A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on November 20, 2011.
Eternal Father and Giver of all good gifts, the week looms before us and we think of so many things. We think of the blessings that you have given us and we count them and they seem more numerous and more powerful than ever. We also think of the holiday that fast approaches, and we are reminded of things that are open-ended in our lives, things that are still undone. We are reminded of people that will not sit around our tables this week, some because of circumstances and we ask that you would bless them in their absence. Some are absent because of decisions. We offer to you these relationships and pray that by the power of your spirit that something in this week would lead each of us to do our part to heal that which is broken and to restore that which simply needs to be put back together. May we be the kind of Christians who do not wait on someone else to make the overture, but in the spirit of your son, Jesus, may we reach out, may we be the ones who initiate restoration and wholeness once again. Forgive us when we are tempted to see the successes and blessings of our lives as a result of our own efforts. Remind us that all good things come from you and help us never to forget your guiding and giving hand. Help us to give thanks continually for daily bread, for love of family, for support of friends, and for your spirit which supplies strength that is sufficient for all of our needs. Most of all, remind us to give thanks for the redeeming love of your son, Jesus Christ, whose salvation orders, sustains, and empowers our lives. Remind us every day, every moment, what blessings are ours solely because of the wholeness and hope that his forgiving hope provides. In this season of Thanksgiving, save us from hoarding or failing to share the blessings that are ours. Enlarge our hearts and our imaginations to see where we might give and help us to be generous with kind words, with time freely given, with concern for the poor, with kindness toward all, and with the bounty of life that is ours. May the generosity of our own hearts open our lives to seeing anew what your generosity has done for us. Lord, you have given us much. Give us one more thing – generous hearts. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
The focus of biblical tithing is on what you can do, out of a grateful heart, to serve God, not on what you can get out of God.
—Douglas LeBlanc in Tithing-Test Me In This
Life is full of choices that lead us down one path or another. There are the obvious life choices of vocation, who to marry, and whether to divorce or not—things that are so easy to see and be seen by people around us. If I choose this, I go this way. If I choose that, I am headed that way. It makes a difference and determines what town we live in, who we spend our lives with, how we spend our days. Those choices are clear
There are other choices that perhaps are only known to us. They, eventually, become visible to others but no one would ever know when we made them. They are choices of the heart, choices of character, and choices of the spirit. The things that would be included in this are the things we think of when we hear someone say, There are two kinds of people in the world. There are giver and takers, workers and watchers, people who believe in honesty and people who believe in expediency. What we are describing is a place where we come to a crossroads of life and we choose which way we are going to go, what kind of person we are going to be. Eventually, it does become clear to others around us, but who would ever know when we have made those decisions. To be honest, we make them repeatedly, time and time again.
With Thanksgiving coming quickly upon us, the choice today is would we be a person of Thanksgiving who looks at life in terms of what we have in terms of gratitude or people of disappointment, people who don’t have, people who don’t get, and people who live their lives in resentment.
I think it is important in thinking about this to remember that Thanksgiving has never been dependent upon everything being good and everything going your way. Neither does determining which path we are going to walk down depend upon everything being in place.
In the history of Thanksgiving, one of the great hymns, Now Thank We All Our God, was written in the 17th Century by Martin Rinkart who was a pastor in Europe. After the Black Plague had come through town and killed a majority of the population, he wrote this hymn. Thanksgiving was not dependent upon circumstances.
In the 19th Century, Horatio Spafford and his family were going to the mission field. They had an accident at sea and the ship sank. The next year he came back, and when he was informed that he was near the spot where his wife and daughters drowned, he wrote the song, It Is Well With My Soul. It is one of those great songs of comfort and confidence in the promise and goodness of God, not dependent upon circumstances.
We think about the Pilgrims and their great harvest, but the truth is when they had that first Thanksgiving, much on their memory was the winter that took away so many of their members. As they celebrated the bounty that was before them, they also remembered the tragedy of the previous year, listing the names of people who were not sitting around the table with them.
In 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed that the last Thursday in November would be a day of Thanksgiving. It was his effort to try to put something common between North and South. If you know your Civil War history, this comes after the bloodiest one day of the war at Antietam in 1862 and after the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil at Gettysburg. In tens of thousands of homes, a son, brother, or father was missing. Some were still in the Army of the Potomac or Northern Virginia. Others were buried in places that had no name. Thanksgiving has never been dependent upon everything being right and perfect.
The Apostle Paul writes this to the Corinthians: “Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. A night and a day have I spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea. I have been in labor and hardship and through many sleepless nights in hunger and thirst without food, in cold and exposure.”
