berlin in the spring of 1958 several of us students took the elevated train into East Berlin one Sunday morning. (this was before the Wall went up) We went directly to the Marienkirche (Church of Mary) where Bishop Otto Dibelius was to preach.
The church was packed; Communist plain-clothesmen were standing in their crumpled trench coats along the walls; the 80 year old prelate, who had fought Hitler and now the Communists, began to preach.
I did not understand every word in German, but again and again I heard the word Dankbarkeit (thankfulness).
The Bishop told his flock, from my translated notes: "in spite of the world's powers we are ultimately under God's will, so let us give thanks and praise! Whoever lives in God's will and does God's will, can expect a happy and blessed life"
He contrasted the evil of the hour with God's will – faithlessness and faithfulness. He asserted, "Atheism in the East or in the West is confronted by our faith rooted in eternity."
And then this final word: "Dankbarkeit must be the spirit in our homes, at our work, in our lives. If we live under God's will we will abide forever and ever!"
Here in the midst of then East Germany, in the presence of not so secret police, in the midst of oppression and danger, Bishop Dibelius called for thankfulness! "Give thanks, whatever happens!" Later we took Communion from his hands. I was deeply touched by this humble man and the gift he brought us that day.
Yes, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you,” Paul concludes in his word to the Thessalonians. And as the old warrior Bishop told his flock, "If we live in God's will and do God's will we can expect a happy and blessed life." To which there is but one response - to give thanks.
Thankfulness is a life stance, an eschatological stance for the approaching Day of God. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Martin Deppe
All Saints Episcopal Church, Chicago
16 November 2014