November 22, 2020

Thankful in All Circumstances?


Psalm 95:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18


Well friends, the series on Proverbs just got interrupted by life. I had planned on preaching for the final of a once six-part series on Proverbs, which was whittled down to five due to the election results. It ended up being only four, due to the collision of the holiday of Thanksgiving with a major pandemic and a freeze of businesses and large gatherings here in our home state. So much is going on right now, and it all made me wonder, how can we be thankful as Thanksgiving approaches? The Center for Disease Control has warned all Americans against travel during the Thanksgiving holiday. The United States has pushed above 250,000 deaths now due to Covid. There will be an awful lot of empty chairs around family tables this Thanksgiving, even if those gatherings aren’t as large as in years past.


Due to the freeze in Oregon and also a 3 state freeze on crossing state borders over the holiday, I  heard from a few friends here at church who had planned to go to be with their extended friends and families, who were no longer able to do so. I could tell they were saddened that they had to alter those plans due to Covid. I felt a real push by the Spirit to preach about being thankful in the midst of such times. Is it even possible? My focus for today’s sermon is Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, in particular the last chapter which seems to suggest so.


The letter is one Biblical scholars all agree to be an authentic letter from Paul. It was written to a body of believers that Paul, Sylvanus, and Timothy had worked with on a prior missionary journey. There in Thessalonia, they had planted a church. The members of that church, who were mostly Greeks, that is Gentiles, were suffering persecution. Greek society and government were pushing back on their conversions, making life difficult.  Paul’s letter is one of encouragement, telling them to hold onto their faith despite the difficulties they were facing. Body, the main idea of the letter here - particularly the suffering, the persecution they were facing. At the end of the letter, he instructs them on 3 practices of faith, which we’ll delve into this morning.


First, despite facing persecution, Paul encourages them to Rejoice Always. Rejoicing in God makes sense to us, but to rejoice always - is that even possible? Can we rejoice when we are sick or in prison, or living in the midst of a pandemic, or grieving? I have run into Christians in the past who have translated this to mean that one must always have a smile upon one’s face and be joyful, so as not to upset God. When our first daughter died, not long after that I read a story about a couple who had also lost their child. They said they were joyful, because their child was now in the arms of Jesus, and said there was no need to grieve their loss. I think this is not what Paul intended in this passage. It creates a false sense of rejoicing and makes followers of Christ put on a plastic joy face, never showing true feelings, even though they were created by God to have joy and sorrow as scripture plainly expresses.


Now Paul did demonstrate rejoicing in some pretty difficult circumstances. After healing a slave girl who was able to tell the future, which angered the crowds as well as her owner, resulting in being beaten by said angry crowds and getting thrown into jail, he and Silas sang hymns and prayed in their cell. While awaiting trial in prison, Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians, in which he used the word for joy, Chairos, in Greek no less than twelve times. Perhaps for Paul, he was always able to be in a state of joy, calmly happy in all things?


That is not the case, and Paul doesn’t mean for us to stuff our feelings down and just be joyful at all times. Theologian Steven J. Cole writes, “If  ‘rejoicing always’ means always being upbeat and never feeling sadness, then we have a problem because neither Jesus nor Paul were always happy. It’s interesting that the shortest verse in the Greek New Testament is ‘rejoice Always,’ but in the English version of scripture, the shortest verse is ‘Jesus wept,” (John 11:35). As he faced the cross, Jesus prayed with ‘loud crying and tears’ (Heb. 5:7). In 2nd Corinthians 6:10, Paul described himself as ‘sorrowful yet always rejoicing.’ In Romans 12:15 he tells us, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.’…So, rejoice always does not mean, ‘Deny your feelings, put on a happy face and never feel sad.’”


What then do we do with this verse? I think Paul’s understanding of his faith was that he always had a form of joy in his heart, knowing God was with him, that Christ had risen and defeated death, that no matter how difficult things got for him, he had a perspective of faith. Therefore he was able to focus upon faith, to rejoice, even though he was facing his own trials, by having a glimpse of God in all things, his faith in Christ, and the knowledge and the hope of heaven to anchor him. Our joy cannot be totally oblivious to the struggles and difficulties around us, but neither should it be governed by them. Paul’s encouragement for us today is to hold onto that anchor of faith, even in difficult times such as these. That produces a real, authentic form of joy. How does one do that? The next encouragement from Paul gives us a clue.


Paul writes, “Pray without ceasing.” This may sound initially as impossible as the first focus. We cannot pray 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. What does this verse really tell us?  It helps to know that the Greek word translated as “Without ceasing” is also used to describe someone who had a repeating cough in Greek writings. Someone who is sick and coughs does not cough every minute but does so persistently. It was also used to describe repeated military attacks. An army would attack a city repeatedly until they had come to some form of resolution. So, we are to pray repeatedly and persistently. Doing this puts us in a stronger relationship with God, which helps us with having that calm sense of joy deep down in our hearts.