The same Paul writes in Thessalonians: “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Jesus Christ.”
The people of God are always drawn toward, and at least challenged by, being people of thanksgiving. How many Psalms say the word “thanks” somewhere in them?
There could have been a hundred different verses to serve as the basis for thanks on the Sunday before Thanksgiving but I chose this passage because it is one of the earliest passages that I remember reading or hearing in church. I cannot remember when I learned it. I cannot remember the first time I heard it. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness. Come to his presence with singing. Know ye that the Lord is God. It is he that has made us and we are his. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and bless his name, for the Lord is good. His love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” That feels right, doesn’t it? Does that stir something that you learned a long time ago? For some reason, when I read those words, I think of the primary department at First Baptist Church of Fairmount, West Virginia. It was yellow block. There was the famous picture of Jesus knocking at the door on the wall. There was a little altar where we all placed our offering when we came in. I don’t know if I heard it there for the first time or not, but I know I think of that place. The call to give thanks to God is long in me as the knowledge of God itself. It is what I think about, as a child, following Jesus Christ.
There are so many things that call us to thankfulness and invite us to be people of thanksgiving as opposed to people of resentment. This is the kind of holiday that, as a pastor, you think after 35 years of preaching you run out of things to say. I know when I come in and we sing the hymns and hear the verses of scripture, we don’t have to say anything new. All we have to do is say it again, and somewhere the spirit draws up this wellspring of knowledge of the goodness of God. How much we want to give praise for all that God has done!
How do you tell someone how to be a person of thanksgiving who has chosen a different path? For some reason, that seems awkward and odd to me. Here are some things that I have found in my own life that make thanksgiving more real.
1. I pay attention to the company that my mind keeps. It is very easy in our cynical society to always be looking at the dark and negative side of things that we are critical of everything. How much better for me is it to read Psalm 100 than to watch certain TV shows where everybody insults and everybody is always talking about the things they don’t have? The company our minds keep makes a big difference. There are people in our lives who would constantly drag us down, and there are times in my life where I have to say no to the presence of people who don’t make me a person of thanksgiving.
2. Could there be a greater cliché than count our many blessings, but there is something in it, isn’t there? When we stop, pause, and try to list them, we realize we could be here all day if we really counted all the things that God has done for us.
3. In every culture, there is some expression where we say, Like recognizes like. People of a certain kind recognize the same kind in other people. There are certain qualities and characteristics that we have in ourselves that we see quickly in someone else. This is true in our relationship with God. Forgiveness begets forgiveness. When we forgive someone, we are reminded of just how powerful God’s forgiveness is of us. When we fall in love, when we have a best friend, when we have a child, we gain a new insight into what God’s love for us is like. All of a sudden we say, “I didn’t get this before,” but love begets love in us.
The truth is when we express generosity, it makes us understand how generous God is towards us. Generosity begets an understanding of blessing.
Think about this: Of all the people you admire, whom do you admire who is an ungrateful person? The person has lots of other great qualities, but they are truly an ungrateful person. Somehow that seems to negate it, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that automatically disqualify them as a person whom we would admire? There is something about gratitude and generosity together that evokes the quality of spirit that we don’t see any other way.
We think the sequence of things is I have, I am thankful, and therefore I give. But the truth is some people have found that I give, I am generous, and it puts me in touch with the spirit of God who is so giving to me. I recognize what I have and now I am thankful. Give. Have. Thankful. It is just the exact opposite of what we expect.
I think I may have mentioned this a few weeks ago, but I will mention it again. Psychologists tell us that one of the ways that is a proven way for people to work their way out of depression is to invest in someone else. Turn attention away from yourself and invest in someone or something else. It is one of the very least used tools that a person has at their disposal. Even though it is proven time and time again that when people begin to love, invest, and give, it helps lift them but it is something people don’t do.
I am not a psychologist, but as a pastoral theologian, one of the best ways to understand the blessings of God is to be a giver. One of the best ways, and sometimes least believed ways, to understand all of God’s goodness and to turn our hearts towards Thanksgiving is to be a person who gives.
We encounter crossroads every day of choice. The crossroad between gratitude and resentment, the crossroad between being a person of thanksgiving and a person of envy. What was the Frost poem about the road less traveled? I took the one less traveled by and that has made all the difference. If we were to choose the road of generosity and find ourselves ending up at thanksgiving, who would have believed it? Every day there is a choice about which kind of person you are going to be. The road taken makes all the difference.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.