When I pray, I do try to formally pray in the morning, as well as at night prior to sleep. However, I find myself praying in almost a conversation with God during the day, asking for God’s help in someone’s life or in my own as the day unfolds. I pray in my office whenever an EMT or fire truck go by on Siskiyou Blvd. with the siren blaring. Praying constantly is kind of like having a running conversation with the Creator of all things. By the way, when you come by and pick up your Advent activity bag on December 6th, you will receive a prayer stone that can help you in this endeavor.


Paul’s third encouragement is, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” This is one of the more difficult encouragements in the Bible. How do we do this, right now, in all things, especially in light of this year and all of the death, pain, struggle, and division it has brought us?


Theologian and WW2 concentration camp survivor Corrie Ten Boom tells a wonderful story about this verse. Corrie and her sister, Betsy, were prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp. The camp was horrible. Fleas nearly drove them crazy. Fleas were everywhere. Fleas got in their hair and under their skin. Fleas made it impossible to sleep. Corrie and Betsy had no soap or flea powder. The fleas swarmed unchecked. It was terrible.

Betsy mentioned this verse, “In everything give thanks.” Corrie said, “I can’t give thanks for the fleas.” Betsy said, “Give thanks that we’re together. Give thanks that they didn’t check our belongings, and we have our Bible.” So Corrie agreed to give thanks for her sister and for their Bible. They didn’t give thanks for the fleas, but they did give thanks while living a flea-bitten existence.


Much later, Corrie discovered that the fleas had been a blessing in disguise. She learned that the guards often raped women prisoners. But the guards never touched the women in Corrie’s section of the camp, because they didn’t want to expose themselves to the fleas. Corrie said that this taught her to give thanks for all things—because you never know.


I shared a story a couple of years ago about my friend from high school, Allison, who lost everything in the Paradise fire. Allison wrote me, “So when I have those weepy moments usually in my waking up when I start to picture all the “things” I will no longer be able to hold in my hands ever again, I am thankful for having had those things that have made a memory for me, thankful that I am able to make new memories, a family I can go visit any time, a daughter, who although she is 6800 miles away from me I am thankful I can Facetime on my computer any time and see her smiling face, and thankful for having a loving husband that can hold me! SO, yes, we can be consumed by all the devastation all around us, but when we look at what is right in front of us…WE HAVE A LOT TO BE THANKFUL FOR!” That is an amazing example of being able to give thanks in all things.


Being thankful consistently isn’t easy. It takes practice. American Inspirational author Alan Cohen writes, “Gratitude, like faith, is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it grows, and the more power you have to use it on your behalf. If you do not practice gratefulness, its benefaction will go unnoticed, and your capacity to draw upon its gifts will be diminished. To be grateful is to find blessings in everything. This is the most powerful attitude to adopt, for there are blessings in everything.”


If indeed gratitude, thanksgiving is a muscle, then truly it will take some heavy lifting to adopt such an attitude in light of all that is going on. So I encourage you this coming Thanksgiving day, to list all the things for which you are grateful. Look at that list throughout the rest of the week, and practice gratitude, so that it becomes a strong force in your own life.


So, here goes. Time to work out that gratitude muscle. I am thankful for a beautiful place to call home, for the gift of a family(even though we cannot be together), the amazing color of the leaves, the change in seasons, the gift of faith, of life itself. I will try to give thanks even in the midst of the struggles we face as a family and a nation, hoping my gratitude grows while my dark concerns lessen.


I admit to using this quote from Anne Lamott in a previous sermon on Thanksgiving, but it fits the moment so well. Near the end of her chapter on giving thanks in her book, Help, Thanks, Wow, Lamott concludes, “The movement of grace toward gratitude brings us from the package of self-obsessed madness to a spiritual awakening. Gratitude is peace. Maybe you won’t always get from being a brat to noticing that it is an E.E. Cummings morning out the window. But some days you will. You will go from being a Doug or Wendy Whiner, with your psychic diverticulitis, able only to eat macaroni and cheese, to remembering, “I thank you, God, for this most amazing day!”


In closing, I was blessed to have been sent a music video on giving thanks in all things from our lay reader this morning, Denise. After watching it once, I felt it was a perfect end to a sermon on giving thanks in all circumstances. The lyrics of the song, “Grateful” written by  Nimo Patel and Daniel Nahmod go by really fast. I just can’t seem to get my brain to process fast enough to understand songs with rap. So let me highlight just a few lines from this song. And by the way, I believe Patel and Nahmod are speaking to God in these words.


“You’re my pain you’re my sorrow. You’re my hope for tomorrow. You’re the strength when I’m hollow. You’re the path that I follow. You’re the blessings that exist, the small things that are bliss, the gift to realize that EVERYTHING is a gift.

The chorus’s words are as follows: “All that I am, all that I see, all that I’ve been, and all that I’ll ever be, is a blessing. It’s so amazing, and I’m grateful for it all, for it all. May today’s passages from scripture guide us in the ability to have gratitude, and to remember that all of life is a gift. Alleluia! Amen.


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